Wouldn’t Jackson Browne be flattered to know his song “Time the Conqueror” not only adds perspective to love and life, but also to manufacturing? Longtime advanced manufacturer David Burns considers how transformational technologies are first feared and then accepted. Warning: surprising plot twist ahead.
Since my youth, one of my favorite musicians has been Jackson Browne. He is quite a lyricist, and, I was thinking last night about a Jackson Browne title called “Time the Conqueror.”
Why that title when I am thinking about 3D printing?
Well, I have been deeply involved in advanced manufacturing technologies – specifically 3D printing – for nearly 20 years, and in conventional machining for more than 20 years before that. Reflecting over my career, a story about the passage of time came to mind.
As we were expanding our production, my company had committed to spend an inordinate amount of money on a groundbreaking, unproven new machine.
The skeptics in our company had protested loudly – they knew that we had machines with proven technology, making parts in an identical cube size, that would have cost less than half as much. But the lure of a breakthrough technology was too strong, so we forged ahead. We installed the machine (not without problems) in its own area and assigned our best operators to run it.
From the outset, we were beset with challenges. We had problems getting data in the right format into the machine. The machine simply stopped multiple times during runs, for seemingly no reason. Part design did not take advantage of what the machine could do and, in fact, design made the job harder to complete. The operator, unfamiliar with this new technology, made a couple of mistakes.
It was pretty much a disaster all the way around. But after a week, we completed the first job…a job that would have been completed in a couple of hours on our proven machines.
At this point, you may well be thinking that this story sounds a lot like your experience with 3D printers. They are amazing technology with countless possibilities, but…stories about data, design, and reliability problems, as well as operator unfamiliarity, are all too common. It might be easier – and safer – to conclude that 3D printing is simply an interesting diversion, but not ever going to find a role in higher volume production.
Except, my story is not about 3D printing; rather, it is about a horizontal machining center, with a tape reader, in the year 1979. During the ensuing years, through research, investment, and clever innovation, along with a hefty dose of patience, the digital revolution matured in manufacturing and transformed how products are made.
Will we look back upon 3D printing someday and reflect upon a similar story? I think that we will. The path ahead requires massive amounts of research, shrewd innovation, and a fair dose of patience. With those elements in place, we have the opportunity to take our next big step up the productivity curve and come ever closer to true manufacturing optimization.
Time the Conqueror.
Explore IMTS 2022 To learn more about industry leaders in additive manufacturing, take a look and get to know the companies exhibiting in the Additive Manufacturing Pavilion at IMTS 2022 from Sept. 12-17, 2022, in McCormick Place, Chicago.