About Me

My photo
Ewloe, United Kingdom
Writing, tweeting, debating and occasionally getting a little over-excited about 3D Printing. But always aiming to keep it real!

Monday, 18 December 2017

Progressing Towards Production Applications, And How we "Think" About It

The disruptive nature of 3D printing and additive manufacturing (AM) has been illustrated time and time again throughout the history of this technology sector for a host of prototyping and tooling applications. In recent years AM has started to disrupt the way many companies are thinking about production too as the processes themselves and the ecosystem around them continues to mature and evolve. It’s a natural progression, that seems all the more natural with hindsight, and today the “talk” about AM for production applications is getting louder and more widespread. Just from my own anecdotal experiences, conversations about “production” have increased dramatically in frequency during the course of this year.

However, here’s a thing that I’ve noticed, particularly since returning from Formnext this year and as the result of conversations since: it is all too easy to talk — or think — about “additive manufacturing” as a singular solution to some generic production requirements. Reality is often very different necessitating a unique set of requirements from one application to another, and sometimes AM fits — as a solution or, more often, as part of the solution.

Producing end use products or components for them is invariably a multi-process undertaking, it is extremely rare that one single process fulfils any OEMs or Tier 1/2/3’s   production requirements, whichever industry sector they are operating in. This is a fact that struck home forcibly during a recent interview with Martin Forth, CEO of Raplas. In particular, it was Martin’s reference to “the narrow view that most people in the AM industry have [about production],” that really challenged my own views here and made me think, and think some more.

There is also the issue of materials, specifically the metal versus plastics theme. In the context of AM and production there is a widespread implication that metals are for production and plastics are for prototyping and/or playing. I may have mentioned this once or twice before, but this is a misnomer. There are maybe a handful of stand-out examples where AM with metal has been directly implemented for serial production applications (as opposed to one-offs or very low volumes, which are more common). However, production applications with plastics at higher volumes are more prolific yet less “sexy” and therefore often under-rated.

And then there are those production applications where AM is a part of the solution. This is potentially where AM can make the greatest and most widespread impact, I suspect. A pertinent example of this is illustrated in a case study from M Di Vito, a UK company that has evolved from a traditional foundry operation into an innovative service provider that combines AM with its conventional expertise and experience. M Di Vito recently highlighted a fundamental production application of AM, in the production of complex sand cores, to create final cast parts with features that would not have been possible otherwise. Moreover, the economics and the shorter lead times will support full production of critical components for a marine outboard engine in significant volumes.

It has come as a timely reminder that the continued evolution and expansion of the AM world demands consideration — and re-consideration — of the real-world application(s) of this broad technology base and the importance of always keeping an open mind.

As the holidays are all but upon us, it is a traditional time for reflection and anticipation. 2017 has seen its fair share of turbulence on so many levels and for so many people it’s hard to know how to sum it up. So I’m not going to try, here at least. However, I would like to take this opportunity to wish you a Merry Christmas and a peaceful New Year.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

A Timely Reality Check Landed in my Inbox Last Night

HP’s PR company, or at least one of them, sent me a press release last night. There is nothing particularly unusual in that activity but, even as I opened the email, entitled “Brooks, HP and Superfeet Are Partnering to Bring the Most Personalized Running Footwear to Life” I had a sense of deja-vu. As it turned out, the release was from Brooks Running Company and being distributed on behalf of HP due to the collaboration between the two companies. Skimming the press announcement, I’ll be honest, there may have been a couple of eye-rolls.

You may have seen the announcement of HP’s FitStation platform earlier this autumn/Fall across various tech media platforms, maybe even some 3D printing media, even though 3D printing only supplies a minimal (some may even say token) contribution to FitStation. Rather, the emphasis is very much on personalization and customization, enabled by 3D digital data capture techniques.

