Kevin Ayers joins the SME AM Influencer Series today from Urbana-Champaign, Illinois to discuss additive manufacturing – what’s here, what’s new and what’s next. He is an experienced Consulting Editor with a demonstrated history of working in the mechanical or industrial engineering industry. Skilled in Computer-Aided Design (CAD), PTC Creo, Plastics, SolidWorks, and Manufacturing. Strong media and communication professional with a BS focused in General Engineering from University of Illinois. He also has been with SME for 20 years, he’s also worked with the FBI for 30 years, as well as being a consulting editor over at Advanced Manufacturing Media, he’s worked with Danfoss as an additive design and manufacturing specialist, and most recently he’s a top AM consultant.
What was your first additive manufacturing experience?
When I was at the University of Illinois back in the early 80s, last century, we had built models using layers and layers of balsa wood. I thought it was really cool how we were able to make a model then. Back in about 1987, the FBI borrowed me from the job I was doing at the time with foreign counter-intelligence, they needed a mechanical engineer to look at a thing called rapid prototyping, a new machine out there. So, I traveled to California and saw the first stereolithography machine in existence, and I fell in love with it, instantly. The way the polymer grew out of a single layer into a three-dimensional object, I realized what the future was going to be, and how it could benefit the FBI.
Did the benefit show itself right away?
I made a guess. My best guess, on where it was headed. My time was mainly used for models and for casting. I said, I can design for that material, and that process, and make real parts. Right from the very beginning, starting in 1990 or 91, we started making end components in numbers for the FBI.
What advice do you have for manufacturers looking to implement or adopt AM?
I think you need to go to the trade shows, as soon as you can, however you can afford it. Go to RAPID + TCT, of course, the SME event. A number of other SME events also have additive flavor to it, they have exhibitors come and special talks at every single one of SME’s events now. RAPID is great, you’ll see hundreds and hundreds of exhibitors, and you need to see all those kinds of exhibitors to see what the full breath of what additive is today.
What is the impact of AM to the broad manufacturing industry as a whole?
At first, we started making small victories, getting into manufacturing. Right now, what we are going to be seeing is using additive manufacturing to supplement production. As we’ve seen a lot of supply chain disruptions recently with COVID, the Suez Canal, trade wars happening, ships being lost at sea, this is going to be a reoccurring thing. We need additive to supplement production and I think from a cost standpoint it will make sense.
What are some of the initial barriers getting into additive?
Initial barriers, are quite frankly, it’s different, it’s a change, it’s disruptive in some cases. People like to do their jobs, a lot of times, most people, without having to change. They’ve learned things for the casting process for years and now you are adding a new process and it scares people. The bottom line is when they actually hold the parts in their hands and it solves problems for them, then the barriers start going away very quickly.
What has you experience been with the SME event, RAPID + TCT?
We started small and most of the time when I started it was like 30 vendors, then 60 vendors, exhibitors in the industry. Not a lot of businesses, but it’s gone huge now. I don’t know how many we are going to have at RAPID + TCT this year, because of COVID restrictions have been relaxed and we are adding new exhibitors, but we had 600 exhibitors last year. Formnext, in Germany, we had 800 plus. I think by my numbers we have 4300 polymer OEMs. We have 190 metal OEMs. Countries like China are producing a lot more companies. Also, the normal manufacturing paradigms are now being applied to additive manufacturing. We are getting a lot of companies to deal with the business software side of additive and things like that and need software packages that help you design the parts automatically. It’s getting to be really exciting.
What are you looking forward to at RAPID + TCT this year?
I am looking forward to some of the new metal technologies that are coming up, that can use any metal alloy that can be found in MIM and powder metal. That’s exciting to me because mainly the metal machine companies focus on metals for aerospace and medical markets. Manufacturing is much broader than that, especially when you are talking about quantities of parts. So, I am looking forward to new technologies that can give us different alloys that are used in traditional manufacturing. I also like to see the progress in the generative design software. How that is going to work and create a whole new revolution in design. It’s also going to help the people that want to design parts for additive be successful. Usually, this industry has been experienced based and generative tools will help design engineers design for additive.
