Expert Interview: John Barnes, Founder of The Barnes Group Advisors, on the Future of Additive Manufacturing
20 August 2019
The need for specialised skills and expertise is within additive manufacturing is crucial for the technology’s adoption. However, mastering the principles of additive is no mean feat, as it involves a steep learning curve and considerable time investment. One company looking to alleviate this problem is The Barnes Group Advisors, a US-based additive manufacturing consultancy firm.
Founded in 2017 in Pittsburgh, The Barnes Group Advisors (TBGA) is focused on helping companies strategise and solve problems associated with the industrialisation of additive manufacturing. For this, the company not only provides advisory services, but also offers a training programme.
In this week’s Expert Interview, we’re joined by John Barnes, the company’s founder and Managing Director, to learn why workforce development is key for the growth of the industry and what is needed to get the most of additive manufacturing.
Could you tell me a bit about The Barnes Group Advisors and the services you provide?
We started the company two years ago because we saw the change and growth in additive manufacturing, and we saw the technology becoming more and more industrialised.
At TBGA, we all have an engineering background, and so we’ve been active in the qualification and certification of different industries’ approach to additive manufacturing. In most cases, we’ve facilitated the adoption of the technology. For example, when I was with Arconic, we qualified the first titanium series production parts for the Airbus A350.
We’re currently a team of 13 people, many of whom have held executive-level positions, including myself — I was previously Vice President at Arconic. Our Leader of ADDvisor® Services is Laura Ely, who was the former Head of Technology for GKN Aerospace.
With this expertise, we’re able to translate technical requirements into a strategic approach. We fill the niche between explaining additive manufacturing to a CEO or a Vice President of Engineering etc. so that they’re working on things that are relevant to their strategy.
Based on what a client does, we look at where they fit in the supply chain and then we try to provide advice on how they can either participate in additive manufacturing or use additive manufacturing.
We’ve also developed a training programme. This was partly based on requests we had to talk more about additive. At the same time, we had one client who asked if we could put together a training programme. They’d decided to launch a large AM business, hiring a lot of engineers.
But the engineers didn’t know how to design for the process, and without that knowledge, the company would never meet its financial goals. So we created the training programme.
We generally take a requirements-based approach. First, we have a discussion with our client about what the requirements for their products are.
Very often these are mature products, and the people who originally designed them aren’t around anymore. So we’re not there to sell additive manufacturing, we’re there to help you make a better or more affordable part. And additive is a solution. But you need to start with a requirements-based approach, which makes the rest is a little bit easier.
How did you become involved in additive manufacturing?
I first worked for what is now Honeywell Aircraft Engines, which had signed up to a project with Sandia National Labs and with nine other companies.
A few scientists from the lab were taking an entrepreneurial leave of absence to form a company around a technology that is now known as a directed energy deposition technology, and used powder as a feedstock. That company today is called Optomec. So it was successful and it still exists today.
Being part of the project was a fantastic opportunity, and that’s how I got my start.
I then made a move over to Lockheed Martin and ran what we call Manufacturing Exploration & Development for Skunk Works™. At that point, we were very active in every form of additive manufacturing.
For defence and aerospace, additive has the potential to answer so many questions. So we were actively exploring polymer systems, sheet lamination systems, directed energy systems, powder bed systems, and that went down a path exploring metal powders in depth.
Then I was fortunate enough to take an assignment with the national science agency in Australia, CSIRO. I was a director of their high-performance metals programme. At that point, additive came calling once again, as they wanted — as many national labs want — to have a presence in additive manufacturing.
In Australia, additive is a brilliant technology because it does solve a lot of manufacturing issues. The country doesn’t have a massive manufacturing output and additive is a way to approach smaller, efficient manufacturing quantities.
We set up Lab 22; it’s an innovation facility with different types of additive technology. With this lab, we set up a path for companies to come in and access the machines and try to develop their product.
We did considerable research on that. The small to medium enterprise landscape in Australia is large, and they simply don’t have the money like a larger firm to just take a bet on a machine and spend a million dollars on it. So we were giving industry access to this new technology.
When I came back to the US in 2015, I went to work for a company called RTI International Metals, which later was bought by Alcoa, and then turned into Arconic. The CEO had recognised that titanium production wasn’t going to grow it at the rate that the shareholders wanted to see.
So she started to invest in downstream manufacturing capabilities like forming, precision machining, and also an additive manufacturing facility in Texas. My skillset, which encompassed titanium powders and additive manufacturing, was pretty valuable here.
So I took over the R&D side for the advanced manufacturing segment. As I mentioned, we ultimately won the project from Airbus, and then we had to qualify parts for the Airbus A350.
It’s a hard business making aeroplane parts. And it’s also very difficult to transition from a facility, which has historically been in prototyping work, into a manufacturing environment. It’s one thing when you’re making one part, one shape, one time. When you’re manufacturing, you’re making one part, one shape but 1,000 times, so there’s a lot more paperwork, there’s a lot more getting qualified for special processes.
You’ve touched on the potential of AM specifically for aerospace and defence. How do you see the current state of additive manufacturing within those industries and what are the key challenges?
Additive manufacturing is a disruptive technology, and both the blessing and the curse of disruptive technologies is that they are not for the meek. You’ve got to make a commitment, otherwise you won’t get the value out of it.
There’s a workforce development component to this. If you don’t know how to design for the process, you’re never going to make your business case. Design for additive is counterintuitive for most engineers who are classically trained to remove metal from a block. So you have to turn things around.
It’s very difficult to take a risk-averse industry, like aerospace, defence or medical, and try to get them to adopt something disruptive.
However, the good news is that they’re doing it. The medical, aerospace and defence industries have all been early adopters of additive. We’re continuing to see that progress.
