Manufacturing guy-at-large.

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On Makerism

Added on by Spencer Wright.

A few weeks ago, a reporter reached out to Zach and I to say that he was including us in a list of Brooklyn makers to know. He had a question as well:  How do you define "maker"?

This isn't something I've thought about in a while, and to be honest I've never really considered myself a maker in the first place. So while I was flattered to be on someone's top ten list, my response was nuanced: 

More than anything else, I think "maker" is a cultural signifier - something that denotes a certain sense of whimsy, combined with a bit of precociousness and craft. In the best cases, makerism is simply a gateway to something else; it's a stepping stone that eventually leads to a product business or a manufacturing operation. Zach and I have put a *lot* of energy into making this transition over the past few years, and most of the other people on your list have as well.

To be a bit more blunt: I've actively eschewed makerism in my own work. Not that I don't do makery projects or like cute things. But my tolerance for whimsy is relatively low, and the things that get me excited are real, sustainable businesses, and ultimately I find it difficult to maintain a strong sense of playfulness while my primary focus is on building something.

I'm sure other people have other definitions of what it means to be a maker, and those are perfectly valid. But I'd encourage everyone, as they're working on something new, to consider whether they're actually a maker - or if they're really just building a business around a cute product.

NYC and Cultural Import

Added on by Spencer Wright.

A recent episode of The Riff, a podcast I've been enjoying recently, centered around a conversation about New York City's cultural influence. In it, Andy Weissman (a lifetime New Yorker whose perspectives I've grown to enjoy on Twitter) proposes the following:

My theory is that right now New York is at a peak and is on the downside of its political, economic, cultural, and social import.

This makes me concerned both as a New Yorker and as someone who likes when old things maintain their relevance. Interested people should check out the full conversation; both David Tisch and Pam Wasserstein makes some good points about New York's cultural diversity, and the whole episode is both challenging and fun. I also have a (possibly hopeful) feeling that Andy is just trying to stir up shit & get other people excited about doing great work in NYC, but that's beside the point. The question, to me, is this:

Assuming Andy's theory is correct, what do we as New Yorkers do about it?

My thoughts:

  • Work on stuff that has existential import. My main beef with Andy's argument is that he repeatedly uses Snap (née Snapchat) as the prime example for why LA is beating NYC right now. And while I will readily admit that media distribution & communications is a great business to be in if you want people to care about you, I can't help but think that in the next century, the global cultural impacts of Tesla and SpaceX will be both more powerful and more inspirational. NYC used to take on projects of this scale, but our output of late has been more focused on things like... wearables. If we can lead in exporting technologies that address existential problems, I think the whole world will be better off.
  • Embrace our own populism. To most of the world, NYC's image has a great balance of populism (it's still a *huge* magnet for immigration) and aspiration (everyone knows that wealthy people live here). But I worry that to rural American audiences, NYC seems cold, elitist, and out of touch - when to me, NYC is the warmest and most inclusive place on earth. Obviously this has political consequences, but my main concern is that NYC remains a magnet for the most talented people in the US - and it's hard to do that if people think you don't like them.
  • I believe that successful cities depend on high functioning infrastructure, and we badly need to find new ways to upgrade ours at lower cost. David Tisch makes this point in the podcast, and it's something that I've thought about more and more recently. We may have the best public transit in the country (I certainly think we do) but we're far behind other cities in the world. Unless we come up with new ways to get new subways built and old ones upgraded, it feels like we'll have a hard time competing on a global scale.

In a nutshell: NYC needs to work on meaningful stuff, maintain an approachable image, and figure out how to improve its basic urban operations.

If this is something you're working on, let's talk.

Changing the world around us

Added on by Spencer Wright.

Every few weeks, someone asks me what I think the future of 3D printing is - whether it's going to really change the way things are made.  My response is to ask if the name "PCC" means anything to them - a question that almost always elicits a blank stare.

PCC is a manufacturer of castings and forgings, primarily for aerospace and power generation. They live mostly outside of the public eye; to most folks, casting pretty much begins and ends with old-school iron cookware, and few stop to consider how improvements in casting techniques might have changed the cost and availability of electricity and air travel over the past half century.

And yet they have had a big impact. PCC sells about $10B worth of products every year, supplying critical propulsion and airframe components to companies like Boeing and Airbus. Many of these parts allow airplanes to reduce weight and improve engine efficiency, helping along significant improvements in fuel economy per seat. And so, in 2016, Precision Castparts Corp was acquired by Berkshire Hathaway for $37.2B. It's the largest amount that Warren Buffett has ever spent on an acquisition. 

I bring this up to say: The tech press may maintain their interest in 3D printing, or they may not. It's possible that, in a few years, I'll walk into a retail shop and have made-to-fit parts printed for me on demand. It's possible that manufacturing will become distributed; that supply chains will spin up and down at a moment's notice; that computers will engineer products from start to finish.

But there are many other, less sexy ways to change the world around us. And we'd all be well off if some 3D printing method achieved one of those instead.

Standards Orgs

Added on by Spencer Wright.

This week, I participated in ASME's Technology Advisory Panel on Additive Manufacturing. This is the third standards body that I've gotten involved with in the past year or so (I also sit on ASTM F42, and represent nTopology at the 3MF Consortium), and I wanted to post a few thoughts about standards development for anyone who's curious about them or interested in being involved in similar work.

  • Most standards bodies were formed out of some deep-seeded industry need: A spate of high profile product failures, a growing sense of frustration amongst customers, etc. Standards are the industry's way of improving their overall product quality, or their public image, or their relationship with key customers (the US military especially).
  • Standards orgs make money partly by selling standards and partly by enforcing them and certifying products/companies that comply. As an independent product developer, that can be frustrating (I wrote about this years ago); spending a few hundred dollars to find out how your part will be tested can often seem like a shitty alternative to more... open approaches. On the other hand, most standards orgs are all-volunteer and nonprofit. 
  • The fun thing about standards development is that if you care, they'll (for the most part) take you seriously. It doesn't particularly matter if you're officially "in the industry," and you certainly don't need to work at a huge company or have any specific set of interests in the matter at hand. When I joined F42 (ASTM's subcommittee on additive manufacturing), I was working at a consultancy whose primary clients were in marketing and HR. I was working on AM in my free time, and like any intelligent person had developed thoughts on issues the industry was facing; ASTM took me in like any other.
  • As something of an outsider myself (in a strict sense, I am not an engineer per se), the experience of being on a more or less level playing field with folks who have spent their careers at global engineering & manufacturing companies is really something. I get a lot out of hearing their takes on the industry, and am glad that someone (me) is there to provide the perspective of a generalist working across disciplines. Standards orgs tend to be places with a high degree of empathy, and it's a pleasure to talk openly - from competitor to competitor, supplier to customer - about how to push an industry in a better direction.

Notes on Arcam and SLM

Added on by Spencer Wright.

Yesterday, GE announced that they had put in bids to acquire both Arcam and SLM for a combined total of $1.4B. This move poses some interesting questions about the next few years in industrial AM, and will no doubt have a big impact on both the companies involved and their customers and competitors. I don't have any privileged insight into any of these companies' decision making process, but I have a longstanding interest in the industry and what they're working on. Here are a few observations & questions that occurred to me about the deals and their impact.


In 2012, GE Aviation made three large acquisitions in industrial AM. The first was the combined purchase of Morris Technologies and Rapid Quality Manufacturing, two sister companies based in Cincinnati who had already been a big supplier to GE Aviation (terms of the deal were not disclosed). Later that year, they bought Avio Aero, and Italian parts supplier, for $4.3B. These two purchases showed an interesting balance in technologies. While Morris and Avio had very similar business models (both were job shops that produced parts for GE Aviation and other business units; Avio also produces parts by traditional manufacturing methods), they focused on different additive technologies: Morris on laser, and Avio on EBM.

I've written about the difference between laser and EBM in the past, but a few points here:

  • The fuel nozzle that GE is so famous for printing is made by laser in Auburn, Alabama on EOS machines. I believe that their (lesser known) T25 temperature sensor is made on the same machines.
  • The laser (Note: I'm using "laser" here to refer to processes that are variously called DMLM, SLM, DMLS, lasercusing, and the generic "laser metal powder bed fusion." Note also that SLM can be used to refer both to the printing process AND to the machine manufacturer that GE just acquired.) machine market has a number of providers: Aside from EOS and SLM (the two machine manufacturers that GE is most known for using) there's Renishaw, Concept Laser, Additive Industries, 3D Systems, and a variety of Chinese entrants.
  • While GE Aviation has tended towards EOS machines (see the video above), GE Power & Water uses machines made by SLM in their Greenville, SC plant (Note: Here I'm drawing from an AMUG 2015 and other industry sources; sorry for the lack of a hyperlink reference).
  • Arcam sits apart from these: it's currently the only company making machines for EBM (electron beam melting, or "electron beam metal powder bed fusion" if you're picky).
  • Avio Aero has done some really interesting things with EBM since the GE acquisition. Perhaps most notably, last year they printed low pressure turbine blades out of titanium aluminide, an intermetallic alloy. TiAl has excellent mechanical properties at high temperatures (an important feature of any part that's in the hot stage of a jet engine), and is traditionally cast by companies like Precision Castparts Corp (PCC). Printing in TiAl brings advantages but is extremely difficult due to the material's tendency to fracture. Printing TiAl could be a big deal as GE ramps up production of TiAl blades for the GEnx engine, and it was very interesting to note that after the successful prints, Avio bought an additional ten Arcam systems - the largest purchase that Arcam had ever accepted.

So: GE already had a strong portfolio in additive. What are the implications of the Arcam and SLM acquisitions, and how will this impact the industry?

A full stack, in-house

The most interesting part of the acquisition to me is the fact that GE will now be able to in-house the entire industrial AM supply chain (minus software; more on that below). Previously, they were focused primarily on basic research and applications development (Morris, Avio, CATA, and the Niskayuna Global Research Center) and serial part production (Auburn, Greenville, and Avio). Now, they'll own not one but two machine manufacturers - allowing them to push upstream and make a more direct impact on the development of the additive industry.

But perhaps more importantly, GE gains both powder production (through AP&C, the Canadian powder supplier that Arcam acquired for CAD 35MM in 2014) and final parts manufacturing (through DiSanto, the medical implants manufacturer that Arcam acquired for $18.5M later the same year). When Morris was acquired, they shut down their sales organization and focused on printing parts for internal GE customers. DiSanto is a very different business, though, and I wonder whether it might make sense as part of GE's healthcare unit - with its traditional focus on medical imaging and healthcare IT.

AP&C is a bit of a different beast. They manufacture the raw materials for not only powder bed fusion but also MIM, HIP, and other powder metallurgy applications. Their website advertises commercially pure titanium and ti64, but Arcam also markets cobalt-chrome - which both the fuel nozzle and the T25 sensor housing are made of. I'll be very curious to see whether AP&C continues selling powders to the public, or if they focus on internal use.

