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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!

Wednesday 7 December 2011

An Incremental Improvement Maybe, but a Good One.

One of the latest developments on the materials front for 3D printing has come from Stratasys in the form of its soluble release for support materials for polycarbonate builds: SR-100. Until now, the WaterWorks soluble support material has only been available for the ABS materials for the FDM printing process, restricting the use of polycarbonate — a material with more durable mechanical properties.

Soluble support materials permit automated part removal from the supporting structure, eliminating hand tools and breakages, as well as a finer layer thickness (higher resolution) with the highly robust PC material. I am reliably informed that this is really good news for engineers on the ground in terms of improved application, turn around times and productivity — or as it was put to me, “this is what I needed, it makes FDM an easy choice”.
So, not a huge breakthrough per se — I’m sure, like me, you hear the comments about incremental developments not being very exciting, and I can empathise with that. But, at the end of the day, it is these incremental changes that will eventually lead to a sea change in the way that things are made. Stratasys has obviously been listening to client feedback, always a good thing, and I have no doubt there is a lot more to come from this company. 

Monday 5 December 2011

Three more 3D printers that came to light last week.

There has been a surge of new additive machines recently — all demonstrated at Euromold last week. I reported on five in my blog last week. Here are three more! 

The BluePrinter comes from a Danish company of the same name, and is “an affordable 3D printer with new ‘Selective Heat Sintering’ (SHS) technology.” In terms of capital costs, it has an introductory price tag of 9,995 euros, which does make it affordable for small and medium size enterprises looking for additive technologies for product development. And for a sintering machine, this is an attractive price. My spies on the ground have also reported that the quality of the parts coming off the machine is very good, with a print resolution of 0.1mm. The real eye-opener though is that the machine is supplied with thermoplastic powder materials costing just 49 euros per kilo – which equates to 3 euros for an average sized model. This is very impressive and an extremely attractive selling point.

The SHS process (trademarked) distinguishes itself from laser sintering (LS) by using a thermal printhead rather than a laser to sinter the plastic powder. The powder bed also negates the need for support materials and clean up of the models is similar to LS; ie excess powder removal. Can be messy. But with a web-based interface and a neat, desktop sized foot print, this is a 3D printer that could attract industrial users and the maker movement.

The second is actually a series of machines from a new technology company — RapidShape — based in Germany. The series includes the S60 mini, the S60 midi and the S60 maxi. So, essentially the same machine, from what I can tell, each offering different resolutions — ultra fine, super fine and fine respectively. The design of the machine itself is very reminiscent of the Envisiontec Perfactory, the process is resin based, and the prominent target market looks to be jewellery, so I am thinking there is some collaboration between the two here, but that’s just a guess. The parts out of the machine look extremely impressive with fine details and a range of materials for specific applications. Another impressive feature is the speed of the build — quoted as 10mm in 10 minutes. I haven’t found a price yet, but let me know if you do!

Finally, I have heard that DWS Systems, based in Italy, has added to its range of machines with the 030d model. I don’t have any details on this one yet, but just as soon as I do, I will get them up.

So, that is eight machines in seven days! Really can’t ever remember a week quite like it. It’s brilliant to see the additive sector proliferating in this way. And for anyone that saw the 3D Systems acquisition of ZCorp as having a contracting effect on the sector, I think this last week can set any fears to rest. 

Frogs in the Post!

Actually, a courier delivered them to my door, snuggly packaged in oodles of polystyrene pieces. The bin men are going to have fun with my recycling on Wednesday!!

The frogs, yet to be named, are the latest addition to my 3D printed collection, courtesy of Gary Miller (aka @RPGary) from IPF Ltd. Frogs have been a 2011 3D printing theme for us, as well as Vanessa Palsenberg (@belgiancanuck) at imaterialise — a bit of an in joke really, since I noticed one on the imaterialise blog earlier in the year. Not exactly sure how it escalated, but it did, and now I have two 3D printed frogs, which make me smile, a lot.

The frogs are brilliant but even better is finding kindred spirits when it comes to positively promoting 3D printing & having fun doing it.

