Skip to content

AM Community Conversation with Terry Wohlers, Wohlers Associates, Inc.

Welcome to SME’s AM Influencer Series… dedicated to the passionate professionals who volunteer with SME to connect the digital thread of Additive Manufacturing - within traditional Manufacturing.

My name is Adam Penna, your host. Leading customer engagement for our SME Additive Manufacturing community.

Our guest this week is joining us from Fort Collins, Colorado

Terry Wohlers -President of Wohlers Associates, Inc. since 1986

Wohlers Associates, Inc. offers an unparalleled window into additive manufacturing (AM) and 3D printing.

The independent consulting firm provides technical and strategic advice on the new developments and trends in rapid product development, AM, and 3D printing.

Terry has provided consulting assistance to more than 275 organizations in 27 countries. In 2007, more than 1,000 industry professionals from around the world selected Wohlers as the #1 most influential person in rapid product development and additive manufacturing. Wohlers has authored nearly 435 books, articles, and technical papers. He has given 165+ keynote presentations on six continents in cities ranging from Melbourne and Pretoria to Beijing and Tokyo.

In May 2004, Wohlers received an Honorary Doctoral Degree from Central University of Technology, Free State (Bloemfontein, South Africa). Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa and Nobel Peace Prize winner, received this honorary degree in 2002. In 2005, Wohlers became a Fellow of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers. Less than 1% of the SME membership is granted this distinction, making it one of the most prestigious honors presented by the Society. In 2016, Wohlers became an Adjunct Professor at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia.

SME Fellow; RAPID 2021 Keynote

What was your first experience with additive manufacturing?

Well, that goes back a few years.  My first experience was in 1987 and that’s when 3D systems announced Stereolithography technology.  I read about it in a little newsletter from a friend who at the time served informally as my mentor, Dr. Joel Orr.  There was a paragraph in there about Stereolithography and how it could build these parts almost magic-like from 3D CAD solid modeling data.  So, I contacted the company, back then email was almost non-existent, I called them and they sent a full-scale distributor cap.  So, for some of you before electronic ignition on automobiles would recognize what this looks like.  In fact, I have it here.  They sent this to me, made in foil polymer, and they sent a VHS videotape as well as a brochure.  I read it, I looked at it, and I go wow!  This is absolutely mind boggling.  The fact that once you have CAD data and you can export it or send it to a machine and build these parts, this could be very powerful, not only for product development but some day for manufacturing.  That was in 1987, they commercialized the process in 1988.  I was lucky enough to attend AUTOFACT, which was an SME trade show back then, a very popular one.  I believe that one was either in Anaheim or in Detroit at Cobo Center.  That is where they showcased their Stereolithography 1 or SLA 1 is what they called it, which was their pre full commercially available system.  We got to see it up close and see more parts and I was totally just locked on to it and that’s when we started the company only a year earlier in 1986.  We really focused on CAD cam tools, methodologies, and information about the subject, doing hands-on training and so forth.  This is when I began to gradually make the shift from CAD and product development to what we know now as 3D printing and additive manufacturing.

What is the impact of AM to the broad manufacturing industry?

I think if we step back and maybe from 30,000 feet or thousands of meters, it really is causing companies to look at manufacturing differently.  This is a good thing.  Today, companies are applying new business models and introducing entirely new types of products.  One example is footwear. Many popular shoe brands have introduced some on a preliminary test basis, new athletic shoes, Adidas being one, Fit-My-Foot is another, which was formally referred to as Weave, and I own two of their products.  What is really cool about it is, you take a sheet of paper and put it on the floor up against the wall with your foot barefoot, you use your phone and this app steps you through how to measure your foot by using the camera on the phone and then you put in your height, weight, and so forth and then ultimately your credit card and it sends you in this case either a pair of custom insoles or orthotics. If you want sandals, they are custom as well.  I have both and I absolutely love them.  This is the kind of thing that is enabled by 3D printing.  I wear the same thing, Materialize, a company in Belgium, has this impressive setup where it is like you are walking up to a display case of eyewear with mirrors and it looks very similar if you go to an eye doctor or where they sell eyewear, but they have cameras, and it measures your face and then it will produce the custom frames.  What is important about this is not only the look on you but also to optimize the lenses. Often you see people wearing glasses and their eyes are too high or low or the eyewear is.  To get optimum optics you want your eye right in the center of the eyeglasses and that is what it does in part is optimizes the location of the lenses to your eye.  Football helmets from Riddell, some amazing work has been done there, specialized bicycle saddles, in fact I have one on my mountain bike and I love it.  The list goes on and on.  All these special products would not be available without additive manufacturing.

What advice do you have for manufacturers that would like to learn about implementing or adopting AM?