Improving - and selling - manufacturing machines

Separate and apart from the implications to GE's internal operations, I'm particularly interested in the way that GE's involvement at these new levels of the tech stack will affect how the industry matures. Try though they may, it's difficult for a company whose bottom line depends on selling machines (as opposed to, say, selling machines AND printing parts, or selling machines AND developing manufacturing software) to truly impact the end-to-end engineering process much. And while GE has been at the forefront of additive research (and, no doubt, collaborates very closely with both their hardware and software providers), I'm hopeful that having them at the helm will push both EBM and laser powder bed fusion forward in a cohesive way. 

Some might suggest that keeping expertise in house would be the strategic choice here, but I disagree. Powder bed fusion today suffers from both a lack of talent (easiest to change by expanding the number of use cases for the process, many of which GE ultimately is not going to compete on) and a lack of process predictability and reliability. GE has more knowledge about improving AM part yield than just about anyone else in the world, but that doesn't mean that there aren't other approaches that they're not trying. Inasmuch as sharing whatever process improvements they come up with will encourage others to try their own approaches, I hope that GE does just that. And they have in the past: through their involvement with standards and industry organizations like America Makes, 3MF, and ASTM F42; through their participation in sessions at AMUG and RAPID, and through their open innovation work (some of which I worked on while at Undercurrent) with GrabCAD and NineSigma.

My hope would be that GE continues to market and improve both SLM and Arcam machines. The latter is particularly dear to me, as EBM equipment isn't currently made by anyone else (and because I've had many parts printed on Arcam machines). SLM is a bit different, as the market for laser powder bed fusion is already so rich. But by that same rationale, the potential impact that any updates to SLM's machines would have could be huge, as they would force other players to respond in kind.


I take GE at their word: They want to be a contemporary engineering company, and they believe that contemporary engineering companies need formidable software capabilities. And if they're going to truly make their mark with a software solution, it would be wise to do so in a realm where they know the problems well.

Even before these acquisitions, GE knew the pain points in additive as well as anyone else. Adding a few machine manufacturers, plus a raw materials supplier and a finished parts manufacturer, will only help that along. So my question is this: Why wouldn't GE make a play in additive manufacturing software? This is, after all, the whole subtext behind the Brilliant Factories initiative: GE knows how hard it is to make things, and they can help you make them better.

As you'll know from my previous writing, I'm excited for advances in build processing (see netfabb and Magics), build simulation (see 3DSim and Pan Computing, and research by Wayne King at LLNL), and in-process monitoring & control (see Sigma Labs, plus the product spec sheets for a *lot* of the current class of laser printers). Each of these is extremely hard in itself, and recreating the entire stack would be extraordinarily complex; I don't expect any one company to solve (or even attempt) them all. But whether they build their own solutions or work with external providers to build them, GE will be a huge stakeholder in the next generation of additive manufacturing software. And if they're serious about being a formidable software company, then why wouldn't they take a shot at building it themselves?

Regardless of how these acquisitions shake out, the next year should be interesting. I'm looking forward to it :)

Allen on science, engineering, and modes of information transfer

Added on by Spencer Wright.

Over the past week I've been reading Thomas J. Allen's Managing the Flow of Technology, which summarizes about a decade of MIT Sloan research into how R&D organizations acquire and transmit knowledge. A number of passages have jumped out to me, and I wanted to comment on them here. Emphasis is mine throughout.

The distinction between science and engineering is key to this book. On page 3:

The scientist's principal goal is a published paper. The technologist's goal is to produce some physical change in the world. This difference in orientation, and the subsequent difference in the nature of the products of the two, has profound implications for those concerned with supplying information to either of the two activities.

And on page 5:

...whereas the provision of information in science involves the gathering, organizing, and distribution of publications, the situation in technology is very different. The technologist must obtain his information either through the very difficult task of decoding and translating physically encoded information or by relying upon direct personal contact and communication with other technologists. His reliance upon the written word will be much less than that of the scientist. 

Starting on page 39:

The differences between science and technology lie not only in the kinds of people who are attracted to them; they are basic to the nature of the activities themselves. Both science and technology develop in a cumulative manner, with each new advance building upon and being a product of vast quantities of work that have gone before. In science all of the work up to any point can be found permanently recorded in literature, which serves as a repository for all scientific knowledge. The cumulative nature of science can be demonstrated quite clearly (Price, 1965a, 1970) by the way in which citations among scientific journal articles cluster and form a regular pattern of development over time.
A journal system has been developed in most technologies that in many ways emulates the system originally developed by scientists; yet the literature published in the majority of these journals lack, as Price (1965a, 1970) has shown, one of the fundamental characteristics of the scientific literature: it does not cumulate or build upon itself as does the scientific literature. Citations to previous papers or patents are fewer and are most often to the author's own work. Publication occupies a position of less importance than it does in science where it serves to document the end product and establish priority. Because published information is at best secondary to the actual utilization of the technical innovation, this archival is not as essential to ensure the technologist that he is properly credited by future generations. The names of Wilbur and Orville Wright are not remembered because they published papers. As pointed out in chapter 1, the technologist's principal legacy to posterity is encoded in physical, not verbal, structure. Consequently the technologist publishes less and devotes less time to reading than do scientists.
Information is transferred in technology primarily through personal contact. Even in this, however, the technologist differs markedly from the scientist. Scientists working at the frontier of a particular specialty know each other and associate together in what Derek Price has called "invisible colleges." They keep track of one another's work through visits, seminars, and small invitational conferences, supplemented by an informal exchange of written material long before it reaches archival publication. Technologists, on the other hand, keep abreast of their field by close association with co-workers in their own organization. They are limited in forming invisible colleges by the imposition of organizational barriers.

I'll pause here to note that this bothers me somewhat. I enjoy few things more than learning from other people, especially if they inhabit different worlds than I do. Allen continues:

Unlike scientists, the vast majority of technologists are employed by organization with a well-defined mission (profit, national defense, space exploration, pollution abatement, and so forth). Mission-oriented organizations necessarily demand of their technologists a degree of identification unknown in most scientific circles. This organizational identification works in two ways to exclude the technologist from informal communication channels outside his organization. First, he is inhibited by the requirements that he work only on problems that are of interest to his employer, and second, he must refrain from early disclosure of the results of his research in order to maintain his employer's advantage over competitors. Both of these constraints violate the rather strong scientific norms that underlie and form the basis of the invisible college. The first of these norms demands that science be free to choose its own problems and that the community of colleagues be the only judges of the relative importance of possible areas of investigation, and the second is that the substantive findings of research are to be fully assigned and communicated to the entire research community. The industrial organization, by preventing its employers from adhering to these two norms, impedes the formation by technologists of anything resembling an invisible college.

Incidentally, I believe that companies lose more by inhibiting cross pollination than they gain by protecting their competitive position. It would appear that Allen would agree, at least to an extent. On page 42:

The Effect of Turnover
It is this author's suspicion that much of the proprietary protectionism in industry is far overplayed. Despite all of the organizational efforts to prevent it, the state of the art in technology propagates quite rapidly. Either there are too many martinis consumed at engineering conventions or some other mechanism is at work. This other mechanism may well be the itinerant engineer, who passes through quite a number of organizations over the course of a career...
Each time that an engineer leaves an employer, voluntarily or otherwise, he carries some knowledge of the employer's operations, experience, and current technology with him. We are gradually coming to realize that human beings are the most effective carriers of information and that the best way to transfer information between organizations or social systems is to physically transfer a human carrier. Roberts' studies (Roberts and Wainer, 1967) marshal impressive evidence for the effective transfer of space technology from quasi-academic institutions to the industrial sector and eventually to commercial applications in those instances in which technologists left university laboratories to establish their own businesses. This finding is especially impressive in view of the general failure to find evidence of successful transfer of space technology by any other mechanism, despite the fact that many techniques have been tried and a substantial amount of money has been invested in promoting the transfer.
This certainly makes sense. Ideas have no real existence outside of the minds of men. Ideas can be represented in verbal or graphic form, but such representation is necessarily incomplete and cannot be easily structured to fit new situations. The human brain has a capacity for flexibly restructuring information in a manner that has never been approached by even the most sophisticated computer programs. [Just jumping in here to say bravo. -SW] For truly effective transfer of technical information, we must make use of this human ability to recode and restructure information so that it fits into new contexts and situations. Consequently, the best way to transfer technical information is to move a human carrier. The high turnover among engineers results in a heavy migration from organization to organization and is therefore a very effective mechanism for disseminating technology throughout an industry and often to other industries. Every time an engineer changes jobs he brings with him a record of his experiences on the former job and a great amount of what his former organization considers "proprietary" information. Now, of course, the information is usually quite perishable, and its value decays rapidly with time. But a continual flow of engineers among the firms of an industry ensures that no single firm is very far behind in knowledge of what its competitors are doing. So the mere existence of high turnover among R&D personnel vitiates much of the protectionism accorded proprietary information.
As for turnover itself, it is well known that most organizations attempt to minimize it. If all of the above is even partially true, a low level of turnover could be seriously damaging to the interests of the organization. Actually, however, quite the opposite is true. A certain amount of turnover may be not only desirable but absolutely essential to the survival of a technical organization, although just what the optimum turnover level is for an organization is a question that remains to be answered. It will vary from one situation to the next and is highly dependent upon the rate at which the organization's technical staff is growing. After all, it is the influx of new engineers that is most beneficial to the organization, not the exodus of old ones. When growth rate is high, turnover can be low. An organization that is not growing should welcome or encourage turnover. The Engineers' Joint Council figure of 12 percent may even be below the optimum for some organizations. Despite the costs of hiring and processing new personnel, an organization might desire an even higher level of turnover. Although it is impossible to place a price tag on the new state-of-the-art information that is brought in by new employees, it may very well more than counterbalance the costs of hiring. This would be true at least to the point where turnover becomes disruptive to the morale and functioning of the organization. 

Allen also discusses the degree two which academia influences technology development. On page 51:

Project Hindsight was the first of a series of attempts to trace technological advances back to their scientific origins. Within the twenty-year horizon of its backward search, Hindsight was able to find very little contribution from basic science (Sherwin and Isenson, 1967). In most cases, the trail ran cold before reaching any activity that could be considered basic research. In Isenson's words, "It would appear that most advances in the technological state of the art are based on no more recent advances than Ohm's Law or Maxwell's equations."

On page 52:

In yet another recent study, Langrish found little support for a strong science-technology interaction. Langrish wisely avoided the problem of differentiating science from technology. He categorized research by the type of institution in which it was conducted - industry, university, or government establishment. In tracing eighty-four award-winning innovations to their origins, he found that "the role of university as a source of ideas for [industrial] innovation is fairly small" (Langrish, 1971) and that "university science and industrial technology are two quite separate activities which occasionally come into contact with each other" (Langrish, 1969). He argued very strongly that most university basic research is totally irrelevant to societal needs and can be only partially justified for its contributions through training of students.

That's tough stuff, if you ask me. Incidentally, I've considered many times recently whether I myself would go to college if I was just graduating high school today. It would not be a straightforward choice.

