True believer: Interview with Jeff Degrange, Stratasys

When it comes to additive manufacturing, Jeff DeGrange does not hesitate to nail his colours to the mast. "I'm a true believer in the technology," he says, "and I think we're in the early stages of it. So I have to put my biases on the table early on."

These biases, however, are not indicative of the wide-eyed enthusiasm of the recent convert to 3D printing. They are instead predicated on the better part of two decades at the cutting-edge application of the technology. Having worked at McDonnell-Douglas and Boeing for the first 20 years of his career, DeGrange spent a number of years in Boeing's 'Phantom Works' advanced manufacturing facility. Here, between 1997 and 2008, he led the company's additive manufacturing technologies division. "My biggest claim to fame and success was getting actual parts onto the F18 fighter programme as well as a number of UAVs and ultimately parts on the 787 programme," he says. In 2008, though, he moved to Stratasys to become the company's vice president of direct digital manufacturing. Here he has responsibility for application development in product management – particularly in the aerospace, defence and automotive sectors. So there aren't many people better qualified to assess the future when it comes to additive manufacturing and, in general, DeGrange is very positive about AM's role in the future. He does concede, however, that there are still factors limiting its adoption. One of these, he feels, lies in the fact that design engineers do not truly understand the technology. "With a disruptive technology, you don't just turn up with a machine and expect it to deliver straight away," he says. "One of the big limiting factors is that design engineers have to learn to design to it. It's very different to conventional processes and a lot of people don't know how to design to it. There have to be design guidelines and information that take design engineering departments through that particular learning curve." But it's not just designers who have to change. Says DeGrange: "The manufacturing departments also need to learn the processes such as how you need to adjust the build orientation in the machine. Because, depending on how you orient the product in the machine, you're going to get different mechanical properties. And a lot depends on how you place your file – it is, after all, an anisotropic [having different properties according to the direction of measurement] process." However, DeGrange believes these problems are already being overcome. "I think you're already seeing significant growth in a lot of these 'early maturity' companies who are starting to 'get it'. I think one aspect of that will be generational. The younger generation coming through worldwide live in an on-demand world where the younger people are so tech-savvy that this feeds right into that. It's just going to be a natural expectation for the 20-something workforce." Another factor he believes is making a major difference is the sheer number of initiatives supporting the technology from a governmental perspective. In particular he cites the US National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, which was referenced by President Obama in his 2013 State of the Nation address. In fact, though, there are already significant (and growing) levels of adoption taking place. In part this is coming about through the need for rapid design evolution in military applications, but also because of more fundamental cost implications – particularly when it comes to tooling. Says DeGrange: "You no longer need to invest in hard metal tools and keep them in a warehouse. In many cases, if you're making tools with the additive process, it's often so much less expensive than the hard metal tooling that you can actually throw them away when you're done and thus not have the need to inventory, track and maintain them over the years. If you need to use them again in the future, you can just call up the CAD file…essentially, your computer becomes your warehouse." DeGrange also cites the US Navy's Fleet Readiness Centers as a good model of the effectiveness of AM. At these, any vehicles that have suffered fatigue or battle damage come in for repair and, for obvious reasons, are 'on the clock' to get the vehicle back in battle-ready condition. Here, claims DeGrange, is "where AM technologies can come in and shine". "A lot of these repairs that have to happen are usually one-off repairs requiring specialised tools to fix," he says. If you have to make a new repair panel, for instance… What's interesting is that the civil aviation folks are seeing this and realising that it could apply to them. They suffer things like birdstrike or service vehicles bump into them and they have to be pulled out of service. Every hour they're not operating is an hour they're not making money for the airlines, so how can you reduce the amount of time they spend out of action? Additive manufacturing is one of the answers as it can respond to this sort of unique, unplanned repair."