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

Monday, 9 October 2017

TCT 2017: 3D Printing is Bigger, Better and Busier

As expected the TCT Show, which ran 26-28th September, once again brought feelings of nostalgia, born of a shared early history dating back all 22 years. This was my 20th year of attendance, having missed a couple while on maternity leave over the years. While the 3-day show did, as ever, prove to be exhausting I will never miss the stress that went with the organisation side of things. Thus the professional organisation and production of this year’s event, which has increased in both size and stature, is impressive. The team behind it, which has also increased in numbers, will likely have suffered both stress and exhaustion and thus deserve much kudos, not to mention a great deal of sleep now the event has closed its doors.


On the upside you can never overstate the positive buzz that comes from attending one of these large 3D printing industry shows; there is no information gathering medium — in digital or analogue format — that compares to seeing tech at first hand and talking to people IRL, no matter which direction the conversation goes. The downside is that when shows get this big you can not see everything you want to (or should) see, or talk to everyone you want (or should) talk to.

Anticipation was high and within a minute of walking into Hall 3 of the NEC in Birmingham I had bumped into a friendly face and thus started my first in-depth conversation at TCT. It was with Kevin Smith, now an independent consultant working with companies to help them implement additive manufacturing (AM) within industrial environments. As we walked from the registration desk towards the show floor, I couldn’t help laughing out loud as Kevin pointed to numerous exhibits in our immediate vicinity saying: “that’s not production, that’s not production, that’s not b****y production!”

As our conversation about AM for production got more in-depth, Kevin expounded on his thoughts about AM for production applications. “One of the main problems is that it’s still premium, not production, and the vendors are holding it back with high capital and consumable costs.” I took his point on board, even while pointing to a couple of obvious exceptions, which he in turn acknowledged. The other key problem Kevin has identified through his on the ground activities with big industrial firms is that many AM vendors are “still trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, but there are lots of square holes.” Essentially, Kevin was highlighting the issue that AM is not a cure all for every manufacturing challenge, but that there are lots of relevant opportunities out there that are still being missed. While I could not categorically disagree, I was able to point to an increasing shift towards specific application development work by many vendors.

Overall, this conversation was both beneficial and insightful, because the three days that followed kept throwing up this theme of AM and production in various ways.

The definition of production applications within the context of AM, has traditionally been parts manufactured directly using additive technology for end use applications (with or without post-processing operations). However, what did become obvious at TCT this year across a number of conversations and presentations is that there has been a shift here too whereby there is an acknowledgement that part volumes are often considered a necessary factor for “real production.” Depending on who you talk to, the volume quantity can vary dramatically, from five figures to seven figures, but in excess of 10,000 parts per year seems to offer a fair, if arbitrary, number to settle on. Moreover, as I was oft reminded, this is still low compared with injection moulded parts.


There is one, very clear example of where things can go with AM, indeed are going right now, and that came from a very visible exhibitor on the show floor — Carbon. The large, high and central stand was augmented by equally huge images and real examples of the application that makes this point — the adidas Futurecraft 4D trainer / sneaker. There has been a large amount of coverage of this application since its unveiling earlier this year.  However, talking with Phil DiSimone about the adidas application and Carbon’s TCT announcement about the company’s new material pricing structure I got beneath the glossy headlines that focus on the big consumer brand and the 3D printing sound bites to really understand where Carbon is going with real production capabilities, with certified, cheaper materials at high volumes that do compete with injection moulding on volumes, economics and quality.

He went so far as to take my notebook off me to draw the familiar per part pricing graph that is often used to illustrate where AM is cost-effective for production and the cut-off point where IM supposedly becomes a no-brainer. “It’s baloney,” Phil said “and it gets me mad.” (There also followed a discussion on the spelling of baloney versus bologna). Considering what Carbon has achieved with adidas, reinforced by Gerd Manz, VP of Technology at adidas during his keynote presentation at TCT, it is not surprising that Phil feels frustrated at the resistance to view AM as a true production technology. Moreover, this single visible consumer application, while the first, is by no means the last and two more production applications from automotive partners (BMW and Ford on the record as Carbon partners), are all set to be revealed “very soon”.