Then Allen turned to the qualities of the things that engineers actually read. On page 70:

Looking first at the identity of the publications that were read, there are two major categories of publications that engineers use. The first of these might be called formal literature. It comprises books, professional journals, trade publications, and other media that are normally available to the public and have few, if any, restrictions on their distribution. Informal publications, on the other hand, are published by organizations usually for their own internal use; they often contain proprietary material and for that reason are given a very limited distribution. On the average, engineers divide their attention between the two media on about an equal basis, only slightly favoring the informal publications (table 4.3). Because engineering reports are usually much longer than journal articles and because books are used only very briefly for quite specific purposes, each instance of report reading takes twice as long as an instance of journal or book reading. The net result is a threefold greater expenditure of time on informal reports. We can conclude from this brief overview that the unpublished engineering report occupies a position that is at least as important as that of the book or journal in the average engineer's reading portfolio.

Here I should note that I read this through the lens of someone whose public blog is essentially an ongoing and highly detailed series of informal reports. I'm certainly no scientist, and in general my writing isn't particularly academic. I'm doing decidedly applied work, and I document it (including what most companies would call proprietary information about my products and the results of my research) for anyone to read and repurpose as they please. 

Allen continues, explaining why engineering journals aren't really used by practicing engineers. On page 73:

The publications of the professional engineering societies in all of these diverse fields are little used by their intended audience.
Why should this be so? The answer is not difficult to find. Most professional engineering journals are utterly incomprehensible to the average engineer. They often rely heavily upon mathematical presentations, which can be understood by only a limited audience. The average engineer has been away from the university for a number of years and has usually allowed his mathematical skills to degenerate. Even if he understood the mathematics at one time, it is unlikely that he can now. The articles, even in engineering society journals, are written for a very limited audience, usually those few at the very forefront of a technology. Just as in science, the goal of the author is not to communicate to the outsider but to gain for himself the recognition of his peers.

It's funny: the purpose of this blog is to communicate with outsiders AND gain the recognition of my peers. I'd like to think, in fact, that it fits the description of the ideal engineering literature that Allen puts forth on page 75:

The professional societies could publish a literature form whose technical content is high, but which is understandable by the audience to whom it is directed...The task is not an impossible one. Engineers will read journals when these journals are written in a form and style that they can comprehend. Furthermore, technological information can be provided in this form. Why then do the professional societies continue to publish material that only a small minority of their membership can use? If this information can be provided in a form that the average engineer can understand, why haven't the professional societies done so?
The obvious answer to these questions is that the societies have only recently become aware of the problem. In the past, they were almost totally ignorant of even the composition of their membership, and they still know littler of their information needs. Thus, they have never had the necessary information to formulate realistic goals or policy. Perhaps the most unfortunate circumstance that ever befell the engineering profession in the United States is that at the time when it first developed a self-awareness and began to form professional societies, it looked to the scientific societies, which had then existed for over 200 years, to determine their form and function.

Interestingly, though, I do not fit the description of the engineer that Allen gives on page 99:

Most engineers are employed by bureaucratic organizations. Academic scientists are not. The engineer sees the organization as controller of the only reward system of any real importance to him and patterns his behavior accordingly. While the academic scientist finds his principal reference group and feels a high proportion of his influence from outside the organization, for the engineer, the exogenous forces simply do not exist. The organization in which he is employed controls his pay, his promotions, and, to a very great extent, his prestige in the community.

To be clear, I get a ton out of working closely with people. I worked alone building bikes for a full three years, and was solo and very isolated during much of the two year construction project I completed after college; the lack of camaraderie in those situations was hard on me. I learned through that process that working with people - and having a mutual feeling of respect and enthusiasm - was incredibly important. I've gotten a ton out of all of the colleagues I've had since then - including many who I initially clashed with.

But exogenous forces in my life absolutely exist, and are important too. I benefit greatly from keeping contact with people elsewhere in my industry - and people outside of it - and I'm confident that the companies I've worked for have benefited from my network too.

My belief is that there's more room for these things to coexist than most companies realize. As evidence, I would present that when I began working on metal 3D printing, I knew nothing about it - and didn't work at a company that had any particular interest about it in the first place. I believe that it is only through my openness that I've gotten where I am today, and through that openness I've also vastly improved my access to experienced engineers across the industry. I've gotten cold emails from people working at some of the biggest and most advanced R&D organizations in the world, something I don't think would ever have happened had I not shared the way I did. And I'm confident that the my relationships with these people are mutually beneficial - both to us as people and to the companies who employ us.

I'm about a third through Managing the Flow of Technology now; I'll probably finish it in the next month. I recommend it.

EBM surface finishes and MMP

Added on by Spencer Wright.

When I visited MicroTek Finishing, a Cincinnati based precision finishing company, in late 2014, I was intent on printing my seatmast topper with laser powder bed fusion. DMLS's install base is relatively large, making it easy to source vendors and compare pricing. And while their surface finish and dimensional accuracy can leave something to be desired, DMLS parts can be put into service with minimal post processing.

But as I was saying goodbye to Tim Bell (my host at MicroTek) that afternoon, he planted a seed. I should try building my parts in EBM, he said - and see if MicroTek's MMP process could bring the rough parts up to a useable state.

That same day, I asked Dustin and Dave (both of whom I worked with on my seatmast topper) what they thought of the idea. Dave had extensive experience on an Arcam A2, and thought it was definitely worth trying out. Relative to DMLS, EBM is a quick process (for more details on Arcam and EBM, see the Gongkai AM user guide), and a big portion of the cost structure of metal AM parts is the amount of time they take to print. Furthermore, parts can often be stacked many layers high on EBM machines, allowing the fixed costs of running a build to be distributed over a larger number of parts. And while EBM parts do tend to be rough (and have larger minimum feature sizes than DMLS), they also tend to warp and distort less - making the manufacturing plan a bit simpler in that respect.

Shortly after that trip, I reached out to Addaero Manufacturing. I visited them soon after, and then asked if they'd be interested in exploring an EBM->MMP process chain. They were, and provided three identical parts to experiment on.

The part in question is the head of a seatpost assembly for high end road bikes. The part itself is small - about 70mm tall and with a 35mm square footprint. As built, it's just 32g of titanium 6/4. Add in a piece of carbon fiber tubing (88g for a 300mm length) and some rail clamp hardware (50g), and the entire seatpost assembly should be in the 175g range - on par with the lightest seatposts on the market today.

As a product manager who's ultimately optimizing for commercial viability, I had three questions going into this process:

  1. How do the costs of the different manufacturing process chains compare? 
  2. How do the resulting parts compare functionally, i.e. in destructive testing?
  3. Functionality being equal, how do the aesthetics (and hence desirability) of the parts compare?

I'll write more about the second point later; in this post, my primary aim is to introduce MMP and compare the different process chains from a financial and operational standpoint.

Basics of surface texture

As confirmed by a 1990 NIST report titled Surface Finish Metrology Tutorial, "there is a bewildering variety of techniques for measuring surface finish." Moreover, most measurement methods focus only on the primary texture - the roughness itself - and incorporate some method of controlling for waviness and form. From the same report:

The measured profile is a combination of the primary and secondary texture. These distinctions are useful but they are arbitrary in nature and hence, vary with manufacturing process. It has been shown, but not conclusively proven that the functional effects of form error, waviness and roughness are different. Therefore, it has become an accepted practice to exclude waviness before roughness is numerically assessed.

Surface finish is usually measured using the stylus technique:

The most common technique for measuring surface profile makes use of a sharp diamond stylus. The stylus is drawn over an irregular surface at a constant speed to obtain the variation in surface height with horizontal displacement.

The most common surface texture metric is Ra. (For a good, quick, technical description of the varieties of surface texture metrics, see this PDF from Accretech.) Ra measures the average deviation of the profile from the mean line (the related Rq also measures deviation from the mean line, but using a root mean square method), and is used across a variety of industries and manufacturing methods. But it's incapable of describing a number of important aspects of a part. For instance, it's critical (for both aestetic and functional reasons) that my parts have Rsk (skewness) values close to zero - meaning that their surfaces are free from flaws like pits and warts. In other words, I'd take a consistent, brushed surface over one that's highly polished but has a few deep cuts/pits.

I should note, of course, that surface finish is a result of the total manufacturing process chain. If the near net shape part (straight out of the EBM machine) is rough and pitted, then it'll be difficult to ever make it acceptable - and the methods required to do so will vary widely. 

MicroTek and MMP

MicroTek is just one in an international network of companies that perform MMP, which grew out of a Swiss company called BESTinCLASS Industries. The MMP process is closely guarded; neither MicroTek nor BiC disclose enough about the process to really understand how it works. From MicroTek's website:

MMP Technology is a mechanical-physical-catalyst surface treatment applied to items placed inside a processing tank.  MMP technology is truly different from traditional polishing processes because of the way it interacts with the surface being treated.
MMP Technology uses a mechanical cutting process at a very small scale (not an acid attack or any other process that could alter the part's metallurgical properties), meaning it can distinguish between micro-roughness and small features. The process actually maps the surface as a collection of frequencies of roughness, removing first the highest frequencies, then removing progressively lower frequencies.
Unlike other polishing processes, MMP Technology can stop at any point along the way, so now for the first time it is possible to selectively remove only the ranges of roughness that you don't want on the surface, giving you the option of leaving behind lower frequencies of roughness that could be beneficial to the function of the part.

To hear Tim and JT Stone tell it, MicroTek essentially does a Fourier transform on the topography of the part. They analyze the surface finish as the combination of many low and high frequency functions, and begin the MMP process by characterizing those different functions and identifying which ones to remove. Then, by selecting "an appropriate regimen of MMP Technology from the several hundred treatments available," they selectively remove the undesirable aspects of the surface finish - while still preserving the underlying form of the part.

This is worth highlighting: traditionally, polishing is a process whereby a part is eaten away by abrasive media. With each successive step, progressively smaller scratches are made in the part's surface. You're constantly cutting down the peaks of the part, and as a result the form gets smaller and smaller over time. With MMP, you have the flexibility to remove fine frequencies while keeping longer ones - maintaining the original intended shape.

The parts

Addaero printed three identical parts for me. I sent two to MicroTek. They processed one for fatigue resistance, and the other they "made BLING."

(Note that you can click on the photos above to see a larger version.)

MicroTek sent detailed inspection reports with the parts, and the picture they paint is fascinating. MMP reduced both Ra and Rq drastically, and Rt dropped significantly as well. Rsk is a bit of a different story, however: in one of the measurement locations ("Side of leg"), it dropped well into the negative range. You'll recall that the absolute value of skewness is really the issue here; a negative number (indicating pitting) is just as bad as a positive (indicating warts/spikes) one.

I've put the raw data in a Google Sheet, here; the full inspection reports are here and here. The charts below show most of the relevant information, broken down by the area of the part being tested. A helpful description of the part's areas ("V-neck face," etc) is here.

Ra - Roughness average

All values in μm

Rq - Roughness, root mean square

All values in μm

Rsk - Roughness skewness

All values in μm

Rt - Roughness total

All values in μm

MicroTek also sent a series of photos taken with a Hirox digital microscope at a variety of magnifications:

If it's not clear from all of the photos and charts above, the improvement on the parts due to MMP is really remarkable. The as-printed part is really rough - on average, it's about as rough (Ra/Rq) as 120 grit sandpaper (see this for a good analysis of sandpaper surface texture). MicroTek was able to eliminate the vast majority of the total and arithmetic mean roughness; both parts they processed feel very much like finished products.

