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AM Community Conversation with Carl Dekker, president of Met-L-Flo

My guest today is Carl Dekker, president of Met-L-Flo

Met-L-Flo is a contract manufacturer that provides cutting edge product development, additive manufacturing prototyping, and manufacturing services.

With technologies including extrusion-based additive manufacturing, material jetting, powder bed fusion polymerization. Also with direct metals, rotational molding, casting, vacuum forming, fiber reinforced plastics, low volume injection molding, and bridge tooling.

Carl is also the current president of AMUG, the additive manufacturing users’ group, as well as having a history with ASTM, past chair of F42, creating standards for the industry.

What was your first experience like with additive manufacturing?

Mine was extremely fragile parts. You look at it twice and it’s broke, definitely applied. So being able to get some pieces is a very slow process, low laser power, you’re dealing with computer processing power less than any of us even have on our cell phones these days. But it was still able to build the part, and fairly accurate. Had some issues with it, but it was amazing how well everybody came together to advance and get past those. But yeah, it was an amazing tool and technique, typically referred to as rapid prototyping.

Was that the first exchange with seeing something happening for a casting part?

Well it was one of those where you could build a part, and it would be excellent for being able to give you a visual representation, but the second you wanted to do any functional testing, you became very limited by the material properties. We wound up doing a lot of initial pieces to try and help people get the initial concept and understanding of what they’re looking at conveyed. But being able to take that and put it into a silicone mold, and this was actually at the time when there was a bit of an advancement on the silicon molding where you didn’t actually have to do a lot of contact to set up the part. You pour in an entire block of rubber around it - this is still a lot of the casting technologies that we use today. But it allowed you to be able to overnight make a mold, that you could now start producing castings from thermostat chemistries, and be able to make parts that had material properties that were now functional. It was a great way to get that first article, be able to make that tool, get everybody on the same page with it, and then be able to get some units that you can actually start putting into testing and validation pieces. I had some that were flown in, and sure enough a piece would arrive nicely packed in foam, get the part, put together a mold and everything from it - just thinking of one customer we were helping at this time - and of course we sent some first pieces to him, and they said, ‘Hey we’re missing a feature here.’ And it was just because the part got jostled in transit on the plane, that it broke a feature and we never even saw it. We were able to go in and modify the tool at that point, and be able to get enough of the feature that we could rebuild the function - and be able to get them parts that they could actually put into service. Things took a while longer and it's gotten a lot faster now, a lot better, stronger materials. We’ve seen a little bit of maturation of the technology and that’s resulted in a lot more utility, and started to see additive really get pushed in the areas of how it can impact manufacturing, whereas at that point in time it could be a way to get engineering validation. Now we see it starting to grow a little bit more into functional components where you can build multiple parts off a piece of equipment, and start using that to do additional testing and move further along. And again, that hasn’t stopped, we’ve continued to see improvement in the materials, improvement in processing, the equipment, and a variety of areas that have helped build an industry which we are now all able to take advantage of its growth and its flexibility and functionality. It’s been a lot of ups and downs but it’s at least been exciting, a lot of it.

What do you think has been the biggest impact of AM to the broad manufacturing industry as a whole?

I think really one of the exciting things is how much everybody has tried to evaluate where they can apply the technology. We had the extrusion-based technology starting to come out, and they started hitting the lower cost systems which made it much more widely available. So now you’ve got this grassroots area trying to engage in risk technology because it’s economically viable for them. And then you’ve got these others that are larger manufacturers and stuff that were taking the technology and now they’re looking at how they can expand it throughout the operation, now it’s getting outside of just the engineering department - getting into the market, getting into the sales samples - now taking it beyond pre-production applications and moving it into the shop floor. We started seeing a lot of jigs and fixtures start becoming very viable applications. And I still think this is an excellent way for companies that are interested in getting into AM to develop their playbook. If you start taking it and saying okay what are the pieces that we use low volume, and start applying additive into those areas, where they don’t need super structural, or high wear-resistant type pieces, but they still need to have unique geometries and configurations that may change in any point in time. You’ve got it as a manufacturing aid, which now becomes a controlled piece that you can apply to your manufacturing floor, and if anything fails you can pull it off of the floor without necessarily having any risks or liabilities or anything out in the field. So it becomes a controlled way to get an understanding, and basically a mindset of how to advance forward and figure out exactly what the materials can do, the process can do, and what the technology can do, so that you can effectively apply it as it moves forward in other areas.