Gary is a fantastic ambassador for 3D printing and additive manufacturing. His company is working with industrial grade 3D printing processes — specifically those from Objet, Envisiontec and Stratasys — building prototypes and models for designers, engineers and manufacturers across a wide range of industries. His success, I am sure, comes from a rare combination of in-depth knowledge, out-going personality, a penchant for social media and fun that both engages and reassures simultaneously.

The frogs were accompanied on their journey by an eclectic mix of other 3D printed bits and pieces — all of which demonstrate the versatility and material options from the additive processes IPF has in house. The dominant feature was the digital materials from Objet — the ability to print multiple materials within the same build and therefore incorporate different material properties within the same part. This is still unique in the industry and an excellent selling point for the PolyJet process, via the Connex platform, particularly for cost-effective prototype builds. IPF is still the only bureau in the UK with a Connex machine. In addition the 3D printers at IPF are supported by other services including CNC machining and laser cutting/engraving — all geared to supplying superior quality parts.

Anyway, it is great to have, in my living room, a daily reminder of just how far 3D printing has come and what it can do. I can’t help wondering what the collection will look like in 10 years though?

Wednesday 30 November 2011

3 More Additive Manufacturing Machines - Large & Small, New & Not so Much

It seems that everyone has been waiting for Euromold to unleash their new additive machines. After the two new 3D printers I reported on yesterday, there are three more I am having to wrap my head around today. These three are all very different in their own right and they are each very exciting. Exciting for me, because I just love this stuff, and five of them in two days, well, anyone that knows me will be able to imagine!! And, more to the point, exciting for creative and industrial designers, engineers and manufacturers. These new machines are truly fulfilling the evolutionary promise of additive technology and not just for the super rich — right across the board. Indeed two out of the three are 'hybrid' machines, that is, systems that take all the advantages of additive technology and make it even more productive by combining it with other technologies.

A quick overview of each:

The FreeForm Pico is a straight up 3D printer — it's cute courtesy of it's very small and tidy footprint of just 22 cm and its attractive facade, but boy does it pack a punch. The resolution that it offers is 37.5 ┬Ám pixels in UF mode. Asiga — the company behind this printer — defines the process as "sliding separation" and it uses an LED light source to create each layer of the part build. The price point for the Pico is $6990, which means that this manufacturing quality machine is available to small and medium sized companies in a range of industries that have been waiting for the quality they need at a price they can justify.

Then there is the machine with no name! It's a big one. And it is from TNO, a company with a long history of working with additive technologies in terms of R&D. The tag line is "Fast and Flexible Production" and it "is the embodiment of TNO's vision for additive technologies."This is because the sole selling point is not just the additive process (deposition, by the way), rather it is a machine focused on speedy, quality production; incorporating other processes, such as pick-and-place robots and surface finishing equipment. This means that the machine can operate continuously, even with multiple materials, and produce a hundred different parts extremely quickly, we're talking minutes here, not hours or days! The production machine is flexible and can be tailored to fit any application.

And finally, although not entirely new, a true hybrid machine — additive & subtractive — the Lumex Avance 25, got some deserved attention today at Euromold. This one is from Matsuura, a Japanese stalwart in the industrial machining market, and it is a combination of metal laser sintering with 3D milling. Looking at the history of the company, they have been working on hybrid technology since 2002. Indeed the first machine, the M-PHOTON 25C' won the 33rd Japan Industrial Technology Grand Prize in 2004. This machine got noticed in Japan four years ago, but little has been heard in Western territories. It's really great to see this changing. IMO, hybrid machines are what will make additive processes truly mainstream within industry (as opposed to 3D printers for consumers) — and I've held that view for a few years since talking to Mike Ayre at a TCT event, when he succinctly and convincingly presented on this very topic. I have remained convinced since.

It just remains for me to tip my hat at Mr Duncan Wood, for his top three tips from Euromold 2011. Thx DW - well tweeted sir!!

Tuesday 29 November 2011

Two New Kids for 3D Printing

There are two new entry level 3D printers hitting the market — Printrbot (no, that's not a typo) & Fabbster.

They both look very interesting and will be competing in the same space, which is a different discussion all on its own!