The pitting, however, is a problem. To be clear, it's not a result of the MMP process; all they did was expose flaws that were already in the part. Many of these could probably be eliminated on future batches. First, printing the parts on a newer Arcam system (like the Q20) might improve the as-printed texture significantly. And second, MicroTek can investigate more complex treatments that allow for the offending frequencies to be eliminated more thoroughly. I'll be exploring these (and other) options in the coming months.


Before putting the seatposts together, a little bit of prep was necessary. The inner diameter of both the seatpost and saddle clamp cylinders were slightly undersized, and there were warts (remnants of support structures) left on the undersides of the shoulder straps. I had intentionally left these untouched when I sent the parts to MicroTek, as I wanted to see how little post processing I could get away with. The MMP process took them down slightly, but not nearly enough to put the parts into service.

Fixing that was pretty straightforward - just a few minutes each with a file. In future iterations, I'm hoping that by making some light design modifications - and by dialing in the EBM build parameters - will minimize this work. If not, then I'll probably add CNC machining into my process chain (after printing and before finishing).

With the inner diameters trued up, the parts could be dry fitted to the carbon fiber tubing I'm using as a seatpost:

I'll be gluing the assemblies together with 3M DP420 this week, and then I'll send them out for testing. These parts will be put to the same ISO standard that my seatmast topper passed last summer, and I'm particularly curious to know whether the different levels of post processing has any effect on their strength. In high fatigue cycle applications (this paper defines "high fatigue cycle" as N>100,000, which is exactly what my parts will be tested to), improvements in surface finish (lower Ra) have been shown to increase fatigue life. If some form of surface finishing (MMP or otherwise) means that I can print a lighter AND stronger part, that'll definitely help justify the expense.


With my current design and a batch size of 275 (a full batch in an Arcam Q20) my as printed cost will be under $100. MMP will cost an additional $40-75 (depending on finish level), though those numbers were based on smaller quantities. I'd hope that the rollup cost to me is under $150.

In addition to these parts, a full seatpost requires about $25 worth of carbon fiber, a few dollars worth of glue, and (I suspect) under ten minutes of assembly time. They'll also require saddle rail hardware, which I'm budgeting an additional $25 for, and some packaging - under $10. All told, my cost of goods sold would be about $215.

That's a fancy seatpost, but it's not completely unreasonable. My goal, at the moment, is to get that price down to $150.

More updates soon :)

Thanks to Addaero and MicroTek for their ongoing help with this project.

Joining nTopology

Added on by Spencer Wright.

Nine months ago I had one of those random conversations where you walk away feeling thrilled to be working in an industry with such compelling, intelligent people.

I had met Bradley before then (there are only so many people working on additive manufacturing in NYC), but only in passing. In the meantime our paths had diverged somewhat. He was working hard on design software, whereas I had focused on getting industrial AM experience through developing a physical product. But our approaches to the industry had converged, and we had developed a shared enthusiasm for addressing the technological problems in AM head on. We became instant allies, and started swapping emails on a weekly basis. 

In August, when nTopology launched their private beta program, I jumped at the chance to use it in my own designs. The engineering advantages of lattice structures were immediately evident, and nTopology's rule-based approach allowed me to quickly develop designs that met my functional goals. And as I spent more time with nTopology's software - and got to know Greg, Matt, Erik, and Abhi - my enthusiasm about what they were building only grew.

Today I'm thrilled to announce that I'm joining nTopology full time, to run business operations and help direct product strategy. nTopology's team, mission, and product are all precisely what I've been looking for since I began working on additive manufacturing, and I can't wait for the work we've got ahead of us.

For posterity, here are a few thoughts about nTopology's approach towards design for additive manufacturing:

  1. From the very beginning of my work in AM, it was evident that traditional CAD software would never let me design the kinds of parts I wanted. I was looking for variable density parts with targeted, anisotropic mechanical properties - things that feature-based CAD is fundamentally incapable of making. nTopology's lattice design software, on the other hand, can. 
  2. As the number of beams in a lattice structure increases beyond a handful, designing by engineering intuition alone becomes totally impractical. It's important, then, to run mechanical simulations early on, and use the results to drive the design directly. nTopology let me do just that.
  3. nTopology's approach towards optimization lets me, the engineer, set my own balance between manual and algorithmic design. This is key: when I intuitively know what the design should look like, I can take the reins. When I'd rather let simulation data drive, that's fine too. The engineering process is collaborative - the software is there to help, but gets out of the way when I need it to.
  4. Best of all, nTopology doesn't limit me to design optimization - it lets me design new structures and forms as well. That means far more flexibility for me. No longer am I locked into design decisions artificially early in my workflow, when a lot of the effects of those decisions are unknown. nTopology gives a fluid transition from mechanical CAD to DFM, and lets me truly consider - and adjust - my design's effectiveness and efficiency throughout the process.

The nTopology team has shown incredible progress in a tiny amount of time. They've built a powerful, valuable, and intuitive engineering tool in less than a year - and have set a trajectory that points towards a paradigm shift in additive manufacturing design.

In the coming months, I'll be writing more about our company, our mission, and our design workflow. If you're an engineer, developer, or UI designer interested in working on the future of CAD, send me a note or see our job postings on AngelList. To learn more about purchasing a license of nTopology Element, get in touch with me directly here.

Computer aided design

Added on by Spencer Wright.

Over the past week, one particular tweet has showed up in my timeline over and over:


The photos in this tweet have been public for over a year now. I've been aware of the project since last June; it was created by Arup, the fascinating global design firm (whose ownership structure is similarly fascinating). They needed a more efficient way to design and manufacture a whole series of nodes for a tensile structure, and for a variety of reasons (including, if I recall correctly, the fact that each node was both unique and difficult to manufacture conventionally) they decided to try out additive manufacturing. As it happens, I was lucky enough to speak to the designer (Salomé Galjaard) by phone a few months ago, and enjoyed hearing about the way they're thinking of applying AM to large construction projects.

In short: I'm a fan of the project, and love to see it get more exposure. There's something about the particular wording of Jo Liss's tweet, though, that is strange to me. Specifically, I find myself asking whether a computer did, indeed, design the new nodes.

(Note: I don't know Jo Liss and don't mean to be overly critical of her choice of wording; it's simply a jumping off point for some things I've been mulling over. I also don't believe that I have any proprietary or particularly insightful information about how Arup went about designing or manufacturing the nodes in question.)

As far as I can tell, Arup's process worked like so: Engineers modeled a design space, defined boundary conditions at the attachment points (which were predefined), and applied a number of loading conditions to the part. Here the story gets less clear; some reports mention topology optimization, and others say that Arup worked with Within (which is *not* topology optimization). My suspicion is that they used something like solidThinking Inspire to create a design concept, and then modeled the final part manually in SolidWorks or similar. Regardless, we can be nearly sure that the model that was printed was indeed designed by a human; that is, the actual shapes and curves we see in the part on the right were explicitly defined by an actual engineer, NOT by a piece of software. This is because nearly every engineered component in AEC needs to be documented using traditional CAD techniques, and neither Within nor solidThinking (nor most of the design optimization industry) supports CAD export. As a result, most parts that could be said to be "designed by a computer" are really merely sketched by a computer, while the actual design & documentation is done by a human.

This may seem like a small quibble, but it's far from trivial. Optimization (whether shape, topology, or parametric) software is expensive, and as a result most of the applications where it's being adopted involve expensive end products: airplanes, bridges, hip implants, and the like. Not coincidentally, those products tend to have stringent performance requirements - which themselves are often highly regulated. Regulation means documentation, and regulating bodies tend not to be (for totally legitimate reasons which are a bit beyond the scope of this blog post) particularly impressed with some computer generated concept model in STL or OBJ format. They want real CAD data, annotated by the designer and signed off by a string of his or her colleagues. And we simply haven't even started to figure out how to get a computer to do any of that stuff.

I'm reminded here also of something that I've spent a bunch of time considering over the past six months. The name "CAD" (for Computer Aided Design) implies that SolidWorks and Inventor and Siemens NX are actively helping humans design stuff. To me, this means making actual design decisions, like where to put a particular feature or what size and shape an object should be. But the vast majority of the time that isn't the case at all. Instead, traditional CAD packages are concerned primarily with helping engineers to document the decisions that they've already made.

The implications of this are huge. Traditional CAD never had to find ways for the user to communicate design intent; they only needed to make it easy for me to, for instance, create a form that transitions seamlessly from one size and shape to another. For decades, that's been totally fine: the manufacturing methods that we had were primarily feature based, and the range of features that we've been good at making (by milling, turning, grinding, welding, etc) are very similar to the range of features that CAD packages were capable of documenting.

But additive manufacturing doesn't operate in terms of features. It deals with mass, and that mass is deposited layer by layer (with the exception of technologies like directed energy deposition, which is different in some ways but still not at all feature based). As a result, it becomes increasingly advantageous to work directly from design intent, and to optimize the design not feature by feature but instead holistically. 

One major philosophical underpinning of most optimization software (like both Within and solidThinking Inspire) is that the process of optimizing mass distribution to meet some set of design intentions (namely mechanical strength and mass, though longtime readers of this blog will know that I feel that manufacturability, aesthetics, and supply chain complexity must be considered in this calculation as well) is a task better suited to software than to humans. To that effect, they are squarely opposed to the history of Computer Aided Documentation. They want CAD software to be making actual design decisions, presumably with the input and guidance of the engineer.

If it's not clear, I agree with the movement towards true computer aided design. But CAD vendors will need to overcome a number of roadblocks before I'd be comfortable saying that my computer designs anything in particular:

First, we need user interfaces that allow engineers to effectively communicate design intent. Traditional CAD packages never needed this, and optimization software has only just begun the task of rethinking how engineers tell their computers what kind of decisions they need them to make. 

Second, we need to expand the number of variables we're optimizing for. Ultimately I believe this means iteratively focusing on one or two variables at a time, as the curse of dimensionality will make high dimensional optimization impractical for the foreseeable future. It's because of this that I'm bullish on parametric lattice optimization (and nTopology), which optimizes strength and weight on lattice structures that are (given input from the engineer) inherently manufacturable and structurally efficient.

Third, we need a new paradigm for documentation. This is for a few reasons. To start, the kinds of freeform & lattice structures that additive manufacturing can produce don't lend themselves to traditional three view 2D drawings. But in addition, there's a growing desire [citation needed] within engineering organizations to unify the design and documentation processes in some way - to make the model itself into a repository for its own design documentation.

These are big, difficult problems. But they're incredibly important to the advancement of functionally driven design, and to the integration of additive manufacturing's advantages (which are significant) into high value industries. And with some dedicated work by people across advanced design and manufacturing, I hope to see substantive progress soon :)

Thanks to Steve Taub and MH McQuiston for helping to crystalize some of the ideas in this post.

After publishing this post, I got into two interesting twitter conversations about it - one with Ryan Schmidt, and the other with Kevin Quigley. Both of them know a lot about these subjects; I recommend checking the threads out.

