From 3D Printing to the Factory Floor: Professor John Hart Tells Us About MIT's Upcoming Additive Manufacturing Course

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Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is well known for living up to its name as a center of technological education and research, and additive manufacturing is one of the myriad areas of technology that the university focuses on. It’s a pretty safe bet that any 3D printing course offered at MIT is going to be thorough, expert-led, and up to date with the most current information about this ever-changing technology. Next week, MIT is offering a comprehensive course on additive manufacturing for engineers, designers, scientists and anyone else who wants to become well-versed in the technology. Additive Manufacturing: From 3D Printing to the Factory Floor is taking place from July 31st to August 4th, and will be led by Professor A. John Hart of MIT’s Mechanical Engineering department.

We had the opportunity to talk to Professor Hart about the course, and he shared some information with us about what attendees can expect as well as his thoughts on 3D printing as a whole.

Tell us a little about the course that will be taking place next week. What kinds of concepts and technologies will be explored?

"Our five-day course at MIT, 'Additive Manufacturing: From 3D Printing to the Factory Floor,' is a fast-paced, hands-on experience that provides a comprehensive discussion of the technology and implications of additive manufacturing. We begin by discussing the technology landscape, industry direction, and the digital workflow required for implementing additive manufacturing (AM) and integrating with new developments in CAD, product lifecycle management, and simulation. The bulk of the course is then organized around detailed lectures, lab activities, and discussions addressing the fundamental processes, properties, and material capabilities of AM. The course covers a wide suite of materials (polymers, metals, composites, and biomaterials), mainstream AM processes and their derivatives, and design for additive manufacturing (DFAM).  With this strong set of fundamentals, we are able to confidently address broader strategic implications of AM – new business models, cost and value analysis tools for procurement and production decision-making, and value-driven applications, including short-run production, high-performance tooling, and individually performance optimized parts across key industries."

Who can and should take this course?

"The technology and implications of AM are important to engineers, managers, and strategic leaders alike, including those from automotive, aerospace, medical, energy, consumer products, electronics, and other industries.  Some of the primary job titles we’ve had in the past include design engineers, manufacturing engineers and product designers, but the course is equally beneficial to anyone involved in business, strategy or capital investment decisions. The material covered is accessible to those that are new to AM, yet is also highly-valuable to those who are well-versed in it, both from a technical and business point of view."

What are your thoughts on the future of the additive manufacturing industry?

"We can now point to examples where AM is influencing every stage of the product life cycle: from first concept, to production, to post-production service. However, we are still at the early stages of defining the true impact of AM, and as a result, I believe many of the long-term implications of AM are beyond our current imagination. The industry of AM materials, machines, and associated products/services will continue to grow rapidly. There will be mergers and consolidations as well as an increasingly diverse spectrum of AM-driven startups. As the cost and performance of AM continue to advance, the wider availability of the digital infrastructure of AM (design tools and production services) will amplify its demand, and push AM to enable distributed, on-demand production. However, we must also keep in mind that AM is just one key component of digitally-driven advanced manufacturing."

What do you see as the biggest hurdles to widespread adoption of additive manufacturing?

"One of the biggest hurdles is quality assurance. Manufacturers still lack protocols and processes to guarantee that parts and products produced via 3D printing will be of consistent quality, strength, and reliability. In traditional manufacturing, qualified materials used for casting and molding offer guarantees when it comes to part quality, but that’s not the case with AM – at least not yet. Further, knowledge gaps on AM’s potential need to be overcome. Engineers may understand AM’s immediate benefits, but lack the vocabulary necessary to translate the engineering value of AM to leadership. We also need quantitative tools to make informed decisions about AM investments that take the myriad intangible costs (e.g. the implications of distributed or bespoke manufacturing on warehouse costs or tariffs) into consideration."

In your opinion, what are some of the major pros and cons of 3D printing?

"There are too many to name here, not the least of which is flexibility. 3D printing is frequently touted as ‘complexity for free’: as long as the item fits within the size of the printing area, designers can produce complex geometries – including those impossible to fabricate using traditional methods – without a hefty, up-front, part-specific tooling investment. When one presents the right design for AM, this is very true, and, in fact, complexity is ‘more than free’ because a complex design that leverages AM can be printed more quickly and with less material than an equivalent design intended for machining or molding.

Speed-to-market is another important benefit. AM can accelerate new product development, making it faster, easier and less expensive to test new designs and prototypes. Avoiding tooling on the front-end permits greater design flexibility, and lowers the financial risk that comes with a suboptimal design. Further, AM can complement the traditional product development process by producing the part-specific tooling (jigs, fixtures, drill-guides, etc.) needed for mass manufacturing. However, the money you save in upfront capital investment costs can quickly be lost to material investments, which are usually far greater than traditional stock metal or plastic molding. This is one of the primary downsides to AM: materials are typically more expensive, which can quickly flip the cost equation, particularly at scale. The upside is that new technologies are already overcoming these limitations – e.g. Desktop Metal’s new product line which leverages cost-effective powder materials used in the metal injection molding industry.

Production speed, too, is still lagging for AM. Largely, AM is considerably slower than traditional mass-manufacturing. However, throughput should be evaluated differently with AM given the flexibility of AM equipment to produce a variety of parts, and the modularity that AM brings to a production facility. Post-processing (e.g. annealing and surface finishing) is almost always necessary to ensure parts can be used in a final application, and this must be considered when estimating the cost and performance of AM."

Is there anything else you would like to share?

"Though MIT is our home base for the course, we aren't limited to the classroom. Our course involves several labs and visits to local AM demonstration facilities and machine manufacturers. Moreover, Boston is a hive of AM related activity, including startups, software developers, OEMs, and industry titans. In some cases, we bring participants to them to let them see the machines in action. In other cases, we invite experts across the spectrum to the class to share their stories about new technologies and applications, and give participants a chance to ask questions."