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

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

An Overview of TCT 2018 - Some highlights & some thoughts

After a “big show” hiatus for me personally, I jumped back in last week and headed to the TCT Show 2018. TCT is by far the largest gathering of Additive Manufacturing (AM) and 3D printing companies and people in the UK. It has continued to grow in both size and stature since its first edition, at which I was present, in 1996. By virtue of its longevity and reputation it remains one of the must-attend events on the AM/3DP calendar for many companies in the industry. The fact that it is on my own “turf” and doesn’t involve a flight is only one reason I love going to TCT, another is my personal history with the event and I still get that rush of adrenalin ahead of the doors opening, but I think that’s down to muscle memory. Now, almost a decade after being directly involved in the organisation I still get a fleeting feeling of panic that something might go wrong or someone won’t show up. Nostalgia, maybe? Weird, definitely! No further comments required. 

Now running over three days, even without the tri-annual Interplas show running alongside, the continued growth of the additive manufacturing and 3D printing industry was reflected on the show floor in terms of the number of exhibitors (250+) some with dedicated stands other sharing, or represented by distributors. There were many highlights to be seen, some key announcements and plenty of information to be gleaned from exhibitors and attendees alike. But, there were also discernible negative vibes on certain AM issues, which do need to be addressed. I’m going to give it a go, later in this post, in as constructive a way as possible. 

Most of the big AM companies were on the show floor, with some notable exceptions. No Carbon or HP stands, as there have been in previous years. HP was represented by a distributor (Europac), as was Desktop Metal (Laser Lines), XJet (Carfulan Group) and Mcor (Creat3d). In addition, there was an absence of larger AM machine platforms — both metal and polymer. After a huge showing at IMTS for the AM sector and Formnext just six weeks away, my own opinion, shared by numerous other people I spoke with was that this has a direct effect on the largely regional (in terms of visitors) TCT show. But that is not to misrepresent the value, scale or importance of the TCT Show — it is more representative of a shift in emphasis, a crowded Q3/4 calendar and TCT’s own expansion of global events. In addition to its events across multiple continents, the Rapid News organisation announced a further event for 2019 in Shenzen. 

Another result of TCT 2018 coming so quick after IMTS and ahead of Formnext was a lack of key product launches or announcements, although there were some around incremental developments and new partnerships. It made for an environment that was more about networking, information sourcing and updates — one of the TCT Show’s great strengths. 


TCT Highlights

For me, the key highlights from TCT came from new application developments with AM. The most mind blowing of these could be found on the Added Scientific stand. For anyone not familiar with the organisation, Added Scientific is a consultancy firm with a team of AM experts (Phill Dickens, Richard Hague, Chris Tuck, Ian Ashcroft and Ricky Wildman among them) that bridges the gap between academic research and industrial companies looking to maximise the potential of AM. At TCT, the team, managed by Sophie Jones, were demonstrating for the first time how metal AM has been successfully applied to develop a UHV chamber for a quantum sensing rig in a joint partnership with the Universities of Nottingham and Sussex. Now, quantum physics is a discipline way above my comprehension levels, but in doing a bit of background research in an attempt to grapple with it, this recent articlefrom Medium, helpfully provided some insight into quantum sensing also known as quantum metrology. As the name suggests, the goal of this trade is to exploit the peculiarities of the quantum world to build new and improved sensors and measuring devices.”It states it is an 11 minute read, but if you need to re-read certain bits, numerous times, as I did, it takes a tad longer! 

It is an interesting digression, to be sure, but really the main point to understand is that the equipment used to construct a quantum sensing rig, in this case a UHV chamber, is extremely complex — in design and functionality. 

The image below shows the traditional design of such a chamber (top) while on the bottom is the new design, additively manufactured. The difference is stark — this goes way beyond what we typically understand by “redesign.” By combining systems engineering analysis with true ground-up design for AM (DfAM) and materials testing; the size, weight and power requirements for the equipment could all be reduced while improving the overall functionality. Talking with a number of team members about this application, I am not overstating things in terms of this being revolutionary for how AM can be realised for future quantum applications. This application has got some quantum physics scientists very excited, apparently. That made me smile, but maybe that’s just because it conjured images of the ‘Big Bang Theory’ lot. A cliché, I know! 



Another fascinating application of AM, this time with polymers, was to be found on the Europac stand. Achieved using HP’s MJF process this was another conversation that had me laughing out loud, as people kept it real. Jacob Turner from Bowman Additive Production took the time to explain the application to me. As the head of AM at Bowman, he was well placed to do just that, but also showed me what he called “a really good and a really bad example of AM!” Specifically, the roller train itself, which would have been largely impossible to produce any other way, with the degree of functionality achieved was the good one, you won’t be surprised to learn. While the display stand it was resting on, a solid right angle of material (think book end) had also been 3D printed for the show — pointlessly and at a ridiculous cost, according to Jacob!  It was an excellent, if originally unintentional, demonstration of how AM is most effective with specific application development to realise improved functionality and reduced costs and/or added value. When it’s used just for the sake of it, it is pointless and expensive, and achieves very little.  