What would your advice be to some of the manufacturers out there that might like to learn more about implementing or adapting additive manufacturing?

Well, how do you understand, how do you get to learn what you don’t know? In other words, where is it going to fail? Where is it going to really succeed and how am I going to get the effects in this, and is it going to run for 30 cycles or 3,000 cycles? How do you slowly walk into that safely and be able to identify what’s going to work for you? You mentioned in the introduction four different technologies that we utilize just here on a regular basis, and it’s not that one of these technologies is better than the other, they all have their strongpoints, they all have their effectiveness, it’s just like you mentioned with the toolbox. Yeah, you want to have a hammer, you want to have a wrench. Can you use the wrench as a hammer? Well maybe, but is it the best tool? All these processes, all of these systems are tools. So how do you get an understanding of what tools are really going to be the most effective for you? I’m not trying to do this as a sales pitch, it’s informative. But find somebody who can be a contract manufacturer for you that can get you access to these technologies, whether it’s OEM or a contract manufacturer like us, and run a series of parts or applications through these providers, and find out what technology to recommend. And find out which ones from those recommendations actually work most effectively for you, before you go out and start looking at, okay let’s buy one of these pieces of equipment. And the key reason for that is because every company's applications may be served better by one technology vs another. That doesn’t mean you won’t want to do the other technologies, you just might not have as much utility from them, as one that becomes your core go-to. If you define that with working with somebody, now you’ve already developed the relationships to meet those outlying applications. Because you can get a piece of equipment, put it in, start making the majority of your applications successful, and the ones you find work best in the outliers, you’ve already got relations by which to be able to get access to those technologies and implement those solutions. One thing I’ve had a number of times is people will come up and go ‘Hey I know it’s been a while since we talked. We don’t need anything, we just got our own equipment so we don’t have any need for you.’ And we always come back and say that’s great, we can appreciate that, but so we don’t have to do anything today that doesn’t mean that we won’t have applications in the future. The amazing thing is, and a lot of people don’t seem to grasp this, but every piece of equipment I’ve seen installed winds up getting additional applications applied to it. And it’s proximity. You’re able to go and take a look at it and say hey can that machine do this? And now you start finding more areas to apply it. Well eventually this leads to a capacity problem. And if you’ve got these relations, now you already know where to go, and you get your capacity met. Until you define the next technology you bring in.

And there’s a whole other side to this. I got to say a lot of these events that go on out there help shed light on this. But it’s one of those, and I’m not trying to downplay the manufacturers or anything, but if you’re manufacturing a piece of equipment your job is to sell that piece of equipment. I don’t know any of these systems that are completely inclusive, and you just plug that in and you don’t need anything else. Whether it’s software, whether it’s secondary processing, whether it’s trading things, or machining secondary applications. How do you understand what the entire chain is of manufacturing that you need from data to deliverable part? You may need two pieces to make that chain. You may need ten pieces. And the biggest thing that I always hate to hear of, is people who just dropped a million or half a million dollars on getting a piece of equipment installed, and now they realize, ‘Oh you know what, the fire suppression system will not work, and you can’t plug that in in this building.’ And they’re like ‘Wait a second what do we do?’ And we’ve got this big asset that’s now sitting there doing nothing, and not contributing, because again there’s this whole chain that has to be considered, before you can implement an added system. Some of these are a lot smaller chains and a lot easier, but where do you learn what all of these considerations are? And really a lot of that you can try to check on the web and Google and search for days and days and days and see a bunch of cool videos, probably some cats and things too, but where can you go to concisely learn and talk to the people that understand all these different things. I mean that’s a lot of my involvement in AMA, my involvement in SME, F42, because it’s getting all of these players together, so that you can have these conversations of ‘Should I get that piece of equipment or that one?’ And now you can talk to somebody, ‘Oh I’ve got that one because of these pieces here and this application, I have to have this. But it doesn’t sound like you need that so maybe you can look at this one.’ You start getting those types of dialogues which can really lead you to building a very effective system to apply additive manufacturing. And now you’re at the point, you’re creating success stories in the organization, that now get fostered and people are like, ‘Hey I like what they’re doing they did all this cool stuff over here, what can they do here?’ I mean even we’ve had that happen where people always come in and say ‘Hey we’re looking to do this piece here, can you make that?’ Yes, we’ll have to change a few things here and this and that, and next thing you know we’re actually making end use parts off of added equipment. And sure they go into an assembly and there’s other standard components off the shelves that go into that assembly, and the manufacturing process to modify and adapt and create this new product. But at the end of the day, it is a tool to produce a solution. And it’s finding where those are going to be effective and properly applied. Obviously, it’s difficult to connect with people who understand all those different areas, so where do you meet them? It’s been kind of difficult during the pandemic, it’s been virtual. But typically, these conferences become that forum, to be able to go take a look at the equipment, talk to the manufacturers, talk to some colleagues, and now talk to some people who are using it. And you start getting evolutionary advancements. Granted, a lot of these conferences are once a year, so do you go to multiples, do you go to one or two, or how many do you go to and how do you target the people that are going to the right ones so they have the right questions to ask. But yeah, getting successful adoption of additive manufacturing is critical, because the second you say we’re going to do all this stuff and take over all these pieces and make all this stuff happen, and they may not be considering the secondary processes for example. Maybe they need to do finishing and decorative painting or something like that to get an end product. Some of those things you’re not really going to be able to eliminate. You need someone who can do a good paint job. I mean how many people want to go buy a car that has no paint.