The Printrbot is a kickstarter project that was looking for funding. It's hit the headlines because a week in and the project had surpassed 600% of its funding aims. This in itself is a great achievement, but it also speaks volumes about the awareness of 3D printing and the belief that this technology is going to make a huge difference. The printer itself is still only in the beta stage of development. The new funding will take it into the realms of a commercial product, and the Printrbot website is current, honest & with no small hint of national pride as it sets out the aims and ambitions of the project.

Here's a flavour:

"One particularly exciting development is the opportunity to partner with an established local manufacturer of educational and DIY projects - including robots and whatnot.  We are in talks to partner in a move that would change the world of consumer 3D printing forever - bringing 3D printers to the masses at a price never before seen.  It's a pencil sketch on the back of a napkin at this point, but some really great things came off the back of a napkin, ya know."

There have been no price point numbers quoted at yet though.

Printrbot website: http://printrbot.com/

And then the Fabbster was unveiled today at Euromold. This one has been at least a couple of years in development, and I have heard whispers about it on & off, with increasing noise more recently as the launch approached. Coming from the Sintermask and Netfabb stable, this 3d printer has a good pedigree and it goes without saying that the software will be very strong, and it all runs from a standard PC, which does move it towards mass use. The quoted price point is €1000, with first deliveries scheduled Q1 2012.

Fabbster website: http://www.fabbster.com/

Both of these 3D printers are also citing that ease of construction (time & effort) are a novel selling point. Indeed this has been problem for 3D printer kits. And if this corner has been turned, then the market space will increase. For mass use, they have to be quick and simple to install and start running.

Monday 21 November 2011

The 3D Printing Landscape Changed Dramatically Today

Not to overlook everything that has gone before, 3D Systems has announced its largest — and most significant — acquisition by far today, namely Z Corporation, arguably the most dominant vendor in the personal 3D printing sector.

My past blog posts that have mentioned 3D Systems have had mixed reactions, in the main supportive but with the occasional blasting, and in one case, a lost project. But hey-ho, that's life. I'm entitled to my opinions and I will defend that principle until I write my last word. However, taking a step back, I have to concede that my posts have been all about the company and strategy, with very little mention of the technologies. 3D Systems was founded on Stereolithography (SLA), indeed the company developed and commercialised this process in 1987. And one of the company's earliest acquisitions was DTM, which brought Selective Laser Sintering within 3D System's remit. These two technologies are two of the four earliest additive manufacturing processes, the others being Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) developed, commercialised and still belonging to Stratasys; and Laminated Object Manufacturing (LOM), which was developed by Helisys and died a death in the 90's until resurrected in a different form by MCor a few of years back.

So, why the history lesson? Well, as the shock waves reverberated across the 3D printing industry — and I confess my chin hit my chest at precisely 3.15 GMT when I read the original post from ZCorp and subsequently the press releases from both ZCorp & 3D Systems, and it stayed there as I tried to investigate a little further — a number of interesting theories emerged. It should be noted that ZCorp was unable to comment beyond the information in the press release. By far the most striking theory, for me anyway, came from Randall Newton (@gfxspeakRSN) who said, and I quote "3D Systems has to grow or die. Stratasys/HP is going to be a monster. That's IMHO" I wasn't the only one to see the truth in that opinion, and the more I thought about it, the more I could see how this has been developing for years.

Historically, it has been developing since the very beginning. 3D Systems and Stratasys have always been the two big names in Rapid Prototyping and subsequently Additive Manufacturing and now 3D printing, with superior processes (along with DTM until it was acquired, and EOS still). They have always been in competition, and now it seems like this competition is heating up more than ever before. However, since the advent of the 3D printing synonym, which has been so positive for the whole industry and mainstream awareness, these two companies have implemented very different strategies. Stratasys, after the initial HP announcement, which, incidentally, created a similar furore as was seen today, has quietly gone about its business, but it has occurred to me from time to time that with the power of HP behind it there has to be something serious bubbling beneath the surface. Randall's comment today brought that to the fore once again. 3D Systems on the other hand has gone for broke on the media front line, with a constant stream of acquisitions. It seems, however, that these two companies will continue to compete on a global and greatly increased scale. Personally I think this is great news. There are some concerned voices, G. Sachs on the RP-ML is an example, that worry that this deal is "really consolidating the market into 2-3 players." 

