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Rebranding Manufacturing in America

March 29, 2014

Filed under: 3D printing,additive manufacturing,manufacturing — Terry Wohlers @ 14:59

Note: The following was authored by Tim Caffrey, senior consultant at Wohlers Associates.

For many, the word manufacturing conjures images of antiquated factories belching black smoke into our air and chemical-tainted liquids into our waterways. Buildings are cavernous and dangerous, filled with old, energy-guzzling machines. In these images, the workers are unmotivated and unhappy, performing repetitive, menial tasks for countless hours—for entire dead-end careers.

These images are inaccurate and out of date. Modern manufacturing is more likely to be energy efficient and environmentally responsible. Manufacturing companies are continuously improving and innovating to remain competitive and compliant with industrial regulations. And, manufacturing employees are typically well-educated, highly skilled individuals who take pride in their professions and perceive their work as important and virtuous.

Now consider the phrases German engineering and Swiss-made watches. Both elicit very different images than that of the antiquated American factory. We imagine rich traditions, meticulous and exacting craftsmanship, and superior products. We must examine why these perceptions contrast so much. Is this contrast accurate, or is it based on out-of-date beliefs?

Many beliefs are rooted in emotion, rather than reason or logic. Successful brands and marketing campaigns trigger an almost subconscious emotional response in the target audience by confirming—or even changing—what that group believes is good, appealing, valuable, and necessary.

The successful revival of the manufacturing industry in the U.S. must include a similar “rebranding” in the eyes of the public, politicians, and policy makers. Manufacturing is no longer a dirty word. Manufacturing is high-tech, it’s innovative, it’s a great career choice, and it’s the backbone of a thriving economy. And, highly advanced digitally driven processes, such as additive manufacturing and 3D printing, are helping to change the public’s view. Let’s work together to spread the word.

AM Material Pricing

March 15, 2014

Filed under: 3D printing,additive manufacturing,future — Terry Wohlers @ 07:11

Most would agree that materials for additive manufacturing (AM), also referred to as 3D printing, are expensive. As a rule of thumb, polymers for industrial AM systems are in the range of $100 to $300 per kg (2.2 lbs), although they can be lower or higher. This pricing is dramatically more than equivalent materials used for injection molding and other plastics processing, which are typically $2 to $4 per kg, depending on the type and quantity of plastic. It is our belief that AM material pricing will decline as competition heats up and AM patents continue to expire.

Two recent developments could drive prices downward. One is the October 2013 introduction of the Freeformer machine from Arburg, a large German manufacturer of injection molding machines. The 3D printer deposits droplets of thermoplastic using the same inexpensive plastic pellets used for injection molding. The second advance is the development of a large machine by Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Cincinnati Incorporated. It can produce parts at a rate of 4.5 to 9 kg per hour—orders of magnitude faster than most AM systems. And, it also uses low-cost injection molding plastics in pellet form.

The expiration of key patents will also impact material prices. Foundation patents associated with FDM from Stratasys expired years ago, and this is what allowed the development and commercialization of countless low-cost 3D printers, many for less than $2,000. Materials for these machines are available for less than $20 per kg. As these machines improve, they will put pressure on the more expensive machines, especially for very basic design, concept modeling, and prototyping applications. Meanwhile, the final selective laser sintering patent at the University of Texas at Austin will expire in mid June 2014. It is also a foundation patent, which is expected to create a flurry of activity around the development of low-cost laser sintering systems and materials.

Expensive AM materials are not a problem for companies that use machines for small quantities of parts. However, with production quantities, the pricing is not only a problem, it’s a “show stopper.” We believe the high AM material prices will largely be resolved through competitive pressures. However, it could become painful to the companies that have been enjoying the high margins on these materials, some for more than two decades.

Playing the Bass

March 2, 2014

Filed under: 3D printing,additive manufacturing,life,review — Terry Wohlers @ 06:51

I received the Hive bass guitar from Olaf Diegel, PhD of ODD Guitars in August 2013. The Hive is a striking design and is beautifully manufactured. And, in June 2012, I received the impressive Spider guitar from Olaf, which is one of his first creations. I was surprised to learn that he used SolidWorks for all of this guitar designs. To see all of them, including Olaf’s latest designs, Google “3D printed guitars” and click Images or go to odd.org.nz. 3D printing was used to produce the main body of these master pieces—one reason they are so special.

I began to take bass lessons a few months ago, with the goal of being able to play the instrument with other musicians. My crazy work and travel schedule have prevented me from keeping up with the lessons, coupled with weeks of little practice. I have not given up, however, and I continue to play and practice whenever I can. I look forward to getting my hands on the Hive bass and learning to play. It may take a year or longer, but I’m determined to master it.

A big thanks to Olaf for what could become a life-changing experience. Already, I’ve had a ton of fun with it, even if I never make it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I do want to win a small bet I made with our son and our daughter’s boyfriend. The bet is to play with a band in front of an audience. It’s a darn good thing we didn’t tie a timeframe to the bet because I could be old and gray by the time it happens, although I’d like to prevent that from happening.

Editor’s note: Olaf Diegel is also an associate consultant at Wohlers Associates.