It started out with a lot of cool things, and it’s again, can you take and make end use parts with additive? Yes you can, and people are doing it. There are a lot of considerations to go through, and that even leads right back to that area, where you’re almost looking at a cultural option within a manufacturing plant. You need to have a level of understanding, why are we dumping this much money into it and why is it going to take so long? We typically buy a piece of equipment, we plug it in, and then within a couple of weeks of training, that thing is producing. Verses, what do you mean it’s going to be a year before we’re making good parts? If you can start with something that is controlled within your organization, whether it’s in the design department, samples for marketing, or sales, or manufacturing technologies, pallets, or jigs and fixtures or product preservation devices, things like that. If you can find these areas to make it successful, now you can start to get more embrace from everybody and you’ve got a lot of low-lying fruit typically on the manufacturing floor. They can benefit from these technologies, before you’re actually going to making something that’s saleable. I’m talking not talking as in with the wind and sales out on the water. Something you can actually put in a box and sell safely, and have your insurance support product liability, and everything like that. But yeah, it’s exciting to see some of these things and it’s challenging to try and get some people to really understand the freedoms that you have but yet also some of the limitations because we’re making the part and the material at the same time for most of these processes. While your typical casting, forging, rejection molding, or even like a vacuum forming type thing, you know what the material is. You started with a known material you just changed the shape of it and now you’ve got an end part. Whereas here, you don’t have flow characteristics, you have flow characteristics on the x and y but maybe not on the z. How do you have the uniformity that you can take apart and turn it 30 degrees and it’s still going to work just as effective, or won’t it. So that becomes one of those areas that the learning curve can become a bit of a challenge. That’s why there’s a lot of work on standards these days.

What would you say defines the additive manufacturing community?

A lot of people who won’t accept the word no, you can’t do it. A lot of people who have pushed past things which a majority of people would say ‘No you can’t do that, don’t even try it just go that way with it.’ Whereas we’ve seen a lot of people say they think they can. And we’ve done it, and we’ve made all these applications start to grow and continue to advance and technologies. You know we’ve got those small little desktop units. Things you can put at the end of an engineering department and now they’ve got access to different pieces. It’s that constant what if? What if I this? What if I that? People asking those questions and we’ve started to develop a lot of capabilities. But really, I think one of the things with it is it’s a community of people who’ve realized maybe you can’t do it right now, but what are the other things I need to look at to do this? And you start getting everyone together at any of these events and forums, I mean I see the SME has a way, my activity with the DDM group is to foster more information to get out there. But it’s how do you connect with the people that are asking the questions what if? And how do you find some of the people that have already answered those questions. And when you pull this whole community together, you now start getting the collective drove of multiple, multiple ideas. The infamous, two heads are better than one. You’re not talking about the parts you’re making off of it, so you’re not really digging into the intellectual property for the most part, you’re saying well no if I dig into this technology and I do this I will get a good end part that I can use. And they’re like, ‘Oh so this is the piece that I’m missing.’ And now you get to something like the SME, or the RAPID conference, or AMUG or any of them, you’re able to say great I’m going to go over to that vendor here and I’m going to talk to him and ask about that and then I’m going to step over to this one and I’m going to be able to ask about that piece that I’m missing, and see how these all come together. And by the time that I’m done with that event, hopefully they’ve got a new solution, or new chain of pieces in the puzzle that they can go back and make successful applications, come back the next year and share hey they worked great I appreciate that comment that was exactly what I needed.

