Expert Interview: America Makes Executive Director, John Wilczynski, on How it is Driving Advancements in 3D Printing
18 December 2019
America Makes is the United States’ national accelerator for additive manufacturing (AM), leading the way in driving the R&D (Research and Development), commercialisation and adoption of AM technologies. Since its founding in 2012, the institute has executed 88 AM R&D projects and grown from 65 founding organisations to more than 225.
In this week’s Expert Interview, we speak with America Makes’ Executive Director, John Wilczynski, to learn more about its recent $322 million cooperative agreement with the US Air Force Research Lab, the state of 3D printing standards and the importance of developing the workforce to accelerate the adoption of AM.
Could you tell us about American Makes and the mission of the organisation?
America Makes’ mission is to advance the adoption of 3D printing or additive manufacturing. We focus on developing the industrial base for the technology. We’ve been doing this for just over seven years. We were founded back in 2012, with funding through a variety of US government and federal agencies.
We used that funding to invest in technology development, technology transition and workforce development.
To be clear, America Makes isn’t a government organisation or agency. We’re run by a non-profit, called the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining (NCDMM). It’s the organisation that runs and manages the programme, which is America Makes.
America Makes recently announced an agreement with the US Air Force Research Laboratory. What is the significance of this agreement?
The main significance is that we’ve established ourselves as a trusted partner for the US government. This new agreement is confirmation of the success that we’ve had over the last seven years and gives us an opportunity to continue to work in this space for the next seven years.
Although there was a large sum attached to the agreement, that doesn’t mean that we were funded at the level of $322 million. It simply means that we have a contract, which provides us with the opportunity to bid on government-funded projects.
The money is available for us to bid against government contracts, so it effectively makes the process of getting money to our organisation, and ultimately to the programme partners, relatively simple.
Then there’s the element that we call cost share, what’s more commonly referred to as in-kind contributions, that also is a component of that $322 million.
Also, for perspective, we have executed over $200 million of R&D in AM in our first seven years.
Could you go into a little bit more detail about some of the initiatives America Makes has been involved in over the years?
As I mentioned, the primary function of the institute is technology development. It could be thought of as the core research and development that is being done through the institute consortium. And this is primarily applied research. It means proving technology and advancing it to the point, or closer to the point, of commercialisation.
A large portion of what we’ve done over the years has been focused on this core activity.
In this way, we’re making sure we’re staying on track with our technology development roadmap. We established the roadmap within a year of creating the institute, and it has served as our guiding light for the past six to seven years. It’s broken down into five areas of design, materials, processes, value chain, and then something we call AM genome.
All that being said, it is how we identify technology gaps that exist within the community, and then try to catalyse the community around tasks, to make advancements.
The last component to what we focus on as a primary function of the Institute is that of education and workforce development.
Within our space, we want to make sure that the community is available to take advantage of the newly developed technologies, whether that is a designer, a material company, a technician on the floor, etc. There’s a variety of different job classifications that are starting to become a reality.
We’re trying to focus on developing industry-recognised credentials. Just like we do in our technology R&D, we work with providers of education to make sure that we’re educating the workforce, through the K12 education system, through secondary education or through incumbent worker training, where we’re trying to rescale folks who aren’t aware of the technology.
We’re looking for ways of how we can take advantage of their existing skill set to train them up so that they’re able to be useful to the industry, as we develop more and more positions in the space.
So we’ve focused on those three pieces, for both education and technology development. We’ve centred our activity around our roadmap, and we think of ourselves as a convener, coordinator and catalyst.
The coordination component of what we do is tied directly to the work that we’ve done in our member-driven road-mapping process. Today, America Makes has around 225 members, made up of government organisations, academic organisations and industry, both small and large companies.
We’re constantly taking the pulse of that community to understand where the technology is today and what the desired future state is, tying all of that to an application-centric focus.
It means developing technology for the sake of end-use items, instead of for fun or laboratory experiments. That is at the heart of what we’ve been doing at the Institute and it will continue to be our mission over the next seven years.
We’ve run countless workshops with our membership and with the government to make sure we’re understanding what their needs are.
Ultimately, we hope to work with organisations to organise funding or investments in the technology, whether that’s through internal research and development programmes and within the company, or through government investment in the technology.
We want to make sure that we are, as a country, strategically investing in the technology where the most critical gaps are, and that we’re advancing it as quickly as we possibly can and not duplicating efforts.
In your opinion, what is the current status of standardisation within AM and how far away are we from a comprehensive set of industry-wide standards?
