Unexpectedly, I witnessed a curious development while supporting RAPID + TCT 2019’s Executive Strategy Summit. This development represents positive advancement for the AM industry and evidence of the progress that has been made.
In the summit’s intimate, one-day assembly of mid- and upper-level management from SMEs (small- and medium-sized enterprises), all participants were eagerly seeking insights that would propel their additive manufacturing (AM) initiatives to the next level.
Why was it unexpected? Why was I pleasantly surprised? Well, the summit was developed on the belief that small- and mid-sized manufacturers are at a loss as to how to do more than the basics with AM. The agenda and the speakers that were called upon to communicate insights were assembled to address overwhelm, confusion, understanding and frustration on advanced applications like series production.
At the very start of the programme, it was clear that these representatives of SMEs in manufacturing had already succeeded with AM in some interesting ways. The questions weren’t along the lines of “Where do I start?” but rather in the tone of “How do I do more?” What really encouraged me is that every attendee had already implemented the application that bridges prototyping and production: jigs and fixtures. And several had already made attempts, to varying degrees of success, at doing production work.
My takeaway is that we have come much farther than I had realised. My reaction was feelings of satisfaction and delight. My realisation was that these companies are seeking legitimate guidance on the execution versus philosophical insights as to the rationale.
How to take control of AM execution is still something that is being understood. But there is enough of an understanding to produce early versions of best practices. Likewise, the tools that help us take control, such as MES (manufacturing executions system) specific to AM, are in the early days of commercialisation. But these tools exist, and more are on their way. And thanks to the efforts of the early adopters, the body of knowledge on execution and appropriate tools is sizeable and accessible. This is what the SMEs were seeking; this is what is needed to advance.
From this small sample of the manufacturing population, the conclusion is that AM for advanced applications is in the latter stages of the early majority phase of the technology adoption life cycle curve. This model, as you likely know, has five phases: innovators (2.5%), early adopters (13.5%), early majority (34%), late majority (34%) and laggards (16%). Being in the early majority phase, and assuming that we are halfway through it, the great news is that one-third of all manufacturers are on the journey to advanced AM applications.
One-third of the manufacturing population is something to celebrate, considering that the model shows that 50 percent will be slow or very, very slow to change (late majority plus laggards). So, congratulations on progress goes to the AM industry and those that are participating. On the other hand, this is a wake-up call for those that are still in a prototyping rut.
This realisation that I am sharing is a call to action; a time to make big decisions. Will your business thrive if you accept a position within the late majority or laggards? If not, now is the time to act. You don’t have to dive right in, though. Even small steps such as roadmapping or strategising on AM will keep you in the race.
Now is the time to take your AM applications to the next level. Advanced AM applications are no longer contained within the realm of the large, resource-abundant companies; they are the tools of progress for companies of all sizes.