What has your experience been over the 30 years with RAPID + TCT?

Well originally it was all little desktops, tabletops, so you just went and had a really small place and you met some people, and now it’s grown to be a relatively large forum of high-end pieces of equipment, down to tools to help support it. Which is nice, because you’re seeing this whole chain. Really the key is that it’s been a means by which to go and see some talks and presentations and get some insight of somebody’s case study or go to a panel and be able to ask some questions and say hey wait a second why did you do that? And that’s one of my personal things that I always love is the panels, because it’s unscripted. You get to ask any questions, and you might not have the question that you need to get answered, but somebody else may ask and you get to learn from it. And then take that knowledge that you just gained, those little nuggets of knowledge that you get after the event, and go down to the floor and start poking at the pieces of equipment that you want, and really see which ones are going to meet up to your needs, and which ones are going to fall short. Or same reason why we keep going, we can offer services to people. They can come over, we can meet with them, we can catch up and talk, show them some of the new things we’ve added, show them some of the new approaches or stuff that we’re doing, and now but they look at it and say, ‘You know what, we really don’t have enough applications to justify this right now, let’s work with you for a while, while we start developing these.’ And we have no complaints saying have you looked at applying it in this application, and have you looked at this one. And again, through that relationship, in all sincerity we’re not selling a product, we can’t sell you something because it’s a service, we can only be there to provide that service when you need it. But a lot of times we develop these good relationships with people, and you know, yeah okay we can’t do that, we can’t help you with that. But have you looked at this? I heard that one’s a good solution. And now that relationship is helping beyond just creating a part. And that’s one of those areas where we’re able to reconnect with everybody to stay on top of what are the latest things, the new innovative solutions that have come out? And how we can apply them. At the end of the day, we’re hopefully adding value to all of the people we’re working with. We’ve got pieces that are, you know a variety of different components for manufacturing right not, which is all developed over time. Some of them straight off of machines, some of them off of tools made from machines, but a lot of it is all additive enabled. We’re seeing more people understand how they can apply the technology which opens up more applications. And we’re seeing this change in manufacturing starting to happen a little bit more regularly, embracing it and the acceptance is a lot more engaged.

Is there something specific you’re looking forward to this year at RAPID + TCT?

I’m working on a presentation with a friend of mine and we’re going to try to orchestrate this panel. It’s one of those about how to help people get engaged and embracing additive manufacturing and getting it as one of their tools in the toolbox. But even with this here I think it’s strange because I’ve been doing a lot with the FABTECH event over the years, trying to bring a little bit of additive into there. Not the depth of technology you usually see at RAPID, but it’s something more introductory to make sure people who are only allowed to go to one show or whatever and they have to pick and this is the only one they can go to, they have some ability to get some understanding out of it. I think having both of them in the same location, might provide a very eye-opening opportunity for a lot of those people that maybe attending FABTECH, they come and they spend half a day walking the RAPID + TCT show. And again, people at the RAPID show could say, ‘Hey you know what, I think this manufacturer is trying to do some stuff with that, but we’ll take a look because they had pieces of equipment on the show floor over there.’ And now you’re seeing applications. Not that RAPID + TCT hasn’t grown a lot, but it’s still one of those that additive is not as large as a lot of other events. Nothing wrong with that it’s just growing. And it’s kind of cool to see how it’s actually been applied in other events, but yet some of them may not even know the pieces were done additive.

What type of role do you SME playing in the additive manufacturing space in general? Or what would you like to see?