On the added value issue, one other application highlight is worth noting from the TCT show floor. This was to be found on the large Sodick stand. I got chatting to Paul Lodge, a Director of Cable First, a client of Sodick. He was there to talk to visitors about how his company has benefitted from implementing a Sodick hybrid metal platform to transform its work flow, notably for the production of mould tools. Paul was not backwards in talking to me about the difficulties in sourcing decent toolmakers. “We’ve got toolmakers on our suppliers list, and they’re very capable, but there’s not enough of them. We make a whole range of cables – from what you’d expect all the way through to the cables required for wind turbines at sea, and they’re ‘big’ cables that have to withstand harsh environments.” The tools required for this are complex and the lead times, even assuming a tool maker is available, is lengthy. “We want to make cables easier,” Paul intimated. “And that’s what AM does for us.” When I asked about the economics, I was slightly taken aback when Paul breezily commented, “oh, it’s not cheaper.” He was referring to the cost of the tools, but, when I asked him to explain, he went on: “it adds tremendous value to what we do, both in terms of getting the best possible tool, with an efficient design that minimises core cooling times. Indeed, he revelled in telling me, reducing the cooling cycle time by just 10 seconds per cycle equates to a saving of 1388 hours from a tool life of only 500,000 cycles. The overall added value, according to Paul, was a no brainer, so much so that while Cable First installed the Sodick OPM 250L for its own in-house tooling requirments, it is now offering a service. You kind of expect the OEMs to talk like this about AM (with the exception of the cost issues), but when a customer does it — so naturally, and enthusiastically — you know something good is happening. 

A standout product announcement that came from TCT was from Xaar, who announced a new print head for liquid photopolymers. In terms of Xaar’s previous engagement with 3D printing, this was a bit on an eyebrow raiser, actually. The company is taking 3D printing very seriously — it launched a separate 3DP division, headed up by Neil Hopkinson, last year, but has been working with 3D printing for more than 10 years. The focus then was very much on the high speed sintering process, developed by Hopkinson, and the inkjet head development for powder bed processes of this nature. This announcement though, indicates a new direction in developing specific, high performance inkjet heads for direct deposition of photopolymers. Talking with Angus Condie (Director of Integration and Applications) and Michael Seal (Business Development Manager) as well as Simon Kirk (Senior Product Manager) there has been a specific goal with this development called “High Laydown” to achieve better performance through expanded material properties with photopolymers, and a dedicated move towards manufacturing. According to the team, this print head enables high viscosity resins, at a higher rate of throughput (5-10x faster than existing photopolymer processes) that results in 80 micron layers and higher functionality and durability of parts. The new Xaar print head has been developed in collaboration with material supplier BASF, but no indication of the system platform, as yet, probably because there isn’t one. Xaar was open is saying this is not commercially available, they’re looking for an OEM partner to find a route to market. That was part of the reason they were at TCT. As UK networks go, it’s one of the best to find what you’re looking for. I’ll be very interested to see where this goes.  

New partnerships and collaborations were the order of the week, there was a host of them announced during the TCT show. Shapeways and Stratasys revealed their new partnership, based on Shapeways acquiring a J750 platform and now able to offer the full colour advantages that this system offers. Laser Lines, with a large presence on the show floor, had a space dedicated to its new partnership with Additive Industries, who also had a small stand of their own. Additive Industries is arguably leading the way in terms of offering a full “turnkey solution” for production with AM, according to Laser Lines’ account manager, Paul Tickle. Additive Industries has installed systems at Sauber and BMW, with one (undisclosed) recipient in the UK due to install one in Q1 of 2019. The most information I could get was “it’ll be near Bristol” which narrows it down some, but still leaves plenty of options for where it might be going. My money would be on Airbus or UWE — just a hunch, could well be wrong. At Laser Lines, the Additive Industries solution sits alongside the Desktop Metal and OR Laser metal AM offerings; as well as Laser Line’s long term offering of the full range of Stratasys systems. More recently the company has also been a distributor of Formlabs 3D printers.

Other partnerships announced were from XJet, who has signed an agreement with Carfulan Group, who will be distributing XJet’s ceramic and metal systems based on the novel NanoParticle Jetting process; and US based Link3D who announced a new partnership with the Aachen Centre for AM to promote its AM workflow software across Europe. 

Across my time at TCT, I took some sparse opportunities to dip in and out of the conference sessions. A specific highlight was a research presentation given by Candice Majewski from the University of Sheffield. Her presentation highlighted a project that was exploring how to incorporate anti-bacterial properties into polymer laser sintered parts. To date, the project was showing encouraging results in terms of combining LS polymers with a silver based additive with known anti-bacterial properties. Candice was able to share that they were achieving good dispersion; with no discernible effects on the properties of the printed part or human side-effects; and repeatable positive results when the parts interact with bacteria.  Important to stress this is still research, but exciting in terms of the possibilities and where this could be successfully applied in terms of applications and reducing the need for antibiotics, which, if their use is not reduced, by 2050 could see 10 million people per year dying from antibiotic resistance. Where AM can support the human condition — now or in the future — you will find me, and many others, cheering. But all kudos should go to those researchers, like Candice, that are actually laying the foundations. 

One other highlight to mention came to my attention as I sat sipping much-needed coffee on the first morning of the show, waiting for the doors to open. A gentleman asked to share the table I was sat at, and we got chatting — I know, shocker, right? Lykle Scherps had made the trip to TCT from Cyprus (he is originally from the Netherlands). His primary purpose for the trip was on behalf of his company, Zesty Technology, of which he was a founder, and its development of an innovative extruder for desktop 3D printers. The innovation comes largely from the reduced weight — a functional 26g, compared with the industry standard 300g, in combination with the ability to control the extruder remotely and a very simple loading mechanism. For any open source advocates, this is definitely worth a look, IMHO. Moreover, with more than 1000 units sold to date, and a second gen product in development, Lykle also set me up for the show pondering another interesting dichotomy –  the uses of 3D printing / AM for prototyping and/or production. The Zeisty extruder is currently produced with outsourced AM, but Lykle is looking to install an in-house system to fulfil the company’s production requirements as well as provide a much needed high-end AM service in Cyprus. At the moment, two AM systems almost meet his needs — both the HP MJF process and EOS’s nylon SLS are contenders. However, according to Lykle, neither process offers everything he needs for his application, they both have pluses and minuses. And there, once again, is the age old story of this tech sector. There is no silver bullet – no matter what any marketing person tells you — even in 2018. 