If I bring it down another level, that workforce element is really critical right now. There are not enough engineers, managers, executives who truly understand the technology well enough to work and develop a strategy to get what they need to get out of it.
This is not a new phenomenon. It’s also true with traditional technologies. For example, when you have to retool, you have to make a significant commitment to retool. And that impacts the company from bottom to top. Additive isn’t any different.
Why is knowing how to design for additive manufacturing so important?
If you don’t know how to design for additive, you’re not going to get the cost performance benefit from additive.
People generally only tend to adopt a new technology when there’s a cost reduction or benefit involved. So a new technology has to do everything the existing technology did, but it must do it better, faster and cheaper. If the business case doesn’t pass that, there is no point in doing the project.
We make the analogy that weight is money. And in the world of additive, weight equals time and time always equals money. So the more material you have, the longer it’s going to take to print and, therefore, the more it’s going to cost.
This is a difficult concept.
You can’t control the price of the machine and you can’t control the price of the materials. But what you can control is your design. Your design determines how long your machines will be running, as well as all the post-processing that goes on afterwards. And if you don’t do that right, you’re never going to achieve cost objectives.
In our training, as well as talking about additive, we also go through the cost drivers in additive manufacturing because engineers need to be aware of how costs can build up with an additive part.
What can be or is being done to address this skills gap within AM?
The good news is that there are more resources every year. There are even online resources now.
For example, my company, through Purdue University, has put together an online certificate for people interested in AM. There is both an engineer/manager track as well as an executive track. You don’t have to know anything, you don’t have to have an engineering degree to surpass the course. And it’s available online.
MIT has also done an online course and I think we see AM similarly, it creates choice for the student. With Purdue, we designed the course with an eye towards people who are working professionals and don’t have copious amounts of time.
So there is high-quality online content, which helps to get people from no background in additive to, let’s say, an intermediate level.
The nature of learning today is changing. Accessing high-quality information and education in very remote areas is now possible through the internet. What I like about it is that the access to the online now doesn’t biased towards a certain socio-economic background or gender.
One of the things I really like about additive is that it has brought a lot of young people into manufacturing because they don’t consider additive manufacturing to be manufacturing. It’s just cool.
We try to nurture that because the more brains you have on a situation, the better it’s going to be.
The industry is steadily shifting towards end-part manufacturing. What are your thoughts on that? What more do we need to do to get to that point?
I think we’re close. We’re seeing fewer headlines like “this group made the first-ever 3D-printed, left-handed screwdriver handle” and a little bit more of “this company adopted additive manufacturing for this car or this train”.
This shift represents a lot of hard work that isn’t so much fun to talk about when you get into specifications, work instructions and especially supply chain initiatives that have to go along with it.
Also, a lot of Tier 1 and Tier 2 suppliers and even relatively small machining houses are getting involved now. They’re coming to us asking, “Is it now time for us to be involved? Where are we at? What should we do?”
We have a standard process that we call the “Four Lenses”: machines, materials, the digital space, which would include your product and all the data, and finally people.
We couple that with the TBGA AM maturity model. We try to balance product requirements and skills needed to use AM. We have a five-level matrix, where you look at the product requirements, and then you need to be able to match that with skills and capabilities as you move up that path.
At level zero, that’s the prototyping world. You don’t have to have a lot of work instructions, specifications or huge skills in additive manufacturing to meet those product requirements.
Then you go into tooling and shop aids, and there you have to know a little bit more. But because you’re not delivering a part to a customer, it’s a bit easier.
And then you get into part replacement and part consolidation. At the top, you can only make this part with additive. As you move up that scale, your capability, understanding and training have to increase with additive. Otherwise, it becomes a very risky proposition.
We see most people become very proficient at level zero and level one. They’re now moving into this substitution where they are trying to swap out an additive part for the existing one. And that’s tough because the parts are designed for different processes. If it’s not designed for additive, it’s very difficult to make a business case for it.
Moving off of that requires additional risk because now you’re disrupting your supply chain in your manufacturing process. And that’s where we see a lot of people are right now. They’re trying to figure out when they can make that move from a level two to a level three part, where the business side of it gets easier.
Are there any developments in additive that you’re excited about?
Generally, what we see is a lot of science is now catching up to this world. We now have a better understanding of what processes work, and the machines are getting much faster. So that’s all very positive.
As a materials engineer, myself, I see the huge potential for materials in this space, both in polymers and metals. The potential is great because now you’re not beholden to have huge amounts of material to manufacture something. I think the people who’ll benefit most from this are design and materials engineers — I think this is their time to shine.
Additive manufacturing is really improving in all aspects and it looks like more solutions are being developed to fill in some of the gaps. It’s all part of the industrialisation path. Everything’s improving with additive, and that to me is exciting.
People are moving into the post-processing side, coming up with modifications to existing equipment that they’ve used for other industries.
The software side is also coming in very strongly with new design tools and MES/workflow software systems.
Another exciting thing is the second generation of photopolymerisation technologies. We deal with a fair amount of startups and everybody’s got a new idea, a new twist, a new way of thinking about the process.
You briefly mentioned MES or workflow software systems. What is your view on the importance of MES and workflow software and how it can contribute to the industrialisation of AM?
Anything that can help us manage the AM process, the risk and also improve the working inventory helps on the business side of things.
Aerospace and medical have very good quality and safety records. They’re not willing to put that at risk for a new technology, and I think that’s where the systems come into play.
With MES systems, I also see huge opportunities in being able to better protect intellectual property, as well as the ability to monetise different processes.
I think now with some of the new tools that are out there, there are better ways to track where 3D printing files go and make sure that they’re the right ones. Common quality assurance issues become better with such management software tools.
To learn more about The Barnes Group Advisors, visit: https://www.thebarnes.group/