Selling additive manufacturing hardware is a solid business, but the real money is the ‘soft wares’ that will get these machines adopted on a wide scale, argues Anton Duisterwinkel.
“Creativity is created by constraints,” my former teacher Gert Frens used to say. It took me years to understand what he meant. But he was right: an engineer dealing with a set of contradictory constraints has to be creative. Conversely, a blank canvas can be a terror for a writer or painter. Thus, the biggest advantage of additive manufacturing – freedom of design – is its biggest drawback at the same time.
CTOs, (system) engineers and designers struggle to get to grips with the almost endless opportunities of additive manufacturing (AM). Apart from some obvious cases where the complex assembly of hundreds of components can be avoided, the business case is often unclear. Yes, 3D-designed organic shapes can reduce weight, but by how much? How is the optimal design determined? For which components and parts is AM the better solution? Things become even more complex when more dimensions of design freedom are considered: the array of different printing techniques and base materials, multi-material printing and the use of cooling conditions to steer material properties. This is daunting even for the best of experts.
Other factors also contribute to the slow uptake of additive manufacturing, 40 years after the first 3D printer was launched. Experts at McKinsey argue that hardware constraints (slow production rates, limited size), software constraints (vendor lock-in, lack of compatibility with existing platforms), material cost and availability as well as limited service by printer vendors play an important role. To this, I would add the lack of schemes that allow certification based on in-line control of process conditions. Destructive testing quickly defeats any advantage of additive manufacturing for critical structural parts, potentially limiting the applicability of AM to rapid prototyping and non-critical inexpensive parts.
In a previous contribution to Bits&Chips, I argue that AM is essential for Europe to regain production sovereignty. Hence, we need to speed up its adoption. Several developers of AM systems are solving the hardware issue by developing fast, large-scale robotic systems for plastics (eg CEAD) and metals (eg Valk Welding and Ramlab). But more is needed: rules of thumb, cheaper, reusable materials and simple software tools to help select promising business cases. Design software that’s state-of-the art, user-friendly, commercially available and compatible with existing platforms. Software to integrate AM technologies in production lines (including certification based on process conditions) and software to integrate AM in production networks.
The Dutch are renowned for their design, their materials knowledge, their software skills (eg gaming) and the collaboration needed to get solutions working in production lines and networks. Thus, we should be able to solve each of these issues and create business models from these solutions. Selling printers and robots is a solid and promising business. But selling the ‘soft wares’ (IT/OT, education, certification, service) that are needed to get these machines adopted on a wide scale is potentially a much larger worldwide market.
Take our national pride ASML. Its yearly turnover of 16 billion euros in 2021 is dwarfed by that of software companies that exploit the products made by ASML’s wafer scanners – Google: 258 billion dollars, Microsoft: 168 billion dollars, Amazon: 470 billion dollars, Meta: > 110 billion dollars.
Setting up new businesses and/or helping young businesses to scale up quickly will prove to be a double-edged sword: it will speed up the adoption of AM and provide potentially very large business opportunities. However, significant investments in testing facilities, IT/OT development and process control for in-line certification are required. A National Growth Fund project is called for!