I don't see it this way — well not yet anyway — it may get to that if the acquisitions continue. There is still a wide range of additive processes from independent vendors available on the market and keeping the competition alive. At the top end of the market there are the metal processes — DMLS (EOS), EBM (Arcam), LENS (Optomec), Laser Cusing (Concept Laser), and SLM (Renishaw, previously MTT) — these certainly have had a huge impact on additive manufacturing applications and will remain competitive. I am very optimistic to see what Renishaw does with SLM in particular! Also, at the low end of the market there are a host of vendors — some strong, some not so much and some too new to tell. But enough of them to keep the competition alive. In the mid range also there are still some very strong players — Objet, Envisiontec, Fcubic & Mcor.

So what does Z Corporation bring to the 3D Systems Corporation that it didn't have before. Well, Z Corp's greatest assets in terms of its 3D printing technology are the full colour capabilities in producing models and the price/performance ratio. In addition, this acquisition brings a whole scanning/digitising brand with it in the form of the Zscanners; not to mention Contex Group (the holding company that is selling Z Corporation) is also selling VIDAR Systems Corporation to 3DS. Vidar is an optical imaging technology company that specialises in dental and medical imaging, which will allow 3D Systems to drill down much deeper into these vertical markets and offer an appealing & comprehensive range of products & services.

Furthermore, beyond the technology itself, Z Corporation is, I would say, the best known 3D printing brand (remember the wrench video), with excellent reseller channels, good turnover and a very impressive client list — all of which will further strengthen 3D System's balance sheet. The cash outlay is steep, $137 million, but initial reports suggest that the 2010 Zcorp revenue will be immediately credited to 3D Systems once the deal is completed.

Questions are being asked about branding and identity, and Deelip Menezes, himself a recent acquisition of 3DS, has indicated that ZCorp will probably continue to function as it does now, just under the 3D Systems banner, with little more than a logo change. Other recent acquisitions would back this up — Bits from Bytes (BfB) and Freedom of Creation (FoC) are both doing this.

My one serious concern (or maybe I should be a tad more optimistic) is that ZCorporation is a company with an excellent marketing strategy and engaging personnel. I'm not going to go over old ground here, but I really really hope that doesn't change. In fact, I would be delighted, truly happy, to see 3D Systems utilise this particular asset across the whole corporation!

Monday 14 November 2011

Holidays are Coming — And this year the lights in my house will be 3D Printed

Anyone that knows me well knows that I am a sucker for all things pretty and sparkly. And anyone that reads this blog is aware that I am pretty passionate about all things 3D printing. 

So you can just imagine how I am when both of these things converge ......

......which is exactly what happened today when my 3D printed Christmas lights arrived.

They are GORGEOUS. The concept was developed by Jonathan Rowley at Digits 2 Widgits who x-rayed and digitally manipulated the scan of an alder cone he found near his office. 

Some images:

Now all I need are some matching tree decorations, but I need to prepare my credit card, I saw some at .MGX

Wednesday 2 November 2011

The Future is Green, but It is Happening Now Too

Fabaloo raised an important issue for 3D Printing a couple of days ago with its post entitled "3D Printing is a Cleantech Innovation". Outlining how the move to a personal manufacturing model in the future will greatly reduce the carbon footprint of manufactured goods — the post highlights the favourable effects of this model on the environment while acknowledging the challenges of achieving this.

The full post from Fabbaloo can be read here: http://tinyurl.com/6z9zdhe

This is indeed one of the greatest potential outcomes of the transition to personal manufacturing, but it is still a way off. Looking to the future in a positive way is a good thing, anyone that read my last post will know I do it myself. But this post got me thinking about what difference 3D printing is making now in terms of sustainability and clean technology.