Themes 

Production AM versus Manufacturing versus Prototyping & Product Development

The discussion with Lykle immediately highlighted a theme that continuously raised its head across TCT — the product development versus production applications of AM. The event brought this divergence of the industry into sharper focus. Over the years it has ebbed and flowed, but once again it was very obvious in both exhibits and conversations over the course of the week. However, it is no longer just about huge metal platforms versus small desktop filament plastic extrusion machines. It is all much more nuanced than that. The metal and nylon powder bed fusion systems are, clearly, out front when it comes to high-end, high-value production — examples of high performance, increasing volumes of production parts are proliferating at a faster rate than ever before. However, the smaller polymer systems, desktop and otherwise (one example would be Ultimaker) are also becoming more industrialised and promoting similarly increasing numbers of end-use applications. The volumes vary, as does repeatability, and invariably they are not critical mechanical applications, but, they serve a purpose and in so doing cannot be dismissed as “not production” out of hand. 

I know there will be industrial die-hards out there that will disagree with me, and that’s okay, but from my own perspective my understanding and lexicon is shifting in terms of the all-encompassing manufacturing applications of 3DP/AM for any and all end use products and parts, versus the high(er)-volume, high-end production applications for critical components and products. For me, there is no longer a clear differentiation in terms of process, system or material used.

AM-specific Simulation Software

One area of the AM ecosystem that is seeing sweeping developments from multiple companies is AM-specific simulation software. The development and commercialisation of such software is driving towards improving the workflow around additive processes and to eliminate costly and time-consuming build failures. Whether for product development or production, there are an increasing number of simulation software tools to relieve this pain point. The simulation of digital models within the build chamber to identify errors during build was in evidence from many companies. Materialise launched their latest offering in combination with the Magics 3D Print Suite for metal AM, ANSYS talked about theirs on the tech stage, Autodesk’s Netfabb Simulation is another, and GE was promoting GEONX (pronounced Ji-on-ex, not Geo-N-X, in case you were wondering). Of the latter, I was surprised to learn that it was announced on the last day of Formnext last year, considering so little has been heard of it since, but, it’s getting a big push now. 


DfAM
Over and over again, conversations at TCT reverted to the issue of Design for AM (DfAM) and the lack of skills and people to drive uptake and adoption of the processes deeper into industrial sectors through intelligent design. I think perhaps the conversation that covered it best was with Tom Fripp, Managing Director at Addition Design and Research. He related to me how one of the many visitors to their stand, on learning more about the company’s R&D approach to design services for AM as a strategic partner, described AD&R as “the missing link.” On consideration, it is really hard to disagree with this simple statement. Companies like Addition Design and Research can — and do — bridge the current gap to design skills for sophisticated AM projects. Moreover, they can provide the insight and training into developing those skills with collaborators. In the longer term though, academic syllabuses have to provide the training and human resources that the industry requires. 

The Current Big Issue

And here, regrettably, we have to confront another issue that is currently having negative impact on the AM industry – and it’s a problem that’s getting bigger and more noticeable. OEM companies that are over-promising on capabilities and delivery dates, and failing, often miserably, to deliver, which results in consequences that seep out across the industry in the form of frustration, unmet expectations and even stalling sales. 

There are a growing number of companies that have fallen into this trap of over promising and under delivering. To be fair, the causes are not always clear cut — but often comes down to under-estimating the difficulty of transitioning from a working, provable concept to a scaled up production operation while maintaining reliability, quality and keeping a lid on costs. There are many examples of this phenomenon linked with the Kickstarter culture in years gone by. But more recently this MO has become increasingly familiar with OEMs of different sizes. Mcor is an earlier example, with its Arke platform, but I understand that in this case, lessons have been learned and things are turning around. They’re doing it quietly, but when they come back, it will be with all of the necessary foundations in place to meet customer expectations. Good for them — I really hope it is so, and will be cheering for them loudly when it happens. Formlabs is another company experiencing similar with its laser sintering platform — the photopolymers are still doing extremely well, the Form2 is well established, proving reliable and cost-effective for many users with increasing material options — but the transition to a different process with the same business model is not straightforward, apparently, and there are delays. I can’t help but wonder if similar will happen with the new Prusa photopolymer system — another company that has built a stellar reputation with a fantastic product — that can’t resist trying to replicate it with another, very different process as a way to grow. It’s not necessarily a natural transition. 

While this issue is not limited to the AM industry by any means, it has become a bigger and uglier beast within this sector of late with the promise of “bigger,” “faster” and “better” metal systems — most notably from HP and Desktop Metal. These companies have made huge sweeping promises of innovation and disruption to metal AM, based on binder jetting tech in various forms. There are however, moving goalposts in terms of when these systems will be commercially available beyond stakeholders and investors. 

Strangely enough, metal manufacturing processes — as innovative as they might be in the lab where they are developed, or the factories where they are tested — are hard. And they don’t happen quickly. It takes a long time to stablize, make consistent and commercialise. Recent history is right there to back this up. The PBF/EBM companies have two and half decades of R&D as well as serious application development behind them and they are only now just getting there, and rightly so. 

These “new” systems are still under development, unproven in commercial environments and not tested at scale to meet industry expectations or the orders that follow. High levels of investment or huge corporate infrastructure are utilised to persuade (subliminally or otherwise) industry watchers and prospective buyers of stability and scaled up production, that in reality is no easy feat and often becomes a stumbling block. Of course, pre-ordering is a key sales strategy for some companies — but the months, sometimes years, of waiting for delivery are frustrating (at best) and damaging (at worst).

So many people have talked about this issue in various ways this week, but all of them were pointing to how it stalls the whole market — and that’s not good for anyone whether vendors, stakeholders, users or potential users.  

