What’s holding Additive Manufacturing behind? Talent and experience.

Advantage Engineering - Additive Manufacturing talent and experienceAdvantage Engineering prides itself on being the first company in Canada to invest in additive manufacturing – way back in 1996.

Despite being commercialized in the 1990s, the reality is that the technology has only recently become ‘mainstream’. Given the potential of additive manufacturing (more popularly known as 3D printing), there’s a lot of scope for the technology to flourish in the coming months but talent and experience will remain key obstacles to overcome.

This fact is easily demonstrated by industry numbers pooled together by Wohlers Associates, a Colorado-based consulting firm.

Wohlers Associates’ 2020 report cited that the value of all additive manufacturing products and services worldwide grew by 21.2% percent in 2019 to a total of US$11.87 billion. Figures indicates that the market nearly doubled in size since 2016 when it was valued at US$6.06 billion, but the firm’s 2021 report shows that overall growth slowed down to a mere 7.5% in 2020, totaling US$12.758 billion.

To take growth back to 2019-levels, academic institutions, government organizations, and manufacturers need to find ways to help bolster experience and fuel the development of talent and experience. Personally, with a strong emphasis on innovation and entrepreneurship, I’m proud of the great work being done in Ontario, the province Advantage Engineering calls home.

The Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (MIE) at the University of Toronto, for example, decided to launch a brand new graduate-level course in additive manufacturing starting in Winter 2021. The Multi-Scale Additive Manufacturing Lab founded by the University of Waterloo in 2017 to study metal additive manufacturing, on the other hand, has recently caught the attention of Canada’s federal government and received CA$8.2 million to establish an Additive Manufacturing Alliance (AMA).

The alliance intends to support more than 90 businesses to commercialize approximately 30 advanced manufacturing technologies, create and maintain over 275 jobs, and provide training and outreach opportunities for about 1,500 students, research associates, and industry personnel.

A lack of talent and experience

In the early years, additive manufacturing was a nascent technology and significant investments were being made in research & development. While new processes such as stereolithography (SLA), selective laser sintering (SLS), and fused deposition modeling (FDM) were invented, the patenting of these hindered the pace of development by raising the barriers to entry for competing companies who could improve upon these processes.

As a result, the first commercial 3D printers were large and expensive, and produced plastic parts that were weaker than those produced using traditional manufacturing processes. The technology, however, sparked interest among business leaders in the aerospace and automotive industries who were keen to use the technology to build prototypes they could put tougher, alter, and re-design several times before they invested in building production tooling, fixtures and assembly equipment based on functional samples.

Over time, the technology has evolved – but still, the pool of people involved in handling the technicality of the processes is relatively small.

With more players in the automotive and aerospace industry keen to trial the technology and shift more of their production to additive manufacturing processes, demand is increasing and a lack of experience in the industry is becoming evident. Practically speaking, the shift from traditional to additive manufacturing requires a ‘redesign of parts’ which is where more talent and experience could help accelerate the journey for all stakeholders.

This is reflected in the recent comment by the Canadian Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC). The not-for-profit national center of expertise for the digital economy pointed out that while there’s a particularly high demand for professionals with qualifications or training in Design for Additive Manufacturing [DfAM], the challenge was not one of quantity but of quality. Translating traditional parts into designs suitable for additive manufacturing is a new field with a lot of scope.

Observers interested in the technology are also excited to see that the consumer goods industry is leaning towards additive manufacturing as well now, as quality of finished parts have improved significantly in recent years. This has made the technology a practical solution to both, their prototyping needs as well as low-volume production requirements.

The bottom line in additive manufacturing

Universities are recognizing the need to fill the growing talent gap by providing students with training in additive manufacturing processes. Governments across the world – and in Canada – are providing students and professionals with access to the technology and to financial assistance to build their own labs.

In the meanwhile, companies that want to leverage the technology to accelerate their journey to additive manufacturing must find a reliable partner that has the experience and talent at its disposal. Advantage Engineering often finds itself doing much of the heavy lifting around designing for additive manufacturing – and clients benefit significantly.

To learn more about how we can help, get in touch with us now.