The industry needs standards for workforce development training, process repeatability and reliability, and process control.

Carl Dekker of Met-L-Flo Discusses Challenges and Opportunities Arising in Additive Manufacturing

Reprinted with Permission | Advanced Manufacturing Insight

AMI:   Could you quickly sketch out for me your company’s experience and involvement with additive manufacturing?

DEKKER:        I got into additive manufacturing back in 1989 when it was called rapid prototyping. In 1991 I joined Met-L-Flo and in 1995 we were servicing a lot of the service bureaus at that point in time, kind of behind the scenes.  We had enough contact with OEMs to justify bringing on our own equipment and we started developing services from there.  We are active in a lot of the different promotional activities if you will, different boards and things like that, trying to help get the word out there properly and correctly. We have just been trying to help develop standards at the same time because we are a service bureau and our motto is to be able to accept orders from our clients, produce parts and have them meet their specs when they get in there without having to go through an extensive amount of interpretation and understanding.

AMI:   What would you consider the biggest technology challenge facing your company’s activities in the additive space today?

DEKKER:      I suppose it would come down to an ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) system that is functional for additive manufacturing.

AMI:   Is that something you would need for your internal purposes or for your customers to have?

DEKKER:      Primarily for internal purposes but obviously portals could be designed in also for purpose of customer interaction.  The key to it is the rate of information exchange and change is so fast that keeping it fluid, current, accurate and up to date from the client’s point of change or communication all the way through to the proper people on the floor is a very cumbersome area where there is always room for interpretation and miscommunication.

AMI:   Why is the situation so fluid?

DEKKER:      Because many times we’ll have customers that come through and tell us that piece did not pass the test they were running and now it has to be changed or modified.  Or production comes back with something that they tried to build it to the client’s specs and are finding issues.  They have suggested solutions that require interaction and dialogue with the client. Right now qualifying a part for additive manufacturing or a process to produce a part is a very lengthy, drawn out, years-long process.

AMI:   Can I ask what industrial sectors or verticals you have as your customer base?

DEKKER:      We primarily target additive manufacturing for end part application. A lot of it is primarily aerospace or defense related products, along with some industrial components, which are obviously far simpler from the stand point of qualification.

AMI:   Do you do health care? I have heard a lot of people say that’s an area where there is a lot of additive activity.

DEKKER:      We do so, but we’re not as big into health care as some of the other operations are.  It’s just the nature of our client base.

AMI:   3 to 5 years in the future what do you think will be your biggest technology challenge?

DEKKER:      Probably management of process enhancement and repeatability controls.

AMI:   What do you find the biggest business challenge facing your company in this space today?

DEKKER:      Misperception by customers or potential customers. It’s the “print me a Stradivarius” “print me a firearm”. Printing firearms with 3D printed PLA materials or ABS materials should not even be under discussion. Any engineer would understand that the material science behind that is a recipe for disaster.  But you start getting the publicity and the popularity that the term 3D printing has been given recently and all of a sudden  everybody thinks that if somebody else could print a gun then anybody can print a gun and they all work, although that is not true. So there is many times when the funding that is authorizing the go ahead on programs may not necessarily understand what they are authorizing.

AMI:   In 3 to 5 years do you have any thoughts of what might be the biggest business challenge then?

DEKKER:      Probably scalability and process control or manufacturing repeatability.

AMI:   What do you wish that the companies that interact with your firm, I suppose either as suppliers or potentially as customers, understood better about the nature or constraints of your business?

DEKKER:      Very likely the fact that we probably handle a factor of 10 on the number of geometry and applications compared to what an engineer developing a product or a customer would be dealing with. Therefore common sense is not so common when you apply that broad of a brush to it. It starts getting difficult to get the interpretations clear, correct, and concise, and the communication as a consistently clear communication is a constant challenge.

AMI:   We have heard that computer aided design tools, because mostly they have been developed implicitly for other forms of manufacturing, really just don’t work well in this area. Do you agree with that statement and does it aggravates some of the problems you’ve talked about with communication?

DEKKER:      No, I think a lot of technologies are in place for manufacturing in the design space. There are enormous amount of design-enabled communication tools with the amount of data - not just physical representation of the file but how much can be attached within that file and the other digital representation of parts. If you process and send it in a very simple file like STL file format then you lose a lot of that data, and yes it becomes complicated but the bigger issue is making sure that information actually gets communicated across. I think that is a problem strictly because so many companies have different procedures for how they transmit and how they process and handle data. Not all of them are necessarily as savvy as others and sometimes a little piece of information can be missed and an email doesn’t quite communicate it very well.

AMI:   Is that one of the constraints, the need for great deal of clarity and exactly what you’re asking for?

DEKKER:      That’s part of it, whether that gets addressed by standards or it gets addressed by embedded data or addressed by open lines of communications. Right now it is still something that people need to consider before you just send the file and press print.

AMI:   Is there any segment of the whole ecosystem of additive manufacturing that you would like to understand better in the sense of what are their plans, goals, wishes, initiatives and possibly constraints and obstacles that would help you service them better?

DEKKER:      I would have to say a lot of it is the equipment manufacturers. I can completely respect the right and the need for patents and the protection that they provide, however, it also creates a very diverse set of capabilities that no longer becomes uniform to any one technology.  A lot of these companies are not major, they are not Haas, they are not that size of manufacturer where they can go through and develop everything.  So their resources are limited and the ability to interact and move their own technology forward is held by that. I think as their technology moves forward that will be a huge enabler to put the constraints that are needed for process repeatability and reliability for standards to develop and for buyers to procure products with less confusion.