It’s odd to hear myself say this, but I agree with Dave Burns, who during his presentation at TCT, suggested that more companies should stay in stealth mode for longer. 

However, not wanting to end on a pout, I’m going to round up with one amusing little anecdote that made me smile – noticing people’s job titles at TCT. Obviously, eyes are drawn to the obligatory badges at a show like this. It’s always tickled me that so many people attach great status to their job title, but it was so heart-warming to see some people that really don’t and attempt to convey something more. Two stand out examples were the “Office Astronaut” at rigid.ink and the “Captain of Education” at Jellybox. Brilliant. 

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

A Review: ADDITIVE INTERNATIONAL – 2018

After the pre-conference conferenceat Additive International, the actual 13thconference in this series got underway on July 11thand ran for two days with a full programme of full length presentations and networking opportunities. As Prof Richard Hague of the University of Nottingham highlighted in his welcome address, the aim of this conference remains “to show you something new.” This conference is very, very good at that. For me it always crystallises just how much I don’t know — and that’s a really good thing. Moreover, Additive International in its 13thiteration continued to demonstrate the vast potential of additive manufacturing, always contextualised in reality — whether within the realms of academia, the real business world or somewhere in between. This also goes some way to explain the programme mix of cutting edge research presentations and industrial insights. 

Reporting on the numbers is more black and white, according to the organisers the conference attendance continues to grow. The 2018 edition welcomed 360 delegates from 19 countrie, giving credence to the international title. There were also 37 exhibitors in the parallel exhibition and 19 speakers presenting on a variety of topics and sectors. 

One of the first themes of the conference that quickly came into focus for me happened during the first presentation by Abby Juhl for the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL). Her presentation was specifically titled “New Approaches to Functionality and Colour” of AM, which belied the much more complex nature of the work being undertaken at the AFRL into additive technology for wearable flexible hybrid electronics or functional electronics. However, just a minute or two into her presentation, Ms Juhl specified that this advanced application is for prototyping and research activities. This pronouncement recurred at various times over the course of the programme. It wasn’t addressed by anyone specifically but served to illustrate, to me at least, that while manufacturing and production applications are indeed proliferating, some of the most challenging and useful applications of additive tech remains in the prototyping realm, with much deeper research behind it. 

In terms of the AFRL research, the focus is very much on the materials and processing for the man machine interface. As an example Juhl offered pilots and the ability to access real time diagnostics of their physical condition using biosensors during flights, combat flights in particular. Wearable electronics need to be flexible and stretchable and additive manufacturing can be used to create that flexibility and stretchable electronics. Juhl threw out a nice motto they use too: “print what you can, place what you can’t!” Anything but a throw-away line, this serves to illustrate that AM is a very useful tool, but rarely an entire solution in isolation. 

Considering advanced materials, Professor Iain Todd from the MAPP EPSRC Future Manufacturing Hubgave attendees an enlightening presentation. He covered a great deal, but it was his angle that piqued interest, namely “Designing Alloys for Metal AM: Don’t blame the alloys!” Other insights on new materials for AM were delivered by Christopher Spadaccini from LLNL but he started with a vital point that it is essential to understand, namely that advanced approaches to AM are enabling new components and materials for next gen solutions but no single advancement (whether materials / hardware / software etc) can be successful in isolation. Modelling and Design, Synthesis, AM process and materials as well as qualification & certification are all inter-related.  

Another interesting point he made was about 3D designs and the multiple constraints that come with it. Despite the whole “complexity is free” rhetoric that is often alluded to with AM, we are still working within different manufacturing constraints – for instance computers can still produce geometries that even AM can’t cope with.  We are further refining these 3D design and attempting fabrication. LLNL design optimisation code: topological optimisation program for linear elastic regime. Progress - We can now optimize material response in the large deformation dynamic viscoplastic regime (see slide). New direction we’re going (in addition to multi scale and multi physics). 

The two specific material highlights that emerged from Spadaccini’s presentation, however, are ones to watch out for. The first is a new metal process called DiAM (diode AM), which shapes high-power laser diode light using a dynamic mask. The progress with the DiAM system is advanced — the system is now operational, and there is a commercialisation partner lined up, but this remains “a secret.” The other is a  glass printing process for  the fabrication of functionally graded optical components using AM. This is not as advanced but the research is showing positive results with established control of composition through a custom mixing print head as well as geometric complexity. While they did not dominate exclusively, two of the prominent sectors featured across the Additive International programme were aerospace and medical. Hardly surprising considering these two sectors have AM most deeply embedded — both in terms of real applications and advanced research and qualification. 

Of particular note, was the presentation from Florence Montredon from Thales Alenia Space. Her reasoned introduction would have been familiar to anyone that’s been involved with AM for a while — the motivation for exploring and using AM Thales Alenia Space comes down to the ability to manufacture complex optimised parts and weight saving. In this case, Ms Montredon was referring to telecom satellite structures, and today there are 
nine AM parts on satellites currently in space, the most recent one was launched earlier this year, in March from Bangladesh. What was interesting is that these parts are not produced in-house — Thales currently only outsources AM production, even with the stringent specification required per part, which involves verifying partners in terms of capacity, quality, certification, data management and traceability. I confess, I find this weird, and can only speculate at the reasons why. 