Apart from the anticipation of the applications themselves, I think a useful take away from this is that the graph in question originated because it was true at the point of origin, and for quite some time after. Now, though, it is being rendered invalid and should be viewed with caution — it can now only ever be used as an application-specific illustration for economic comparisons, not as a general rule for AM.

I purposely focused on Carbon first within the context of the “production” theme emerging from TCT because the company is developing serious, high volume production applications with a polymer based process. It is fairly safe to say that most conversations about production were predicated on the assumption that metal processes are driving production applications. While the metal AM processes are certainly making huge headway in this direction, it is important to highlight that this is a misplaced assumption.

The divergence between metals and polymers, in many ways, is a good thing with a notable increase in acceptance that these sub-sectors are each validated in their own right and not in competition. However, the misnomer comes when assumptions are made that polymers are for prototyping and metals are for production. The example above is submitted as evidence, while in reverse you have the Desktop Metal Studio platform, developed to offer metal prototyping capabilities with viable economics and, according to the company, quality.

Earlier in the development cycle is ceramic materials, but these are notably increasing in visibility, 3D Ceram was represented at TCT by 3D Matters.  There was no XJET at TCT, but they will be at Formnext.

While we’re on the subject of materials, a brilliant overview of AM materials development and application came during a #3DTalk organised by Nora Touré, founder of Women in 3D Printing and Laura Griffiths, Deputy Group Editor for TCT. This was a women only panel session featuring experts in their respective material fields covering resins, powders, research and application development. The breadth and depth of the session was inspiring and I believe it was recorded and will be available on the TCT website in due course.

Back to metal AM now though, and unsurprisingly the metal AM vendors did dominate a high proportion of floor space at TCT. Most of the big metal companies had a strong presence, with SLM, EOS, Renishaw, Trumpf, 3D Systems, Additive Industries and of course GE, which encompasses GE Additive, Concept Laser and Arcam all with large and prominent stands – they are all, as would be expected, focused on large scale production, and here, scale refers more to the size of the parts rather than the volume of parts. Even so, I think it is hard to deny the real progress with “real” production applications, however you define it. All of these companies are reporting increasing order numbers, often multiple machines from the same companies. SLM specifically reported a 50-unit order from China recently. These companies were by and large all reporting busy stands, high levels of serious interest and the obvious growing maturity of the event and the industry itself. The other commonality was that the next big announcements would be coming at Formnext, a few off the record hints and knowing nods but the end of the year reveals in Frankfurt is a tradition that will be hard to break.

An interesting dichotomy within the metal AM sub-sector can be seen by considering the processes used for metal AM production — powder bed melting versus binder jetting with subsequent sintering processes. At TCT this was immediately observable by noting the latest offerings from UK distributor Laser Lines. The company’s Sales Director Mark Tyrtania said that he is very excited about offering the metal AM systems from both Desktop Metal and OR Laser. As much as he agreed that there is an interesting dynamic, he was quick to assert that there is no conflict because the two processes are very different and will actually fulfil very different application solutions. Mark reported considerable interest in both platforms at TCT, as well as sales, but he wouldn’t be pushed on specific numbers.  

The ORLAS Creator metal 3D printer from OR Laser was only visible at TCT via Laser Lines and it was the machines’ first appearance in the UK since its launch at Formnext last year. It is currently the only commercial, smaller, more economical hardware system that is based on the powder bed, layer melting process commonly referred to as laser melting to provide parts with precision and strength. The company is reported to be ramping up its production capacity to meet unprecedented orders of the machine.

By contrast, Desktop Metal had a large and prominent stand of its own at TCT and I was delighted to speak at length with the company’s CTO and co-founder,  Jonah Myerberg. This was, surprisingly, one of the most pragmatic conversations that I had at TCT. It surprised me in a good way, and made me realise that staying open minded is really, REALLY important — in general, but specifically in this industry. It’s something you always know but can be harder to always do. I will cover the extensive nature of this conversation in a separate article, suffice to say, the company’s grip on reality is firm, according to Jonah, confirmed to me  when he said: “Everyone wants that perfect 3D printer but it doesn’t exist,” and then going on to explain that Desktop Metal is fulfilling a gap in the market with an original and valid solution, but it won’t solve every manufacturing problem.