The concept of personalized footwear for high performance sports footwear is not new — in general or across the 3D printing industry. Nike’s personalized, part-3D printed football cleats — dating back to 2013 with numerous iterations since —were among the earliest. Reebok, Under Armour and others have subsequently followed suit with varied propositions for customized footwear for improved performance. Other footwear companies also emerged linking 3D printing footwear applications to improved comfort. I’m thinking of SOLS, but for just over a year, this company has changed direction the company’s focus is now on the digital data — its capture and translation to meaningful information.

It seems the economics of personalized footwear enabled by 3D printing are not that great. Some might point to the collaboration between Adidas and Carbon, which does illustrate a breakthrough in using 3D printing for high volume production of footwear, however in this case there is no personalization — essentially the antithesis of FitStation, the link being ‘footwear’ and, tenuously, 3D printing. I use the word ‘tenuously’ with intent here, because actually, the HP FitStation platform, as employed by Brooks depends most heavily “on a state-of-the-art DESMA polyurethane injection-molding machine” for production.

So reading the announcement from Brooks Running Company late last night, I got a couple of reality slaps:

Companies compete and they fight for market share and sometimes they use “me to” mechanisms to do that – whether that involves behind the scenes processes and/or application(s).

Another reality is that companies will work with the best tools for the job to maximize success and increase that market share and 3D printing often doesn’t make the grade. Like in this announcement from Brooks Running Co, in which there wasn’t a single mention of 3D printing (just 3D scanning and the importance of 3D digital technology). After initially wondering why I had been sent the PR (in this regard) I ended up being quite happy that they did — I needed this dose of reality. 3D printing technology is improving all the time, but for this application it’s not the best fit. Moreover, other production techniques (traditional or otherwise) are improving at the same time, like DESMA. Marketing language aside, no new “footwear” application is the same either — whether the focus is on personalization, comfort, high volumes, economics or any combination thereof — they each deserve to be assessed on their own merits and value to the end users. This is how applications develop and the real or perceived “me too” aspect is largely irrelevant.

I quite like being slapped in the face by reality from time to time — it’s a good thing, I think.

And with all that said, it seems right to take a closer look at what Brooks Running Company is doing, namely partnering with HP and Superfeet to leverage the FitStation platform and Brooks Run Signature to introduce a performance running shoe based on an individual’s unique biomechanics. FitStation is said to be a hardware and software platform that combines 3D foot scanning with dynamic gait analysis and foot pressure measurements that offers customers in-depth analysis to identify the unique motion path of the runner’s body and information about the desired running experience in order to create a one-of-a-kind holistic digital profile of an individual that combines personalized fit, biomechanics and experience.

The stated aim is to make the shoes available via special order through select retail partners beginning June 2018.

Jim Weber, CEO of Brooks Running Company commented further on the aim and intent: “Brooks is committed to providing the fit, feel and ride each runner wants. The ability to give an individual a personalized shoe based on his or her unique biomechanics is a game changer. It is a compelling offering for the runner who is interested in tip-of-the-spear technology and a totally tuned experience. As part of our focus on reinventing performance running, we will continue to push the envelope to bring runners innovations that help them uniquely tailor their run.”

I’m not a runner, so I can’t comment from that perspective, but I do look forward to keeping tabs on this next year and hearing user feedback.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Who is adira & How are they Competing with GE Additive?

There has been a whole swathe of news and information coming out of Formnext powered by TCT, which is taking place in Frankfurt this week. One of the strangest stories I happened upon, is a weird coincidence, and my initial thoughts on it are recapped here.

Well, some people might call it a coincidence!

On Tuesday morning, on the first day of the show, one of the stands I walked past first was adira. I was still finding my bearings on the show floor, which this year was across two floors, four storeys apart. (For the record, I never found them). Relatively speaking, it was one of the small / medium sized stands at Formnext and I’d say 80% of it was taken up by a very large machine. I did a double take and this time noticed the strapline on the bridge platform that allowed visitors to see inside the machine, which read: “The World’s Largest Metal Part Printer!”

I remember thinking ‘that’s a bold claim’ (and tweeted something to that effect) my second thought was, who is adira? I had no idea. But tucked it away to follow up later, because Tuesday was soon to become a whirlwind of back to back press conferences and meetings — with not a few escalators and near accidents involved in the to-ing and the fro-ing.

