Terry Wohlers is the President of US-based consultancy Wohlers Associates. As an analyst, author, and speaker, he is an internationally-renowned expert in the field of additive manufacturing. He spoke to William Poole.

AMT: Tell us firstly about Wohlers Associates and what the company does.

Terry Wohlers: Wohlers Associates turned 32 years of age last November. Most of the three decades-plus have been focused on additive manufacturing and 3D printing – terms that are used interchangeably. In the last couple of decades, our focus has been almost 100% on additive, as well as complementary technologies, such as design tools, 3D scanning, and post-processing – things linked in some way to additive manufacturing.

The core business is consulting. We work with client companies of all types and sizes. Among them are RØDE Microphones of Sydney, America Makes, Airbus, Honeywell, and many other organisations in 26 countries.

An important part of our business is the Wohlers Report, an annual review of the state of the additive manufacturing industry. We’ve been publishing it for 23 years and we’ll be starting our next edition early next year. As many as 80 people in 32 countries help with the report, so it’s truly a global effort.

The third leg of our business is speaking engagements and design for additive manufacturing (DfAM) hands-on courses. In fact, we conducted a three-day DfAM course at RMIT University in early December. The course covers design considerations that need to taken into account. Those who take the course run software tools, work in small teams, and have parts built overnight. The DfAM courses are an important and growing part of our business and are a reflection of the maturing AM industry.


AMT: What was your professional background and how did you end up so closely involved in additive manufacturing?

TW: I started the company in 1986 after grad school, where I was focussed on manufacturing and product development (and as an undergraduate as well). Wohlers Associates was a consulting firm focused on product development and CAD/CAM tools and applications from the very beginning. It was before additive manufacturing was introduced and commericalised, so nobody knew about it. 3D Systems showed its first beta systems in 1987, and that was when I was introduced to it, about a year after we started Wohlers Associates. And the rest is history.

We got very excited about it, thinking this could be very powerful, as useful as CAD solid modelling. When you’re young and you’re not real sure where you want to go, but you think you want to take a company in a certain direction, you build some flexibility into it. And when you uncover something that’s new and exciting, the light bulb in your head illuminates and you say “This could be big some day.” We were maybe a few years ahead of our time, but we could see it was going to grow over time. Over the next few years, we were invited to speak and write articles on the subject and we accepted consulting projects.

Our really big break was working for a company which was at the time – and still is today – the largest manufacturer of custom-fit, in-the-ear, hearing aids. Back in 1988-89 they wanted to produce parts using additive manufacturing, so we helped them develop the process by scanning the ear impression, developing software to process the data and send that data to the additive manufacturing machines for production. The project went for four years. The company had us going around the world, learning as much as we could, and reporting progress to the management. It was a little early back in those days; everything worked, but not very well. Materials were poor and the software wasn’t good, and the machines were slow and expensive, so the project was put on the backburner. Several years later, Phonak and Siemens got together and were the first to commercialise it, so they got the credit. Today, more than 90% of custom hearing aid shells are manufactured this way.


AMT: I think a lot of the general public might be surprised to learn that additive manufacturing has been in use as far back as the 1980s.

TW: That’s correct. Additive manufactured parts were installed on the International Space Station and flying on the entire fleet of the Space Shuttle nearly 20 years ago. Rocketdyne, which was owned by Boeing at the time, was building parts by laser sintering for installation on the Shuttle fleet in 2000. Additive manufacturing has been used in many rigorous applications since then.


AMT: We saw a lot of hype about 3D printing about five years ago, but things seem to have settled down in the public perception more recently. Would you say there is a clearer understanding about the potential of the technology these days?

TW: Yes. Most people now are more realistic as to what can and can’t be done. There’s always going to be hype about anything, but you’re right: it peaked around the 2012-13 timeframe and since then, reality has set in, which is good. People have understood that 3D printing isn’t magic. We’re still hearing some hype around 3D-printed buildings. I believe there’s an application for concrete printers, but building entire homes, at least the way it’s been shown to date, does not have merit.

For product development and manufacturing, a growing number of people appreciate more fully what it takes to build a good-quality part. It’s not always easy to build good-quality parts, whether it’s CNC milling, injection moulding, or additive manufacturing. You’ve got to know what you’re doing.


AMT: What do you think are the most significant trends in additive manufacturing at the moment?

TW: One trend is that customers are now learning that it’s more than just buying additive manufacturing machines. Once you have the machines, the effort is largely about having software tools and a system in place to review where capacity is available, and tracking jobs. We’re seeing development at the front end, but even more going on at the back end related to post-processing. A part of this overall trend is the growing number of machines and tools available to help automate and streamline powder removal, part-finishing, and inspection. At last November’s Formnext in Frankfurt, Germany, we saw many machines and processes that surround and support additive manufacturing. We also saw a lot of software tools for distortion analysis and design optimisation.