Another really interesting aerospace presentation was given by Paola Caraccolo from Airbus Germany. I mention this because over the years I have seen a fair few presentations on AM from Airbus. The company is, categorically, a super user of the technology, but rarely do they give much away beyond the big picture “blah blah” information. Caraccolo’s presentation, beyond the historical introduction, was different and explored the “Effect of Defects in AM parts.” And it was insightful and packed with information, one highlight of which was “AM serial production is happening right now, but R&D is ongoing. Actually, AM is currently a comparatively expensive process – but it is acceptable for high value applications that achieve weight savings.” Then there was mention of some brackets and I zoned out for a while. He got my attention back when he went beyond using AM just for new aircraft designs, but also for retrofits and repairs before focusing in on different defect types and methods of detection. One solution that has emerged is the patented Airbus 3D SURFIN, which uses CT scans to identify defects and assess fatigue within AM parts. Also the 
Design Assessment of Reliability With INspection (DARWIN) programme, which can deduce global probability of failure. 

The automotive industry also got a nod, with an interesting presentation from Anil Sachdev from GM Global R&D. Mr Sachdev was posing the question: Can metal AM become the Automotive Game Changer? This is correctly based on the assumption that currently, it isn’t, and acknowledged that the automotive industry, while a leader in the adoption of rapid prototyping is well behind the curve when it comes to production. Thus, he posited, “can we now consider AM for high volume production? Can we develop the mindset to get to 1 million parts?” 

According to Sachdev, today additive technologies are used for prototypes (obviously), simple fixtures, concept validation and testing as well as forms and tools for casting. These applications are all normalised and viable both in-house and across the supply chain. However, when it comes to high volume production, it’s just a big no! Automotive companies are well behind the aerospace and medical sectors. This, he says, is because: “We can’t combine out additive expertise and out metallurgy expertise at the moment.” Moreover, the reality for most automotive companies is that AM systems are still too limited in their build envelop size compared with traditional automotive tools and the accuracy and distortion of AM is not good enough — it still requires too much post-processing. Apparently auto companies hate paying for post processing. Another problem he highlighted was that material characteristics are not equivalent – and, pertinently, won’t work. For instance, if auto companies have to use cobalt chrome, they’ll use up the global supply in a year! It’s just not going to happen this way. Rather, he suggested, we need to develop new SIMPLE iron / AL based alloys for automotive applications. His proposed solutions were all based around collaborative opportunities — up and down the supply chain to find solutions through increased throughput, improved accuracy, and common automotive material developments. 

He was a very engaging speaker, and his call to action in terms of collaboration was very compelling — however, it was hard to mask the fact that progress with AM for production remains slow across the automotive sector. 





There was one presentation that did stand out perhaps more than any other. It stood out first because it did not do what it said on the tin, and second for the response it generated from the audience. The presentation was given by Lijuan Zhang from the National Innovation Institute of AM in China (NIIAMC), and it was titled “New materials for SLM.” It never quite got there, rather the presentation raised the issue of infrastructure and investment. Ms Zhang introduced the NIIAMC, and in truth it dominated her whole presentation 

According to Zhang, the NIIAMC is a new organisation (1.5 years), established by the government in China. It is the 2ndmanufacturing innovation centre supported by “Made in China 2025” which is part of a 10 year national plan focusing on comprehensively upgrading Chinese manufacturing industry. This regional organisation currently comprises five leading universities in AM and 13 renowned companies operating in AM machines, materials, components and software development. 

The biggest gasp came when Zhang relayed the funding they were working with — a combination of investments from national and regional government as well as corporate sponsorships and investment. The total is RMB 1.035 billion. It may as well be gazillions, and it’s infinitely more that is available for AM in any western nation undertaking a national strategy. This is not just about technology development, it’s a huge infrastructure project being built over 30 acres. It’s basically a town that is being built and will be fully dedicated to 3D printing and additive manufacturing. It will comprise many buildings — both for commercial and educational purposes, and, get this, a museum for all things AM. The town is due for completion in 2023. But by the end of this year there will be a fully functioning high tech district covering 28,000 square metres. They’re well on their way of actioning the mission, namely to promote innovation and entrepreneurship, and drive transformation and upgrading of Chinese manufacturing industry; evelop core technologies and forge a new supply chain, leverage existing resources and establish a highly collaborative innovation ecosystem to bridge the gap between innovation and industry; and provide education and training in AM technologies to create an adaptive and leading workforce. 

Research areas include design, materials, process, equipment and software; along with standards and certification and testing and validation. The materials covered (and this is the closest we got to the presentation title) include metals / ceramics / plastics / amorphous / supermolecular / composites /functionally graded / nanomicro fabrication / smart material and 4D printing. As you would expect, industrial sectors include aerospace, automotive, medical, building construction  and consumer goods. Zhang also covered organisational structure, development plans (including capacity) and new platforms. She also indicated that there are already more than 40 types of metal and non-metal AM equipment in service along side public and pilot scale testing platforms under construction. At this point we were supposed to find out more about some of the research projects, including the headlining materials for SLM. She was out of time — I’m not quite sure if that was by design or not, but the point was well and truly made. 

I heard more than a few sharp intakes of breath and mutterings from the audience as the levels of investment and the vision for an AM city were highlighted. Many of the mutterings, including my own, went along the lines of – “If only! Just imagine what [insert country of residence that’s not China] could do with that sort of investment ….” 

I know money is not everything, I hate its power to corrupt, but there is no arguing that it can certainly buy advances with AM! 

ADDITIVE INTERNATIONAL 2018: A Round up of the Pre-conference Conference in Nottingham

My annual pilgrimage to Nottingham for the Additive International conference happened recently (10th-12thJuly). As I may have mentioned once or twice previously, I am a big fan of this event, due to the huge amount of new information I always discover during the three days, not to mention the networking opportunities that always throw up plenty of off-the-record insights. This year proved to be no different.

The Nottingham event, renamed and rebranded for 2018 as “Additive International” under the organisation of Added Scientific and the company’s rapidly growing team is a permanent calendar fixture for many people in the additive manufacturing sector, me included. There are always new faces, however, and at the Nottingham Belfry venue, this event has reached capacity in 2018, according to Sophie Jones, Managing Director of Added Scientific. 