The Desktop Metal relationship with Stratasys is likely a significant factor in the Laser Lines deal mentioned above, as Stratasys’ industrial systems have long been the AM star in Laser Line’s offering and the partnership between Desktop Metal and Stratasys, including sharing distributor channels was announced earlier this year at Rapid.

Another relative newcomer to the metal AM space at TCT was Digital Metal. I use the word relative as Digital Metal is a Hoganas company, born of the parent company’s long history of metal powder expertise and original entry into AM in 2010. Digital Metal was established in 2012 with the development of precision metal systems notably for micro sized products. To date, this proprietary hardware has been used by Digital Metal to provide a dedicated service, according to Digital Metal’s General Manager, Ralf Carlström. Ralf, a metallurgist, has been with Hoganas for 30 years, and he relayed that the service has proved so successful with customers requesting their own machines that the decision was taken to make Digital Metal an independent entity along with the commercial availability of the DM P2500 this year. With two high profile ‘DM’s competing in the same space, it might be necessary to rethink the name of the hardware, but the parts off the machine were very impressive indeed.

Moving back to polymer AM once more, and insight into a similar dynamic as was highlighted by Laser Lines with metal came from a lengthy conversation with John Beckett, MD of EuroPac; another multiple AM process distributor.

EuroPac’s long established place in the 3D ecosystem comes from its expertise with 3D scanning equipment. The company’s first foray into AM, a natural extension for a 3D scanning company, came around eight years ago, when the company became a successful distributor for ZCorp, which evolved into a relationship with 3D Systems after it acquired ZCorp. John was not backwards in coming forwards when telling me that this relationship came to an end for various reasons, most notably because EuroPac did not want to be tied to one AM supplier. Northern through and through, straight-talking is one of John’s most admirable qualities (among many) and he is obviously very happy with the two industrial focused AM systems that EuroPac now offers — SLA from Union Tech and MJF from HP. Once again, John highlighted how despite both being polymer processes they fulfull very different application requirements and don’t really compete. Since being approved as an HP distributor in May, John said, the sales of the HP machines have proliferated. He was able to tell me about the machine at JLR and another at the MTC, information which has been in the public domain for a while, but he was not able to confirm where the other machines are, he would only confirm that they are in the aerospace sector.

Another very interesting point that John highlighted to me was an issue raised at the International Conference on AM in Nottingham few months back, namely that of finance and it regularly being a barrier to adoption. John cited financing of industrial AM equipment as a recurring problem, one that he thinks HP in particular can help to resolve through its own banking facility in Dublin. “This can support leasing deals for HP equipment. It’s active now and set to increase activity. I believe it could change the marketplace.”

Funnily enough, this issue also popped up when talking to Lars Ryberg, who has returned to Arcam and will be working out of the UK. He also cited finance as a major challenge for potential customers, but now with the might of GE behind Arcam, new financing options are being opened up.

These are positive steps around the financing challenge, but they’re baby steps. Moreover, while only the biggest companies financing their own equipment remains the status quo, it will not necessarily open up AM in a way that allows users and potential users to select the best AM tool for their application. Independent banks need to get on board with this — and not just in the UK, but globally.

The focus on production — hardware and applications — does headline events such as TCT, because of the progress being made. But the emphasis belies the foundational and still prolific applications of additive technologies for prototyping and tooling. It’s still strong and it’s still growing. It’s impossible to cite each and every example that was evident at TCT, but some choice examples follow.

One of the most amusing was the presence of Formula 1 teams, relative to partnerships they have established with 3D printing companies. I got some insight into 3D Systems’ relationship with Renault Sports Formula One Team when I visited the facility earlier in the summer and reported on it at Disruptive here. The Renault F1 car was prominent on the 3D Systems stand at TCT, highlighting the prototype and production parts. In contrast, Stratasys was highlighting its partnership with McLaren Racing, also with a car in tow — but sited in the hall entrance to the show. I managed to sit in on the keynote presentation given by Simon Roberts, COO at McLaren Racing. It’s actually a very similar story to Renault Sports — they’ve been using 3D printing for 20 years or so for prototyping and faster product development, “but now we’re on the edge of a breakthrough for manufacturing,” he said.

