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Wohlers: Future is Rapid Manufacturing, Not Rapid Prototyping

What is the first name that pops into your head when you think about 3D printing and rapid manufacturing?  If it’s Terry Wohlers, join the club.  Wohlers is far and away the leading luminary in a field that is rapidly developing a constellation of stars. 

Terry Wohlers
Don’t just take our word for it – in August 2007, Wohlers was voted the most influential person in rapid product development and rapid manufacturing by TCT Magazine.
        Based out of Fort Collins, Co., he heads Wohlers Associates, a 22-year-old independent consulting firm.  When not trotting around the globe to consult with industry and academia and deliver keynote speeches at industry conferences, Wohlers is compiling information for his definitive state-of-the-industry Wohlers Report.  The first week of September 2008 he took some time out of his busy schedule to discuss the unique capabilities of additive fabrication technologies, and what the future holds for the industry.

RapidToday: Besides situations where parts are impossible to manufacture any other way, what are generally the best ROI situations for additive fabrication in rapid manufacturing?

Wohlers: When volumes are relatively low and complexity is high.  Those are the two main ones.  Size is one too.  If the parts are large then it’s more difficult to justify the use of an additive process. 

Let’s take an example of one that’s been really successful – custom in-the-ear hearing aids.  That’s where volumes are low – in fact you could argue they are a volume of one because there is no two alike – they are highly complex in shape, and they’re small.  And, because they are small, they build quickly and inexpensively.   Hearing aids are close to the best-case scenario when considering ROI criteria for manufacturing using an AF process.  Everything lines up beautifully for them. 


RapidToday: Are most hearings aids made in this way now?

Wohlers: The custom canal aids are.  Most major companies in the business are using stereolithography or the Perfactory system from envisionTEC.  Their major manufacturing facilities are geared up with these machines.  If you go to smaller facilities in more remote areas around the world, the chances are reasonably good they are doing it the old way because they don’t have the volume to justify the expense of this process.  For all the major companies, it’s become the industry standard method of manufacturing.


RapidToday: What are the most common mistakes companies make when trying to implement rapid prototyping technologies?

Wohlers: They make the assumption that they bring the machine in, plug it in, and throw jobs at it – that it’s entirely turnkey.  If you maintain them properly, there are some systems that come close to that, but even so, there is a fair amount of making sure that you do routine cleaning, maintenance, and repair. You must understand how the system works – whether it’s dust, humidity, temperature, build parameters or something else that impacts the operation of the machine.  You may get to hour 20 on a 30-hour build and something goes wrong and you regret that you didn’t consider preventive maintenance.  I think that’s probably the biggest eye opener. 

These systems are not like an inkjet or laser printer – at least not yet – where all you have to do is replace the cartridges when they run out.  And then when the system breaks, you throw them away and buy a new one.  We are not at that point with these systems. 

I visited a company last week that has 11 laser sintering machines.  Even for the systems that have the same model number on them, they are not identical.  Each one is built a little differently – you could almost call each one a custom system to some extent. So, this is another variable that one must take into account when building parts and maintaining systems. 


RapidToday: What is the most limiting factor in the spread of layered manufacturing today: cost, availability of materials, reliability of equipment, ignorance, or some other factor?

Wohlers: In most cases, cost is the biggest factor.  When the price came down to the $20,000 level, you saw a lot of companies buying systems that before would never consider the purchase of one.  Schools for example, even high schools, are buying systems for the first time.  Cost is certainly number one. 

You could certainly argue that materials is number two – the lack of a breadth of materials ranks highly. 

System reliability has been a factor too.  There have been problems with some systems over the years, to the point where they have a black eye.


RapidToday: Additive fabrication has already made in-roads in a number of specialties, like dental, jewelry, medical and architectural models, etc.  What are some other sectors that haven’t seen much adoption yet, but you anticipate will in the future?

Wohlers: There are a number that will become reasonably big and possibly very big at some point.  I think the GIS area [e.g. topographic maps] will grow to an interesting level. 

Custom home accessories will become big at some point.  I’m talking lighting designs, figurines that sit on tables, wall hangings, many of which are personalized to some extent. 

I believe the entertainment business is going to be very big in the future.  I’m talking about avatars, action figures, characters from video games such as World of Warcraft, Rock Band, and others.  We haven’t even seen the tip of the iceberg yet. 

Medicine is one that we’ve seen a lot of growth in some areas within some companies, for example Medical Modeling in Golden, Colorado.  They’ve done a lot of work in the area of producing medical models as visual tools for teams of surgeons.  Now the company is producing metal implants. 

Another interesting area in the medical field is the printing and growing of living tissue.  There is a lot of work going on around the world in this area.  Growing bladders, kidneys, livers, and so forth sounds like science fiction but it is really not as far off as one might think.  Some universities have already done it successfully and have produced pulsating heart valves and parts of bladders.  The odds of the human body rejecting the printed body part reduces almost to zero because the cells are taken from the patient.  This is a very exciting development in medicine.