For some years now, the event is split into two – with day one offering a pre-conference day full of updates on UK AM research activities. I have always found this to be extremely valuable in that it provides keen insights into trends around AM, the often overlooked challenges and issues and where the next breakthroughs are happening. Traditionally, this pre-conference conference has highlighted a great deal of academic work, but this year saw a change of pace. The day was run in collaboration with Innovate UK, which is part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) the national funding agency investing in science and research in the UK.

Under the banner “Business Innovation in Additive Manufacturing” the day was dedicated to highlighting 32 of the 50 AM projects that Innovate UK is supporting. You may wonder why not all 50? I’ll admit it did occur to me, too, but according to Robin Wilson, who heads up Innovate UK, fitting 32 into one day was quite stressful enough. And as the day unfolded, I took his point. Sessions were dedicated to specific areas of research, specifically: 

New Additive Manufacturing Processes
Med Tech
Post Processing
Inspection Systems
New Materials / Conductive Components
Large Scale / Construction
Tooling / Hybrid Processes
Aerospace – Large Project. 

Each session then started with a 10-minute presentation, with a headline project that provided insight into this area of research, development and commercialisation progress. The session then progressed to a series of 2-minute pitches highlighting the progress of other projects in this area. It was fast paced and, barring a singular mishap, slick in operation providing some key insights. The 2-minute presentations all followed the same formula – throwing a spotlight on the key objectives of each project, the progress that has been made to date, future goals and how the project contributed to the UK National AM strategy. It really worked very well and fulfilled the self-imposed remit of sharing information and highlighting some of the UK’s most advanced AM research heading towards commercialisation. 

Obviously there was a huge amount of IP beneath these glossy 2-minute presentations. The representatives of each project, usually fronting for wider partnerships, had been asked “to share as far as possible” but there was always an awareness that there was much more going on beneath the surface. From a business point of view – that’s a given and was generally well accepted across the audience. 

One observation across the day was the high number of these projects that are due to end in March 2019. In line with the Brexit deadline. It was never explicitly said out loud, but the implication was clear and as in many other areas across UK industry, it threatened a darkening cloud with no clear solution. 

Two other key themes that emerged time and again across the day, and across sessions, were automation and connectivity. The focus on these areas is actually diverse but uniformed in the call to action to ensure improvements in both for successful AM implementation – specifically in-house but also across supply chains. 

It would be impossible to cover every project presented during the day in this post – to give you an idea, the shorthand notes I took during the event yesterday totalled almost 4,000 words. So here I am going to highlight a couple of projects that really stood out for me, and hopefully follow up with a more comprehensive project overview post-conference. 

I think the most inspirational project presented was the collaboration between Andiamo, Additive Flow and Barts Health NHS Trust. The name of the project — CON-DIG — does not do it justice, but hints at the focus, namely Connected Digital Additive Manufacturing to develop the interface between product design, AM systems and in-process data for a feedback loop to improve both design and production operations. 

For this particular collaboration the focus is to “create data driven, family-centred healthcare product design” with a direct impact on real, young, human lives through the accelerated, patient-specific development and manufacture of 3D Printed orthotics for children & adolescents. As Alexander Fluke, from Additive Flow, explained it: Barts has 1000s of patients that fit into this category worldwide, and while each case may have commonality, every one of them requires different treatment through the application of the orthotic providing different amounts of force over time. Conventionally, these orthotics take six months to produce from consultation and measurement through to fitting on the child or young person. Thus, often they end up being redundant by the time they are ready, due to the inconvenient fact that children tend to grow over a six month period. 

And this is the exciting part of this project, the one that really makes a difference, in that Andiamo is able to accelerate the manufacturing process from 6 months down to 1 week. Moreover, by using functional graded materials and functionally grading the orthotic in a way that is targeted to the specific requirements of each child’s medical issue it becomes easy to see why AM is such a good fit here. 

Innovate UK was obviously proud to be funding this project which is demonstrably improving lives and “empowering children to be children” by receiving BETTER treatment, faster. The project is currently half way through its 18 month span, the goal is to roll it out. It’s one of those applications where you want to stand up and cheer because it’s a real application, applied in a realistic way and DOING GOOD; but I had to stop myself, you know, being at a professional conference and all. 

The other project that really stood out for me was presented by Dan Mace of Archipelgo in the “New AM Processes” session. He introduced his two-minute pitch with three words, but it got a great deal of attention. He said: “We jet glue.” The project is called “SmartDrop” and the premise is a connected digital additive manufacturing platform, using inkjetting technology. In a nutshell, Smartdrop is a non-contact jetting process for viscous liquids targeting applications that include shaped and programmable adhesive, efficient coatings and primers. 

The objectives of this project include creating a SmartDrop prototype system, then subsequently place this system at a lead customer site, with the ultimate goal of commissioning a Smartdrop manufacturing system facility. To date the prototype system has progressed well, and has demonstrated that the technology is scalable at narrow width. Moreover, options for manufacturing have been identified. The project is running until 2020, and definitely one to keep an eye on — in the UK and globally. 

What the Innovate UK day achieved more than anything else, at least for me, was to to serve to highlight the tremendous rate of growth taking place in the 3D printing sector, it certainly seems to have tipped into exponential. The ideas, the funding, the projects and the collaborations just here in the UK are expanding at a tremendous rate and that is certainly being mirrored across Europe, the US, Canada, Australia and China, if the rest of the conference was anything to go by. 

That round up will follow. 

Monday, 9 April 2018

Powders for Additive Manufacturing: There’s a MAPP for That!

Manufacturing using Advanced Powder Processes is increasing in both quantity and quality, and these are indeed the fundamental drivers for the foundation of the EPSRC Future Manufacturing Hub: MAPP. Launched in January of 2017, one year on MAPP hosted its 1st International Conference over two days in Sheffield.

