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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 23 February 2010

The Transition Period

As a long term advocate of additive technologies I have been through the peaks and troughs associated with an emerging sector. However, I have never before been witness to the growing momentum behind these technologies that exists today.

It is not possible to point to one single factor, which is probably why there is strength behind the momentum as opposed to 'hype'. Rather, it is now possible to identify a cumulative range of events and circumstances that are contributing to this escalating energy behind both 3D printing and additive manufacturing.

As the world tentatively heads out of recession, albeit teetering on the brink with economic commentators uncertain about which way the cards will fall as of yet, the vendors of additive technology platforms have fared pretty well. Some better than others, as would be expected, but what it very telling is that none have gone into administration. All of them have managed to keep their heads above water. Stratasys recently released its end of year results for 2009, and the general pattern is probably similar across the board, in that unit sales were down on the previous year, but still healthy enough. Cost cutting and belt tightening helped to buoy up the figures some, and overall the rhetoric was positive. An industry that can demonstrate positive results after a devastating year — economically speaking — only points to further significant growth at a faster rate as global circumstances improve.

Awareness is another significant factor in this building momentum. It's been a slow process (akin to wading through treacle at times) but it is now spreading at an exciting rate. There is much more talk, debate and understanding of the additive manufacturing concept. From a personal perspective, I am finding that I rarely have to explain the concept itself anymore, as most people that I speak to have heard about it and grasp the basic idea. Rather it is a case of explaining the different processes and the range of capabilities. This is progress!

A further significant pointer that I became aware of yesterday is that a large retail outlet that has picked up on the technology. PC World posted an article on its website: http://www.pcworld.com/article/189880/affordable_3d_printers.html. It refers directly to HP's interest in 3D printers and I imagine this is what brought it to the company's attention. Also, the article talks about 3DP and AM as a technology of the future, but it is talking, and more to the point, it is taking the message wider. Just think of the number of people that would never come across a manufacturing or technology website but will visit the PC World website. There could be many more 'Eureka' moments as a result!

Many of the blogs relating to 3DP and AM are also becoming much, much more prolific with their posts. A great many of them distinguish between the industrial strength processes (Stratasys, 3D Systems, Objet, ZCorp et al) and the 'hobbyist' platforms (RepRap, Fab@Home, Makerbot and BfB RapMan etc). The hobbyist platforms being those 3D printers that come in kit form. I am not sure if the 'hobbyist' label works for me, I don't think it conveys the full potential of these machines, but I get the point and the differentiation.

As of today, I think the sector is mid transition — somewhere between niche and mainstream — and moving faster than it ever has before!

Friday 12 February 2010

No Single Product Development Tool is King

For years (and years and years) I have tried to promote the message that no one tool within the product designer’s toolbox is more vital than another. The key to successful product development is to combine a number of advanced tools to achieve a propitious result.

My particular area of interest and knowledge is additive technology — for prototyping and for manufacturing — but within the discipline of product development this is only one component tool that can help to improve the overall process.

Off the top of my head, 3D design software, 3D scanning hardware and software, simulation software and 5+ axis machines are all advanced tools that are competitively available on the market to designers and engineers looking to enhance their product development procedures.

Within each ‘tool’ category there are a host of choices — product capabilities, costs and vendor selection are important issues, as is whether to invest in house or contract out — but the point I am making here is finding the right blend of technologies rather than picking up on one of them and believing that it will solve all problems!

As an example, there have been rumours rumbling around that some of the problems besieging Toyota in recent months are because the car giant has depended too heavily on simulation methods for testing. If this allegation is proven, this makes my point extremely well. Simulation is a brilliant tool; the developments in computing power and software interface make it a fast and accessible way of testing products under any conditions. That said, it cannot and should not fully replace physical testing with a physical model. Simulation can reduce the number of physical tests by arriving at an optimum solution faster and more economically than the traditional cycle of ‘make and break’; but it cannot be used in isolation.

Understanding how to integrate advanced technology tools for product development provides the most solid foundation on which to build an overall process that is most likely to bring success.

Monday 8 February 2010

Attractive Matrix Applications

It was only a matter of time before the applications started filtering through for the Matrix 300 3D printer. I saw this machine when it was introduced over a year ago and it was launched commercially at the end of last year, at the TCT show. I had heard on the grapevine that there had been some sales of the machine and I am not surprised that things are going well.

