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Up At Night With Additive Manufacturing

While 3D printing continues towards greater adoption, more industries are still trying to figure out how to use it – and more education is still required.

When conducting interviews I was taught to ask interviewees what keeps them up at night (as it specifically pertains to the industry, although I can sympathize with generalized insomnia).

This question always catches people off guard, but also supplies some of the most interesting answers. After pausing for a few minutes, people give their answer, but with the caveat that it is always changing.

Recently, while visiting Stratasys Direct Manufacturing in Austin, TX, I asked this same question to manufacturing engineer Andrew Carter. His answer? Liability.

Specifically, the liability that comes from manufacturing end-use parts. (The VP of marketing also answered the question, but even he admitted it was a boring answer, so we quickly moved on).

While 3D printing continues towards greater adoption, most generally for mass customization in consumer products, Carter explains that more industries are still trying to figure out how to use it – and more education is still required.

A shift towards end-use parts (parts that, if they fail, can cost millions of dollars in damages) is the industry’s next natural step, but also requires overcoming a new set of concerns, concerns that are undoubtedly keeping more than just one engineer up at night.

According to Carter, overcoming this trepidation requires building upon the relationship with customers and applying material and process specifications that are necessary to meet compliance.

However, since additive manufacturing is still relatively young, much of these process specifications aren’t as well developed. So how is end-use product reliability assured today?

Since some of these questions remained unanswered, many 3D printing and manufacturing companies have been careful about what applications in which to be involved.

For example, in aerospace, 3D printing is often used only for non-flight critical applications. If a part breaks, someone might not receive cool air through their vent, and while they may act like it’s the end of the world, nobody is dying.

Just five months ago, the first 3D printed part (a fuel nozzle) was certified by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to fly in a commercial jet engine. This is partially due to material development, Carter explains, “as we get more into metals, flight critical applications will come up in aerospace.”

However, according to a recent report (see page 22), metal use in additive manufacturing is expected to nearly double over the next three years. Carter adds that this will be another new bridge to cross, and with it will come a new set of uncertainties to keep him up at night.

So now I pose the question to all of you: What keeps you up at night?

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