Heavy metal: Richard Grylls has spent more than 20 years studying and promoting the use of metal in additive manufacturing, having earned a Ph.D. in metallurgy in England and working to advance the metal 3D printing field since coming to the United States two decades ago. He was the first user, in 1998, of the first commercial 3D metal printer available in North America, installed by Dr. Hamish Fraser at The Ohio State University in Columbus, OH. Currently he's the technical director for SLM Solutions North America, a provider of metal 3D printing systems. Grylls spoke with Plant Services managing editor Christine LaFave Grace recently about the workforce implications of 3D printing's ascent in industry.
PS: You said additive manufacturing is essentially a "glorified welding process." That's an interesting contrast – thinking about this advanced, "cool" technology that has drawn interest from, for example, high school robotics teams and the Maker Movement in terms of a decidedly old-school process. Do you see burgeoning interest in 3D printing as potentially a tool for driving the technology, and even interest in manufacturing, forward?
RG: It's a very timely and important question. For the 3D printing and metal additive manufacturing market to grow the way it could grow, we need a large number more people working in it, understanding it, and leading. We need those young people to be interested in it, and they are – for example, we sponsor a Formula SAE team, and they came over recently from Hope College in Michigan, and they're super-interested in the process.
It's a technology for the 21st century, because it's all about design. You just print it out, and out it comes, and it's a very clean technology. You walk around in our lab, and it doesn't stink of welding fumes or anything, it's a very pleasant place to be. It's very much a 21st-century technology that resonates with young people. It's so convenient. It's just a very easy way to make things out of metal. If you sent me a file right now, I'm sitting at home today; I could work on my computer for about five minutes; I could upload it to the server; and it could be printing out this afternoon.
So it resonates well - and it has to - because we need them. We need the younger generations to work on this stuff. It's a big need, and I've talked to some professors at different universities (about it). Carnegie Mellon is starting up two courses of study in additive manufacturing, a master's program and an undergraduate minor starting shortly. I’m talking with the University of Michigan about starting up a program as well. So there's a lot of interest; there's a lot of need. We just need to put the two together.
PS: We talk about the need for repeatability and assurances that a product will be the same quality whether it's the first unit off the line or the 10,000th. But when it seems that especially for younger generations, there's increasingly an attitude of "I want it fast; I want it now…and then I can throw it away," do you have conversations about the value of design for reliability?
RG: That's a phenomenal question. Because metal additive manufacturing – it's still not trivial! It's a half-million, million-dollar machine; it's not something you just put in your garage.
But because it has such potential, because it's relatively affordable, there are lots of people who can consider going and getting a couple of million dollars to make a startup. And if you've got a sound technical person, they can dream of putting a machine in and making things happen. We've had through the years lots of people who have come along with an idea, (saying) "Hey, I'm going to do this with additive," and, "I'm going to buy a machine do this, that, and the other." And we can talk to them and say, "Listen, that's kind of tricky what you're doing," but ultimately some of them are just like, "Hey, I'm doing this, I'm getting on with it; either sell me a machine or get out of my way." And with the younger generation, they have the energy and passion to make it happen.
So you end up selling them a machine and they find that there's a big difference between making one and making 10,000 of something, and that can be a real struggle.
It can be small things – for example, they could just let their machine get dirty. But when you're dealing with a laser system with precision optics and so on, you have to keep it clean. If you're bootstrapping a startup and you don't keep up on it, then you might let it get dirty, and then you make bad parts, and then the customer goes away. You can't do that. You've got to do things for the long haul and keep up on your maintenance.
The accessibility can be a challenge too – you don't need $100 million to set up a new casting foundry; you need a couple million to start printing metal components. I can think of a couple of our customers who are in that position who are less than 30 years old. They may not have a lot of experience, but we help them get going. Two customers that I'm thinking of, they've been through some challenges, but they're both making it, and one of them just bought his second machine. So good for him.