Additive Manufacturing in the Real World: Quality is a Journey, Industrialization is the End-Goal

May 20, 2024

2022 and 2023 were years of continued growth and technological achievement for almost every company in Additive Manufacturing (AM). Yet these were also times of significant turmoil and change. Many were forced to reorganize, reduce overhead, and adjust timelines. As others in our field have experienced, revenue growth and technological advancements do not always translate into matching profits and operational stability.

One of the great challenges of any business is scaling up efficiently while keeping customers happy and on track to reach their goals. These are two equally important and interrelated missions. We have always understood this business dynamic, and others in our industry have as well.

While more recent AM adopters may be buying their own AM systems for the first time, larger, more-mature users are looking to expand applications. They’re asking for improved part reliability, faster print speed, greater system throughput, and serial production on ever-more aggressive geometries.

Unlocking customer potential

It’s critical for leaders in our industry to listen closely to these more mature customers. They use our machines more than we do—and what they’re saying will help us improve quality as well as sustained growth and profitability. In addition, we should expect that new AM adopters will eventually mature to the point where their needs mirror those of these more experienced AM users.

At the early stages of Velo3D, we brought our technology to customers and educated them on its capability and utility. Manufacturers and designers chose AM because they wanted to create objects that they couldn’t produce with either traditional manufacturing or legacy additive. We, as well as other industry leaders, helped many of them get there.

As a result, mature customers now have years of experience with AM systems. They are the ones working day in and out on advancing AM from an innovative technology into a truly application-driven process. One that is evolving toward full industrialization and will be a future workhorse for manufacturing industries.

These customers know their own needs and paths to success. They work on very granular levels with materials, geometries, stress analysis, print software, testing and field observation. Their final, proven recipes rule the day.

We are learning how to engage with these customers in a targeted, transparent manner that greatly aids each side and industry in general. We are also collaborating with them in more traditional ways such as Customer Success Plans and Quarterly Business Reviews.

Why is this more than a standard, de facto exercise? Because these tools of collaboration can easily fall into a checkbox, but instead need to be embraced organically, and company-wide, in the spirit of the larger mission. The door simply opens faster to improvements in part reliability, speed, throughput, and serial production via deeper customer involvement. So does the overall value proposition of AM.

Unlocking the value of industrialization

For AM to be a workhorse in manufacturing, part quality and requirements must be repeatable. Machine-to-machine, and place-to-place. Highly advanced Gen 1 systems have already broken the “impossible parts” barrier and opened the way to true multi-physics-based designs. We see this “stretch” phenomenon particularly in commercial aircraft, space rocket development, and military hypersonic applications.

The oil & gas industry has broken the barrier to part repeatability and distributed manufacturing. IMI Critical Engineering (and others) showed that identical, on-spec parts can be made anywhere in the world using the same print file across different machines of the same model.

With industry maturing, we will see fewer black-box parameters in use among experts and more highly customized parameters developed around very specific applications.

When customization and quality meet, the ground is laid for cost reductions and serial production, the true end-game of our industry. With the ability for mass customization and serial production, AM will begin to secure a greater and more integrated role on the factory floor. Risk adverse markets will open. Buyers struggling with supply chain capacity will find AM to be the right fill-in, agile solution, free of long-turnaround-time tooling and costly assembly labor. Costs and speed again improve. Profits and stability become closer at hand for the AM ecosystem.

The journey

Where is AM compared to other past technology trends? I have been in the genomics industry where genetic analysis business began to take off in the 70s and 80s. Genetic analysis became ubiquitous as a research tool in the late 90s and 2000s after a period of intense innovation. We see the same pattern for semi-conductors and other industries, where what starts as a novel technology eventually achieves full industrialization once the focus moves from a technology to customer workflow solutions. I see the trend for AM commodity production in the same way. The first cycle of getting a new technology into the market is unlocking and providing a capability that did not exist. Disruption. You will not be an effective or successful organization pursuing a predictable, de-risked product. Others will innovate and take your place.

The commercial space sector is a fine example of testing the edges of the envelop—failing, learning, and succeeding, thought it’s fair to say that AM early adopters in general are fault tolerant by necessity. Only doing what others have not done is a short-term business model. It does not become a business model until there is clear economic value. This applies to everyone in the AM value chain—systems providers, contract manufacturers, OEM users, and our supply chain partners. It is a difficult mindset to make this shift from innovation to development of market value. Our industry has shown this to be true. We and our competitors have experienced this challenge.

The AM metal industry is turning the corner from R&D and limited production of both basic and complex products to application-driven creation of repeatable, innovative designs. Ones that can increasingly be made in true serial production even as they define their markets. We are not there yet as a whole. Not every sector of metal AM is on this page. AM technologies are still very much evolving to meet, and in many cases exceed, the standards and performance requirements of legacy processes.

The next generation of AM systems will first perform to meet the needs of advanced customers focused on specific challenges that provide clear value. These system advances, be they in software, lasers, throughput, or materials, will be driven by customers honing their own business models. Can we work closely with our customers, listen to them, and innovate alongside them?

That may be what determines how fast AM becomes industrialized and how quickly our industry is profitable and stable.

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About the Author

Brad Kreger

Chief Executive Officer

Brad Kreger is Velo3D’s Chief Executive Officer. He leads all operations activities at Velo3D, including global logistics, manufacturing, quality, and procurement. Brad brings decades of experience overseeing and rapidly scaling operations, including tenures at Affymetrix, Thermo Fisher Scientific, and Fluidigm Corporation. Brad has extensive experience in manufacturing and supply chain management across a broad range of product categories spanning from high volume medical device consumables to large scale capital equipment.