RapidToday: I know this will be a wild guess, but what percent of metal and plastic part manufacturing do you think will be accomplished using rapid prototyping technologies in 50 years? 

Wohlers: With nano manufacturing and what we know is possible, I would venture to say that a significant percentage of parts could and probably will be manufactured using a method of additive fabrication. 

What’s really exciting is to think about really remote areas in places such as Africa and Asia and other developing regions of the world, where it’s possible to beam in data through cellular or satellite technology, and then build it right there, rather than trying to transport products from around the world.  Currently, companies are not motivated to set up distribution in those areas, but if villages can gain access to relatively low-cost machines that can build parts, they would be able to make products from themselves.  In 50 years I truly believe we’ll see this kind of activity.  


RapidToday: Do you anticipate a 3D printer in every home, like 2D printers, or does the number of material choices make home printing unlikely? 

Wohlers: In the foreseeable future – the next 15 years – if AF systems are in the home, they will be used for one or two purposes.  They’ll be used for what I’ll call entertainment/education.  When I say this, I’m talking about students who are playing, experimenting, doing school projects, completing homework assignments for biology, math, industrial technology, architecture, whatever – a platform that allows you to explore and learn.  I grew up with Tinkertoys, Erector Sets, and the Creepy Crawler Thingmaker.  Those toys made things physically.  Now kids are creating things digitally, but they also gain satisfaction out of seeing their creations in a physical sense.

The other way in which an individual will use an AF system at home is the bonafide engineer who is doing contract work for corporations around the world and can afford to own a system.  It may be someone across the street and you don’t even know it. He or she is building sophisticated parts for GE, Motorola, or Apple Computer, for example.  It really begins to level the playing field.  Previously, to be a big-time contractor for a large corporation, you needed to work at an established company. Now, all you need is an Internet connection, a machine, and a fair amount between the ears.  We already are seeing this kind of activity going on. 

When something breaks in the kitchen or the bathroom, or a car part breaks, will the average family go the computer and model up the part or download the model and build it?  I don’t think so, not in the next 10 years.  Most people don’t have the interest in doing that.  A student might, but he or she would likely send the job to a local or neighborhood service center that has machines and the right materials.  Even if you had a 3-D printer at home you probably would not be able to build the part due to a lack of material, dimensional accuracy, or color.  Your 3-D printer does one thing and does it reasonably well, but it doesn’t necessarily do what you need it to do.   


RapidToday: It seems that these technologies will return manufacturing closer to where the item is consumed.

Wohlers: Yeah, I think it will.  We’ll still see a lot of standard products manufactured in Asia and other regions of the world, but with shipping and fuel costs going up, especially with large items and heavy products that are expensive to ship, you’ll see more domestic manufacturing.  When you can build a hearing aid shell for $5-10 on one of these machines, does it make sense to have that built in Asia and have it shipped around the world?  With the time and cost of shipping, it doesn’t.


RapidToday: Compared to most other things, the interest in rapid prototyping seems remarkably universal.   Are you hearing the same issues from engineers around the world, or do interests and concerns show regional differences? 

Wohlers: For the most part, the Western regions of the world see the same opportunities and challenges.  The East tends to see things quite differently. 

In Japan, for example, they don’t quite see or understand why you’d want to use these machines for manufacturing.  In a country like Japan with some of the best brands in the world and a lot of very bright people, you scratch your head trying to understand why they think the way they do. 

China tends to throw people at problems. You see this daily in manufacturing and we saw it with the opening and closing ceremonies at the recent Olympics.  Not that they aren’t technology-savvy, they just don’t see the opportunity, at least not yet.  Even for prototyping, China has not adopted the technology to any great extent.  Not to say they aren’t using it, it’s just that if they can get away with it, they’ll throw a CNC machine and an operator at it and do it that way.  That’s their standard method of modeling and prototyping. 


RapidToday: What new technology, or development, or trend are you most excited about?

Wohlers: What excites me the most is the opportunity presented by manufacturing because that is where the money is being spent.  About 5-10% of a budget for a new product is design and prototyping, and the other 90-95% is spent on manufacturing.  That’s where the money is and companies in this business are beginning to understand that.  EOS, for example, has stated that 100% of all future development will be focused on the manufacturing market. 

As the industry uncovers more examples of rapid manufacturing, direct digital manufacturing, or whatever you choose to call it, it’s exciting to consider where this might go.  Seeing small start-up companies and individuals launching efforts to manufacture – it’s very very exciting.  The sky’s the limit.  I really think that this is going to make a lot of people very wealthy in a number of areas.  And, we’ve really only begun to scratch the surface.

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