GE Additive Press Conference at Formnext 2017 - Photo Credit: GE Additive.  

In fact, the first press conference of the first day of Formnext was hosted by GE Additive. They had this prime time slot to reveal – to a sprawling crowd of press and visitors – the first beta version metal additive manufacturing (AM) machine of the Project A.T.L.A.S.* programme, which GE is referring to as its “meter-class, laser powder-bed fusion machine.” This is because the machine that was launched at Formnext has an XY build plate of 1.1 m x 1.1 m with a Z axis up to 30 cm. But this is just the beginning, according to Mohammad Ehteshami Vice President and General Manager of GE Additive and scalability is the key here, the GE team were keen to point out that this can go much bigger in the Z axis. This scalability is courtesy of the process set-up, whereby the powder bed is moved across the build plate to deliver the material layers.

The machine is branded as a Concept Laser machine, developed and produced in Lichtenfels under the direction of Frank Herzog the CEO and Founder of Concept Laser, now a GE company, since GE Additive acquired a majority share-holding (75%, I believe) last year. The Lichtenfels facility is all set to increase in size and capacity to accommodate the Project ATLAS programme.

At no point did I hear any of the GE team refer to the ATLAS beta machine as “The world’s largest ….” Although, with the consistent emphasis on the Formnext machine’s scalability, it was certainly implied.

Throughout the announcement, adira was still buzzing away in my brain, and once the GE press conference ended, I took the opportunity to corner a few of the people I knew that were also present to ask if they’d seen the adira machine, or even knew who adira was? Invariably the answers were no and no. I kept asking the questions wherever I ended up that day of other trusted contacts. Nothing concrete — and more than a few raised eyebrows at my line of questioning and the reason behind it. So come Wednesday morning (was that just yesterday?) and I was on a mission, and I headed straight for the adira stand to find out more.

The machine is called AC — addcreator — and the process, I noticed this time, is called Tiled Laser Melting, a registered trademark. Also prominent on the machine were two new poster additions – one large one stating “SOLD” (to Poly-Shape) and a smaller one highlighting a partnership with Siemens, which looked very much like an endorsement, in reference to the process controls and software.

I first sat down to speak with Francisco Cardoso Pinto, Executive Vice Chairman of adira, and after introducing myself together with a brief backgrounder on why I was interested, he laughed and said “Press! I have to be very careful what I say then.” I tried to reassure him I just wanted to understand about the company and the machine and how it fit into the AM industry.

He told me that adira is headquartered in Canelas in Portugal, with a 60+ year history in sheet metal forming machinery. Since 2000, the company has developed and commercialized laser machining solutions and three years ago began R&D into additive manufacturing. The company has been flying low under the radar, but the AC concept was apparently introduced last year at the Euroblech Hannover event, and had press coverage from TCT Magazine in November 2016, when it was presented as a conceptual platform, but it does a nice job of explaining the process.  

Adira is claiming the AC is a production machine, that the company holds global patents and its primary IP is on the environmental controls of the the powder delivery, to ensure conditions are optimal to control spatter and prevent oxidation, according to Tiago B Faro; adira’s Technical Director. Francisco passed me over to Tiago as quickly as possible, with plenty of instructions delivered in Portuguese before he spoke to me.

But now AC is a commercial entity. And, perhaps the most pertinent point to note is how remarkably similar it sounds to the way the GE machine works.

When I asked GE Additive’s Comms Leader, Neil Siddons, about this, he acknowledged he knew of the adira machine on the show floor, but would not be drawn on anything further.

There’s definitely more to come from this story — I certainly haven’t got to the bottom of it.

It could be a coincidence, certainly. A massive one — quite literally. Of course, there are plenty of historical precedents, even in 3D printing land, and further afield, that support the same “things” being developed independently in different parts of the world. It may well turn out to be the case here and I’m over-thinking this?

*Project A.T.L.A.S (Additive Technology Large Area System).