Why Gemba

Added on by Spencer Wright.

I’ve been working a lot on the mechanics of how Gemba (my idea for a shared industrial 3D printing space in NYC) would work, and it struck me that I should probably write down why I want to do this in the first place. These are intended to be mostly personal reasons; here goes.

I like building stuff. Having a measurable output is a big motivator for me, and I find myself similarly drawn to people who are building stuff too. 

In particular, I like building stuff that’s valuable. I’m being intentionally abstract here: my blog is valuable, and so are manufactured goods, and so is the process and craft that one learns by manufacturing things, and so is the management expertise that one develops through years of working on hard problems, and so is the social capital that one accrues by being a considerate, dedicated, hardworking person. Ideally, I’d structure my life such that I can focus on one of these things and still let the others flourish; the compound value would be exponential.

I also, for purely selfish reasons, want to make an impact on long term global problems. Like any new manufacturing method, I believe that metal AM has the potential to make a positive impact on our ability to make long term valuable products (lightweight transportation systems, patient specific orthopedic implants, etc) more effectively and efficiently. And given my experiences over the past two years, I think I can play a significant role in increasing its rate of adoption and maturity.

It’s possible I could do this in a private environment - working full time on a single, proprietary solution. But in order to create a larger impact more quickly, I feel it’s important to work alongside others. I want to work in the MIT Building 20 of advanced manufacturing. I believe that my own output - and my quality of life - will be much improved as a result.

It’s no secret that New York City is no longer the center of manufacturing that it once was. But at the same time we’ve got some of the nation’s top minds in architecture, engineering, and construction, and our 3D printing community is one of the largest in the world. We’re also the geographic center of a huge network of manufacturers (large and small) that populate the I95 corridor, and we remain *the* cultural magnet for young engineers graduating from any of the top tier schools in the Northeast.

These factors - and the anecdotal evidence that myself, and people like me, want a place to work on industrial grade problems - will give Gemba NYC a robust technical pipeline and talent pool. In addition, though, New York adds a significant edge when it comes to business model and marketing leadership. We (and by we I mean a combination of companies like Makerbot and GE) have been at the forefront of a total rebranding of additive manufacturing - one which has brought a huge influx of investment, talent, and ideas. New York also has a proven track record in developing and launching just in time, direct to consumer businesses (see Warby Parker, Casper, Blue Apron, etc) that shorten supply chains and are more responsive to end user needs. Additive manufacturing will need this expertise; New York will provide it.

In short: I believe in the technology; I believe in the power of working in close proximity with others in the industry; I believe in New York City’s ability to lead technical and commercial solutions to the problems facing industrial AM.

I want to increase the success rate of industrial additive manufacturing. I think it’ll be fun, and interesting, and will benefit both myself and humanity as a whole. And in order to increase my own success rate, I want create a space where dedicated, forward thinking companies and individuals can experiment with and develop solutions to the problems facing AM today.

This will require a big effort, and I’ll need the involvement of people and companies much more experienced than myself. I’m looking forward to hearing what their interests are, and developing a space and financial model that serves us all well. If the things above resonate with you, get in touch - I’d love to chat.

On Optimization

Added on by Spencer Wright.

As I've explored further into the obscure regions of design for additive manufacturing, I've been thinking a lot about the philosophical underpinnings of optimization, and the role that design optimization can play in product development. Optimization is in the air today; the major CAD vendors all seem to have an offering which purports to create "the ideal part" with "optimum relation between weight, stiffness and dynamic behavior" and "the aesthetics you want." These promises are attractive for seemingly obvious reasons, but it's less clear how design optimization (at least as it exists today) actually affects the product development process.

Product development inherently involves a three-way compromise between quality, cost, and speed. The most critical trait of a product manager is the ability to establish a balance between these three variables, and then find ways to maintain it.

Understanding the strengths and limitations of manufacturing processes is, then, invaluable to me as a product manager. Given infinite resources, people are pretty good at making just about anything that can be designed; there are designers out there who make very successful careers just by pushing the boundaries of what is possible, and employing talented manufacturing engineers to figure out how to bring their designs into existence. But in my own experience, the more I understand and plan for the manufacturing process, the easier it has been to maintain a balance between quality and cost - and hence to create an optimal end product.

All of which makes me feel a strange disconnect when I encounter today's design optimization software, which always seems to focus specifically on creating Platonically perfect parts - with no regard for manufacturability or cost.

To be fair, traditional CAD programs don't usually have a strong manufacturability feedback loop either. Inventor, SolidWorks, and NX are all perfectly happy with me designing a fillet with a radius of .24999995" - when a 1/4" radius would work just fine and cost much less to manufacture. In this way, traditional CAD requires the user to have an understanding of the manufacturability of the features that she designs - a requirement which, given the maturity and nature of conventional manufacturing methods, is not unreasonable.

But the combination of additive manufacturing on one hand, and generative design on the other, produces vastly different effects. No longer does a designer work on features per se. There's no fillet to design in the first place, only material to move around in 3D space. Moreover, the complex interaction between a part's geometry and its orientation on the build platform produce manufacturability problems (overhanging faces and thermal stresses, to name two) that are difficult to predict - and much harder to keep in mind than things like "when you design fillets, make their radii round numbers."

The remarkable thing about AM design optimization software, then, isn't that it allows me to create expensive designs - it's that these kinds of manufacturing factors (orientation to the build platform, and the structural and thermal effects that it produces) aren't treated as things which need to be optimized for at all.

The purpose of optimization should be to help me, as a product manager, design optimal *products* - not to chase some Platonic ideal.

So: Give me a way to incorporate build orientation, overhanging faces, and slicing data into my designs. Those variables are critical to the balance between cost, quality, and speed; without them, the products I design will never be optimal. 

My writing in Metal Additive Manufacturing Magazine

Added on by Spencer Wright.

I'm extremely proud to say that my writing is featured in the current issue of Metal Additive Manufacturing Magazine. The article summarizes much of my work over the past two years, and includes many of my thoughts about how the industry can be better in the future. You can read the full article here.

Thanks so much to Nick Williams and the rest of the Metal AM for asking me to contribute!


Added on by Spencer Wright.

Over the past month I've mentioned my college major more and more in conversations about why I'm drawn to metal additive manufacturing. "Aside from trying to develop solutions for physical problems, I'm not an engineer," I'll say. "I studied Linguistics in college." I'm probably not the best judge of my intentions here, but I suspect I use this fact partly to highlight the authenticity of my enthusiasm (I've clearly selected this out as a topic of interest), and partly to set myself up as a Man From Mars. But in doing so, I end up downplaying what is an interesting thread in my career path - the desire to organize and understand data in ways that make it easier to do stuff.

I ended up in my first ling class - Syntax 1 - on a whim. I had a rather insufferable tendency to take random classes in college, most of which I'd skate through with curiosity but not a ton of drive. But Syntax was different. Where the philosophy classes I had taken were mostly concerned with arguing over opinions, and everything else seemed focused on teaching me facts, Syntax was about reasoning, pattern matching, and experiment design. Better yet, the data set at hand is literally infinite, and is accessible just by thinking up new sentences and comparing them with gibberish. I would spend hours doing this in my head: figuring out what the key variables to test a theory were, and then thinking up sentences that tested them. It was very compelling work.

Meanwhile, I had fallen in love with building things in the physical world. I was heavily involved in running a small bike shop during college, and took welding classes on the weekends. And when the opportunity arose to take time off school to run a small construction project for my parents, I jumped at it. Executing physical things - making the world more suitable for someone's needs - became a big part of my life, and when I finished my major I took on another, much larger, construction project.

Throughout my career (first in construction, then in manufacturing and product development), I've grappled with the uncertainty that the physical world brings. In linguistics (much like computer science) there's a high correlation between theory and practice. That's not to say that those fields are any easier to navigate - each presents more than its share of big challenges. But in the physical world there is a fundamental conflict between the accuracy and the resolution of what we can measure, and our ability to synthesize models for how things work is constrained by this. And even if we could overcome these fundamental uncertainties, a lot of the time you just get soot on the imaging system, and the whole experiment is rendered useless.

Somewhat separately, I've grappled with the toolchain used to coordinate physical projects. My first real experience with this was finding a decent plumber, but the same sense has followed me through manufacturing procurement, new product development, and small parts storage systems. The structures of the manufacturing and construction industries are idiosyncratic and not at all self-similar. Moreover, they turn over less quickly than those in linguistics (the study of language, not the language itself) and software development, where entire new paradigms can be developed and implemented in a matter of months. 

Today, additive manufacturing is right in the overlap in the Venn diagram of "subject to physical uncertainty" and "has a really disjointed toolchain." And the more I learn about the technology and the industry, the more it seems like the ideal place to witness - and have a meaningful impact in shaping - a new era for how human systems affect the physical world.

Of course it is key that people want the (purported) benefits that I hope metal AM will bring in this next few years. The work at hand, then, is to find applications where the value of AM is great enough to be commercially viable now - and then adjust their systems of production to fit the need. In other words: First, find what the pain points are in bringing 3D printed consumer products to market. Then, identify and organize the data flow in order to avoid & solve those pain points.

Of course, additive is just one of many sub-industries that I'd look forward to seeing the streamlined, integrated versions of. I still want a better way of finding a plumber, and I still want better ways of communicating what I want to him, and I still want more effective and efficient systems for him to organize his small parts inventory. Some of my favorite people are out there working on those problems right now, and I take every opportunity I can to help them along in some way. Because I see in them the same desire that I have: to organize data about the physical world in ways that make it easier for us to do good things there.

Hence, my desire to better understand physical urban infrastructure; my desire to help both Amazon and McMaster-Carr think about the way they're approaching the digitization of industrial supply; my frustration when today's procurement platforms simply digitize an opaque process without rethinking the role they play in product development; my tendency to draw parallels between "soft" robotics (think Baxter) and the supplier validation process. In all of these cases, I see - and am excited for - a significant shift in the way that information is used to understand and improve the physical world.

In my work in metal AM to date, I have tried to uncover the existing theories - rules of thumb, essentially - that most reliably produce parts today. I'm looking forward to continuing on that path, and to working with and around the engineers, researchers, and entrepreneurs at the boundaries of theory and the physical world today.

Supply chain complexity : process reliability

Added on by Spencer Wright.

A serious question - please post comments if you have thoughts!

Does the ratio of service providers to OEMs in an industry correlate indirectly with the defect rates in its critical components?

In other words, as the manufacturing processes required to produce a product become more reliable, is production shifted away from OEMs?

You won't be surprised that my question relates to metal AM - and the degree to which OEMs can generally outspend (in both R&D and acquisitions) the smaller job shops. When a critical process in the industry is unreliable, OEMs can invest the capital expenses to either solve the problem (through R&D and often resulting in trade secrets) or acquire companies who have. But as the process matures, smaller service providers can be more competitive, as their overhead is (citation needed) in many cases lower.

As a result: Until the process (for example, metal powder bed fusion) is fully industrialized and reliable, it's very difficult for small shops to enter the market. But once the technology is well understood, mom & pop shops are able to flourish. 

