Additive Manufacturing Materials: Proprietary or Open?
Kyle Maxey posted on February 14, 2020 |
The open source/proprietary debate has come to the AM space. Which ecosystem is best?

Additive manufacturing (AM) has been on the rise across a variety of sectors in the last half decade, and it’s fair to say that the technology’s early adoption period is in the rear view mirror for most industries. As has been the case in many industries over time, the maturation of the AM market has led to a spike in consolidation among vendors in both metal- and polymer-based 3D printing.

Alongside these consolidating moves has come the great debate of the digital age—namely, is it more advantageous to offer an open or proprietary system to the market?

Given that the terms of this debate have been well established in the historiography of tech, one has to wonder whether an open or a proprietary paradigm for materials is best suited for the further development and adoption of AM for large-scale manufacturing?

The Proprietary Model—An Argument for Confidence and Repeatability

Up until the last decade, AM was seen by many in the manufacturing sector as an interesting, fledgling and mostly unscalable industrial production technology. During those dark and lonely years, AM companies worked diligently to refine their printing technology, develop post-processing solutions that were fast, and formulate materials that performed reliably.

Over the course of many decades of research and development, numerous advancements in printing, post-processing and materials have occurred and the overall confidence of AM users has swelled in response.

HP's Multijet Fusion system uses proprietary materials.
HP's Multijet Fusion system uses proprietary materials, including a range of polyamides and elastomers. 

Understandably, companies that have been at the forefront of AM technology development have been protective of the intellectual property they’ve developed over these long years and want to capitalize on the market they’ve helped develop. Critical to this capitalization is the closed architecture of the print systems and sole distribution of the materials and processing solutions used by AM machine manufacturers’ own products.

The argument from the proprietary side makes good sense.

Proprietary systems offer the stability, repeatability and traceability that give industrial manufacturers and their customers comfort. While working within a proprietary ecosystem, engineers and designers can be confident that when they make a manufacturing or material choice, their choice will perform.

3D System's Figure 4 Production System is an industrial additive system.
3D System's Figure 4 Production System is an industrial additive system.

Ed Horelano, VP of Materials and R&D at 3D Systems, supports the proprietary model by taking it one step further: “Our solutions have a reputation for delivering precise, accurate parts more efficiently with a lower total cost of operation—and we back them up with expertise and support from our application engineers and service teams. Therefore, if a customer is experiencing challenges with their printer, or they need support for revising a design, or addressing a new application—they have one partner to contact for all of these opportunities. We blend expertise and experience to make our customers’ innovation efficient.”

The Open Model: The Market Wants Options

According to John Kawola, former CEO of Z Corporation and current CEO of Boston Micro Fabrication, “If you go back to 2008, basically all the companies on the plastics side were using proprietary materials—3D Systems, Stratasys, I worked for a company at that time called Z Corporation—we all had our own materials,” Kawola explained. “From a vendor point of view, it was beautiful: customers can only buy from you, gross margins are high and there’s no sales cost. But if you stepped back and looked at all of the materials scientists working in the industry at that time, there were maybe dozens, certainly not hundreds.”

Though Kawola focuses on a material and monopolistic critique of the proprietary AM model, a recent report from Essentium argues that manufacturers interested in AM want an entirely open model to drive the technology forward.

Commenting on his company’s findings, Essentium’s CEO Blake Teipel stated, “Being locked into proprietary solutions that limit flexibility and choice is no longer an option if 3D printing is to become a serious contender as an industrial process for end-use products.” Teipel continued, “An open market focused on developing new materials and better and faster machines is the only way for manufacturers to unlock new applications and new business opportunities. With this approach, the future belongs to the customer, not to the OEM.”

To bolster this claim, Essentium’s survey highlights the biggest obstacles companies are facing in “adopting large-scale 3D Printing.” In the survey, 51 percent of respondents said that the cost of 3D printing materials was too high and 38 percent of the same pool said the same about AM hardware. Only 22 percent of those surveyed felt “locked-in” to their AM vendor.

The Ultimaker S5 allows open materials.
The Ultimaker S5 allows open materials.