It does feel as though we’ve been teetering on this “edge of a breakthrough” for a while, but listening to Simon, I suspect he was being extremely reticent in his presentation, particularly with his competitors in such close proximity. We were never going to get the full story of 3D printing at McLaren. I did smirk privately as the well known 'love to hate' relationship between the F1 teams seems to be reflected in the relationship between these two 3D printing companies.
At TCT Stratasys also unveiled new materials —Agilus30 and Digital ABS Plus materials for the J750 3D printer, and the application-specific VeroFlex material, a new, rigid photopolymer which has been specially formulated for the rapid prototyping of eyewear.
The PEEK polymer is also featuring more regularly among 3D printing companies. EOS, at the high end, has offered this material for a while now, while  Roboze introduced a platform last year at Formnext that could process PEEK. At TCT two more companies were demonstrating this capability — VSHAPER and INTAMYS.

Formlabs was highlighting its new Fuse 1, desktop SLS platform, unfortunately without a working machine on site, but there were parts and it was, unsurprisingly attracting a lot of interest. It was a similar story Sinterit.

It was great to catch up with Julie Reece in the UK once again, Julie was overseeing the first introduction of the Rize One 3D printer, featuring the novel (and patented) APD process to the UK market. Julie highlighted some of the challenges of a 3D printing start-up with a truly original process, including generating the right tone and noise in an increasingly noisy industry and staying honest and true to its roots. On an exciting note, the company is close to introducing its new CEO — I was provided with no specific clues other than I will recognise this person, and they are just what Rize needs. Watch this space, I think this announcement will come before Formnext.

Other Things ….

In a natural move, with TCT being the dominant, fully-dedicated AM show in the UK it was utilised as the launch pad for the Additive Manufacturing UK National Strategy 2018-2025. I truly hope this initiative gains momentum and drives real innovation across UK manufacturing, as similar geographic initiatives are undertaken across the world. Not every country can be the best / do the most, but these initiatives can only promote ultimate global growth and evolution of AM if they drive action over and above intent.

TCT still opens its arms to the Open Source and maker communities around 3D printing. And these communities are thriving in numbers, spirit and business. The latter is perhaps why it nestles so comfortably into TCT. The enthusiasm and dynamism of this group of people and companies is truly inspiring and the belief in the open source ethos is elemental to all of them. Just some of the companies that stand out here are E3D, BCN3D, Lulzbot and Hawk 3D Proto, while individual ambassadors such as Richard Horne (@RichRap3D), Ben Hawksworth Thomas Sanladerer (@toms3dp) and Daniel Norée (@DanielNoree) work tirelessly to promote the ethos and the increasing levels of progress through video productions, social media and meet-ups.

One fly in the ointment for the OS community that was discussed at length at TCT was the Ultimaker shift. Since it was founded, Ultimaker has been a loud advocate for it open operations, but the company has signalled that this might be changing. The company has not completely back away, but its recent announcement has raised more than a few eyebrows and is causing some concern that “it might be headed down the MakerBot road.”

In a delightful nod to this established and accepted sub-sector of the industry, the founder of the open source 3D printing movement, Adrian Bowyer, who created RepRap, was inducted into the TCT Hall of Fame at the inaugural TCT Awards evening. I was not present at the gala event, which took place off-site on the second evening of the show, but I did keep an eye on the highly-commended and winner announcements as they came through on social media. Adrian was one of five 3D printing industry heavyweights inducted in to this new hall of fame, alongside Scott Crump founder of Stratasys; Chuck Hull, founder of 3D Systems; Hans Langer, founder of EOS; and Fried Vancraen, founder and CEO of Materialise.

There were a range of other awards categories celebrated over the evening and all of the winners can be found at the dedicated awards website. The organisers seemed at pains to highlight during a brief Twitter squabble, that all winners were selected by an extensive third party jury and I don’t doubt this in any way, but I would venture that given there are five inaugural inductees there is a certain level of political correctness going on here in terms of acknowledging longevity and genuine worthiness. Moreover, it can’t have been an easy choice and there are still innumerable worthy candidates for 2018 and beyond.