A concrete example: Today, OEMs like GE, Airbus, and Philips dominate the metal additive industry, and the proprietary R&D they do makes insourcing components more cost competitive than buying them from service providers. If you start a job shop today, it might be 12-18 months before it reliably creates revenue. But if & when additive becomes a more predictable process, the time to revenue (and profit) will be shortened, and OEMs will find it increasingly attractive to outsource their parts.

^ This is a half baked theory - I'd love to hear your perspective!


  1. This question prompted a good discussion on twitter!
  2. Another note to the example above: Arcam EBM is (and I don't mean this as a criticism) less fully industrialized than laser metal powder bed fusion. 
    There are (by my count) 23 firms in the US who own Arcam machines; three are job shops, one is owned by Arcam, and the rest are OEMs or research institutes. On the other hand, there are many dozens (by my count at least 70) of service providers who have laser based machines. If the ratio of OEMs to job shops were consistent across the technologies, you'd expect there to be over 500 firms in the US running laser machines in house - which sounds *much* too high to me.

Notes on Amazon Business and decisions in B2B ecommerce

Added on by Spencer Wright.

This week, while in Seattle, I had the pleasure of visiting Amazon and talking with some folks there about Amazon Business. To prep, I spent a bit of time reflecting on the B2B ecommerce world, and how the major players in it have approached & prioritized their efforts there. I've written about both Amazon and B2B ecommerce a bit before, but what's below clarifies my thoughts on their position in the ecosystem significantly.

To an outsider, Amazon has always struck me with two core messages:

  1. We are insanely customer focused.
  2. We have built a massively impressive logistical operation - the biggest of its kind, outside of China.

Also of note: Amazon has always seemed to target specific audiences in its external messaging. Most prominent to me are:

  • Consumers; people who would otherwise be shopping at Walmart or local retail stores. Basically everything on the website is directed towards this group.
  • Other retailers/competitors. This is a bit less immediately evident, but it’s my impression that Amazon’s willingness to talk openly about their fulfillment centers (one of which I toured last year) and the way they’re thinking about logistics & delivery (cf. drone delivery, rumors about a NYC store, etc) are intended specifically to scare off firms that might want to compete with Amazon’s retail business.
  • Google/Apple/Microsoft. This is specific to AWS, which has become increasingly in focus over the past year (but was always assumed to be huge).
  • Investors. The best example of this is the shareholder letter, which is always a good read. The core intent here seems (and I’ll admit that this is a half-baked theory at the moment) that investors should trust Amazon, because they’re a truly visionary company - like Apple and Google, NOT like some retailer that should be focusing on short term objectives.

What’s missing in the list above is business customers. I’ve bought plenty of business related stuff on Amazon, but it’s usually been from my personal account, and the shopping experience isn’t aware (or doesn’t care about) the context shift that I (presumably?) go through when I clock in and out. The “Recommendations for you” sections switch over, but it’s on a visit-by-visit basis. Amazon treats me as a person, and it simply recommends that I look at things that are similar to what I looked at recently. 

Now, I’m sure that plenty of businesses have Amazon accounts that are just for business purchases. I worked at one such business a few years ago, and again recently. In both of these cases, I got the impression that (and please, pardon the pseudo Christensen here) Amazon had trickled *up,* being used first at home (whether by the person in charge of purchasing, or someone who was bugging them to buy something) and then later at work. As a result, it always made sense that the Amazon product we used at work was the same as the one we were using at home. I was used to it, and it has gotten *so* easy to buy stuff for personal use there, and changing my mindset a bit to use Amazon for business stuff was really very easy.

The arrangement worked well. When I was running a prototyping shop, I made a *lot* of purchases from McMaster-Carr and MSC and Rutland. Those companies’ catalogs were tailored for the work we were doing, and they (especially McMaster) do *such* a good job of providing a consistent browsing, purchasing, and fulfillment experience, that once you get used to their system it’s hard to imagine life without it. But there were plenty of times where I used Amazon too, especially when it came to items that fell more on the “office supplies” end of the spectrum. Amazon’s search features are really good, and it’s great to have ratings sometimes as well. Amazon’s product discovery system is dramatically different from those of the industrial suppliers, and there are a lot of cases where I’ll hit the wall with one system and really just want a change of pace.

This is worth highlighting: 

  • McMaster-Carr’s search is very good, but their browse features are just *awesome.* This works because they’re basically a walled garden: McMaster curates their catalog well, and they do a really fantastic job collecting & displaying (consistent!) data about every product that they sell. 
  • Amazon is basically on the other side of the spectrum. Their catalog is enormous, but it’s full of stuff that comes from third parties, and is often really poorly documented. Plus there’s a lot of stuff that you can buy on Amazon that’s basically a joke (that 55 gallon drum of lube comes to mind). This is partly made up for by their review system, which is really helpful when you’re evaluating multiple products whose data doesn’t line up directly. But it also feels like a crapshoot sometimes, especially with decidedly consumer products (that three wolf shirt comes to mind). In the end, the Amazon shopping experience is definitely less consistent than McMaster’s - but then again, McMaster won’t sell you a 55 gallon drum of lube. (I’m being facetious, but the point is real. Amazon’s huge catalog is definitely a feature.)
  • The other industrial players are a mixed bag. None of them are as good about data keeping (or, consequently, browsing/filtering) as McMaster. None of their searches are as good as McMaster or Amazon, and none of their catalogs are as large, either. They make up for these shortcomings with depth: Uline does shipping, MSC and Rutland do tooling, etc. They have niches, and their capabilities within those niches make them incredibly valuable.

It’s also worth noting that these companies each take a different approach to knowing/caring who (or what type of entity) their customers are:

  • It’s implicit from McMaster’s site, but I’ve been told in person that they take it very seriously that they do *not* treat different customers differently whether they’re a business or an individual. The prices I see as some schmo on the street are the same prices I see if I’m an engineer at Lockheed Martin, and they don’t give quantity discounts either. They’ll even turn away large orders, and are in general happy to send customers to their suppliers if it’d make more sense to cut McMaster out of the transaction. 
  • A lot of the same could be said of Amazon, with the caveat that there’s a public perception that Amazon is constantly optimizing their pricing - definitely for time of year (supply and demand), but possibly also on a person-by-person basis. I have no way of knowing how much of this is true, and personally I wouldn’t find it offensive if it was. But it does strike me that Amazon takes the stance that “everyone sees the same site, but that ‘same site’ is one that’s constantly shifting depending on who you are and when you’re looking at it and what you looked at recently, and when we talk about the ‘same site’ we’re talking about something that might vary in layout, graphic design, product recommendations, pricing, and any other number of variables.”
  • Most of the industrial players, on the other hand, do kind of want to be selling to actual businesses. Some of them will go so far as requiring EINs or sales tax IDs (this is more common with suppliers that sell products at wholesale), but almost all of them will at least have the “business name” field be required.

If it’s not clear, I *like* these differences. I enjoy living in a world where companies put philosophical approaches to commerce up for debate, and let consumers decide which they prefer. The variety is good, and I find myself enjoying trying to use each to its most powerful effect. But the differences are worth noting, and it’s fun (and possibly useful) to project outward where each of these perspectives might lead in the future.

3D printing titanium: Learning to learn from success

Added on by Spencer Wright.

Dear reader — 

This report is an update to my experiences in metal 3D printing; it describes a good chunk of what I’ve been working on over the past four months. While I’d like to say that it stands on its own, I think there’s some context — especially if you’re just beginning to explore metal 3D printing — that can be gained from reading my earlier posts (starting with my long "Bin of broken dreams post") first.

For background: I believe that functional, engineered consumer products made by additive manufacturing are an inevitability. In order to prepare myself for that inevitability, I’ve been developing a line of bicycle parts made by metal powder bed fusion, a process that’s used extensively in aerospace, medical, and tooling applications. My last post described the difficulty and constraints I’ve experienced in part geometry and build orientation. Since then I’ve turned a corner, and today I can say that I’ve successfully designed, built, and tested a functional product — which at last puts me in the position of needing to learn from success.

As I’ve documented the process — and frustrations — of developing metal 3D printed parts, I’ve been pleased and surprised at the number of people who’ve reached out to me to commiserate (n.b., if you’re reading this and want to do so yourself, please drop me a line). Without exception, they have expressed solidarity. “We share all of your frustrations,” one person said. “I have been through the same pain as you,” said another. 

One of these people was Tom De Bruyne, General Manager at Layerwise. Layerwise is a Belgian company which was started out of the Catholic University of Leuven (one of the premier centers of additive manufacturing research); it was acquired by 3D Systems in late 2014. They’re famous for being one of the few service providers who built their own laser metal powder bed fusion machines, and have a ton of experience making 3D printed parts at both prototype and production scale. We struck up a conversation, and soon agreed to work together.

While popular opinion would have you think that quantity is a non-factor with 3D printing, the realities of running a service bureau are much to the contrary. To job shops, quantity is a critical factor; if a part will be produced at large volumes, every detail of its design and manufacturing life cycle must be examined. If, on the other hand, you’re printing a tool — or a prototype of a part that will be manufactured conventionally — then most shops will focus on getting the first print right without modifying its underlying geometry.

My project falls somewhere in the middle: while my design is certainly imperfect, there are many aspects of it which are very close. Moreover, it poses challenges (most notably its opposing cylinders, oriented 90° apart, and also its thin-wall construction and bolt boss) that will exist throughout any redesign, and solving them now will only improve my ability to deal with them in future iterations. 

At the current juncture, the key questions to test are:

  • Can we reliably build my current design with minimal post processing?
  • Does my current design meet the necessary performance standards (strength, security, etc.) for bicycle seatmast toppers?

In practical terms, the first question boils down to whether we can build a part that can be installed on a bicycle. This means two things: maintaining inner diameters which are round and dimensionally accurate to within +/-.006", and having a bolt boss on the long cylinder which, when tightened, is capable of securing the part to a bicycle’s seatmast.

My last prototype was built on its side, and the long cylinder’s aft wall distorted as it was sintered. We added a series of solid ribs in order to counteract the built-in stress in that wall, but it ended up like a game of whack-a-mole: each reinforcement just moved the stress somewhere else. A new approach was needed.

Unlike most of the US job shops I’ve spoken to, Layerwise bundles together many low-volume customer orders into each build; my part was printed alongside a handful of other titanium parts in one of the 15–20 machines that Layerwise designed and built themselves. This means that Layerwise is able to process a large value of parts at once, even if they’re only building prototype quantities of each design.

This poses a significant challenge: if one part fails, it can jeopardize many customers’ orders. To mitigate this risk, Layerwise constantly monitors a slew of process signatures, and can adjust machine parameters on-the-fly if they detect problems. They’re also working on a layer-based deposition control & verification system (the details of this are secretive, but it sounds similar to the optical tomography systems that other machine manufacturers are working on today). Still, each part is evaluated carefully beforehand in order to anticipate and avoid failures. Especially for short-run prototypes, it’s usually better to over engineer the support structures (and ensure a successful build) than skimp out and need to rebuild the part later.

