Leaders and Followers: Challenges and Opportunities in the Adoption of Metal Additive Manufacturing Technologies
Policymakers in the United States and elsewhere have recognized that a broad and competitive manufacturing sector is crucial to a robust economy and that to remain competitive, a nation must invent and master new ways of making things. Moving technologies from laboratory to commercial success poses considerable challenges however. If the technology is radically new, this transition can be so risky and investment-heavy that only very large private firms can attempt it. One such new technology is metal additive manufacturing (MAM). MAM provides a vivid illustration of the tensions policymakers must resolve in simultaneously supporting the commercialization of early-stage innovations of strategic national interest, while fulfilling the government’s duty to ensure human health and safety. After an initial chapter with a general overview of additive manufacturing technologies, this dissertation explores these tensions from the perspective of two very different industrial contexts: the U.S. as a technology leader and trailblazer in the development of the technology, and Portugal as a technology follower with severely constrained resources. In the first case study, I use the extreme case of MAM (an emerging technology with many sources of process uncertainty) in commercial aviation (an industry where lapses in safety can have catastrophic consequences) to unpack how the characteristics of a technology may influence the options for regulatory intervention. Although my work focuses on the U.S. and the Federal Aviation Administration’s regulation, I expect this work to have an international scope, given that in most countries regulation is heavily influenced by, if not an exact copy of, the U.S. regulation. Based on my findings, I propose an adaptive regulatory framework in which standards are periodically revised and in which different groups of companies are regulated differently as a function of their technological capabilities. I conclude by proposing a generalizable framework for regulating emerging process-based technologies in safety-critical industries in which the optimal regulatory configuration depends on the industry structure (number of firms), the performance and safety requirements, and the sources of technological uncertainty. In the second case study, I analyze the adoption of polymer (PAM) and metal (MAM) additive manufacturing technologies in the Portuguese molds industry, both of which offer important benefits to their products. Leveraging archival data (related to the history of Portuguese institutions, and the development of additive manufacturing both globally and in Portugal), insights from 45 interviews across academia, industry, and government; and 75 hours of participant observations, we develop insights about why institutional instability affected the adoption of Polymer Additive Manufacturing (PAM) and Metal Additive Manufacturing (MAM) differently. In both cases, Portugal invested in the technology relatively early, and in the case of PAM the research community has been able to move towards high-tech applications. In contrast, the adoption of MAM has been modest despite its potential to greatly improve the performance and competitiveness of metal molds. From the comparison between PAM and MAM, we generate theory about which technological and contextual factors affect their ‘technological forgiveness’, defined as the resiliency of a new technology’s adoption to institutional instability. We conclude by proposing a generalizable framework for ‘forgiveness’ in different industrial contexts. The final chapter of this dissertation contains practical recommendations for regulators and managers interested in adopting the technology. Policymakers in the aviation industry may want to encourage the creation of programs to gather more flight experience with MAM parts. Small aircraft and other applications with higher risk tolerance than commercial aviation might represent more important channels to gather information, as the history of composite materials suggests. More importantly, regulators may need to introduce clauses in their rules to regulate MAM to avoid situations of ‘regulatory lock-in’ which could harm the long-term potential of the technology. Despite the potential of additive manufacturing, we believe that near-term expectations for it are overblown. In general, additive manufacturing holds great promise, but in many areas the cart has gotten ahead of the horse. Much of the technology is still under development. The history of comparable technologies such as composite materials and high-performance castings shows that the problems may take decades to resolve. For now, additive manufacturing is cost-competitive only in niche applications — for instance, those involving plastics. Businesses that want to plunge into additive manufacturing should be cognizant of the challenges. Determining whether it makes sense to invest in additive manufacturing will require experimentation and learning.