AMT: That’s interesting. Is that shift in emphasis, from the printers themselves towards this complementary technology, indicative of a move towards actual production rather than just prototyping?

TW: The additive manufacturing industry has had 30 years to figure out how to use these devices for prototyping and tooling. Companies have figured it out. Taking it into manufacturing is an order of magnitude more difficult to achieve, so a lot of effort is going into it, from the likes of Airbus, GE, HP, Honeywell Aerospace, Striker, and many others. Companies are using robots and other forms of automation to drive down costs. Each part is on a case-by-case basis, on whether it makes sense to produce by additive manufacturing. It’s typically done carefully on a very controlled basis because the parts can still be quite expensive.


AMT: What about printing in metals? That seems to be a big area of progress at the moment.

TW: What’s interesting about metals, compared to the polymers, is that most of the metals are very similar or identical to those for conventional manufacturing processes. As a result, additive manufacturing machines are producing parts that are better than cast parts and sometimes on par with wrought properties. With casting, molten metal is poured into into a mould, and solidification occurs at different rates and in different places, resulting in weld lines. Even so, castings are used for a very wide range of parts and products. In the case of additive manufacturing, the microstructure of the metal is are more consistent and better than most castings.

From nearly the beginning of metal additive manufacturing, organisations have viewed it as a solution for real manufacturing. Companies will do some early parts for prototyping and design validation, but ultimately it’s for manufacturing. What’s more, most of the systems have been open in the sense that you can buy materials from third-party companies at competitive prices, which helps support the interest in using them for actual manufacturing.

Organisations are indeed manufacturing with these machines.They include orthopaedic implant manufacturers, dental companies, and those producing parts for aircraft. I mentioned Honeywell Aerospace. It claims to be producing more metal parts for flight than any other company in the world. Airbus is also certifying metal parts for flight, which is exciting.

But there’s also some more obscure, less well-known companies. Croft Filters in the UK is 3D printing metal filters for food processing, chemical processing, and many other applications. They’re a relatively small company, but they’re growing. I just talked with someone today who’s building bicycle parts, building the lugs to connect carbon fibre tubes on the frame. And they’re doing custom parts for different riders. I spoke with someone from another very small company today that are producing human jaw (mandible) implants for human patients. A surgeon is the founder of the company and they recently purchased metal additive manufacturing machine. It’s good to see small companies adopt the technology and drive it.


AMT: It seems like it’s not about using this technology to make things that are the same as traditionally manufactured parts. It’s about using it to do things that don’t exist yet, things that are completely new.

TW: Correct. If you’re trying to use it as a replacement technology, in some cases it will work. If your volumes are low enough, it could be a good alternative to how you’re doing it now. The much bigger opportunities are in applying additive manufacturing to new ideas and niche markets.


AMT: Where do you see the technology in 10 years time? What will the newspaper headlines be saying about additive manufacturing?

TW: I’d like to believe that material prices for additive manufacturing will be dramatically lower than they are today. They’re still much too expensive. Currently, it is limiting the industrial adoption for production applications. We will see many more end-to-end solutions, from start to finish, so that customers don’t have to figure it out on their own. Today they do. It’s like a “roll-your-own” type of approach. In the foreseeable future, company will create process and workflows that are far more developed and mature. To date, it has largely been left up to the customer to figure it out. Fortunately, companies like Stratasys, EOS and 3D Systems now have consulting groups that are helping customers figure some of it out. They’re not just selling machines, but also offering services to help you, with applications-development type programs. They help increase the chances of success for the customers. That’s something we will see in ten years time: mature end-to-end solutions.


AMT: Finally what’s your view of the take-up of additive manufacturing in Australia?

TW: This my tenth visit to Australia, so I have picked up a few things about the country. It is certainly a remote part of the world, yet it has adopted additive manufacturing technology in interesting, and in some cases, impressive ways. It’s great to see the ongoing work in academia and the research community in Australia. The next challenge and opportunity is for industry to embrace the technology at the same level, but Australia is not alone. Many other countries are facing the same thing.

Australia has the chance to take additive manufacturing to the next level.  The country has many interesting programs underway, such as the Additive Manufacturing Hub and the Innovative Manufacturing CRC (IM CRC). Other additive manufacturing programs and facilities have been launched and rival the best of the best worldwide. Some examples include the Advanced Manufacturing Precinct at RMIT University, ProtoSpace at the University of Technology Sydney, Monash Centre for Additive Manufacturing, and CSIRO’s Lab 22. World-class companies, such as RØDE Microphones, are evaluating ways they can apply additive manufacturing to the production of complex parts. Australia has countless bright and creative people, so little is preventing the country from advancing its adoption of additive manufacturing in big ways.