The Matrix, from Irish company Mcor Technologies, is a 3D printer based on LOM (Laminated Object Manufacturing) technology. At the time of its introduction, this did raise some eye brows, because the original LOM process from Helisys died a death around the middle of the nineties and seemed to be forgotten. However, the Matrix differs from all of its competitors in a couple of interesting ways.

First and foremost, the printer itself requires a similar capital outlay to mid-range 3D printers (around 25,000 euros), but unlike every other machine out there the consumables are cheap and easy to access. The machine uses A4 paper (80 gsm). Which leads onto the other very attractive characteristic of the printer — it is extremely eco-friendly. Surface finish of the Matrix models are proving to be very competitive too.

Janne Kyttanen, Founder & Creative Director of Freedom of Creation has been producing some stunning models using the Matrix, his comment being; “Most refreshing stuff I have seen for a long time." 'Stuff' referring to the 3D process, not his own models.

The picture of his iphone cover above is a clear demonstration that there will be much more to come. I have long been a fan of the sculptures and products that the FoC guys produce, but it's always been out of my price range. It will be interesting to see if the retail prices of the FoC Matrix models are modified in line with their material costs!!!?

When Wohlers met Cameron

James Cameron that is, not David!

Terry Wohlers recently witnessed James Cameron being interviewed at the recent SolidWorld event, talking knowledgeably about 3D software and 3D printing in particular. The interview was followed up by a 1-to-1 conversation.

The full post can be found here: http://wohlersassociates.com/blog/2010/02/james-cameron-uses-3d-printing/

The gist being the positive effect on the 3DP industry when people so much in the public eye know about AND talk about the applicability of these technologies.

What was also very interesting was how Mr Cameron is renowned for "getting his hands dirty" in order to make stuff, both early on in his career as a machinist and even now, as (one of?) the world's greatest film directors.

This may sound strange coming from someone that has only worked with words her whole life, and watches in amazement from the sidelines as the real (and often dirty) work is carried out by the true pioneers of 3DP, but this is key! The desire to make things and to practice and learn. Innovation is born of an inherent creativity together with hands-on practical knowledge. It's not exactly a fast process, but one that fosters enthusiasm, passion and determination over a life-time.

I was talking to Dan Johns of Airbus recently (who, incidentally, was the ALM evangelist behind the Telegraph article I posted about last week) and this was central to his thinking too. I am sure he will not mind me saying that he does not profess to be especially academic, but as a child he spent hours and hours in his Grandad's shed, playing with a host of different tools and making things — all sorts of things. From this his passion for engineering and manufacturing was born. His imagination was totally captured by the emergence of rapid prototyping in the early 1990's and the potential that he saw then prompted him to take the time to fully embrace the capabilities and the limitations of the processes. His understanding through practical, hands-on experimentation, has driven these technologies to unprecedented depths within one of the largest Aerospace companies in the world. He freely admits there is still much work to be done, but his fascination and zeal for all things additive is only increasing as time passes.

Drive, passion and dirty hands — the roots of success. Without them, the rest of it cannot grow.

Friday 5 February 2010

The Press is Starting to Pick up on 3DP/AM

The chatter about whether or not 3D printing and/or AM is or will become mainstream has been centre stage again of late. Is it mainstream now? No, of course it isn't! That said, the mainstream press here in the UK are starting to pick up on just what these technologies can do. Indeed, just today, two articles on the subject have gone live.

Stateside there has been more mainstream press visibility with articles in some of the major daily titles, and the Jay Leno effect has had positive repercussions with increasing profile.

Today, the Daily Telegraph ran an article in its print edition outlining the impressive ALM capability at Airbus / EADS in Filton and how these companies are driving innovation and research with additive manufacturing applications that are currently undergoing the lengthy testing necessary for flight.

The Times Live also ran an online opinion piece of journalism, with a slightly tonge in cheek tone, but one that easily captures the imagination of people not familiar with 3D printing. They might need some ST knowledge though!!