The AM Ecosystem was also well represented at TCT with a high number of ancillaries companies were exhibiting. I caught up with LPW, 3D SIM and Link3d, the latter of which was unveiling its new products for automating the AM workflow, as well as its digital factory — a kind of industrial 3D Hubs. At the back end of the process, post-processing remains a big deal, with big companies such as CIPRES and Guyson bringing automated professional solutions.

CIPRES in particular was an interesting one, it is offering a newly launched service developed by Additive Manufacturing Technologies out of Sheffield. This young company has focused in on the post-processing anomaly. The company’s CEO, Joseph Crabtree, told me that they have developed a fully automated, repeatable post-processing solution, one that provides the missing links in the AM digital process chain. With a number of high-level industry backers, I am very interested to see the full solution when it is presented at Formnext next month, but at TCT the post-processed parts that were on show were incredible.

Despite TCT offering a wide range of presentations across three stages, I just couldn’t find the time to get to anywhere near as many as I would have liked after scouring the programme, not least because it means I get to sit down for 30 minutes at a time. However, two way conversations with eye-contact are always the priority at shows like this and they took precedence over presentations that are being recorded for release online at a later date ... hopefully!

Final Thoughts

As I — finally — round this post up, I must add one quick, slightly weird aside that I picked up on, namely an increase in the number of companies / brands incorporating “3” into their names, followed by a “d” and pronouncing it “ed.” The evidence to support this: Link3D – pronounced Linked. SHR3D, pronounced Shred. And Spee3D, pronounced Speed. Go figure?

TCT 2017, like Rapid earlier in the year and, I suspect, Formnext next month overall demonstrated how the AM industry has, as a whole, elevated within the context of global manufacturing. Over and over, exhibitors and visitors made reference to how the the technology is, often of necessity, definitely being taken more seriously.

I can’t go into all of the private conversations I had at TCT — most of them fascinating, thought-provoking and, often, off the record. But it does provide plenty of material for future posts.

Roll-on Formnext.

Monday, 31 July 2017

Hype, Hype Cycles and Applying Reason

Originally published at Disruptive Magazine. This is an unedited version .....

You know that feeling when you think you’re well and truly over something — believing it is in the past? That’s where I believed the inflated hysteria and hype around 3D printing had been banished. Turns out, not so much and I have been conflating belief with hope. Looking back, the mainstream media hype and hysteria around 3D printing peaked around 2012-2014, when many with longevity in the industry did their utmost to push back. Reality seemed to bite, though and things calmed down a great deal — even to the point of “negative hype.”

Over recent weeks and months, an increasing number of hyped headlines about 3D printing have crept back into focus. Some of them are simply clickbait — inflated headlines to get that reader to click through to somewhat more measured content. Others, however, are purely uninformed hype, backed by equally uninformed content. Both are irritating and frustrating, but the latter is more insidious in nature.

For the record, I don’t particularly like being negative, it is not generally my default setting. However, I’ve noticed myself turning rather shrew-like on Twitter recently as I ignore the voice telling me not to bite at some of the ridiculous 3D printing headlines that are proliferating across news sites and their social media channels once again.

The dilemma of “ignore the nonsense” versus “call this out for what it is” is a problem. Ignoring it often seems the easier, if lazier option and certainly involves lower blood pressure. But, for whatever reason, I feel a certain sense of responsibility with this stuff. Not calling it out just feels wrong. Experience and history shows us that these headlines might work to increase the readership numbers across a 24 hour cycle for the media outlets publishing them, but they also jeopardize the real progress of the 3D printing and additive manufacturing industry by raising expectations beyond the realms of reality, which in turn invariably leads to disappointment and ultimately increased cynicism and lower rates of adoption.

Indeed, at the recent International Conference on AM and 3D Printing, Phil Reeves of Stratasys Expert Services made just this point and cited how he believed that the historical mainstream media hype problem from 3-5 years ago damaged the additive manufacturing industry. He specifically made the point that the promised “revolution” was a misnomer. Dr Reeves presentation was centred around the existing barriers to adoption, however his inclusion of the inflated press coverage of 3D printing back then was telling. He went on to point to the much more “conservative” reality of today — one where some truly great applications and many more mundane but business-boosting applications of additive manufacturing are being adopted across a plethora of industrial sectors.