The venue was the old yet beautiful Royal Victoria hotel — a building steeped in British history that permeated the corridors, halls and rooms at every turn. Originally named the Victoria Station Hotel when it opened in 1862, to describe its proximity to the primary railway station in Sheffield and to recognise the British Monarch on the throne at the time, it was later renamed the Royal Victoria to coincide with a visit from the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1875. More than twenty years later, Queen Victoria herself was a visitor there just as the first industrial revolution was taking place.

As Professor Iain Todd, an Additive Manufacturing (AM) industry veteran and project leader at MAPP pointed out in his welcome address: “Sheffield is one of the homes of the 1st Industrial Revolution, so it is really interesting that around the city we are witnessing a renaissance with the AMRC and advanced manufacturing park.” Moreover, he also highlighted how the university and the city are contributing to the 4th Industrial Revolution / Industry 4.0. “Our future manufacturing hub is part of that – and this conference is one of the activities in this regard.” MAPP’s central premise is to deliver on the promise of powder-based manufacturing to provide low-energy, low-cost and low-waste high value manufacturing routes and products to secure UK manufacturing productivity and growth. Relatively speaking, it is actually a narrow and specific remit, but one that is absolutely fundamental to progress with high end  with a broad reach into a number of connected industries.

The goal of the first MAPP conference was to draw together scientists, researchers and commercial powder manufacturers from around the world and at every career stage to disseminate the work — and progress — that is being made in this area.

Across the AM industry emphasis is often placed on process capabilities, however fundamental to many processes are the powdered materials that are fed into the machines. Off-the-shelf, these materials can prove to be variable in terms of performance and quality, and this is where MAPP is looking to make a difference. Talking to Professor Iain Todd, one on one, among a variety of topics, he provided a really quite useful analogy for me, one that provided him with a light bulb moment when it happened! He had been talking with a manufacturer of crisps (or potato chips for any US readers). They’d been discussing materials, and this person had described the base material for crisp production as the potatoes. Obviously, you might think, but then consider; if the input is “potatoes” the output always has to be the same 35g ±0.5g! How many potatoes are the same size and shape? Ok, so it’s not a direct analogy, crisp packets to not contain uniform contents, but it serves to illustrate how MAPP is looking to promote powdered materials that are designed for process, monitored in process to ensure an output with designed quality — and to provide the science to back it up. It’s not all new science either, a great deal of it intersects with the food and pharmaceutical industries, Iain said.

Conference Programme

A carefully curated mix of in-depth keynote presesentations (based on research) together with some faster paced talks and followed by round table Q&A’s were blended well to provide delegates with an engaging format. There was also a session dedicated to some head-spinning “flash presentations” as well as a poster competition detailing the many areas of research being conducted (29 in total) — in a bid to provide insight into the comprehensive scope of the MAPP initiative. The interactive poster session, invited delegates to vote for their top three posters during the course of the event. Indeed,
networking opportunities were abundant, and formally recognised as a key motivating factor for conference attendance. It was also heartening to witness the real diversity across the programme.

Content

The key powder material themes driving Mapp research were consistently in view, focused as they are on novel in-situ observation, characterization and modelling and control, to gain deeper understanding of the interaction between complex processes and materials.

It’s probably important to note, at this point, that what followed involves a great deal of high level science, much of which went straight over my head and left me scratching said head at times! The point, though, is that this scientific activity is intrinsic to AM progress and it is happening.

The first in-depth session focused on “In-situ process and performance characterisation” and was keynoted by Professor Tresa Pollock from the University of California. It was hard not to make a mental note that starting with a strong female presenter was a nice touch, however, if it was unintentional — even better. Prof Pollack’s presentation considered the
3D Analysis of structure and defects at the scale of the melt pool, and provided considerable insight into her team’s research using Femtosecond Lasers and Tomography to achieve workable systems for 3D data set collection and analysis during AM builds. As she noted:
“In-process monitoring is essential.” In this way challenges can be identified and overcome, including how “we have to think harder about designing alloys for AM – to minimise residual stresses,” and “develop more amenable alloys, nano functualisation of high strength alloy powders and design of solidification paths.” This requires requires large 3D and 4D datasets, but Professor Pollock was optimistic that Femtosecond laser tomography is a promising new approach.

Professor Pollock’s keynote was followed by a second keynote presentation delivered by
Prof. Barbara Previtali from the Politecnico di Milano. Another strong female scientist (and role model) working on temporal beam shaping in Selective Laser Melting and molten pool sensing during continuous and pulsed wave laser processing. Describing the research approach and the experimental set up (due to  commercial SLM platform set up not allowing tests), which includes machine and materials (AlSI); pulse temporal profiles; and high speed imaging (camera synchronised with illumination) for process diagnosis; Professor Previtali was able to show videos of melt pool monitoring in SLM at different build speeds, which were fascinating. The team’s subsequent image analysis identified molten pool attributes and provided a comparison of pulsed wave (PW) and continuous wave (CW) laser processing using differeing modes and geometry and concluding that a mixed strategy produces improved results, which in turn will be the focus of future development for higher quality and productivity results with SLM.

These very specific, highly detailed presentations were followed by three short, fast-paced presentations and a Q&A session. The highlight of the morning (probably the whole event), from my point of view, was the presentation given by Prof Adam Clare from the University of Nottingham, which considered the issue of ‘finding and fixing defects in metal powder bed processes.’ Apart from the fact that the title of the presentation didn’t require a definition search, and that the science was no more or less impressive than any of the other
fields of research, Professor Clare’s insight and delivery was wholly accessible to a layman like me. Plus, he has a wicked sense of humour — that always helps.