Standardisation is another, very important, activity that we’ve been working on. For the past three years, we have been an organising function, again serving that role of a convener and coordinator – bringing the community together and then coordinating the need.
A big part of what drove this initially, was that the lack of standards started to create significant problems. As the technology has started to shift significantly, from prototyping towards developing and producing end-use components, it became clear that the only way we can do that is with standards.
As a buyer wants to procure a component for an aircraft, an automobile, a locomotive, whatever it might be, the acquisition community needs something to procure that against. And we’re all very familiar with how to do that.
When you’re thinking of conventional manufacturing, however, those same standards that you would purchase against, in many cases, don’t exist for AM components. So, that’s really a big part of what is driving this. And we’re starting to see advancements there.
The Additive Manufacturing Standardization Collaborative (AMSC) roadmap, which is the work product of the America Makes and America National Standards Institute, currently exists as what we call version 2.0. It is available as a dynamic roadmap on the Internet, where you can go and view the gaps that have been identified.
One of the major improvements that has been taking place over the past year, was an ability to dynamically update the roadmap. If an organisation, whether it’s ISO, ASME, ASTM, or SAE, has taken on a task against this specific gap, they are feeding that information forward to our organisation and ANSI, and they’re feeding forward any updates that they’re making. So if ASTM or ISO makes an update to a particular standard, it’s flagged and made known to the community.
That’s something that’s globally available, there’s no restriction on access to the site or use of the site. We’ve been in over the last couple of years promoting it. We promoted it the last two years at Formnext, explaining what the US standards landscape looks like. It started as a task to try to help bring everyone together. There was a lot of activity and a lot of parallel activity taking place in standards development.
We all are driven by industry. We were able to communicate to the standards development organisations, that it’s not going to be appropriate and will not get us where we need to be quickly enough. Through many conversations, we were able to get folks convinced that this is a good idea. Now for the past few years, we’ve been working on that with hundreds of people coming together to provide input into this standards group.
The standards landscape has improved dramatically over the past couple of years. When we first started this, when we pulled the community together, there really wasn’t much at all in terms of standards in place. And, what we did through the roadmap, was we identified 80 to 92 gaps, depending on which roadmap you’re looking at. And then the standards body started to work on them also.
The reality of standards development is that consensus-driven standards, which the vast majority of them are, take a fair bit of time to get written, and then ultimately get reviewed and put into place.
We have a number of draft standards that have been developed, a large number of them are currently being worked on. Some portion of those are in the peer review stage, where folks are able to start using them and provide feedback on them.
Ultimately, those will get rolled out into the federal standards over the next one to two years. The pace at which the community at large develops them is, maybe, not ideal. But as of now, that is the process, and that’s the way it needs to work in order to get consensus-driven standards.
We’re now getting more and more requests to work with members to develop acquisition guidelines. We’re not writing them, but we help raise awareness of what someone, who is an acquisition professional, needs to be trained in.
Once we’re able to actually produce a component, and we’ve proven that it is acceptable, there are still hurdles to getting the technology to the point where we’re broadly utilising it across a variety of industries. So that’s why standards are so important, and we’re seeing significant steps being made in that space.
On that point about broadening the use of AM, what would you say are the top three challenges when it comes to accelerating the adoption of the technology?
One, is having industry recognised materials design data – the data that a designer can use and be confident that they can build a component against that set of upper and lower design limits. That doesn’t exist in a readily available format for a large number of materials.
So we need to broaden our access to materials data sets. There are plenty of that which exists, but not nearly enough. And, in many cases, an organisation may have created those and use them internally, but that doesn’t give broad access to the community at large.
The second biggest challenge is qualification and certification. How do we qualify a component? How do we certify a process? There’s a lot of activity going on in this space, particularly within the R&D community. But there’s still quite a bit of work to be done.
Many of the regulatory bodies are involved in these discussions and within this work, but it’s still a major hurdle to getting components qualified to the point that they can be used for end-use applications.
There are proven cases, but right now they’re very specific to the component and not done across families of components and not done in a manner that can get components produced in an expedient and low-cost manner.
The third challenge is what we call design for additive manufacturing. What I mean by that is truly using the technology to get full advantage of the design freedom it offers.
A lot of what we‘ve been able to produce has been focused on replacing a component that was previously designed for conventional manufacturing.
What we need to really push, moving forward, is to train people in how to use the technology, e.g. where and when should we be using organic designs, when should we be using internal geometries, and things of that nature. So true understanding of design for additive manufacturing is required, outside of a handful of folks who are really good at it today.