At the same conference, it was also both inspiring and sobering to witness the presentation of Pete Basiliere of analyst and research firm Gartner. This is the firm that developed and published the now famous Gartner Hype Cycle, which it defines as a  graphical depiction of a common pattern that arises with [a] new technology or other innovation.”
It was interesting to hear Pete, during his presentation, say that: “actually it’s more of a wave than a cycle.” I’ve pondered that a few times over the years. And in the context of this article, even while I may be missing the point, I can’t help but note that waves and cycles both have a tendency to reoccur!
In a neat coincidence, however, Pete’s presentation coincided with the publication of the 2017 3D Printing Hype Cycle.

Description: Macintosh HD:Users:rachelpark:Desktop:2017 Gartner Hype Cycle - Slide from Pete.png
Image Credit: Gartner.

What the 3D printing hype cycle does is identify and break down many different sub-sectors of the 3D printing and additive manufacturing industry and illustrate where Gartner believes they exist on the ‘cycle’ on their way to mainstream adoption. Gartner qualifies this within five time stages that run across the bottom of the graph, namely the:

• Innovation trigger (including early R&D; first start-ups and VC funding; 1G products, early adopters).
• Peak of inflated expectations (including mass media pick-ups & hype; supplier and funding proliferation; wider adoption, beginning of negative press coverage).
• Trough of disillusionment (including supplier consolidation and failures; 2nd & 3rd round VC funding; and less than 5% potential adoption).
• Slope of enlightenment (including development of methodologies and best practices; 3G products).
• Plateau of productivity (high growth adoption).

The pertinent arc over this slide is “mainstream adoption.” Pertinent because when you are embedded in a technology sector and overly familiar with both terminology and applications it can become easy to forget the “worldview” perspective. That said, any activity that involves prediction cannot be taken as gospel — it is not an exact science.

Scrutinizing the 2017 Gartner Hype Cycle, I mostly found myself nodding, but there were also a few surprises and a couple of entries that really took me aback.

Absolutely no surprise that “Consumer 3D printing” is still sliding down into the trough of disillusionment. I suspect it will remain there longer than Gartner’s predicted 5-10 years. With no specific mention of the maker community, I also wonder if this prolific user group of the desktop FFF machines fit into this category. This active and growing community group remains an underrated anomaly within the 3D printing industry.

Stereolithography traversing down into the same trough is a surprise. As the original additive process, and one that has been applied across many industry sectors I truly expected this to be well on its way up the enlightenment slope, but Gartner currently has it well behind material extrusion, material jetting and binder jetting.

Again, no surprise at all that 3D printing for prototyping has reached the plateau of productivity. I doubt anyone can seriously question that prototyping remains the 3D printing industry’s most widespread application, with correlating acceptance and increasing uptake.

But in a nice little plot twist (I thought), 3D printing of hearing devices is the only category Gartner places ahead of prototyping. It’s a production application, moreover it is predominantly a plastic production application, but even that is undergoing a transition — to metal.

To sum up — if you take nothing else away from this post, please just keep it real. The reality of the 3D printing and additive manufacturing industry in 2017 is exciting — remaining challenges included. The hype doesn’t help anybody.

Monday, 17 July 2017

A Review of the International Conference on AM and 3D Printing

This conference, which took place at the Nottingham Belfry hotel and conference centre and is hosted by the University of Nottingham, once again, did not disappoint. The 2017 edition was the 12th annual event in this series and increased once again in both size and stature with in excess of 250 delegates and more than 30 exhibitors on site, according to the organizers. Following a well-trusted formula, the emphasis was well and truly on the provision of information — both through the high-level, in-depth conference presentations, and the intensive networking opportunities afforded during the conference days.

The quality of the conference programme was high and broken into two parts over three days. Day one took place on Tuesday 11th July and was run separately to the “main event” which took place over the next two days. The first day was dedicated to the “Industrial Realities of Additive Manufacturing” while the following days ran under the conference title.