AMI:   You spoke earlier about the development of standards and that you’re active in that. Are there any other areas like standards, i.e. areas where some kind of group action by multiple organizations in the space would speed the adoption and commercialization of additive technology?

DEKKER:      Workforce development training.  Also process repeatability and reliability, and process control; followed by standards that can support and embrace that process control and repeatability.

AMI:   With any industry that’s growing as additive manufacturing and its allied services, the pace of innovation and development would generally require heavy amounts of capital. Do you agree with and if so where do you see this capital coming from?

DEKKER:        Yes I agree with that. It is a capital intensive environment. I see this capital probably coming from a lot of investment organizations and groups. I don’t necessarily mean start-ups but growth ventures, joint ventures and then again their used to be a lot of that growth that comes through maturation of the industry which would encompass and include mergers and acquisitions and things like that as well organic growth.

AMI:   Some people seem to anticipate something of a wave of consolidation so that bigger companies would be able to essentially foot the bill for various advances that need to take place. Do you agree with that forecast or you just think it will be more opportunistic as people achieve synergies?

DEKKER:      I think there are going to be some roll-ups but there will also be people looking to get out and people looking to get in. 5 years from now and, 10 years from now will it be as visible? I suppose that depends on where the prospects are, where the maturation level is and where the ability to move things forward is. I think we’ll see continued rate of change to some degree in the industry and a lot of that is strictly because of the fact that a lot of very good technologists – creative and inventive people - will come up with ideas and there will be others that have the funding to be able to make those ideas move to the next level. We’ve seen a lot of that before, it hasn’t been quite as visible and as public, but I don’t foresee it stopping.  Of course there are always people who will think they can jump on and take a quick ride. I guess you can have all measures in the spectrum but I see continued movement in the market if you will.

AMI:   There has been a good deal of discussion in the technology press about the problems that additive manufacturing may pose for intellectual property.  Are you or your organization concerned about any of this?

DEKKER:      It’s not our approach to target intellectual property or opportunities to engage in and leverage or develop our own internal intellectual property. We do develop a lot of our own processes and procedures and technologies to move things forward but not from the stand point of what can we do to secure intellectual property. I feel that the people who do have a lot of intellectual property invested in this arena or market space may very well have some issues.  While I think that’s one part of it, I think the designers and the intellectual product properties or intellectual property related to product, not specifically additive manufacturing, is the problem.  The problem is the fact that you can now take and copy almost anything with just a scanner, some software, and a couple pieces of equipment. Buy one, make a hundred of them. How that intellectual property is going to be controlled, supported, and protected, is a much larger question than I can answer.

Obviously there are still some economic issues behind this.  Just because you can print a cell phone cover doesn’t mean you will run out and buy a piece of equipment and then go see what free files you can get off the web to feed to this computer so that you can get a few thousand dollar cell phone cover case. That said it’s not that you couldn’t do that. The situation is more like the automotive manufacturers, they all buy their competitors’ vehicles and they tear them apart and see what they can find.  Reverse engineering is a lot more feasible with 3D printing.

AMI:   We have heard that a lot of the innovations and techniques and approaches and materials come from all over in the additive manufacturing space, and that health care is a dynamic area. Are there any other industry verticals that you are particularly interested to track developments in?

DEKKER:      I think health care has an enormous potential. When I say health care I’m not talking products as in electronics and components and things like that. I’m talking more so of the variety of different devices that are patient specific and the number of different types of implants or dental devices, or anything that’s customized towards patients is an enormous market. So as you start taking into consideration those different avenues it is a huge opportunity and that’s not even going so far as to entering into the surgical rooms or any sort of procedures specific devices.

We’re looking into some of it but it’s not necessarily a specific area that we are targeted towards.  We don’t have the certifications for health care type products, and we don’t have the procedures and everything for that so it’s not an area that we have made a focus of ours.

The key areas that we have mainly targeted are areas where direct manufacturing has an easy opportunity to fit and those being aerospace, military-type programs where you’ve got a low volume, high value added components.

AMI:   I’ve also had a lot of comparisons between adoption of additive manufacturing and the adoption of composite technologies by aerospace, do you think that’s a reasonable comparison?

DEKKER:      No, I think there will be faster adoption of additive manufacturing than composite.

AMI:   Are there other technologies whose history might serve as the better model?

DEKKER:      I’d like to say that computers somewhat with the technology advancements. I think we’re kind at the ground floor here still with what the total potentials are but I see an enormous amount of things converging on this from the ease of communication of information, the speed of processing power, the ability to define representation and electronic space, manipulation of that data, ability to apply calculations and formulas to optimize that data. There is a huge number of things that can really cause some explosion that are all coming together but how quickly they are going to come together is hard to say. The first computer took up an entire huge building.  I think it was IBM that came out and said that nobody will ever want to have one of these things in their home. Now you can’t walk around without one in your pocket.


Carl Dekker

Carl Dekker has served as the President and Owner of Met-L-Flo since 1991, and currently serves as the Chair of ASTM’s F42.  At Met-L-Flo, he has been actively involved in research and product development using current technologies and innovative methods of manufacturing.  He has served as Chairperson of SME’s Rapid Technologies and Additive Manufacturing community (RTAM), and currently serves as Chair of the Direct Digital Manufacturing Tech group of RTAM.  As Chair of ASTM’s F42, he is directly involved in the development and distribution of standards for the additive manufacturing industry.

The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of RoboticsTomorrow

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