SHOP: Renishaw is celebrating its 20th anniversary in Canada. What is the most significant change you’ve seen in the industry over the past two decades?
WILLIAMS: The sophistication of automation, which requires greater involvement from us on the metrology side, has been one of the most significant shifts in the Canadian manufacturing market. The other major takeaway I have thinking back on the last 20 years is that the quality of the people who work in this business in Canada is exceptional. The growth that we have achieved in the Canadian market because of the advancements in Canadian manufacturing and the willingness of customers to trust in us and invest with us has also been exceptional.
SHOP: Good companies are able to grow by responding to market changes. How has Renishaw changed over the past twenty years to keep up with the changes?
WILLIAMS: That’s a monster question. We have introduced so many products and even brand new product lines like our gauging and automation group, our additive manufacturing and medical group. When I first came to Canada with Renishaw back in 2003, we just had a few product lines that we looked after. Those were our position measurement devices, our CMM products, which included just a probe and a probe head, and our machine tool products, which included a tool setter and spindle probe. Those product lines have increased tremendously, and we have several more product lines now, as mentioned, that we didn’t have back then. We had a staff or four back then and now we have grown to a staff of 27.
SHOP: You mentioned additive manufacturing. I recall reading about 20 years ago in The Economist magazine how additive manufacturing would be the next industrial revolution. Additive manufacturing has grown a fair bit over the past 20 years but I think it hasn’t grown as fast as was expected. Do you agree with that statement and if so, what do you think is holding additive manufacturing back from growing any faster?
WILLIAMS: I absolutely agree, and I think there are two elements to the reasons why. The primary reason is the lack of understanding of how to design for additive in the engineering community. Additive manufacturing is not a limitless production methodology, as some people wrongly think, and designing specifically for additive manufacturing really is a skill. This lack of understanding of how to design for additive limits taking advantage of the process benefits in terms of things such as thin wall components, heat exchange, light weighting or flow in hydraulic and fluid power components. That’s a key element, which is changing over time.
The second element is the current state of the technology. The capital price versus the productivity of the equipment means you are in a cost per part realm which means you need to have a very compelling application in order for it to make sense. I am talking specifically about high-fidelity metal parts as that is the world Renishaw is in. But I think back to the introduction of 5-axis machining in the late 80s. It was an extremely expensive, very difficult to program piece of equipment and you had to have a very compelling end use case in order to buy it. Whereas if you look at 5-axis machining today, its productivity, the ability to program it from a CAM solutions, and all the workholding and tooling that is available for it has changed the landscape for its acceptance dramatically. Interestingly enough, the capital price for it hasn’t changed that much but the cost per part has because of the improvement in throughput. I feel the metal additive manufacturing industry probably will take a very similar route. The machines are constantly becoming more capable with more automation, higher throughput, and better powder handling.
SHOP: When we look at a market such as automotive, where the focus is on mass manufacturing, how long before we see additive manufacturing really take a hold there? Does the fact the market is moving to electric vehicles and there is such a focus on light weighting provide a significant opportunity for additive manufacturing?
WILLIAMS: I think that will be a driver because there is the need lightweighting and the other critical thing for electric vehicles, which is heat exchange. That’s where thin-walled, highly complex geometries shine, which are easily achievable with metal additive manufacturing. In terms of producing those, there are some designs that are being produced by the multi thousands now in metal AM, although they tend to be more in the consumer electronics industry at the moment because they are relatively small components and you can make thousands of them per build.
SHOP: Do you see Canada as being a leader in adopting metal AM technology or a laggard?
WILLIAMS: Canada is a laggard. I think it’s the classic argument of scale. If you need to make one of something you can manage it with a file and a hammer. If you need to make a million of something then you need highly automated, sophisticated technologies. I think scale is probably the biggest reason Canada is a laggard in adopting new technologies. Which is why Renishaw has invested heavily in its solution centres to allow people to come in and develop parts and gain knowledge with zero capital outlay.
SHOP: We started our discussion looking at the most significant change over the past 20 years. Let’s look ahead to the next 20 years. What do you foresee as the most significant change that will impact your customer base and will cause you to change how you do business?
WILLIAMS: I think software will be a big component of that. We recently launched a product that is basically capturing system data from all metrology technologies. It’s a data management tool but on a very wide scale; it’s a one-to-many product. The sophistication and the extension of what plugs into that over time, I think will be very significant to our customers. It’s very key information. I would also say the additive manufacturing products will undergo significant change. The level of sophistication and automation around additive manufacturing will have a huge impact on the barrier to adoption. I always look at it from a cost per part perspective as that’s what matters and that will change based on throughput improvements and automation significantly over the next 20 years.