In terms of the demographics of the attendees, it was unmistakably an educated and knowledgeable crowd, when it comes to AM. Prof Phill Dickens,’ who introduced the industrial day, took a straw poll that highlighted this nicely when the vast majority of hands raised indicated some involvement with AM in their work. There were a handful of delegates completely new to AM, seeking information for their business — and they picked a great place to start! Phill’s off-the-cuff poll also revealed a wide cross section of industries represented across the delegate base, including all the usual suspects such as aerospace, defence, automotive (elite and road cars) and medical plus a few others besides. As you might expect there was also a strong academic and research contingent.

Talking of ‘usual suspects,’ though, Phil Reeves, from Stratasys Expert Services, opened the Industrial Realities day with a presentation he entitled ‘Understanding the Production Economics – The Harsh Realities of 3D Printing.’  Some readers may understand the double entendre in the reference to ‘usual suspects’ – namely that Phil’s longevity in the additive industry, corresponding depth of knowledge and pragmatic approach sets him up better than most to deal with the ‘harsh realities.’ However, Phil’s presentation utilised the term “usual suspects” throughout to highlight the problems that industrial sectors face when implementing AM for part production, accompanied by suspect police line-up imagery on his slides.

Given that Phil only had 30 minutes, he did a stellar job of raising the issues and challenges that are often seen as barriers to adoption for many companies. After denouncing many of the press promises of AM and 3D printing, Phil highlighted how, in 2017 the reality is more …… conservative and additive technologies are not as widespread as we have been led to believe. The reason for this, Phil stated, comes down to five “usual suspects,” namely accuracy, build speed, part size, part cost and mechanical properties.

It’s hard to argue that these challenges are not still barriers to adoption. I still hear them cited by users of AM tech over and over again. Phil made an excellent point in his summation, however, that all five issues do not have to be solved all at same time. In terms of production applications with AM, the focus should always be on the application, and he believes more and more application specific hardware systems will emerge (think fuel nozzles, orthopaedic implants, hearing aids etc). Additive production systems developed and built for specific parts and components at higher volumes where the economics make sense. In this way, “the machines might cost $8 million, but it doesn’t matter if the value that comes off them justifies that investment.”

I do not think Phil is wrong here, it’s no secret that the huge multi-nationals are leading the charge with additive manufacturing for production applications; their deep pockets for hardware acquisition, integration capabilities and R&D make it a no brainer. That said, opportunities do exist for smaller and medium sized companies with additive manufacturing that should not necessarily be overlooked, but they do tend to involve more risk. This was the message from the presentation given by Sophie Jones, General Manager of AM consultancy firm Added Scientific. The presentation was centred around Sophie’s research, supported by Innovate UK, which included interviewing a number of smaller companies involved with AM in the UK. While it can be argued that this research has a regional bias, I think the barriers to adoption that Sophie identified for smaller organisations are universal.  

The first, and arguably the most significant challenge, cited by all the firms is access to finance. In this regard, the feedback illustrated how banks are reticent about funding for AM, largely because they do not understand the technology base and how to finance it. As a result, Sophie highlighted some hair raising examples of small, privately funded companies taking high personal risks to purchase of machines, it shouldn’t be this way, but if options are limited there is often no other route. Other challenges and barriers to adoption for SMEs raised in Sophie’s presentation included firms requiring back up revenue streams to support AM activities; the issue of global supply chains, while sales were largely domestic; the need to educate customers; the AM skills shortage; and, last but not least, industry accreditation – ISO accreditation is vital, as most customers demand it, particularly those working within highly regulated industries.

Looking to other highlights from across the three days, and one that stood out was an evening meeting organised as an extra-curricular activity by Sophie Jones, by invitation only, for women in AM. It was well attended, by 20 women, a testament to the noticeable increase in women working in this field. However, the fact that this is even an issue that needs highlighting, and that the percentages overall are still low, means there is still much to be done.

Highlights from the conference proper were many and varied. The research into a new additive process being undertaken at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) — presented by Maxim Shusteff — did stand out. This is a new, faster photopolymer process, called Fast Volumetric Fabrication. The science presented lost me more than once, but a video clip illustrating part formation in the resin bath — in a couple of seconds — blew my mind. I was not alone. There are no layers involved in this, the process is enabled by a truly three-dimensional holographic light source. As always, with new processes however,  Maxim qualified his excitement about this new process (increased speed, no free surface, no substrate, and more predictable/traceable process models) with: “Holography is interesting, and we’ve shown it’s possible, but it has limitations.”  