There are plenty of positives, particularly for industries that are currently viewed negatively for imposing high carbon footprints with their products. Additive Manufacturing processes — particularly the metal ones — can make a big difference in this area. There are many industrial applications that require the manufacture of highly engineered, low-volume parts, in the aerospace sector for example. All of the major aerospace companies are now taking additive manufacturing very seriously.

Additive Manufacturing offers them an alternative to traditional methods of manufacture for parts of this nature, providing real environmental efficiencies in terms of both the manufacturing process itself (utilising 90% of standard materials rather than machining it away) and throughout the part's operating life through lighter and stronger design.

Stronger is great, but lighter is even better. The lighter part will require less energy to become airbourne. Less energy means reduced fuel consumption and therefore reduced emissions. Over the life time of an aircraft this equates to hundreds of thousands of pounds of pounds saved in fuel, another great advantage for the airlines. Translate this to a full fleet of aircraft and it really is a no brainer. Little wonder that EADS, Rolls Royce, BAe Systems and Boeing are all so excited by this technology and pushing the boundaries at the high end of the market.

So even with one eye on the future of 3DP/AM, which is bright, there are clear environmental benefits that the technology is contributing to the world now. And more applications like this emerge all the time.

Tuesday 25 October 2011

3D Printing - Reality, Hype & the Future

I have been challenged on a couple of issues recently, the most pressing for me is the "reality vs hype" argument with 3D printing. It's not a new topic by any means, but one that I wish to readdress and distinguish between hype and forward looking statements.

I agree that there does need to be clarity. So here's where I stand:

Today's designers, engineers, manufacturers and makers are all primarily concerned with the reality of what 3D printing technology and the different processes are capable of — today, now! This directly affects what they do and how they do it. There are plenty of positives to draw on here, for example complex shapes, tool-less manufacture etc — all generally well documented. But it is also worth reiterating that, currently, there are trade-offs for most applications; for instance superior quality parts will forego speed of printing and so on. The other key reality is that printable materials are limited.

The 'hype' surrounding 3D printing comes into the equation when capabilities are overstated, which is not helpful for users or newbies who will inevitably become disappointed when the reality hits. I am not a fan of hype, but as a commentator I see this as very different to forward looking statements that expound the potential of the technology in the future, based on knowledge and trends.

My latest crystal ball moment (just my opinion, but I'm entitled to it) was posted in a comment on Sculpteo's blog: http://tinyurl.com/6cgk9qm

Despite having the charge of hype levelled at me, personally, I think there is a big difference. But your thoughts on this would be welcomed, either way ......

Thursday 6 October 2011

3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing @TCTLive 2011 + a couple of other things!

It's really hard to believe that it's been a week since the last day of TCT Live 2011! I feel like I am constantly playing catch up at the moment but it's all good fun, keeps me on my toes.

There was plenty to catch up with on the show floor of the exhibition at TCT. In terms of 3D printing and additive manufacturing there were new systems (sort of), new materials, new interfaces and company news in general.

Let's start with the news from 3D Systems. Not because the company is bigger or better than any other (well, it's probably bigger) but quite frankly, I just want it out of the way. With the news that emerged last week it would be remiss of me not to say anything, so what I will say will is this ..... IMO 3D Systems is a company that completely bewilders, over-complicates things and blurs the edges of everything it does and conveys. In all my years of working in this industry I don't think I have ever had — or met anyone that has — a clear view of the company, and that includes employees of 3DS, customers and journalists. Last Monday (26th September) saw the company announce the new ProJet 1500 colour personal 3D printer and the new 3DTouch desktop colour printer. Separate announcements on the same day. This was followed on Tuesday by the 'launch' of the products at TCT Live .... followed 24 hours later by the 'launch' of the same two products at Lotus Renault F1 ADM Centre, an hour or so down the road from where TCT was taking place at the NEC. Is it just me or does this seem weird to anyone else? The two printers themselves are further evolutions of existing systems, neither are completely "new". The ProJet 1500 is designed to target the colour sector of the 3D Printer market that ZCorp has successfully dominated for some time now, but the colour capabilities of the ProJet 1500 are still quite limited - six single colours currently available, no multi-colour capability. The same goes for the 3DTouch, which is an upgrade of the BfB3000 machine. This also has a new touch interface, hence the name, which is a neat selling point, it has to be said, but hardly ground-breaking. I had seen the embargoed spec of the 3DTouch a couple of weeks ago and thought it was interesting but it didn't set my pulse racing! 3DS has since acquired Kemo in the Netherlands, another bureau; sorry 'provider of on-demand custom parts services.'