There’s definitely a need for connecting people with the experts that can give them the insight, the vendors that they may need to augment their solution or the ones that they need to talk to create a solution. Can you do it on the web? Sure. How effective will it be? It’s hit or miss at that point because let’s face it there’s no BS meter on the web, so whether you’re reading something that’s 100% accurate or just 80% or if it’s giving the full picture, you really don’t know. Whereas an event you can go, see content, continue afterwards and talk about that content. I see that the RAPID + TCT show being one of those that is great for looking at the new equipment, the new material suppliers, the software providers and things like that. Anybody who’s looking to get into it a little bit and needs some more knowledge, it’s a perfect venue for that. SME gives a good forum for this; I like how they’ve been able to add an additive component to the FABTECH events so you’ve got kind of at least an introduction if you will. So that people who need to learn more can at least learn where to learn more. But I see that SME obviously has this platform with all of their different venues to help give awareness, to help share the applications that have been applied to those different venues. The aerospace and defense show always had one and they had a lot of additive manufacturing there. And additive is huge in aerospace and defense. Design consolidation, more optimization, you can’t get better. Let’s save 25% on every trip. They’re doing a great job of paving the way and developing a lot of that understanding of what is and isn’t really achievable. Or what does it take to make it achievable. Now again you’re talking about specific applications they might not be able to share all the details, but as we start to see more of these come out, we’re going to see a little bit more of that information available. And as we can get more people aware of how to apply them, we’re going to see a collective pool of knowledge. Now how do you get that pool of knowledge able to be validated, shared, invalidated? I see SME as being that unbiased sounding board that should be able to promote that validation side, and help people flush out the areas that are not fully accurate.

What would be your advice for attracting younger generations and the new work force into additive manufacturing?

There’s a bright minds activity, or SME was actually engaging high schools, even community colleges. The activity was to engage students in high school and community college type levels, and see what we could do to get them down to walk the floor with somebody who was an expert, and they would share that knowledge and you would get insight even though they’re not necessarily buying, but they’re getting aware. And the reason I bring this up is because Stratasys was actually one of the people at the time, and they donated a machine to a school and I got the opportunity to bring this guy Krump and his wife who was a teacher to this school just to say hey here’s your donation see what it’s done, accept the thank you that type of stuff. And the school had regional education directors and a whole bunch of people more than just the teachers that were involved, and the reason is because they saw the students wound up having a 1-point GPA average increase. I don’t know what the teachers were doing, but I think it’s one of those that put all the theoretical to tangibles. Thinking about it afterwards I’m like well okay your geometry teacher, ‘Well if you look at that 3D printer and it does this and how do you calculate that it does this?’ Now they can start seeing where all these formulas and calculations get applied to actually making a part. As opposed to, ‘Do you remember everything that was in Chapter 23?’ Seeing them openly be excited about that and share what these students were doing it was just cool. It was like wait a second, we actually reached them. If we can get more engagement with academia, I think that’s a huge area, because again we touched about it earlier, the cultural race within an organization, is a major hurdle to overcome. Everybody’s got their job, they’ve got to get their objectives done, they got to get the things met, and oh by the way the family’s calling because they need this and that. So where do people go to learn about all of this, when you can educate the students on it, and have them come up already with an awareness, and they say wait a second you know in my university class we did this with this and made this work, why can’t we do that here? Great let’s do it. It may shorten that adoption.

How do you see additive manufacturing evolving in the next few years?

There is so much work being done on advanced materials, and even on means of doing volumetric solidification of materials, where you’re creating an entire 3rd dimensional object at once. You’ve got some exciting things there that might take a little longer, but I think we’re going to start to see more knowledge about where we can successfully apply these materials in manufacturing and end use parts. And we’re going to start seeing it become more of an applied solution, which will definitely become a competitive advantage for those that adopt it and getting onto it which will cause more to want to jump on. So, we’re at this, I don’t want to say fan effect, but we’re basically at this area where we’re going to start seeing things going in multiple directions. It’ll be interesting to see those that we haven’t even conceived of yet. You look at the hybrids. The hybrids are popping up all over, whether it’s machining at the same time as deposition, whether it’s repair applications. There’s every application that’s viable, we touched on aerospace, you think of any UAV’s and how many people want to use unmanned vehicles for maintenance and recon type areas. The DDM had one of the entries I was thinking about awhile ago, it was a drone that would go and do investigation of bridges, so they could identify if there were any structural weaknesses without actually having to go and have a person on a piece of equipment hanging around there. So quickly getting information back, now whether that’s checking power lines or gas lines, or whatever any of those different types of areas. Being able to make a UAV lighter through additive, is a whole other area that’s getting a lot of development. I see the hybrid systems becoming a big area, and obviously the expansion of materials is just something that’s really growing.

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