Ultimaker is well-known in the polymer additive space for their support of the open model as well. CEO Jos Burger had this to say:

“Many of these companies have built a closed ecosystem, restricting their customers to only that brand’s printers, materials and software. Ultimaker has taken a different approach. We believe that companies who maintain an open ecosystem are best positioned for long-term success and revenue growth. This belief led Ultimaker to form a collaborative alliance with global material companies to meet the growing demand for industrial-grade engineering compatible with our own printers,” said Burger. “This collaboration between all players within the additive manufacturing space, but also close collaboration with and listening to end users, will ensure the continued global expansion of the technology across all sectors.”

Advocates for the open ecosystem model make the case that AM has the potential to dramatically alter how industrial-scale manufacturing operates. However, as the market stands today, the companies that hold the IP that undergirds this technology may risk stifling its potential by keeping their systems closed and limiting its potential for those materials and processes that have been approved and developed by the platforms’ developers.

While that position is usually brushed aside as the demands of tinkerers or fringe players looking to horn into a market that’s already been built by the heavily invested trailblazer, or as a sub-standard cheaper solution when compared to premium proprietary materials, Essentium’s survey provides evidence that there may be already a market that’s ready to embrace an additive field that supports an open ecosystem.

Conclusion

The debate over whether a proprietary or open ecosystem would best support the AM industry may just be emerging, but both sides stake out similar if not identical positions that have been waged for years.

Think the Windows operating system (proprietary—well, kinda … it was until recently) vs. Linux (open ecosystem).  

If you’re like most people, you’re familiar with Windows and you may know someone who, for some odd reason, tinkers with a Linux machine. One of the reasons that you know so many Windows users is because Windows provides a stable, reliable workplace for most of the assets that you’ll deploy while using a computer (if you’re an Apple user, the same goes for your OS).

Windows is solid. Once it’s installed, you don’t really have go around finding component libraries to make peripherals work or read through reams of forum posts to find out how to do seemingly simple tasks.

Sure, you’re not learning a ton about how a computer works and you might not have much freedom to customize or experiment with your computer, but that’s not really why you booted that machine up in the first place, was it?

The machine was turned on so that you could do your work efficiently. There’s no need to know what’s going on behind the curtain, because whatever it is, it’s working.

For proponents of an open ecosystem, this position isn’t enough. The proprietary model doesn’t take full advantage of the power of a system and thus stifles innovation for the price of consistency and reliability.

However, the AM industry—specifically the valuable segment of the industry that is appealing to industrial users looking to disrupt conventional modes of manufacturing—is in a tight spot. With adoption of industrial-scale AM just beginning to emerge, companies supplying that sector have to demonstrate that their technology can provide repeatable quality that will scale. Finding sure footing in proprietary materials is a powerful method for doing so. It also helps the bottom line, which in turn creates greater opportunity to further develop the underlying print technology and the distribution of additive machines.

So, there’s a very sound case for a proprietary model.

But if we take a look at the graph from this piece, we can clearly see that there is ample room for the open ecosystem model to thrive. 

In the graph, a majority of the industries listed are in the “Early,” “Adolescent” and “Early Mainstream” segments of the chart. In fact, no industry has crossed the “Mature” threshold, though the Medical and Aerospace segments are on the cusp of that milestone.

For proponents of the open ecosystem model, those industries that fall within the “Early” and “Adolescent” phases of growth represent an enormous manufacturing landscape where the experimental potential of an open ecosystem can be most attractive.

Advocating for an open material ecosystem in AM is an important part of the conversation surrounding the technology, but the time to declare that systems should be open might be a bit premature for the industry as a whole.

As the graph subtly hints, the industrial AM industry is in a bit of a touchy position. It has attracted adopters like the aerospace and medical industries, where repeatability and material stability are critical, but it has also intrigued other industries that see the technology’s potential, but haven’t fully committed to adopting it.

For the time being, the AM companies that support a proprietary model should hold their line as they shore up adoption among “Early Mainstream” sectors. They’ll need show that their proprietary materials perform better and more reliably than materials available in open ecosystems--which may indeed be the case, as many users who have experienced failures due to low-quality materials can attest.

Essentium’s CEO Teipel stated, “When companies install an open additive manufacturing system and have the ability to use more materials, they can quickly realize more value from their hardware investment and have the opportunity to achieve scale.”

In the short term, the AM sector would do well to continue working within its largely proprietary paradigm, but as has been demonstrated by similar, previous technological clashes of IP ideology, the open ecosystem may prevail. If Essentium is correct, the market may demand it.

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