Let's move on.

A 3D Printing system vendor that I spent some time with last week was Mcor. You may have seen the teasers before the show about the FreeDRevolution, well that was all leading to Mcor's announcement at TCT Live revealing the company's new pricing model. I don't think anyone was naive enough to believe that they would be able to get their hands on a free 3D printer, but when Deirdre and Conor MacCormack unveiled the new pricing structure at the press launch, it provided plenty of food for thought — to the industry itself and to consumers. The Mcor system, the Matrix 300, has many unique selling points, not least its low-cost, eco-friendly consumables. Now, this system (previously £20,000) will be supplied to customers free of charge with a subscription plan over 1, 2 or 3 years, which includes unlimited parts, servicing and support. Yes, you read that right, unlimited parts! This is different and offers exciting opportunities for anyone that may not have been able to afford this machine previously. The only slight downside — I still can't get T-Rex's 'Children of the Revolution' out of my head!!

It was great to see HP at TCT in force, working the show and making some impact. I still find it hard to think of this company as a 3D printing vendor in it's own right, it may seem bizarre, but I still consider them a Stratasys reseller!! I think that might be about to change - I hope so anyway, it will really stir things up.

Stratasys' long-standing UK reseller Laser Lines, as ever, had a strong presence on the show floor with a full scale Aston Martin Racing car attracting a great deal of attention and demonstrating how Additive Manufacturing is a contributing factor to the development of what is officially the UK's coolest brand. It is a fabulous looking car that is racing in one of the harshest races — Le Mans 24. What better testament to the capabilities of additive manufacturing — strength and beauty! The guys on the stand were as amusing as ever, none of it really fit for public consumption - you know who you are! :-) Stratasys also announced last week that it is increasing its production facilities, a sure sign that the company is growing and strengthening, despite some losses on the stock market.

Objet's big announcement last week was a new bio-material. While not ground-breaking in terms of materials available across the whole industry, this is a big step forward for the PolyJet process and opens up a whole new market for Objet — a very smart move I think. Objet was represented at TCT by IPF, headed up by Gary Miller. Anyone that saw my tweets last week will be aware that I struggled to get face time, that stand was constantly inundated with visitors, animated visitors from what I saw, which is kind of the whole point. Finally spoke to Gary on Thursday, a really lovely guy that knows his stuff and has an infectious smile. He made me a wrench too, which is sitting within my personal 3D Printed collection now.

While chatting with Martin Forth of Envisiontec, I was introduced to George Macdonald (son of Grant Macdonald, famous London Silversmith). George works with his father and the two are big fans of the Envisiontec systems — he revealed that it has literally transformed the way that they create new designs and do business. For me, this is the type of conversation that really lifts my whole view of 3D printing. I know the rhetoric inside out, but when you see it in someone's face — for real — it brings it to life and it makes me really happy.

It was delightful to catch up with Julie Reece from ZCorp at TCT. Julie is a person that I regularly communicate with but for one reason or another we have never met in person — until last week. It more than lived up to expectation and indeed, went some way to explain why ZCorp is leaps and bounds ahead of every other 3DP vendor when it comes to profiling and market awareness. Julie is vibrant and obviously full of good ideas, it is very hard not to be affected by her in a positive way. I think the fantastic 3D printing applications with which ZCorp has been involved is also why the company keeps capturing so much media attention. Have you heard the latest? An outfit for Lady GaGa. Love her or hate her, there is no denying this will have a mega effect. Love it.

Renishaw — the new owners of the SLM technology from MTT — also had a large booth at TCT, showcasing SLM and the company's other tools for scanning and metrology. SLM is perhaps the most understated of the additive metal technologies. I was told a few things in confidence about where this process is headed and it sounds good, really good actually. Sorry I can't share any detail at this point, but it is important to respect the promise I made. Suffice to say, based on what I know about Renishaw, there will be differentials that will define SLM as a competitive process in its own right in the not too distant future.