Describing the current situation of defect identification in AM as a “minefield” he went on to evoke the “dream,” namely “put metal powder into a machine - press go – get a high integrity part out!” I think every AM user has probably daydreamed about that scenario at one time or another. However, we’re not there yet and Professor Clare is one of many people figuring out how to get closer to that. After highlighting many of the challenges (powder variation, energy sources, design choices, parameter choices, inspection limitations etc) he went on to outline a “hierarcy of needs for analysis.” Specifically:  

• Part validation
• Process improvement – available for CNC, not AM
• Process monitoring
• Online validation – on the fly
• Online correction – intelligent machines (the panacea) correcting on the fly.

And while Adam identified some commercial analysis tools that are starting to emerge from vendors, he delved into the research he is conducting at Nottingham, which takes a different approach – spatially resolved acoustic spectroscopy — the goal of which is to develop an “information rich production machine” supported by in-process monitoring (online), which requires a specific instrument in the machine. There are many logistical challenges here, including the optical measurement of rough surfaces; fitting the tool inside the build chamber and the necessity to miniaturise the optical train and use of galvanometer; as well as the impact on build time. Moreover, beyond monitoring the research is considering how to produce real time feedback and correction / action by developing algorithms for controlling microstructure repair.

This information was delivered so well, it actually lifted the room, the potential excited people — even more so considering what it enables: the ability to effect rework in-process, which will drastically enhance the economics of AM.



In a similar vein, Andrew Moore of Heriot-Watt University and Peter Lee of the University of Manchester also provided research insights into the “High speed imaging of the powder bed and shield gas during metal PBF additive manufacture” and “Shining new light on the mechanisms controlling laser additive manufacturing using synchrotron imaging” respectively.

Again, there were some fascinating videos, courtesy of high speed imaging (8000 frames per second) and Schlieren imaging techniques that provided real time footage from within the chamber showing laser meltpool spatter etc, at different angles and speeds. It was incredible imagery that offers real learning material. Some of the ideos are available online.

Other presentations across the event drilled down into projects funded through MAPP. Notable among these the work being undertaken at the Harwell campus and research complex (home of the diamond light source) to develop and build new equipment using synchrotron hard X-rays to see inside the build – not just the surface of it, to track what happens layer by layer and then build up a valuable data set including a process map and a mechanistic map. Beyond the process, however, and in line with the MAPP remit, the research here also investigates powder quality and new material development including comparing virgin powder against oxidised powder to understanding how much oxidisation can be tolerated without impacting quality. It was interesting to learn that “powder flows better when slightly oxidised” but the team is looking to discover how AM can be used with a laser to directly process ceramics and correlate results with other methods (Optical and IR / X-ray etc) as well as develop machine learning algorithms based on what is happening in the meltpool.

Another key theme of MAPP research with a dedicated session at the conference is that of Advanced Characterisation. This is a fascinating area of research, and at this conference it was all about the what, why, where, who and how material characterization was progressing for AM – once again many of these details were beyond my brain power. Essentially, though, these details are not pre-requisite for the vast majority of the AM industry, but I know that the results are, and they will have a massive impact on future industrial capabilities of the technology in the real world. That’s a key take-away here. Indeed the MAPP conference provided repeated examples of why such conduits between academic research and industry are vital.

As you might expect, the characterisation of material powders is a complex and multi-disciplined field that involves understanding — and utilizing — their physical structure and chemical composition to understand and measure their properties, including but not limited to stiffness, strength, ductility, hardness, electrical/thermal conductivity etc, in relation to how they can be processed, react in-process and ultimately, finished part quality and integrity.

Prof. Jin Ooi from the University of Edinburgh looked at this from a top down view with his presentation: Computational modelling of powder processes from model conceptualisation to industrial application; while Hongtao Zhang from Loughborough University got more specific with the “Microstructural characterisation of oxide dispersion strengthened ferritic steels fabricated by spark plasma sintering for nuclear applications.”

The two days were concluded with a final session comprising an expert panel talking about getting “from research to results: Is powder research responding to industry needs?” And chaired, expertly by Sophie Jones, General Manager of Added Scientific.

Rounding Up

I think my biggest take-away that I can share is that this event provided an opportunity to better understand the advanced techniques that are taking place deep inside the PBF additive manufacturing platforms. Powders demand a different approach to other material states and this is the remit of MAPP — to find the best ways to make powders work for industrial applications.

A Few Other Insights

The conference, as often is the case, included an evening dinner reception — these things serve multiple purposes. The obvious one of necessary refuelling after brain overload is superseded by the opportunity to network with other attendees. On this occasion, my dinner companions for the evening were most lovely – Iain Todd, Hugh Hamilton (Johnson Matthey), Kelly Moran (AMRC / Rolls-Royce) Dan Johns (Oerlikon), and Javier Llorca (IMDEA Madrid).

Conversations were free flowing and varied and often reverted back to families and commonality — a vital under-pinning of human interaction. Of course, there was a great deal of chatting about the MAPP commonality (the reason we were all sat at the same table) its intent, where it fits in the UK AM community/global ecosystem, academic community and more. The breadth of experience, global locations and motivations and how we interacted were a perfect analogy for the current status of AM, I mused.

The conversation that nearly tipped me into a heavy depression, however, was with Dan Johns, now at Oerlikon (a company that is a great example of investment and scaling up with AM), when we were discussing the early days of RP and our longevity in this industry of ours — always fun. The cloud descended though when Dan pointed out that there were probably people in the room that hadn’t been born or were still in nappies when we started out in this industry. Seriously, my hysterical laughter was a very thin mask!


But to sum up, it was a really interesting and useful event to attend — not too big, lots of extremely intelligent people, with passion in abundance soaking up the science behind some fundamental AM developments — disseminating, reporting, sharing and learning. How it should be.