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Additive Manufacturing – Where to Start? 4 Questions, 4 Answers from Materialise Mindware

5 min read

Additive manufacturing has matured significantly over the last few years and now is a serious, near-mainstream manufacturing technology. But while it’s become a member of the establishment, it has not lost its disruptive potential. So what do you do if you want to explore using AM in your business? Do you treat it as just another way of making the same things or do you think bigger?

We talk to Sven Hermans and Mathieu Cornelis from Materialise Mindware about what makes a great start into AM — and why you don’t have to be ashamed to ask for help.

Man showing a 3D-printed part to a woman
Materialise Mindware advisors help guide businesses on their paths to AM success

Sven, Mathieu – let’s dive right in. What does a ‘right start’ in additive manufacturing look like? What’s the journey?

Sven: Chances are, even if you’re really clued up on AM, you won’t know everything, and the technology is moving really fast. So seeing the project as an opportunity to learn and to transfer knowledge is a really successful strategy. Get in external expertise if you can — experts on materials, processes, software, and on where the journey’s going. Big companies who are looking at a 5- or 10-year global strategy will be planning with and for technology that doesn’t yet exist, but you can anticipate the trajectory and build that into your plan.

Including different perspectives from within your organization can also be useful. You’ll discover synergies and bigger themes that can become ambitious strategies. It also ensures buy-in from across the business and ensures AM knowledge isn’t contained within a single department. The faster you learn, the better you understand, and the more successful your AM strategy will be.

Mathieu: Whether we’re doing a three-month project or developing a five-year roadmap with a client, you always have an exploration phase, an experimentation phase, and an enablement phase, with feedback loops in between. The exploration phase is about getting clarity on your business challenges, but also your ambitions. What’s your AM dream? As part of this, you’ll clarify the scope of what you're trying to do and get in the AM expertise you need. 

From there you can start experimenting: quick-iteration, fail-fast product development sprints that get you to an application. This is where you also undertake some market analysis and build a business case. At the end of this, you’ve got a meaningful application that you can start implementing by setting up or outsourcing, and scaling manufacturing. That’s it in a nutshell!

Does it always work that way? What are the most common rookie mistakes you see?

Sven: Depending on how and where an AM project originates within a company, extreme short-termism or chasing a small cost-cutting goal are frequent mistakes. It prevents you from considering the additional value you could get out of using AM properly.

Rather than simply printing a part designed for another manufacturing process, it can pay to invest a little time to see what other benefits could be gained by doing the part slightly differently. Can you combine several parts and print an assembly? Can you make it lighter, sturdier; can you design in additional functionality?

Mathieu: Another frequent mistake is to start by thinking you’ve already found the answer and that it’s just a matter of implementing the solution you’ve already found. We get that one a lot, when people come to us and say they want to do x, y, or z with AM and after a few questions you discover the business challenge they are trying to solve and a whole lot of other opportunities open up. We always ask, “What are you actually trying to do here, what problem are you trying to solve?”. 

Taking the time to understand why you’re doing what you’re doing won’t delay you much, but it is going to lower your investment risk in the long run.

Man in the blurred background pointing to a 3D-printed part with support structures that's held up by another person
Achieve your AM goals alongside industry experts

Is there a common theme there which people should watch out for?

Sven: AM isn’t just a technology you take off the shelf and implement. You need serious know-how to do it successfully. Now that additive is on executive agendas and innovation budgets are set aside to strategically explore it, it’s very tempting to go to a machine vendor and simply buy a machine. You only have to put money on the table and you got yourself some additive manufacturing capability. But that doesn’t mean you have a good business model or the right application for AM.

Mathieu: It’s what you do with the technology that makes the difference. We support customers with choosing whether to outsource their production to an external service provider or to invest in an in-house AM facility. But it’s crucial that this "make-or-buy" decision has to come after defining our customer’s AM strategy. Too often we see this order reversed and it’s like buying a car without knowing how to drive and not having any roads to drive it on. People make a huge investment, have really high expectations — and having an AM program is an investment regardless of whether the production happens in-house or externally — but if they don’t get the business model or the application right, they’ll be massively disappointed. And that may well stop them from trying again, properly.

It’s about so much more than just hitting "print". As part of our rapid prototyping offering, we’ve been getting files for parts from people to print for 30 years now. We look at them, we assess them, sometimes we redesign them, we choose the best technology for them, and then we print. But there’s much, much more you can do with AM. And, over the years, we’ve been helping people discover that ‘more’ you can do. The good news is, the level of AM knowledge within companies has increased hugely and many are taking a much more strategic approach to starting their AM journey. It’s changed what we do, too.

Including different perspectives from within your organization is key. You’ll discover synergies and bigger themes that can become ambitious strategies. It also ensures buy-in from across the business and ensures AM knowledge isn’t contained within a single department. The faster you learn, the better you understand, and the more successful your AM strategy will be.

How so?

Mathieu: We’ve always helped people make the most of the application they’ve found. We ensure they make full use of the design freedoms AM offers, suggest alternative materials, etc.

If someone has an idea for a new product, we’ll give them guidance. We’ll understand their requirements for the market and the product, and we’ll try to find the business case before stepping into development. So far, so business as usual.

Sven: But increasingly now, people will come to us entirely without an idea, but rather with a really open question like “What should we do with AM?” or a request like “Help us shape an AM strategy, help us define an AM roadmap to help us to gain clarity.”

That requires a different approach from our side. We will still do the same thing – seek clarity, scope approaches, define a plan together, do development, take an idea from development to commercialization, whatever form that takes. It’s not necessarily different but it's bigger than before.

Our job is still about creating clarity. That’s what we’re really good at, purely because we’ve seen and aided along so many applications across so many different sectors. And because we’ve seen the technology evolve through the years.

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