A funny thing happened on the way to writing this blog—Additive Manufacturing (AM) has grown up. Now, some may rightly say that AM has been around for decades. And it has. But there can be little doubt that the reach and scope of AM, or 3D printing, now touches virtually every aspect of industrial and, indeed, human activity. Certainly, Deloitte’s 3D Opportunity collection of thought leadership bears this out in the vast scope and depth of its coverage. And, of course, one can also point to any number of widely available metrics that makes clear AM’s remarkable strides—from number of patents to AM system revenues to how common the term “additive manufacturing” now appears in Google searches compared to just a few years ago.
|But what exactly has driven this remarkable growth? To be sure, there is no single answer to this question. Certainly, AM systems have become more versatile in the materials they use and more sophisticated in the technologies and processes they exploit. Printers have also become more cost-effective in being able to do more for the same or even less financial investment—more “bang for the buck”. But just as importantly, there is an unmistakable sense that AM has “arrived”. Players within well-established “old-line” industries have begun to view AM with greater acceptance as a viable—and even advantageous—manufacturing solution.
Take Aerospace & Defense (A&D), for example, one of the most “traditional” manufacturing industries. Now, it is true that A&D was an early adopter of AM technology. This may seem a bit counterintuitive given the especially “high-stakes” nature of the A&D manufacturing process and the unsurprisingly conservative mindset of A&D organizations.
But, in truth, A&D’s early adoption of AM rested largely in prototyping and tooling applications, with very limited production of end-use parts. And what AM production there was tended to reside within “lower risk” products like storage bins in commercial aircraft, among other examples. As my colleagues John Coykendall, Mark Cotteleer, Monika Mahto, and I wrote several years ago in 3D opportunity for Aerospace & Defense: Additive manufacturing takes flight, A&D executives showed reluctance to adopt AM on a broad scale for a variety of reasons that ranged from the unproven nature of the AM process in complex manufacturing environments to its perceived limited variety of usable materials. That the A&D industry traditionally and rightly has been characterized by an ethos of caution also did not help drive widespread AM adoption.
The tide appears to be turning.
Today, A&D players are leveraging AM in ways far beyond prototyping and tooling. Here are just a few examples:
The list goes on. But the larger point is that A&D executives no longer view AM as a solution exclusively or perhaps even primarily for prototyping or tooling. Quite to the contrary, they increasingly rely on it as a practical solution for a wide range of mission sensitive applications and are making substantial bets on AM’s long-term viability in terms of time, treasure, and the very future of the organization, as a result.