Additive manufacturing technology, materials and services companies are constantly looking for AM adopters. That’s because the only way to really show what these technologies can do, to those that are not yet familiar with them, is to highlight what others have done with them already. That’s one of the reasons why the AMUG conference, a reference event for the world’s industrial additive manufacturing user community, is rapidly becoming one of the key events on the global conferences calendar. To better understand the roots of this “additive movement”, 3dpbm had the opportunity to sit down with AMUG President Mark Abshire, who, among other things, was one of the very first users of additive manufacturing ever, at Texas Instruments in 1988. He helped us get a better perspective on how far the technology and the industry really have come.
“I’ve been doing additive work for over 30 years,” he begins. “I worked for Texas Instruments’ Weapons and Missile Division for 20 years and I worked in the prototyping lab for eight. I am a user of AM: stereolithography, fused deposition modeling, polyJet, and selective laser sintering… I’ve run the machines and can share my experience. This is what we do: we’re an organization of users and we share our knowledge with each other while building networks and relationships. The idea is to be able to call someone and say, ‘I know you have the same machine I’ve got, have you ever seen this problem?’ And they can say, ‘yes, I’ve seen it. Here’s how we solved it’. Or ‘no, I haven’t seen it. Thanks for warning me.’”.
An independent, collaborative effort
AMUG is a collaborative effort on a large scale, but it started with just a handful of people. In the beginning, it was the North American Stereolithography Users Group. Then it was combined with the Selective Laser Sintering Users Group, which was founded in the early 90s. “Those were the only additive manufacturing processes then,” Abshire says. “When it started, we were eight people, from some of the companies that got the first SLA 3D printers, such as Baxter, Pratt and Whitney, Clemson University in South Carolina… they got together to share their knowledge.”
While most user groups are run by the companies that produce the equipment, one of the distinguishing elements of AMUG is that it was formed by the people that bought the equipment. So they remained independent. “We were able to band together and tell different manufacturers, ‘This what we need in terms of applications, here’s what we need for materials. Here’s the software improvements, and hardware improvements we need to make’. We were able to influence how the market moved forward. Now it’s just unbelievable how many machines and different kinds of technologies are out there. I keep seeing new ones that are still being developed, that haven’t even hit the market yet. It’s just amazing how much it has all grown in 35 years. It truly is a new industrial revolution.”
And yet there is always an underlying feeling in the AM industry that not enough is being done to accelerate adoption. Everybody in the industry loves it. Everybody wants to see AM succeed but no one is ever satisfied.
Abshire helps us see this from a different perspective. “When I started working with AM, we had to run the system on Unix because there was no computer powerful enough. And the machines ran on MS-DOS. So just to network a Unix file into DOS to send it over a network was a huge task. Never mind that it took you a full day to slice 10,000 layers. Now you can slice parts in seconds, and generate support automatically. And we take that for granted. Early on we would have to look at every slice layer to make sure they were correct. We would do it manually, in CAD: draw the supports so that they wouldn’t fall apart with gravity.”
After 3D Systems purchased DTM, the SL and SLS user groups merged with the existing one and continued to grow. “At one point we had users with multiple technologies in-house. They wanted to go to conferences for each one, but it was impossible. So we decided – Mr. Abshire says – to invite other user groups to join ours. That you could come to see multiple technologies all in one place. The manufacturers really appreciated the enthusiasm and passion that our staff was putting into it and they supported us.”
Driven by passion
Probably no industry in the world – and certainly no machinery industry – is fueled by the same passion and enthusiasm as 3D printing. As Mr. Abshire puts it, “Once you get that ‘3D printer ink’ in your blood, right, it just spreads.” That’s why all AMUG organizers, including Mr. Abshire, are volunteers who put in their own time and effort. And there is a constant overflow of volunteers.
“Most organizations like to say that they start with their customers or users,” Mr. Abshire explains. “But AMUG actually follows through because our users are the ones driving and managing AMUG. They elect the board of directors, from the membership of users, that are going to help organize the yearly conference, which, ultimately, is always our primary goal. From that, we have about 20 committees made of five to six people to handle on-site management, marketing and tasks such as picking out the best abstracts from users’ submissions. During the abstract review, committee members look at each to identify whether it is something that our users need to know. That’s the hard criteria to enforce, but it’s easier since everyone here is an AM user.”
The idea of the presentations is to avoid sales pitches since most users have already made the investment in a 3D printing system and what they really need to know is how to get the most out of it. AMUG also organizes a technical competition where people compete against each other, bringing their parts to show their “3D printing” skill levels. “In the Technical Competition, we have two categories. Advanced Concepts focuses on creative uses of AM; Advanced Finishing focuses on the skills used to bring AM parts to life. And by the way, the best I’ve ever gotten is second place. We also have a People’s Choice Award where the attendees, instead of judges, vote for the part they like best. It’s a way to get everyone involved,” Abshire says.
AMUG participants also appreciate the hands-on workshops. “We don’t charge anything extra for them; it’s all part of the conference fee,” Abshire explains. “One of the first ones I attended was on silicone molding. We would take a silicone mold and put urethane in it. I had not done that in my professional career, but as a user, as an operator, as an engineer, I thought it was important to understand how it is done. So when you run across that application, you go, ‘Oh, I know somebody that can do that’.”
