DfAM Q&A with Manolis Papastavrou and Laurence Coles of Metamorphic AM
Accelerating the Adoption of Additive Manufacturing Through R&D Consulting.
Metamorphic is a U.K. based consultancy that specializes in DfAM to help companies to innovate and accelerate the adoption of additive manufacturing through R&D, collaboration and IP development.
In this Q&A, Manolis Papastavrou and Laurence Coles explain how they work with their clients to help them rethink their engineering approach, adopt new tools and processes, and give them the skills required to analyze and succeed to prove both the engineering and business case for AM.
What led you to form Metamorphic, who are the team members and what is their background.
Having both worked as research engineers in the AM industry for a number of years, we noticed that design was very rarely part of the conversation when organisations were considering Additive Manufacturing as a solution. The majority would try to evolve existing designs that had originally been developed with different production methods in mind, perhaps with some minor modifications to make them more lightweight and improve printability.
A lot of them would abandon the whole idea of using AM too early into this journey because the cost per part would be prohibitive, the quality was inconsistent and there were scalability limitations.
Over the last couple of decades we have seen an entire ecosystem of companies emerge as a response to these challenges. And this is great! We now have a lot more reliable processes and an ever-expanding range of materials to choose from. However, the pace of AM adoption in industry remains low and this is particularly true for larger organisations. This is partially due to the 3D printing hype ten years ago that set really high expectations and the disappointment that followed. However, the main reason in our opinion is because industry has not been very successful at harnessing AM’s disruptive innovation potential.
Disruptive innovation is risky and the engineering workforce is still not very familiar with the fluid workflows and the entirely new approach to design that AM entails. Metamorphic was born from this necessity, to help organisations innovate with AM and make the most of the design freedom that AM has to offer. Metamorphic has been co-founded by Manolis Papastavrou and Laurence Coles.
Manolis has a background in Chemical Engineering and Product Design. He started his career in AM with a PhD on 3D printed synthetic bone substitutes and progressed onto research engineer roles developing and optimising AM processes with an emphasis on powder bed fusion and jetting. Throughout this journey, computational design has been at the core of his engineering practice, used in projects that range from conceptual footwear and medical devices to scientific instrumentation.
Laurence has a background in Mechanical Engineering and a PhD in ballistics, blast, and mechanics of materials. He started his career in AM as a research engineer, leading design projects and supporting clients with their exploration of AM across various high-tech industries, including healthcare, aerospace, quantum, and oil & gas. His foundations in classical engineering and simulation provide insights into the performance of Metamorphic’s pioneering designs.
How does your design consultancy work, can you walk us through a ‘typical’ consulting process, and what is your business model?
We always start with gaining an understanding of our client’s level of experience with AM and tailor our services accordingly.
If they are not sure how their R&D can benefit from AM, we design collaborative workshops that help them reimagine some of their tools and processes. However, the best way to discover opportunities for AM is by walking around the labs and facilities where R&D takes place, talking to the scientists and engineers that design and operate those complex systems to extract information about how they would do things differently if they were not limited by conventional manufacturing constraints.
If there is a design brief for a specific AM application, we tend to follow a typical product development process; this starts with workshops that facilitate the exchange of knowledge, so that we learn our clients’ methods and technical language to be able to function as an extension of their team.
If required, we call upon people from our extensive industrial and academic network to provide expertise that can help deliver the results our clients are looking for. We then move onto requirements capture and concept development; the strongest concepts are taken forward for an assessment of their technical and economic viability, as part of a feasibility study.
We may do some in-house prototyping and develop some preliminary designs to evaluate their performance through multi-physics simulation. Once a concept has been selected, we go through a few iterations before we finalise the design and move onto the manufacturing phase.
We liaise with AM service bureaus from the start of the development phase to make an informed decision when selecting the most appropriate AM material and process for our application. It is really important to establish from early on the design constraints and opportunities that arise from committing to a specific AM technique. After the project’s completion, we hand over this relationship to the client so that they can continue independently with AM.
Being a consultancy, our main revenue comes from offering consultancy services to industry and academia.
We also make a continuous effort to generate IP in the form of designs or algorithms that we can then license to companies.
Innovation is at the heart of what we do and we have made it our mission to help bring disruptive research out of the lab into real world applications. For this reason, we are happy to get involved in publicly funded collaborations between academia and industry.
Q. What is the best way for a potential client to approach you, and what should they have prepared for an initial engagement?
It all starts with an informal conversation.