That could be a long discussion, I’ll try to be brief.  Again, looking at it from a distance and what I have observed over the years, one is, don’t believe everything you hear and read.  It is alarming sometimes what people will share in writing or even in informal conversation and presentations.  It is difficult to always get it right 100% of the time but my recommendation is to validate those claims especially if you are making important business decisions.  If it is involving strategy or making major purchases, validate those claims.  Often, they are inaccurate, and it could affect your thinking and how you guide your decision making.  That’s one thing, is don’t believe everything you hear and read.  Attend top industry events such as the RAPID + TCT 2021 coming up.  It is September 13-15 in Chicago; you have to have that on your calendar.  You have to attend because it is by far the most important event with a big show in North America and one of the very top world-wide.  People from all over the world attend it, with an impressive collection of experts and exhibitors and it’s just a great place to network and get updated to what is happening in additive manufacturing.  If you have been in the industry for a long time, it’s great to go there to get an update, if you are brand new to it, you can touch the parts, see the machines, ask questions, attend conference sessions, and meet people.  I highly recommend that people attend that event as well as others.  There are other very good events.  Last week, America Makes held its TRX at Ohio State University.  We had a person there attending to look at what’s available and getting recommendations on which events are the best and go to them because you can learn so much. 

How has your experience been with the SME event, RAPID + TCT over the last 30 years?  What are you looking forward to at RAPID +TCT this year?

It has been one of the most important events for me annually.  It was of course a disappointment that we couldn’t attend it last year for obvious reasons, but I have not missed one.  I have been to every single one.  The first one was a two-day clinic not a bona fide conference and exposition as we know it today.  I missed it, I don’t know what I was thinking, I must have had a conflict, so this will be my 29th event, but in any case, I have not missed any of the in-person events and I am looking forward to it very much.  It is so important to shake hands and go out for dinner and relationship building or maintaining relationships is so vital.  You can do some of that with Zoom or other virtual environments but it’s not the same.  This will be my first in-person event and I am looking forward to it, I can’t wait.  It’s an outstanding conference and exposition and I am very thrilled to be a part of it. 

What role do you see SME playing in the Additive Manufacturing space?

Many, many, years ago maybe even decades when SME really became the home of the first major association on what we called back then rapid prototyping.  We had formed an association group with key players from many places around the world and we had met.  We interviewed three separate organizations, one being SME.  We felt we needed an established organization to adopt us and for it to become our home and to grow this with another organization.  After interviewing the three, and we did all of them in-person back then, it was not even a contest, it was a clear choice for the group.  It was about a dozen of us who had formed this association and that became the rapid prototyping association of SME which is now the additive manufacturing community and it’s evolved over the years.  That was SME’s first major, well I shouldn’t say first because the RAPID event was in place I think only a couple of years before then, but it has always played or at least over the last couple of decades, has played a vital role in the additive manufacturing space.  People would look to SME as a source of information, as a meeting place, as a convener of experts.  SME, I think, looking ahead can play an even more important role in bringing in even more resources together and really being a source of information and data to the world.  I’m looking forward to working with SME.  I became a member back in the early 1980s, I had just finished graduate school and I was teaching at Colorado State University, and it was in 1983 when the local chapter here in northern Colorado offered an SME chapter event.  More than 500 people attended.  It was not bad for a chapter event.  We had world class speakers as well.  Noah Mostow was one, who founded Atari, he spoke and others too.  SME has played a very important role in additive manufacturing and of course manufacturing in general for more than 90 years. 

How would you describe the AM community? 

That’s a good question.  It’s many things to many people. Number one, it’s exciting, it’s very vibrant.  I see it as a leading edge, progressive, it’s always looking into the future, it’s the other extreme of dull.  When you get up in the morning and you check your in-box and you go, wow, I didn’t see that coming.  That investment, that merger, that IPO, this startup, this new application, there’s something new, if not daily, certainly weekly.  In fact, we do weekly for America Makes and I know SME is very involved in that.  In fact, today, on Tuesdays is the day we pull that together and it is published on each Wednesday.  That news is something that forces us to, for good reason, to really canvas the world to see what’s going on.  It’s just so interesting to see the breath of applications and developments world-wide.  Every day I feel privileged to be a part of it. 

What is your advice for attracting new workers into AM?