Layerwise is secretive about their custom-built machines, but they did tell me a few details. They each contain a single laser, and are built around roughly the same form factor (275mm x 275mm x 420mm) as most of the industrial machines on the market today. I also understand that Layerwise uses a recoater blade (unlike 3D Systems’ ProX line, which uses a roller), though I couldn’t confirm whether it’s a hard material (like the high speed steel blades that most EOS machines use) or a soft one (like the polymer wipers often used on Concept Laser machines). They’re able to print in about 15 materials, with the majority of their work being done in titanium. They monitor temperature, pressure, and oxygen content on-the-fly, and are working on additional variables — including full melt pool analysis.

Layerwise has in-house wire EDM, and has a daughter company that does 5-axis CNC machining. But most prototype parts, including mine, are finished by hand. When validating a part for production, Layerwise tests the full manufacturing lifecycle, building multiple full batches of parts and sending them out to be post processed. Once they’ve validated the process, they will in some cases hand off production to other 3D Systems divisions.


I worked with Martijn Vanloffelt, a project engineer at Layerwise, to prepare my part to be built. He used a few key tricks:

In order to maintain roundness in the saddle clamp cylinder (the shorter of the two cylinders, which was was going to be oriented more or less parallel to the build plate), Layerwise reinforced the inner diameter with three serrated discs. 

They also oriented the part slightly off-axis in both the X and Y axes. This brings me to a point that’s worth highlighting: In metal powder bed fusion, a part’s orientation has a number of effects. First of all, any surface with an angle of less than about 45° (depending on material) must be supported. As a result, it’s generally better to orient a part so that all overhangs are as steep as possible.

From NIST Technical Note 1801, a good primer on laser metal powder bed fusion.

But in addition, one must consider the angle between the part and the recoater blade. If the part lifts up at any point during the build, the recoater blade will strike it. The longer the area of contact is, the worse the result will be. Some machine manufacturers offer alternative recoaters to lower this risk (3D Systems ProX uses a roller; EOS offers a carbon fiber brush; Arcam uses a metal comb; and both Concept Laser and SLM offer soft polymer blades), but most use a piece of high speed steel (or, in the case of older EOS machines, a ceramic blade) to spread powder across the build platform. Regardless, it is usually better to orient parts slightly off axis in the XY plane, so that the blade doesn’t contact the part’s walls all at once. 

Orienting parts off axis can also help improve surface finish. When a cylinder’s axis is aligned in the XY plane, the top face will exhibit an undesirable stepped appearance; my earlier prototypes all had this feature. When a part is oriented off axis, the surface finish is generally more consistent.

I should note that none of these techniques is guaranteed to work in all cases. Layerwise has a lot of experience building a wide variety of geometries, and has developed a sense of how to anticipate and deal with issues as they come up. I got the impression that the techniques they used on my part are things they’ve used in the past, but each design is different — and even a tried-and-true method of dealing with one design isn’t guaranteed to work well on another.

The Layerwise team also put a lot of care into generating mesh supports. Like most of the additive metal industry, Layerwise uses Materialise Magics for their final build prep, and they’ve developed expertise in exploiting the software in creative ways. I’m not able to share a detailed description of the supports Layerwise created for my part, but I can say (and anyone in the industry could confirm) that they were needed in four areas:

  1. Underneath the part to anchor it to the build plate. 
  2. Inside the saddle clamp cylinder. 
  3. Inside the window in the center funnel area. 
  4. Inside the seatmast clamp bolt boss. 

Layerwise took great care to orient the part such that it didn’t require support structures inside the hidden voids in its center section. This is something that designers and project engineers alike need to think about as a part heads into production. Not only can powder bed fusion not make fully sealed voids (if you printed a sealed sphere, the entire center would be full of trapped, unmelted powder at the end of the process), but many geometries will require support structures in areas where they’re difficult or impossible to remove. For instance, a Klein bottle could be printed in metal — but no matter how you oriented it, there would likely always be support structures stuck inside its fat end. Because of the angles in my part, it was possible to avoid this — but a different design might not fare as well.

The Parts

The first part Martijn printed was a big step forward: The build completed successfully without collapsing. However, a new problem arose. The windows on the seatmast clamp area caused the two “leaves” of that cylinder to twist as they were built. By the time the window closed back up, they had become misaligned, and a witness was clearly visible where they joined back together. The part had a clear flaw — and it wouldn’t be acceptable for production.

In the next build, Martijn added a curved, perforated disc to each of the seat mast cylinder’s windows, keeping them aligned as they grew. The part that resulted was a full success, printing with clean, smooth surfaces and good near net dimensions.

Layerwise’s second build.

Considering how much support material needed to be added back into the seatmast clamp area just to get it to build properly, I’m struck again with how inefficient my design is. The windows in the sides of the part are meant to reduce both weight and cost, but a bunch of energy is put into supporting them — and then cleaning the temporary supports out again. Instead of windows, I could just as well have replaced the walls with a lattice structure that would both decrease mass and be self-supporting during the build process, bringing the part’s cost down.

This hammers home a point that has plagued my design process: Without knowing — and, optimally, having input into — how a part is going to be oriented and supported during its build, designers are doomed to creating inefficient designs. Designing for manufacturing requires an intimate knowledge of the manufacturing process, including direct access to detailed information about how the part will be oriented and supported. But in most designer/service provider relationships today, that information comes well after many of the important design decisions have been made — if it comes at all. As a result, it often takes a large investment (both in time and money) just to prove whether additive can possibly be used to create the part at hand — and once that’s been proven, many additional iterations are sure to be needed.

This is a key problem in today’s additive manufacturing supply chain: while parts are usually designed in a solid modeling environment (often Autodesk Inventor or Solidworks, each of which cost between $5–10,000), builds are oriented and supported in Materialise Magics — which costs an additional ~$20,000. As a result, independent designers are stuck with a disjointed process, which requires costly iterations and lots of communication with the service bureau who’s preparing the part to be built.

Regardless: At this point in the process, it didn’t make sense to redesign the seatmast clamp area to reduce supports. Martijn’s build had a very high likelihood of completing successfully, and it was time to put it to the test.

It worked.

Post processing 

After printing it, Layerwise did a bunch of post processing before sending the part to me:

  1. First, the entire build plate was stress relieved. Layerwise’s stress relief process is proprietary, but a typical process would involve putting the build plate in a furnace and bringing it to 600°C over a period of an hour, then holding it there for three hours before turning it off. In theory the furnace is either argon purged or vacuumed, but in practice it may contain small amounts of oxygen too. Layerwise says that the vast majority of the stress relief that they do is performed in a vacuum, but argon is typically used on prototype parts.
  2. Then the parts were removed from the build plate. Like most shops I’ve spoken to, Layerwise uses wire EDM — though bandsaws are also common.
  3. At this point, each customer’s part is separated and processed on its own. Supports are removed by a totally unsexy manual process, often involving wrenches, picks, and mallets.
  4. Where support structures have been removed additional cleanup is usually necessary. On prototype parts, Layerwise makes extensive use of rotary grinding bits.
  5. The inner diameters of my part were both ground to their final size. Layerwise told me that this process was 100% manual, and I was blown away at the precision and consistency of the surface finish.
  6. Then, any remaining features were micro shot peened with a nonabrasive ceramic medium.

At this point, Layerwise sent me the part. Still to be done, however, was to tap the female threads in the seatmast bolt boss.

Herein lies an important point: metal 3d printing does not, in general, produce usable mechanical features like threading. In conventional manufacturing, threading is often just another step on the same machine: mills and lathes can both easily create female threads. But with additive, threading almost always requires secondary processing. As a result, the design files that are loaded into Magics only contain plain-bore thru holes; any threading specifications must be documented (and manufactured) separately.

So, the part that I received simply had a 4.2mm hole in it; it was up to me to cut the M5 female threads. “No problem,” I thought. I’ve got a tap handle right at my desk, and am more than comfortable using it. 

At this point, I became painfully aware of what’s called alpha case. Alpha case is a very hard, brittle layer of oxygen rich titanium in a part’s surface (for an interesting study on alpha case depth, see this); it’s the result of the titanium having been processed at high temperatures in environments where oxygen is present. And as I tapped the hole in the first part that Layerwise printed me, I realized that it’s very, very difficult to cut.

In order to make my job easier, I purchased a set of custom progressive taps from Widell Industries. Progressive taps cut threads in three steps, increasing the thread depth as they go. As a result, the cutting force required is generally much lower.

Even using progressive taps, I was shocked at how difficult tapping the second part was. It was incredibly slow going, and produced a lot of heat. I used cutting fluid liberally, and 45 minutes later was done.

I should note here that titanium is a hard metal regardless of how it’s processed. Moreover, alpha case is preventable; in this case, it’s simply the result of the stress relief process being done in a furnace that contains some trace oxygen. Annealed titanium 6/4 has a typical Vickers hardness of about 349, but when a part has been stress relieved in an oxygenated environment, that number might jump to more than 412. By comparison, 4130 steel and 6061-T6 aluminum (both of which are used extensively in the bicycle industry) have Vickers hardnesses of around 207 and 107, respectively. In future prototypes, I would probably specify that the stress relief should happen in a full vacuum; that would at least make the tapping a bit easier.

Regardless: Finally, the part was ready to assemble:

After a total of eight build iterations, I could finally have the part tested — and learn whether my underlying design worked.


To help understand if my design would handle real world performance requirements, I worked with EFBE Prüftechnik, a German bicycle & component testing facility. EFBE tested the part to ISO 4210–9:2014, 4.5. That test entails:

  1. Clamping the seatmast topper onto a 34.8mm pillar angled at 73°, and fitting a dummy saddle rail into the saddle clamp.
  2. Applying 100,000 cycles of a test force of 1230 N, at a distance of 70mm to the center of the rail clamp, with the saddle rail tilted down/backwards by 10°.
  3. Applying a vertical static load of 2050 N to the center of the saddle rail clamp.

Marcus Schröder, managing director of EFBE, put my part through the dynamic test first. It passed.

Before he went through the static load test, Marcus asked whether I wanted to make sure I got an intact part back — or if I would rather find the failure mode in the static test. In the latter scenario, he would apply the maximum force his rig could handle and see if he could get the part to break — allowing me to redesign it accordingly. Wanting to know as much about my design as possible, I chose the latter option.

Marcus’s test fixture was capable of applying 3750 Newtons to the part. My part withstood the whole thing.


Marcus used penetrating dye to confirm that the part didn’t have any micro fractures, and it came back negative. The part had met and exceeded the requirements for parts like it.

My part, covered in penetrating dye after being tested.

It’s worth noting that this test is simply that: a test. It’s meant to simulate real world conditions and guarantee that the part meets generally accepted standards. But it simulates those conditions only generally; manufacturers of these kinds of parts will often have their own in-house spec that to tune the characteristics they optimize for. But in general, a designer needs to choose a test, and then optimize his design such that the part fails just beyond the test’s requirements. If I trust the ISO spec implicitly then it stands to reason that I should remove more material from the part; after all, it passed the test with a wide margin.

Regardless, my part could be further optimized. What I’ve done to date was prove a basic concept: That metal powder bed fusion can be used to make thin walled bicycle parts. Which, to be honest, isn’t a particularly surprising result; after all, metal powder bed fusion has been used by others to create all kinds of bike parts, including both road and mountain frames. 