Another popular workshop, titled Foundry-in-a-Box, focuses on metal casting, with metal poured into 3D printed molds. Another recent workshop focused on urethane molding, but this time it was done with hard 3D printed molds, in metal or other hard plastics, instead of a soft silicon mold. Others yet focus on relatively simpler processes, such as support removal. “These are also important because users have different skill levels,” says Abshire. “We’ve got people who have been doing it for 30 years and we’ve got people for whom this is the first year. So we have to make sure that we are not just catering to people that have been around AM for a long time. We’ve got to train the next generation and make sure they receive the best knowledge.”
Expanding the AM user base
How much have AM users changed over the past three decades? Mr. Abshire shared a personal story that helps to visualize a transition from early adoption in the defense segment to more consumer-targeted applications. “At Texas Instruments, while working in the defense sectors, we’d sometimes say that we’d ‘always have a job until peace would break out.’ That changed one day. I was at Lackland Air Force Base on an Air Force contract, doing a presentation. A Lieutenant Colonel asked me to come to the base hospital, which is one of the largest military hospitals in the US. I met with doctors that showed me X-rays of conjoined twins. The X-ray scans meant nothing to me, but I learned that they were joined by one leg. They had to tell told parents that they could separate the twins, but one would have a prosthetic and the other would be in a wheelchair. And they had to make the decision.”
“I felt personally involved since I am a twin brother. They asked me if I could reproduce the scans as a stereolithography model. So I did. I managed to build the model from the MRI scans using MS-DOS. It took over a day just to slice the file. Eight doctors looked at it and realized that if they split it in a certain way, something that was not visible in 2D, both the twins could use a prosthesis.”
About two years later, Abshire was back at Lackland working on another project, and the twins were there. “They were running around like it was just natural, kids adapt so easily. That was something that made me want to leave the weapons industry and start teaching people how to benefit from 3D printing,” Abshire reveals. “I got a job working as an application engineer, and I finished my career teaching other people. I’ve been all over the world to illustrate AM’s crossover into medical or automotive. I’ve gone from working with Jaguar and Tata in India to CRP in Italy.”
“To answer your questions, definitely yes. The users are becoming broader, but even more importantly, they are expanding their AM knowledge across different industrial sectors. They show a desire to use AM in as many ways as they can.”
To address this diversification of AM usage, the conference this year will present a new concept where all the hands-on stations will be set up in the same room and users will be able to move from one to the next, getting access to a variety of experiences. “My only concern with that is we need to make sure that users are really able to sit down and get all the knowledge they need,” Mr Abshire says. Other highlights from the conference will include keynote addresses: one will show the combined application case by a user in the animation industry and a doctor to customize prosthetics [more on this soon]; the second keynote, by Launcher’s Max Haok, is on using AM to start a space company.
The innovator showcase will feature Diana Kalisz, one of the people that first started with the user group from the manufacturer’s side. Abshire says, “She’d get a a ‘wish list’ from users and she’d categorize every software, hardware, material requirement and execute them, or tell us why they couldn’t be executed. She reported back the next year and tell us this can take longer, this can’t be done, this is not feasible. But a lot of them, I’d say 80% of everything we asked for, they actually implemented.”
Taking a new leap at AMUG 2023
The AM industry has come a long way since the start, but now there is one other challenging transition that AM users and AM companies are facing: going from AM as a stand-alone technology for prototyping and tooling to end-use parts production. As Mr. Abshire puts it, from an engineering standpoint, there are three elements to consider: form, fit and function. “When we first started, all we really had was form – he says – the idea that we could take a prototype to carry around and show people what our idea looked like, three dimensionally. The second stage came with better materials. In stereolithography, for example, we went from acrylate to epoxy materials that were more stable. So parts could combine form and fit. The holy grail is to get function in there and that’s happening. If you look at indirect manufacturing processes involving tooling, casting patterns or looking at silicon molding, these can already produce parts with function. In direct manufacturing, therein lies an issue: you must look at your business model and ask yourself: ‘am I producing 50, or am I producing 5 million?’”
“If you’re just doing 50 of a kind then 3D printing is certainly a viable solution. If you’re doing 500, you might want to consider a molding process, depending on what you’re doing. And if you’re doing 5,000, you may want to produce a casting. Today, 3D printing is viable mainly for proof of concept but that already has a major impact. At TI’s weapons division, we made a stereolithography missile, and we were the first ones to see if we could get it cast. We took a solid model and we said, ‘let’s get it cast in metal’. Eventually, we were able to get a casting that we could machine. Now, where this really becomes important is that if you are able to make a missile, test it for the Pentagon and get the go-ahead for 50,000 more, you’ve got a whole development cycle set and all you have to do is make the tool.”
Abshire continued, “This saved month of development time. In one piece of main shell, 108 assembly pieces were reduced to one casting. That makes a big difference that shows that AM is already a bit part of manufacturing. But if you’re talking about directly using the 3D printed part, we’re just now starting to get there with composites or flexible materials. We’re getting there, but a lot depends on material science.”
“In summary, the additive manufacturing industry has grown significantly with AMUG at the forefront, and as it continues to grow, it will be the users that identify the changes, improvements and applications,” Abshire concluded.