We can do a lot of things there.  It’s probably an endless list of opportunities for organizations of all types and sizes too to support and help inspire the next generation.  I think it’s vital too.  We need new ideas.  We have people like me who’ve been around for a while and it’s difficult to break out of that old thinking.  We do our best to do that, but we have people who bring fresh thinking.  One, is to hire young bright people as interns or regular employees.  About a year ago I hired a gentleman by the name of Noah Mosco.  He’s a mechanical engineer, he did a degree in advanced manufacturing at the Colorado school of minds, which is a world-class University.  He worked at 3D Systems Healthcare, which is really a vibrant part of the company in Littleton, Colorado, just outside of Denver.  Before that he worked at Burton Snowboard, and he just brings a lot of good ideas.  He’s less than half my age and it’s good to have people like that around because I can question him, and he can question me.  We keep each other honest.  It’s great to also get out and speak to local middle schools and high schools.  I would like to that once it’s safe to do that again.  I think we can learn a lot from the experience, but we have so much to share and after doing that we can maybe get to know a student and have them come and shadow you or work at your company for a while.  At the very least open in up to tours for these students.  Speaking of tours, years ago we had this program at SME called, “Bright Minds, Mentor Program”.  I was lucky enough to be a part of launching that, at SME.  This was a long time ago, maybe 15 years ago, give or take.  It was all about bringing in a local high school.  If the event was in Cincinnati or Orlando or wherever RAPID + TCT was held, we would contact local High Schools and see if they would be interested in bringing a group.  Typically, a group would be a stem related or technical people who want to get into engineering.  It could be CAD related, because CAD is a prerequisite to using additive manufacturing.  So, we would have a group of as many as 25 or more than 100, and they would be paired up with volunteers, people like you and me that know something about CAD, engineering, and additive manufacturing.  We would spend the day with them at the show floor and the conference sessions.  I really liked spending the time on the show floor because they can see the machines, hold the parts, ask questions, and really learn a lot.  I would like to see SME bring that program back, because I think it is worth its weight in gold, I really do.  I know that SME has some new leadership with Bob Willig as CEO and executive director of SME, so I plan to talk with Bob to see if that is something we can consider.  Not this year, we do not have enough time to plan, but maybe next year and see if we can bring that program back because I think it’s a great program.  We did it for many years and it disappeared.  I’m not sure what happened to it, but it went away. 

How do you see AM evolving over the next few years?

First off, it’s a very exciting future.  It’s moving in many directions on many levels, from startup companies to some of the biggest corporations in the world adopting it for production volumes.  We’re seeing installations that many machines, tens of machines support manufacturing.  We’re talking about serious manufacturing of orthopedic implants, parts that go onto aircraft, consumer products such as eyewear and footwear, and everything in between.  The automotive industry is now getting more serious about adopting it.  It was an early adopter for design validation prototyping and some forms of tooling but for manufacturing volumes when you are building something in such high volumes it is hard to justify the cost and time of using additive manufacturing for serious production.  Also, the maker community, some of the engineering students, and people that are buying these low-cost machines and using them either at home or as hobbyists or as hands-on learning at educational institutions.  Many libraries, like in my hometown Little Town, Nebraska, a town of 2000 residents, I walked into the library back in March and they have two 3D printers in there, and wow, that is pretty cool.  The libraries are attached, the community library is also the school library attached to the high school, middle school, and junior high.  With all the activity that we’ve witnessed over the years we’ve only scratched the surface in 30 plus years and what I mean by that is if you consider that the 12.8 trillion-dollar global economy and what percentage does additive manufacturing represent out of that almost 13 trillion dollars.  It’s not one percent, it’s only point 1 percent.  Which is 12.8 billion dollars based on our research for Wohlers report 2021.  Someday, I believe it is going to exceed 5%.  5% would be approaching two thirds of a trillion dollars.  I often get a show of hands of how many people think it’s going to hit 5%, 10%.  10% would be over 1.2 or 1.3 trillion dollars.  People would still have their hands up when I get up to 25 or 50%.  No one really knows, I certainly don’t, but we do know is it is going to become very big, and it is going to represent so much more than it does today.  How do we get there?  We are going to have to drive down cost, speed the machines, and increase the adoption for serious production.  It’s critically important to put these machines to work for product development, validation of new designs, and rigorous prototyping, but that’s not where the money is.  The money is in manufacturing.  As companies adopt these machines for actual serious production, that’s where this will be become much bigger in the future. 

Is there anything else you would like to add?

For the young people, and really people of any age, learn about this.  Google 3D printing and additive manufacturing.  Click images at the top of your browser and take a look at what’s being done.  The ability to consolidate many parts, sometimes 25, even 500 parts, into one digitally and print that, it has an enormous impact on a company’s bottom line.  Think about if it were 100 parts and you consolidate into one you would need at least 100 different manufacturing operations to manufacture each one of those 100 parts.  Then you have inventory, assembly, in some cases certification paperwork, the maintenance can be hired because you are now dealing with all these parts and assemblies and joining technologies and fasteners.  That alone can really drive a decision toward taking a serious look at this.  If you haven’t had a look at it, it’s not too late.  If you’ve been around for a while, if you’re young and you want to work in a very exciting field, take a look at 3D printing because it’s a great place to be. 

Thank you Terry for being a positive leader and SME Additive Manufacturing Influencer.

Be Our Guest

Attend RAPID + TCT as a guest of one of our featured exhibitors and partners.