Is Additive Manufacturing an Opportunity or a Threat for the Fluid Power Industry?

Eric Lanke NFPA CEOby Eric Lanke
NFPA CEO

I’ve been asked that question more than once in the past few months, mostly by NFPA members who are beginning to examine the emerging technology of additive manufacturing and make the determination for themselves. In case you’re not familiar with the term, additive manufacturing is more commonly known as 3D printing—the process of “growing” a part from nothing, layer by layer, rather than starting with a hunk of metal and cutting or machining it down to the part you need.

Two arguments I’ve heard against additive manufacturing for our industry can be boiled down to:

  1. It threatens my core business. Well, yes, I suppose it does, if you define your core business by how you make your product rather than by the customer problem you’re trying to solve. If you’re in the “making fluid power components with traditional manufacturing” business, then additive is a disruption in your marketplace that you’d better fight against. But if you’re in the “providing my customers with controllable power” business, then you may find uses and applications for additive that can help you do that better than your competitors.
  1. I need more machinists, not new technologies. This is probably the most common concern I hear from NFPA members. And it certainly is a pain point for them, for our industry, and for dozens of other industries like ours. But additive may be a technology that warrants a re-thinking of this instinctual desire. Ask yourself, will there be any machinists in the future? People with mechanical aptitude, yes, of course there will always be those, but how will that aptitude be best leveraged by the fluid power industry in the future? By drilling holes and other traditional methods of manufacturing parts? Or by controlling flow architecture in new and inventive ways? Maybe the solution to the machinist workforce problem isn’t training young people in traditional technologies, buy transforming a traditional industry in a way that engages young people with new technologies?

I’m not trying to convince you one way or the other. But I do think the questions are worth asking and the discussion is worth having.

We’ll be taking a closer look at additive manufacturing at the upcoming 2015 NFPA Annual Conference in San Diego. We’ve invited Alex Chausovsky, Senior Principal Analyst in Industrial Automation for IHS Technology to help us dissect the subject. He’s been doing a lot of research into additive manufacturing, specifically from a fluid power perspective, and will have some thought-provoking information to present.

Whatever your opinion, focusing on new and emerging technologies like additive manufacturing, and deciding how our industry can best benefit from them, is a big part of NFPA’s core strategic priority of helping to foster an innovative environment for the fluid power industry.

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