And the holographic process is not the end of the story either, Maxim also provided a sneak peak at another new process under R&D at LLNL, this one called Tomographic Volumetric 3D Fabrication, which shows promise in terms of eliminating geometric limitations. The research on this process is due to be presented at the upcoming SFF event.

As an aside, after this presentation, someone next to me commented: “makes the ‘Star Trek Replicator’ analogy seem possible.” I disagreed, in the strongest possible terms. And for the record, “Tea, Earl Grey, Hot” — the American script-writers of Star Trek aside, who on this planet needs to qualify that Earl Grey needs to be hot??

In terms of newer, commercial (or nearly commercial) processes there were some very insightful ‘X’ presentations from Neil Hopkinson and Dror Danai of Xaar and XJET respectively. The high speed sintering process itself has been well documented and Neil, as ever, delivered an accomplished presentation; however the Xaar business model both with this process as a service and internal tool continues to intrigue and will, I suspect prove disruptive. Dror’s presentation provided some real insight into the almost-ready-for-commercialisation nano particle jetting (NPJ) process with both metal and ceramic materials. The R&D model at XJET is beyond impressive, I discovered when I talked directly with Dror at the event. The “magic” behind this process lies in controlling the delivery of the nano particles in a proprietary dispersion material. The enabling tool is the proprietary inkjet head, and the temperatures it can withstand. Not a dissimilar narrative to Xaar, actually. Moreover, the anecdote I heard more than five years ago, about “inkjet being the future of additive manufacturing” kept coming back to me during the conference.

In terms of advanced applications highlighted at the conference, delegates were enlightened on some of the intricacies of producing parts for performance bikes for the UK Olympic and Tour de France teams (METRON), Cars (BMW), electronic products (Texas Instruments), and hearing aids (Sonova). There was also a long-term AM vision presentation from Airbus, but this was generic in nature, with no specific applications referenced. While none of these applications are wholly novel in terms of the sectors, the Sonova presentation in particular highlighted the over-arching narrative of progress with AM, and what can be achieved now, compared with when it was first implemented. Sonova, for instance, via its various brands has been producing millions of small production hearing aid parts with plastic AM since 2007. Ten years later, in 2017 the company has transitioned to metal AM – with biocompatible materials and improved functionality — at the same volumes.  This is a really big deal — for the company, for the technology and a great marker of progress for the additive industry as a whole.

I mentioned Xaar’s business model above, and I will be digging deeper into this via a new source just as soon as I get clearance. However, another company that revealed a very interesting business model with AM is Johnson Matthey (JM), a world leading catalyst manufacturer, with core competencies of developing catalytic materials, coating, powder production and ceramics. Funnily enough, the presenter, Samanth O’Callaghan joined Johnson Matthey from Xaar two and half years ago. Regardless, JM after initial research into various AM processes in 2009, initiated a very specific, application based solution for AM by developing a binder inkjet ceramic AM process. It’s another interesting business model, once again based on user evolution, whereby JM also developed and uses its own ceramic materials — not a surprise really, considering the company’s expertise.

Of note during Samantha’s presentation was the positive qualification for using this process, namely the scalability of binder inkjet technology and the facts that it is “faster and cheaper at scale.” She highlighted the significant post-processing requirements, and how porous parts are; stressing that this was actually an advantage for the JM application. Today, JM is able to make a better product, with greater sustainability and cheaper, with its ceramic AM process. The company is in the process of establishing its pilot plant, which will be completed in a few months, and will be manufacturing at scale; “tonnes per year,” according to Samantha, with automated bespoke material handling and an integrated end to end solution.  

The scope of the programme was wide, and the depth of the presentations, individually was so impressive and informative, that it is impossible to do it full justice in one round-up article. However across the three days, four themes kept recurring — in presentations and conversations — notably the skills shortage around AM; Funding; AM integration into factory workflows, both digitally and physically; and how this is often resulting in a hybrid (subtractive and additive) workflows.

The content from the three days has given me, and I suspect all the delegates, much to think about. I certainly have plenty to follow up on and write about for the next few weeks (months?).