When it comes to adoption of 3D printing in a company’s workflow, cost of the 3D printer is a major factor. Which is why many companies choose to use service bureaus to get their prototype parts printed. In fact, at 3D Systems we have a successful On Demand Manufacturing business which caters to the needs of such companies all over the world.
However, larger companies like automotive OEM’s, have a much large appetite for 3D printed parts and it becomes more cost effective for them to have their own 3D printers and print their parts themselves. But their suppliers, the companies which design, validate and produce components and sub-assemblies for their products, usually end up using service bureaus for their prototyping needs. I’ve been spending most of my time travelling around India meeting companies like these. From my interactions with them, I sense a strong need to insource the printing of prototypes. There are two main reasons for this – cost and time. They feel they are spending too much money on service bureaus and it takes too much time to source the parts. Sometimes, by the time the parts arrive from the service bureau, the design is already changed and a new iteration needs to be printed. These companies need affordable parts and they need them overnight, quite literally. Their parts can’t be stuck in a queue at a service bureau halfway across the country, which could then potentially be damaged during shipping.
With the cost of 3D printers going down, these companies are now looking at owning their own 3D printers and sending off overflow work to the service bureaus. However, the problem they face is skilled manpower. Here, I’m not talking about trained technicians to operate these complex machines. That’s the easy part. Every 3D printer manufacturer or their representative will offer the necessary training required to operate the machine and post process the parts to specification. Here I’m talking about people skilled and knowledgeable enough to understand the dynamics of the 3D printing technology used by the 3D printer – how to orient parts, how to support them, how to stack or nest them, how to hollow them, how to split large parts so that they print and assemble correctly. Moreover, these dynamics differ from technology to technology. The rules for SLA can be very different from that of SLS. Metal 3D printing is on a totally different level altogether.
I see a huge gap between the desire for companies to adopt 3D printing in house and the skilled manpower required to make that happen. This is evident from the way I see 3D printing related employees jump from company to company quickly and frequently. This gap needs to be addressed and at the moment I don’t see any concerted effort to narrow it, at least not in India.
So when Dr Yogesh Gandhi and his team from US Institute of 3D Technology (USI3DT) contacted me about a potential collaboration which could lay the foundation of reducing this gap I was extremely excited. Dr Gandhi and USI3DT are based in California, USA, and have been promoting 3D printing to students in the USA since President Obama’s “America Makes” initiative. Originally from Gujarat, Dr Gandhi maintains strong ties with India. He created an Indian subsidiary and joined forces with Dr Ragin Shah and others to offer USI3DT’s 3D printing courses in India. After a first meeting in Ahmedabad, I quickly realised that our visions aligned perfectly and 3D Systems and USI3DT decided to partner in India.
On 12th July 2019, our partnership bore its first fruit. USI3DT, 3D Systems and the state government of Gujarat signed a tripartite Memorandum of Understanding under which seven 3D printing Centers of Excellence (CoE) would be set up in technical institutes across the state, with more to follow. The institutes are:
- Vishwakarma Government College, Ahmedabad
- Government Engineering College, Gandhinagar
- Government Engineering College, Bharuch
- Government Engineering College, Rajkot
- i-Hub, Baroda
- MS Polytechnic, Baroda
- Kalol Government Technical Institute, Kalol
Students at these institutes will be able to enrol in the 3D printing courses offered by USI3DT and certified by 3D Systems. This will not only give them exposure to a technology that is available to only a select few in India at the moment, but USI3DT and 3D Systems will also impart practical training on usage of 3D Sprint, the part preparation software for 3D Systems printers, whose understanding is absolutely key.
All 3D Systems printers (with the exception of our metal printers) use 3D Sprint to prepare parts for printing, slice them and then send the build files over to the 3D printer for printing. It is in this software where the parts are placed on the printing platform, properly oriented based on critical features and dimensions and supports are added to properly hold the part as it prints on the platform. Like I said before, operating a 3D printer is the easy part. It’s understanding how a part needs to be printed is where the skill and experience plays a crucial role. There aren’t text books for this and any literature that’s written gets outdated soon due to advances in the technology, materials and process engineering that goes with it. To learn the essence of 3D printing you need to print and fail in order to eventually print and succeed. But for that you need access to a 3D printer and the software that is used to prepare the parts to be printed on it. That is precisely what students at these institutes in Gujarat are going to learn and experience.
Today’s students are tomorrow’s workforce. If we don’t start introducing 3D printing to students today, we can’t expect to have a knowledgeable and experienced workforce tomorrow. But I don’t see this as a way of just making students employable. I also see this as a way to sow the seeds of innovation in students’ minds. Over the past few months USI3DT has been busy organizing seminars at colleges in Gujarat and I have been invited to address students there. Some of the questions they have asked me are truly astounding. I see a deep desire to do something different than just go an apply for a job after graduation. I believe connecting what we are doing in Gujarat with a start-up ecosystem and access to funding (state or private) can lead to some really nice results.
Prime Minister Modi’s “Make In India” initiative is based on four pillars: new processes, new infrastructure, new sectors and new mindset. I believe this initiative with the Gujarat state government is a small but important effort towards moving to a workforce that can support these four pillars.