The world is so connected now and jumping on a video call is a great way to make introductions and get started. We are always happy to discuss, free-of-charge, possible applications of AM with potential clients and we ask them to come with an open mind. It can take a couple of conversations and some preliminary desk-based research to identify the opportunity from a technical and business perspective.
As conversations evolve, site visits are a great way to gain a first-hand understanding of their challenges and requirements. We shape the project scope and objectives together with our clients, taking into account lots of different factors, such as technical feasibility, duration and budget. It is usually best to start with a small project, like a feasibility study where we explore different concepts and establish what is possible with AM.
This usually involves some preliminary design work supported with multi-physics simulation, before committing to a larger project that includes manufacturing.
Given your company is focused on design for additive manufacturing, how do your clients know that an AM design is the answer to their engineering requirements?
AM has been on a lot of our clients’ radar, but the majority have been hesitant to explore as a possible answer to their engineering requirements. Quite often, they have envisioned an AM solution already, but don’t know how to turn it into reality. AM is still difficult to navigate and if you want to make the most of it, you need to be able to design complex geometries while considering a multitude of material and process attributes.
At Metamorphic, we try to lower these barriers by blending our expertise with that of our clients and extend their technical capability. That way, they play an active role in the development and build confidence in AM.
It can be more challenging to convince clients that have never considered it as a solution before. In this case, we try to inspire and help them reimagine their own components or systems with some of our case studies.
Social media platforms also come into play, where we demonstrate what can be achieved with radical thinking and collaborative working. We have already built a good portfolio of demonstrators that serves this purpose when holding first contact meetings.
It can take 3-6 months for clients to return to us with project scopes and that’s ok; we ensure we give them time to reflect on the possibilities so they can make the right choices without getting caught up in the hype. Lastly and most importantly, we are brutally honest with our clients if we think that AM is not a viable solution.
Once you identify a problem how do you determine which material and additive manufacturing process to design for, including which software tools?
We are agnostic t process, material, and software solutions, and we pride ourselves on being independent and unbiased in the industry. A lot of these decisions are made almost in parallel and the process can be really complex!
We listen to our clients and follow a very systematic approach to requirements capture, while staying away from assumptions based on existing designs. Of course, it is important to review previous designs to identify areas for improvement and understand the underlying engineering principles, but this shouldn’t interfere with the early stages of concept development.
It is always best to start with a clean slate and abstract a lot of the design requirements into simple functions. This helps us challenge existing conventions and start broad when considering AM as a solution.
As ideas take shape, we downselect the most appropriate materials and AM processes. We have very open discussions with our clients and use our collective experience to make informed decisions on the best route forward.
Sometimes, we need to do desk-based research and liaise not only with service bureaus, but also OEMs and AM research groups when it comes to more niche applications.
When it comes to design tools, we have established over the years our own workflows. It is impossible to use a single design software from start to finish, as each has its advantages and limitations. We prefer to create our own algorithmic designs which we can easily adapt to specific material and manufacturing constraints as these become clearer.
Once you have a design/solution that meets the engineering requirements, how do you also ensure the solution meets the business case?
The business case is a crucial part of the consulting process that we consider from day one. We have open discussions about approximate costing and production rates during concept development to ensure that every aspect of the requirements is covered.
We design with productivity in mind, taking into account not only the AM process but also post-processing, assembly, and wider system integration. We try to extract as much value as possible through improvements in performance, but also by incorporating unique functionalities that would be nearly impossible or extremely laborious to reproduce with conventional manufacturing techniques.
We are not looking to evolve existing designs; we like to approach systems from a broader perspective and deliver the next generation of components for a lot of emerging high-tech areas. And this is how we build a stronger business case for using AM.
Once a project is complete and a component is in production, what are typical next steps with the client?
Our next steps are supporting and handing over the relationships we have built during the project. These may include, amongst others, material suppliers and AM service bureaus, metrology and quality inspection service providers and experts from academia.
We want our clients to be able to continue their AM journey independently, so we place a lot of emphasis on knowledge transfer. We’re always available for further support. Ultimately, we want our clients to grow as a result of our involvement.
Q. Can you elaborate on the IP development aspect of your business?
All the IP that is generated from services offered to our clients, stays with them. However, we also have our own internal R&D in high-technology sectors where Additive Manufacturing could offer significant advantages over conventional manufacturing techniques.
To turn these into reality, we collaborate with key academic and industrial partners in publicly-funded projects. In this case, our IP lies in the designs themselves, as well as the methods and algorithms used for generating and optimising them.