And on the flip side, what are some of the developments within the industry that you find exciting?
The rapid advancement of organisations, and new companies coming to market with technologies. In the last few years, there has been no shortage of new manufacturing processes that weren’t really even considered a few years ago. So that’s been very exciting, just the surge of organisations getting involved, some of them coming out of nowhere, and some of them are conventional manufacturers that are now getting involved in AM.
There’s good with both of those groups coming to the table: one is proven manufacturers that understand how to build an industrial system. Others are new and eager and bring surprising new technologies to the market.
Another exciting piece of it is software. AM truly takes advantage of the fact that a part can be generated purely from a digital file. With the ability to move across a variety of software platforms, doing modelling and simulations, we’re moving away from the need for as much empirical data and testing. Instead, being confident in the models that we’re generating, is really interesting.
It’s ultimately going to drive the cost of developing AM components down significantly. We just have to generate enough data that people are confident in, so that we can truly take advantage of it.
How do you see the industry evolving over the next 5 years?
I don’t see anything slowing down at all. We’ll continue to see more and more technology, pushing the envelope of what we’re willing to accept right now.
Another thing that we’re seeing, and specifically over the past, let’s say, two years, is a strong shift towards productionisation, meaning using the technology purely for end-use items.
We’re starting to introduce design for additive more effectively. The business case becomes, in some cases, more appropriate for AM versus conventional, especially as we think of part consolidation.
With AM, we’re developing new geometries that we’ve never had before. I see that just ramping up over the next few years. And I hope that the materials data space is going to see some breakthroughs over the next few years. So if we’re thinking over five years, we’ve got to get this problem solved, we’ve got to get to the point where we’re generating data that can be shared and used broadly.
Once we’re able to do that effectively and use broad data sets and coordinate that data in a way that we can get enough data to make better and better decisions with our modelling and CAM, the more effective new alloy development will be .
Most of the materials that we’re using, specifically for metal AM, are alloys that had been in existence prior to us thinking about AM components, meaning some of those alloys aren’t necessarily ideal for additive processes.
As we think of what next-generation alloys will start to look like, this becomes even more and more interesting, as it will ultimately lead to better use cases and better utilisation of technology.
So I think those two things will start to evolve significantly over the next five years: the access to data will be first, and then the generation of new alloys with modelling that data, will be the trailing edge of that in 5 years.
Coming back to America Makes, what does 2020 hold for the organisation?
2020 is exciting, in that we’re looking forward to the next seven years. We’re setting ourselves up for identifying what the most critical areas to be looked at by our membership are.
Material data is front and centre of that. We’ll be helping to convene the community around what needs to be done, and then to coordinate the activity.
Beyond that, the other exciting area moving forward, is really looking at other additional industries to focus on. I’m not trying to suggest that we’ve ignored anyone up until this point. But the reality is, the aerospace and defence community, the business case side of it, and those that are in the position to take a risk, have been well aligned to that community to date.
We’re starting to see, as there’s more and more production capability coming out, that AM becomes a lot more interesting to the automotive community. I think that’s going to be an exciting opportunity over the next year.
We’re actually setting up to coordinate some road mapping activity with the automotive community, and we’re going to see some actionable activity from the supply chain side of things. As more and more technology is becoming available, we need to make sure we have the suppliers in place to take advantage of that.
We’ve got a couple of programmes, right now, that are taking that task on, trying to understand where our suppliers are at today, versus what we need our suppliers to be capable of.
Any final thoughts?
The education and workforce side of things is very important, especially if the market truly grows at the rate that’s been predicted. We understand that we don’t have the workforce in place right now to really take advantage of the developments that we’ve made.
So we’ve got to get to the point where we’re training the community. We have a few active programmes right now to do this. We don’t view our role as the developer of that curricula, but instead, we’re bringing the community together across the government, industry and academic sectors to look at what requirements curriculum should be built against at various levels, meaning different job positions or descriptions that we want to define.
And then let the free market take over, and people will develop programmes based on those requirements. The thing that we want to help support, however, is making sure that they’re being developed against some industry-recognised needs.
At the end of the day, we want a trained workforce that can move from organisation to organisation, e.g. when they retire out of the military services, they can be picked up by an OEM, because of what they’ve been trained in, just like we would hope any function would have those industry-recognized credentials. There’s a lot of work to be done in that space, and it’s something that we’re putting quite a bit of effort into.
To learn more about America Makes, visit: https://www.americamakes.us/