What is the benefit of generative design?
Let me try to sum it up as quick as I can. Today, and especially in the future, what is going to happen is a regular designer is going to, and maybe not, maybe somebody in marketing and sales, is going to define geometry space and where the conditions might be, loading conditions, and then they’re going to pick library files based on different manufacturing methods. It might be composite in additive manufacturing, it might be casting of gray iron, it might be C & C Delrin, and you pick these different library files, and then pick a safety factor, like 1.8, and would say go. Then it works in the cloud and gives you 100 different designs that have all these different manufacturing methods. Now, in the course of two hours, you can give your management and engineering teams, hundreds of choices with cost data built into it and everything else. It used to take you months and months to do those types of iterations manually. Now you can do those things in two hours with all the data filled in graphs to show you what’s best for speed of production, what’s best for cost, what’s best for light-weighting. All of that can be done for you, so it’s going to make companies that do manufacturing and engineering much more productive.
What role do you see SME playing in the additive manufacturing space?
They can do multiple roads. One is new training that needs to be done at different levels. I’m not just talking about design engineers, I am talking about marketing and sales, executives, different course work for them, because additive will impact them differently, and they need to learn to speak the language, like everything else. SME can also help take traditional manufacturers by the hand and get them into additive. That’s where it really needs to be done. There are so many companies that have been experimenting a little bit with additive and maybe sending a person to the conference, and not really investing the resources in it. I think that is happening now. I think a lot of big companies out there are looking at how much they want to invest and do it wisely.
What do you think defines the AM community?
That’s a good question. I would say what defines them is they are very friendly, very smart people, willing to share, even amongst competitors. They’ll share solutions. They’re risk takers. A lot of the early people pushed additive forward as a solution. There was resistance and they kept pushing and now we’re at where we are at today, breaking barriers. We don’t stop as an industry when there is a barrier. We keep working the problem until we have a solution. Whether it be software or hardware or process changes or research, we always find a way. The people in the industry know that technology always goes where the money is and there is a lot of money in manufacturing and additive manufacturing. They are encouraged by that.
What is your advice for attracting the next generation into the workforce of AM?
I am already seeing a big change in the interns I have seen over the years. I have been having interns for over 20 years and the additive manufacturing IQ has gotten higher and higher with every 3 or 4 years. My advice is to learn CAD as a gateway to this. Get your own 3D printer or have one available to you at school, in middle school, high school, and college. Then, get a broad background in college, tooling engineering. Then, don’t give up. Find out what you want to do in life and what you are good at and do it. Be successful in life. You either have to be good at it or be passionate about it, and most people I see in the industry are both. Don’t give up on your dreams, go for it.
How do you see AM evolving in the next few years?
There are more and more new creative processes in additive, especially in metal, that’s coming into place, but the bottom line is cost. I’m seeing cost and will see the cost go down lower and lower for people making metal parts and once they do that we are not talking about one or two machines in a company, we are talking about 40 machines, 100 machines on the factory floor producing parts, and software managing all that and be totally agile, and have quality control and bmaps and things like that. So, I think that is where we are headed, lower costs per part. That is going to make a big difference in our industry. I think the next generation coming in, they realize that they can be creative a lot more with additive. Anything they can think of in their mind, they can make.
We are going to see multiple technologies that can produce different materials in the same part. Ceramic, composite, even metal, all in one part. That’s going to impact how we design things in the future, as well. It’s exciting to see those technologies coming forth.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
No, it’s great to talk to you though and discuss what is going on in the industry. These are very exciting times. If you get involved in this industry and I encourage you to do so, realize there are all kinds of jobs in our industry, and we can’t get enough skilled people. It’s very exciting and you can become very passionate about it very quickly.