Something that all these projects have in common is the development of a physical prototype that demonstrates the technical and economic feasibility of the idea, to help drive the adoption of AM in our targeted sector.
With these initiatives, we seek to generate revenue from licensing our designs to companies and most importantly expand our DfAM services into new markets.
What are common misunderstandings clients have of DfAM and additive manufacturing in general on initial engagement?
We find a lot of misconceptions still around AM readiness for production in high-tech application areas, especially in sectors that are yet to consider AM.
For example, in the early days of metal laser powder bed fusion, we could achieve at best a density of 87%. With improvements over the years in areas such as in-process monitoring, post-processing and metallic powders, we can go above 99%!
Not everyone is aware of these advancements, which means that we need to put more effort towards educating potential end-users of the technology.
When it comes to design, its importance is often overlooked; and it is mainly through design that you can argue the case for using AM.
DfAM software vendors have really helped raise its status over the last couple of years by showcasing what is possible with the design freedom that AM has to offer. To make the transition to AM easier, they have created automated workflows that bring together traditional CAD with computational design and engineering.
This however can be problematic, because we are “training” engineers to think that topology optimisation, combined with some latticing is what DfAM is about.
We tell our clients that it can be so much more than that! We can truly innovate with AM; we can introduce unique functionalities, make the designs more intelligent and dynamic, gain inspiration from biological systems and processes or even other disciplines like textiles.
As we mentioned previously, Metamorphic was born from a necessity to help organisations innovate with AM and we see there is a need and demand to radically change the way we approach Design for AM.
What are some issues you see arise that block the adoption of additive manufacturing as a solution.
There are both economic and cultural factors that seem to block the wider adoption of AM.
There is a misconception that Additive Manufacturing is expensive; this is only true when there is limited understanding of how to get the most out of the technology.
The best way to reap the benefits of AM is through disruptive innovation; this is when you reimagine components or entire systems from scratch with the aim of achieving a step change in your product’s performance that wouldn’t be possible with conventional manufacturing techniques.
Design is key to achieving this. This can put off a lot of companies because it means significant investment in R&D and building new skills.
In terms of culture, it has to do more with unwilling to take risks and reticence to change.
Understandably, a lot of larger established companies feel uncomfortable about distancing themselves from traditional manufacturing, hence they use AM for a small fraction of their product portfolio, mainly to address supply chain issues.
Start-ups are not as hesitant when it comes to AM-enabled solutions, as they seek to disrupt the market by doing things differently.
The design tools, additive manufacturing materials and processes are evolving relatively quickly, how do you stay up to date with the latest offerings?
We constantly review and evaluate new design and simulation software. If the offering is strong, we invest time towards incorporating it into our workflow. When it comes to materials and processes, we keep an eye out for new OEMs; we are always looking for material and process capability that can help expand AM into new applications. We also try to keep up with the latest academic research in this area.
The UK in particular, has a very strong academic community built around AM and we have established relationships with several research groups throughout the country. Trade shows and professional networks, such as LinkedIn, have also helped us stay up to date with the latest developments.
What do you think a designer or engineer needs to understand DfAM potential and constraints?
To understand its potential, they need to be able to reduce complex problems into fundamental principles and detach themselves from existing solutions that have been developed with conventional manufacturing methods in mind.
This means stepping out of their comfort zone and starting with a blank canvas; we all know how daunting it may feel when staring at one!
Having an open mind and a desire to push boundaries, together with curiosity to explore the design space, strong visualisation skills and imagination help dissolve this initial hesitancy and make way for radical solutions enabled by DfAM.
AM constraints guide a lot of design decisions, therefore having strong foundations in applied physics and a good understanding of AM materials and processes is equally important.
Finally, what most excites you about designing for additive manufacturing and what are you looking forward to in the future.
What most excites us about DfAM is the opportunity to invent new things! We anticipate some of the greatest inventions of the 21st century being enabled by Additive Manufacturing. We are looking forward to AM being adopted by different technology sectors, both established and emerging. Our vision for Metamorphic is to become a catalyst for this change through defining new approaches to DfAM and inspiring industry to take on AM in new ways.
I would like to thank Manolis and Laurence for their time in answering these questions and helping to elevate the role of design for additive manufacturing.
Please Contact Metamorphic if your organization is interested in evolving and accelerating R&D with help from experts who specialize in DfAM, computational design and multi-physics simulation.
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