As the global additive manufacturing (AM) sector frantically prepared for the sumptuous bazaar that is Formnext, the future of AM was already starkly on display at the smaller, quieter, yet equally consequential International Conference on Additive Manufacturing (ICAM), hosted by ASTM International in Orlando (October 31-November 4). Having attended the latter event, it is impossible not to notice the relationship between the types of products that caught everyone’s attention at Formnext 2022, and the main themes that had centered the discussion at ICAM a couple of weeks prior.
To name just two, interrelated examples: the main focal points at ICAM involved end-to-end, AM-centered production cells, as well as the digital network infrastructure required to keep those cells operating smoothly. And, two weeks later, Formnext attendees were greeted by a striking quantity of robotics-integrated AM applications, along with a similarly large proportion of software platforms facilitating digital connectivity throughout every phase of automated production.
For the sector as a whole, the analogy/message here is that standards lead the way for commerce. This is truer than ever in a global business environment wherein, to paraphrase a quote from Terry Wohlers’ keynote presentation at ICAM, hardly a single mature industry exists that doesn’t have robust standards.
That reality is truest of all for any sector in which government buyers constitute a significant chunk of the target market. It is a blunt historical fact that government-funded military spending is a uniquely powerful catalyst for society-wide adoption of new technologies. One of the subtler reasons for this is that, concerning any production process that ultimately gets green-lit by the military, or any other public agency: much of the energy/work/time involved in industrial standardization has already been accomplished ahead of time.
Thus, as was frequently acknowledged by speakers at ICAM (including Wohlers in his keynote address), a potential scale-up of AM-centered output by airplane and automotive manufacturers would establish economies of scale for the AM sector, as a whole. And if the aviation and automotive sectors do indeed scale-up use of AM in the next couple of years, that will be in large part due to the increasing number of industrial standards related to use of the technology in heavy industry, which have been published over the last 5 or 6 years.
Almost 40 such standards have been published by ASTM alone, and more than half of those have been published in the last three years (2020-2). About half of the most recent standards, in turn, involve the use of metal powders, especially in heavy industries that are most held to the strictest government regulations: aviation, automotive, and space. On a global level, these industries are also some of the most reliant on government funding and procurement.
In Anil Sachdev’s keynote presentation, the lab group manager (LGM) at GM Global Research and Development reiterated that to gain mass adoption, a technology must, among other things, “have a spectacular outcome!” If heavy industrial conglomerates are successful at phasing a scale-up of AM into their routine production processes over the next few years, then the most likely spectacular outcome won’t be something people see directly, except in the form of a balance sheet detailing cost and energy-savings across entire industries, and in the publication of increasing amounts of standards related to AM.
It is those two things which are most likely to determine the extent of AM’s ultimate long-term incorporation into the global economy’s routine production processes. And, cost/energy-savings and standards are likely to become more and more intertwined, since the most important classes of standards in virtually all industries will, in coming decades, increasingly be those related to carbon neutrality. The most spectacular outcome AM could achieve would be as a main contributing factor to a lower carbon footprint for all industries. Whatever the outcome, it will be signaled far in advance by the state of the sector’s ability to standardize as it scales up.
Images courtesy of ASTM International