The question is: Can I make it commercially viable?

Practical matters

With the current design and an order quantity of 10 pieces, the as-printed parts cost about $500 to make. Meanwhile, the most expensive commercially available seatmast topper I’m aware of (made by No22) costs $300, and the fanciest seatpost I’ve ever seen (made by AX Lightness) was under $600.

Now, there are a number of interesting things to note here. First, I’m able to buy in fairly low quantities. It’s not unreasonable for me to purchase parts in batches of 10, which is about as low as any non-stock commercial product in the world— and much lower than most products that involve forging, casting or CNC machining. If I can sell my part at a high end price point, then it wouldn’t take much cost reduction before I’ve got a reasonable margin — even with a strikingly low order volume. And there are a number of ways that I can reduce cost on this part:

  1. Even keeping the part’s design the same, I can reduce the cost by 25–40% by doubling the layer thickness. This will result in a rougher surface finish, but it’s possible that the difference will be acceptable.
  2. A significant amount of time and effort can be saved by redesigning the underlying model so that the inner diameters need very little — or even zero — post processing. It’s unclear exactly how much work this will take, but it could reduce the price significantly.
  3. Moreover, the entire part can be redesigned in order to reduce both the end mass *and* the amount of support structures necessary. Both of these have a big effect on price, though it will be time consuming to find an optimal design.

All of this assumes that I stick with a laser powered process. Electron beam melting (which I’ve been experimenting with) might reduce cost further, though the design constraints there are quite different. 

It’s also possible that while this part isn’t the absolute best application for additive manufacturing, there’s another place on high end bicycles where additive works better. This is key: The cost of this part is in the right order of magnitude as my goal. Any number of small changes — whether to the machine’s build parameters, the design, or the underlying cost of the technology — could easily put the numbers in my favor.

Industry observations

As I hope you would expect by now, a few things have jumped out to me in this past few months of work — some relating to longer term questions I have about the industry.

Manufacturing design

As a designer, having more — and earlier — access to support structure generation software is incredibly helpful. Today, countless design decisions are made on little more than a hunch; it’s not until much later that the ramifications of those decisions become evident. This leads to an inefficient design-for-manufacturing process, where it’s difficult for product designers and manufacturing engineers to communicate all of the nuance needed. Until professional grade design software (and here I’m looking at Autodesk, Dassault, Siemens, and PTC) allows these implications to be understood early on, this will be a big problem. In other words, I should be able to set build orientation and design support structures directly in my CAD modeling environment.


The designs that are loaded onto a metal 3D printer are often very different from the finished part, whether due to the addition of stock material to be removed subsequently (like my female threads), or the support structures necessary to hold the part on the build platform. But today’s modeling software generally only shows one state for each 3D model; those intermediate, near net shapes aren’t linked to the end design. This makes the design for manufacturing process even more disjointed and awkward, as it means that I’m never working on the same design documents as my manufacturing partner is. This communication structure is bound (cf. Conway’s Law) to be replicated in the end product, and the result is bad. To fix it, we need a new class of software that blends CAD (computer aided design) and CAM (computer aided manufacturing), allowing designers to understand a part’s production cycle with perfect clarity.

True design optimization

In the work I’ve described so far, I’ve relied exclusively on conventional volumetric and NURBS modeling techniques. But a new wave of design tools is out there — topology optimization and lattice generation, for instance — and they promise to create designs directly from functional requirements. Presumably these techniques would be just as applicable to my part as they are to the applications they’re already used on (mainly aerospace, biomedical, and other high tech applications). I’ve begun to explore this space, but the fact of the matter is that I’m not aware of a single consumer product today that was designed with these tools. My hope is that they both remove weight and make the part more visually appealing, but it could take a lot of work and some expensive (and experimental) software to find whether I’m correct.

Blatant editorializing: Gongkai for industrial additive manufacturing

Today, the viability of additive processes is totally opaque, producing a chilling effect on the creativity of both designers, service bureaus, and machine manufacturers. It’s my strong belief that that will only change by better understanding the efficiencies (and inefficiencies) of the additive manufacturing toolchain, and through my own work I hope to do just that.

In a series (one, two) of recent blog posts, Bunnie Huang describes the way that Chinese electronics manufacturers have been able to drastically decrease the cost of consumer electronics. To me, they provide an example for how additive manufacturing could advance much more quickly:

My most striking impression was that Chinese entrepreneurs had relatively unfettered access to cutting-edge technology, enabling start-ups to innovate while bootstrapping. Meanwhile, Western entrepreneurs often find themselves trapped in a spiderweb of IP frameworks, spending more money on lawyers than on tooling. Further investigation taught me that the Chinese have a parallel system of traditions and ethics around sharing IP, which lead me to coin the term “gongkai”… this copying isn’t a one-way flow of value, as it would be in the case of copied movies or music. Rather, these documents are the knowledge base needed to build a phone using the copyright owner’s chips, and as such, this sharing of documents helps to promote the sales of their chips. There is ultimately, if you will, a quid-pro-quo between the copyright holders and the copiers.

It would be an understatement to say that industrial additive manufacturing hasn’t adopted gongkai. Today, trade secrets & patents are the name of the game; the access I’ve been permitted (by Layerwise, DRT Medical-Morris, and countless other friends across the industry) is rarely afforded to others. It’s my feeling that this is bad, both for the technology as a whole and for the long term interest of individual players within it.

For instance: Anyone with experience could, given a part geometry and its build orientation, surmise more or less what the support structures will look like. If you have a physical part in hand, it’s even easier to reverse engineer; a part’s layer boundaries reveal its build orientation, and even with careful cleanup it’s generally possible to tell which surfaces have had support structures removed from them. In short, manufacturing forensics is, with enough experience and care, fairly reliable. And yet orientation and support structure setups are almost always treated as closely guarded secrets.

With so much uncertainty in industrial additive manufacturing today, firms are caught in something of a prisoner’s dilemma; their protective IP strategies prevent the industry from moving forward in the way that everyone ultimately wants it to. 

All around the world, intelligent, hardworking people trying to solve the most basic problems in additive manufacturing. Everyone in the industry knows what these are, and all of the major players are fighting tooth and nail to solve them first. And though it seems a long way off, I think most of them genuinely believe that they’ll see fully automated orientation & support structure generation within the next decade or two.

But today, the process of printing a part is decidedly hands-on; expertise is critical. “The people who are good at this stuff are good at it because they’ve been doing it for eight years,” one industry veteran told me recently. For sure, this industry is full of valuable intellectual property. But in most cases, *craftsmanship* is central to most firms’ bottom lines — and it is protected at all expense.

I believe that industrial additive manufacturing needs far, far more knowledge sharing. We need an environment closer to the one that Bunnie describes: 

We need “a ‘network’ view of IP and ownership: the far-sight necessary to create good ideas and innovations is attained by standing on the shoulders of others, and as such there [should be] a network of people who trade these ideas as favors among each other.”

In the coming moths, I’m looking forward to working on just that.

This post is just one in a series, and I remain convinced of what I’m working towards. With any luck — and more open collaboration with intelligent, committed people in the industry — I’ll have more to report soon :)

Thanks to

First, thanks to Martijn Vanloffelt and Tom De Bruyne, of Layerwise, for both their hard work and their willingness to help me understand how they work.

Second, thanks to Marcus Schröder, of EFBE, for both his hard work and the enthusiasm he had for testing my part — and discussing at length the testing & engineering cycle he sees in the industry today.

Thanks also to Dave Bartosik, of DRT Medical-Morris, and Dustin Lindley, of UCRI. Their continued technical help has been an incredible asset, without which I may never have begun this project.

Thanks also to Clay Parker Jones and Bradley Rothenberg for reading early versions of this piece.

Undercurrent is gone

Added on by Spencer Wright.

Update: This post has received a bit of traffic over the past few days, and I've gotten some nice notes on Twitter as well. I would ask, however, that anyone who's truly interested in the people from Undercurrent (who are now all freshly out of a job) consider reaching out. While my own interest is in advancing industrial additive manufacturing, there are a lot of bright minds (I believe them to be the best in the industry) who are excited to explore and improve the effectiveness and resilience of ambitious organizations. If that's something that excites you, send me a note and I'll connect you with the very best people for the job.

Two and a half years ago, an ad on Radiolab caught my attention. I was listening to a lot of podcasts at the time and paid as much attention to the sponsors as most people do. But this one said something about "3D printing, and the future of human-refrigerator interaction," which was weird. I liked it.

My courtship with Undercurrent was long and slow. I was at a transitional point in my career, and in a lot of ways the skills I had weren't well suited for what UC did. But I stayed in touch, and made friends, and was working on interesting, challenging stuff myself - and being really public about the whole thing. And after a full year on the periphery, I joined Undercurrent full time in April of 2014.

In most respects, the work wasn't what I had expected. I didn't really know what corporate consulting was like to begin with, and Undercurrent's particular take on consulting was an additional degree of separation away from anything I understood.

But it fit, and it fit in a way that I had never experienced before. I made friends. We worked long days at client sites, and wrote long wrap-up documents on the plane back home. We had heated debates on random evenings about the future of 1099 employment law, or whether or not a hot dog could be a sandwich. We hustled; we worked hard. I did some of the most savvy, thoughtful, and critical reasoning of my life. I learned a lot.

A year after I joined, Undercurrent was acquired by Quirky, a startup developing products with the help of an online community. Quirky was one of the bigger New York startup stories for a while, and I had bought a few of their products - and had not enjoyed them. I had thought a lot about product development over the previous few years (and was in the midst of fulfilling my own Kickstarter campaign at the time), and had real doubts about Quirky's take on the subject.

And, so did a lot of other people. Quirky had already had some layoffs before we joined, and there was another round our first week or two that we were in their office. It was a pretty weird place to walk into, though to be honest it really didn't change my work much. We still had our Undercurrent client relationships, and I was too busy shipping radios out on the weekends to think much about how Quirky was doing. But it wasn't going well, and everyone knew it.

In the meantime, my desire to focus on manufacturing was growing. Undercurrent supported this, even giving me a cash budget to spend on titanium 3D printed parts. I was figuring out how to move the industry past the problems I had seen with additive manufacturing. Undercurrent was behind it.

At this point in the story, the details are mostly public. Over the past few weeks, both Quirky and Undercurrent began going through the motions of shutting down, permanently.

I'll miss it. UC valued my work and critical perspective more than anywhere I've ever worked. It offered more in the way of curiosity, and warmth, and just always felt like home.

I'm looking forward to the future. Undercurrent - and the clients we worked with - offered me fantastic opportunities over the past year and a half. But there are other opportunities out there, and I'm excited to find my place working on them. 

To my colleagues: Thanks for your support. I wish you the best, and look forward to working with you (it's a small world, after all) in the future.

To my clients: Thanks for your sincerity. I can't think of better people to have worked for, or better problems to have worked together on.

Over the next weeks, I'll be digging deeper into the topics in industrial additive manufacturing that I've spent so much time thinking about recently. If you want to work together, please drop a line :)