Tuesday 2 February 2010

The Optomec Position

Today Optomec will introduce its Aerosol Jet Display Lab System to the American market at the FlexTech 2010 Conference in Phoenix, Arizona, USA. The system has been designed and developed for the production of next generation touch screen and display applications.

Optomec is a company that intrigues me. Its proprietary LENS additive process has been around for many years and is well established and utilised among savvy clients in advanced sectors such as aerospace and defence. The applications for the LENS process have proved diverse — manufacturing and repairing high value metal components from aircraft engine parts to medical implants. However, the company often seems to fly below general radar levels, quietly going about its business.

The Aerosol Jet Display Lab goes a step further than LENS, it is an advanced additive platform that utilises Optomec’s patented Aerosol Jet technology, which in turn enables high resolution deposition of a wide variety of materials including conductive nano-particle inks, insulators, dielectrics, polymers, adhesives and other advanced materials. The system can print onto a wide variety of flexible and rigid substrates.

Despite the US launch today, a number of customers in Asia, including a leading industrial electronics research institute and a leading touch screen company, have already purchased and taken delivery of their Aerosol Jet Display Lab systems, which are being used to develop applications such as bridge/jumper circuits for bus lines on ITO/Glass, edge circuits for handheld displays, and fully printed Thin Film Transistors.

According to Optomec, the benefits of the Aerosol Jet Direct Write technology are the multi-material, fine line (<10 um) printing capability which eliminates many process steps/costs associated with current photolithographic and vacuum based display manufacturing processes. Also, the Aerosol Jet Print Engine can be integrated into automation platforms to meet high volume display production requirements. Multi-nozzle dispensing heads can be configured to meet specific end-user throughput needs. The additive process employed by Aerosol Jet technology reduces environmental impact by minimizing waste and chemicals that are prevalent in traditional electronics’ manufacturing processes.

The company has released a huge amount of information — with very little fanfare — all of which has even greater implications for future development.

The things that really stand out for me are:

• the high resolution deposition of nano-particles
• companies in the middle East are already using the systems
• multi-material deposition
• < 10 ┬Ám printing capability.
• and last, but by no means least, the system was developed for a specific application, and Optomec launch direct to its target market at FlexTech, an event dedicated to flexible technology for electronics and displays.

Basically, when a company bylines itself as "the world-leading provider of additive manufacturing systems for high-performance applications" my instinctive response is, 'yeah, yeah, you and every other AM vendor'. In this instance though, with a significant and very noticeable lack of hype around the company, I am inclined to agree that Optomec is making huge strides that are ahead of the game.

[NB: I have absolutely no commercial / financial interests in Optomec or associated companies.]

The Solido Announcement

Solido, true to its word, unveiled its new pricing structure for the Solido SD300 Pro 3D printer at SolidWorks World 2010 yesterday. It is not quite the watershed price that some would have liked to have seen, but it is certainly well below the $5000 benchmark that Desktop Factory was aiming for this time last year. At $2950 Solido seems to be making the right noises to draw a crowd and has, on the face of it, laid down the gauntlet to the rest of the market.

There is a sting in the tail though, unfortunately. That price is for the machine only! The full Value Pack, which includes the printer, 8 (XY) cuttings knives, 4 magnetic pads, 24 modelling kits (modeling material, glue cartridge and anti-glue cassette), SDView software, a 12 month warranty and 12 months free software upgrade and hotline support, costs $14,950.

Not quite the leap forward that is needed to prompt new users to give this a go.

There is not a huge amount of 'chat' going on about this either, which is generally a good indicator of impact for an announcement like this. There was more said pre-announcement than post. Compare the couple of mumblings (including my own) about the actual Solido news with the tirade of commentary that followed the Stratasys/HP announcement a couple of weeks ago.

I do think that Solido has a sound product that produces good models, however, regrettably, I think the company has missed an opportunity here at a key time in the history of 3D Printing, and that this is more PR stunt than a real effort to broaden the 3D printing user community.

I understand how a product has to be commercially viable, it needs to make money. That's a given, that's business. That said, I don't know how much of a margin is involved here, although I could probably make an educated guess. But while Solido is effectively an SME, it has some powerful backers and I believe it would have been in the company's long term interests to take a bolder stand.

[NB: I have absolutely no commercial / financial interests in Solido or associated companies.]