Founder and CEO of Velo3D, a manufacturing technology company with an end-to-end solution for 3D printing mission-critical metal parts.
Whenever someone asks what we do at my company, my response is simple: We help businesses manufacture parts that were previously considered too difficult or even impossible to produce with modern manufacturing technology.
While I believe it’s important that our technology is simple enough for anyone to understand, I also believe it’s even more important that our technology is simple enough for anyone to use.
As a society, we are accustomed to devices and products that are simple to use but devilishly complex inside.
To me, there is an unrivaled elegance to simple solutions, and this simplicity is a key driver in the adoption of any new technology in both the consumer and business world.
I look to the industry my company operates in as an example. According to a study by Lux Research, additive manufacturing (AM) will be a $51 billion industry by 2031. This is encouraging to read, but how can we generate the mass adoption needed when many AM technologies are so difficult to use and fail to live up to their promise?
Manufacturing Technology That Is Easy To Use
Manufacturing technology that requires extensive training will not generate mass adoption. This is a simple truth that must be understood for manufacturing to realize its true potential and growth.
For a technology to gain a wider foothold within the manufacturing industry, it must be easy enough for anyone to operate and not require material scientists to troubleshoot.
Let us use computer numerical control (CNC) machines as an example of a manufacturing technology that has successfully gained widespread adoption.
CNC machines rely on computer software to guide different tools, such as mills and lathes, as they cut, drill and grind different materials, including metals. This helps ensure the process is completed with repeatable precision that could not be achieved through conventional approaches.
CNC machines are used to create parts that serve a wide variety of industries. What makes CNC machines so useful is their usability. A CNC operator does not require extensive training or education to operate a machine successfully. While it’s true there are more specialized roles that work in tandem with a CNC operator, the actual loading of material and running of parts is straightforward, and that’s where most of a workers’ time is spent—especially in high-volume production.
For example, there is a natural synergy between CNC and my company’s metal additive solution. If you’re building a manufacturing technology, mirroring the operational simplicity of CNC machines so that one can quite literally start the printing process with the push of a button is critical. In our case, we want the same person who is comfortable operating a CNC machine to be just as comfortable operating our additive manufacturing solution.
Quality And Reliability Drive The Adoption Of Manufacturing Technology
But it is not just about simplicity. For your manufacturing technology to reach mass adoption, it must deliver quality and provide your users with information on that quality.
For 3D printing, these requirements mean visibility through comprehensive monitoring systems that provide reports into every layer of the build. This kind of transparency is critical in the validation of a part and for metal AM to achieve widespread adoption. This is especially important in industries where manufactured parts—even those using conventional technologies—are rigorously tested, such as aviation and space.
Systems like these make it easy to scalably ramp up production by verifying consistency from part to part.
In addition to ease of use and quality, another critical factor to widespread manufacturing technology adoption is the ability of a given technology to provide standard outcomes.
Imagine for a moment not knowing the outcome of a phone call every time you dialed a friend or loved one. You go through the same process and input the same number, but the outcome is different. You wouldn’t stand for it, and you certainly wouldn’t “pay for the privilege” to use the technology. The same is true for manufacturing technologies. Your outcomes must be easily repeatable and highly consistent.
This level of reliability is critical, and it’s something that has been lacking in additive manufacturing technologies for decades. I’ve seen how it has hindered organizations from adopting the technology out of concern that the outcomes were not good enough, save for a few niche applications.
For example, conventional additive manufacturing technologies do not have the repeatability needed for widespread adoption. Most require separate build files (the instructions used to print a part) for each machine.
That means that the exact same machine, from the same OEM, sitting in the same manufacturing center, can attempt to produce the exact same part and achieve different outcomes. This not only diminishes trust in the technology, but it limits both repeatability and scalability.
Deliver On Your Promise
This one may sound obvious, but it is often overlooked. To attain widespread adoption, a manufacturing solution must deliver on its promise. With conventional metal 3D printers, the promise was unprecedented design freedom.
In the decades since its introduction in the 1980s, additive manufacturing technology has failed to deliver on the promise of true design freedom. Most solutions require engineers to compromise the intent of their part for the sake of manufacturability.
That means changing the design or adding support structures, which often decrease the performance gains of the original design.
This is not innovation. Quite the opposite, it stifles innovation and has prevented additive manufacturing from fulfilling its promise.
Keep It Simple
To gain widespread adoption, your manufacturing solutions must be reliable, repeatable and provide predictable parts development. But more than anything else, they must deliver on their promise and be as simple and straightforward to use as mainstream manufacturing technologies, such as CNC.
Only then will you achieve the level of mass adoption, innovation and excitement that additive manufacturing is garnering.