Yesterday, Fabbaloo held our Rapid-Fire Interview Day, through which we spoke with three dozen 3D printing industry participants.
We’d realized we sincerely missed the normal spring 3D printing event schedule, which has (rightfully) been either cancelled or digitized. Many digital events have been excellent, but we’ve still missed that one-on-one interview/catch-up time we typically enjoy around now.
So we planned our own, getting acquainted with Calendly and much better acquainted with Zoom. Kerry and I each enjoyed a six-hour interview extravaganza day, each speaking with about 18 companies for 15 minutes each. Marney joined us at the end of the day for a Hangouts happy hour, where we were delighted to catch up more casually with even more 3D printing folk.
I can’t speak for Kerry, but over the course of my 18 conversations (plus happy hour), I definitely noticed some trends emerging, as would happen at any normal interview-heavy day.
Collaboration and commitment were certainly key terms to come up regularly. Collaborating, even with companies who are traditionally competitors, will help find the best-fit technologies for either stop-gap or enduring supply chain solutions.
With testing devices and personal protective equipment (PPE) specifically in such short supply in the face of COVID-19, 3D printing has truly been proving its value as a solution. Finding the right fit for each technology or each company’s network has been accomplished at impressive speed. Even for a technology that got its start with the nomenclature “rapid prototyping,” the rapidity of this industry’s response has been something truly special. Several designs, like face shields, could be iterated and tested within a single day, with distribution starting in the same week to those working on the front lines of response.
Collaborations in organizing, designing, manufacturing, and distributing nasopharyngeal (NP) swabs and PPE have led to quickly scaled up responses. Some of these have even been within the same larger organizations, on top of those between complementary (née competitive) businesses.
Localized Supply Chains
Localization is also coming up as a primary trend, as 3D printing allows for local manufacturing response. A hospital in need of PPE, for example, could quickly get in touch with nearby teams capable of making such needed supplies, and relatively quickly secure a sanitary drop-off. This goes beyond COVID-19, though, as the reach of 3D printing as a viable manufacturing solution is broadening. More and more people are becoming aware of the ability to localize their production needs via additive manufacturing, acquiring needed products either in their immediate local area or at least domestically.
The lasting impact of this supply chain rethinking could be, as a silver lining, a strong launch point for more localized strategies. While I know I’ve heard this idea touted in many a presentation over the last several years, that’s also fully acknowledging that those presentations were in the context of additive manufacturing-focused visits at both industry events and non-AM-dedicated facilities hosting 3D printing visitors.
Despite obvious operational difficulties during COVID-19, 3D printing equipment — including both 3D printers and post-processing equipment — and material, software, and services launches are still happening. Some have been delayed, others adjusted for a virtual launch, but there’s no stopping the planned introductions of next-generation equipment in additive manufacturing.
Some of the devices I heard about yesterday include new large metal additive manufacturing systems, intriguing desktop devices, and more capable post-processing equipment. Materials discussed include medical-grade polymers that will encourage biological growth, as point-of-care medical 3D printing continues to progress. Software is continuing to increase capabilities for users of both 3D printing equipment and service ordering applications. Services will continue to roll out, as well.
Taken together, these conversations point to one overarching theme: the 3D printing community is thriving.
The technology is in a position to be taken seriously as comes into play as a valid, certifiable, repeatable solution for critically needed equipment, and that usage will continue long after this time of pandemic. The industry is stronger together, and that togetherness is certainly coming into play now more than ever before. There’s real human need to be addressed, and so it is happening. There’s clearly a place for 3D printing in the larger manufacturing industry — something we in additive manufacturing have known for years, but recent events are creating a tipping point for larger-scale adoption.
That some business-as-usual announcements were also the stars of the show was also promising. This industry is continuing to operate, continuing to bring out the next generations of solutions that will lead to ongoing progress in capabilities to meet that widening reach.
We’ll have more very soon with the specifics of these conversations as our interview series commences.