Innovation. Many companies talk about it, the market around it, create slogans incorporating it. But change is not just a sound bite, and it’s not easy. Despite the rhetoric, most companies equate innovation to risk, preferring to take a follower approach. Disruption is happening. The average number of years that a company spends on the S&P 500 is about 15 years — less than a quarter of what it was a century ago. The time for a top new company to reach a billion-dollar valuation has dropped from 20+ years to less than three. Companies that innovate — start-ups and mature companies alike — thrive. But innovation is not just new product offerings; it includes business models, customer experience, supply chain, and manufacturing techniques.

Additive manufacturing promises to speed up hardware innovation cycles. In a limited way, it already has. This first phase has been rapid prototyping. A generation of engineers have been trained on CAD and are as comfortable designing a part and printing it as they are having it machined. Engineers can now iterate through dozens of designs in a week rather than months using traditional manufacturing.

A second phase, featuring functional materials, has been underway to make parts that matter (i.e. end-use parts). While many functional materials — biomaterials, energy storage materials, and metamaterials — are still in university research labs, some, like engineering plastics and composites, have made it to consumers. Markforged was founded to introduce functional 3D printing, in our case high-strength composites and metal to the market. With a strong value proposition, for instance, in rapidly providing customized fixtures and tooling, we quickly became a leader in the space. Nevertheless, it is not straightforward to sell both new materials and new manufacturing processes concurrently. We often have to take our customers on a learning journey to prove out the technology and have started Markforged Additive Manufacturing University to codify the practice.

Companies that innovate — start-ups and mature companies alike — thrive

The additive industry is moving into a third phase geared towards manufacturing at scale. Moving down the part cost curve opens larger volume applications and broader organizational impact. Software improvements such as Markforged’s Blacksmith, which uses sensors and AI to automatically adapt print files and settings to produce parts within specified tolerances across a printer fleet, will further speed adoption to the factory floor. Major manufacturers and government entities — Stanley Black and Decker, Jabil, the US Army, to name a few — have opened additive centres to explore how to incorporate the technology into their operations. And some companies are already disrupting their markets. Invisalign is a multibillion-dollar company which leverages 3D printing manufacturing to outcompete conventional braces. Adidas and New Balance have launched customer-facing 3D printed products, with other shoemakers sure to follow.

Manufacturing is a large market for 3D printing. When you can economically 3D print a product that is equivalent to a conventionally manufactured piece, it’s an easy sell. Engineers are comfortable with 17-4PH stainless steel and H13 tool steel. They can take part out of a sintering oven and compare it directly to their machined part. If it’s made faster or cheaper, with the same properties, then it’s a win. For some applications, the Markforged Metal X system can offer that, and additive will encroach further upon traditional manufacturing. Manufacturing speeds will increase, and part costs will fall. 

But additive offers more, and companies that harness the fourth phase of additive—designing for additive — will lead. This phase centres around designing what could not be created before: fabricating cheaper, lighter, stronger, more complex parts; enabling more efficient, effective, and novel processes; providing more straightforward, more transparent, more engaging customer experiences. Strategic companies will engage with the technology, incorporating it into their operations. End users will define function rather than form. Additive companies and their suppliers will design new plastics, composites, ceramics, and alloys that are designed to work correctly with the additive processes rather than trying to force “standard materials” designed decades (or centuries) ago for forging moulding, or machining. 

The prevalent mindset over the last decade —“let’s provide a material that works with additive and is almost as good as what is currently used” — is counterproductive; it equates additive with being deficient, where it need not be. The additive is a different manufacturing technique (or rather a host of techniques), with strengths and weaknesses. The industry should focus on providing solutions that are better than traditional manufacturing offers. This is a system-level challenge and will not be accomplished by optimizing new materials or creating new part geometries in isolation, but rather by working on these in tandem and fitting the process into a corporate ecosystem.

Opportunities are plentiful: reducing inventory and warehousing, decreasing the number of parts in a bill of materials, incorporating distributed manufacturing, taking advantage of low-cost customization and low-cost added complexity, and more. They span across industries: healthcare, manufacturing, heavy industry, construction, tech, and so forth. Which companies will go beyond slogans and seize the opportunities? Who will be innovators? The future of additive will not be making what we already have. It will be making something better.