I also heard about a fair number of new entry-level 3D printers, all of which are still under wraps. Born of the open source RepRap project, the increasing number of these machines and the demand for them demonstrate the growth in this area, still typically defined as the Maker movement, but also, for me, it includes new and small businesses. Lots of people talking about this last week, and a full range of views expressed. Too much to convey in this post, but one to work on!

And so, to round up this post with a couple of nuggets of general interest. I met Prof Phill Dickens during one of the conference sessions, it was great to catch up with this legend of the industry, and even better to hear that after three years away, he is returning to the AM lab at Loughborough University. Back on the tools, so to speak. He seemed really happy about that. I have him primed to tell all to TCT delegates in 2012! Another significant move, away from Loughborough this time, is Neil Hopkinson. As of Monday, Neil is now Professor at Sheffield University. Congratulations Neil and good luck.

Friday 30 September 2011

Old & New, Excitement & Passion: A Round Up of the TCT Live 2011 Conference on Additive Manufacturing and 3D Printing

I don't think it is any big secret that I love the industry that I work in. TCT Live 2011, which ended yesterday, only reinforced how great it is to be involved with 3D printing and Additive Manufacturing. The technologies and their applications in and of themselves are still so very exciting, that's a given, but it is the people that bring the passion — and they really are a passionate lot — and the sense of belonging and commitment makes me feel privileged to be a part of it. There were many old faces, friends actually, who have, in the main, grown up in this industry with me (just to clarify I am referring here to longevity within the industry, not age, although that is becoming an issue for some of us!!). But also there were many new people, keen and eager to embrace the technologies and what they are capable of. What was really interesting was the level of awareness and knowledge that was evident as we spoke, there was virtually no basic explanation required — this is hugely significant and very reflective of the past 12 months. The people entering the halls at the NEC were, in the main, well briefed and there with purpose, not just out of curiosity.

The other noticeable factor was the increase in the numbers of creatives and makers that visited the show. Probably not quite equal numbers with the industrial engineers but definitely a significant increase on previous years. And they were visibly apparent too — a lot more colourful in their attire. I do not wish to offend the engineering community, but let's face it, style choices are definitely more muted!

For the third year I was at the show with two hats on. I was once again contracted by my previous employer (thanks Duncan!) as the conference coordinator. Having commissioned the presentations for the programme, me being me I like to be their onsite liaison and see it through and do the social interaction thing. A few hiccups along the way, a little stress and plenty of adrenalin resulted in a great conference across the three days. The programme line up was pretty impressive, even if I do say so myself, but numerous others said so too, so I feel justified in that pronouncement. As a result it is really very difficult to select my highlights, but I'll give it a go ....

Mr Terry Wohlers, renowned for his impressive knowledge of additive manufacturing and 3D printing gave the keynote speech on the first day, opening the conference with style and giving his version of the current state of the industry. It was particularly interesting to hear his views of the growing Maker movement and see the emphasis he places on this as the industry continues to grow and move forward.  For me it is certainly the fastest growing phenomenon at the entry level of the machine market, and the number of sales of open source 3D printer units reflects this, not to mention the increasing number of these systems being launched onto the market — lots of noise and hints about more to come, but I was always sworn to secrecy and I will keep quiet (for now) because a promise is a promise. I also believe that in time, this 'new blood' in terms of system users will filter up the vendor chain to more capable, improved quality machines in the mid-range and beyond. I've taken this position for a while now and am sticking to it, how long this takes though is not really visible at this stage, my guestimate would be 5-10 years. In the meantime, I think the 3D printing labs are the business model of choice. Different to a bureau set-up, which offers 3D printing services, these labs offer 3D printed goods for sale online, but more importantly they offer open communities for 3D designs to be developed, customised and ultimately 3D printed.

This leads me nicely on to one of my other highlights. Peter Weijmarshausen, CEO of Shapeways, presented on exactly this on day 2 of the conference. I have been watching Shapeways (and the others, there is still only a handful of them out there) very closely over the last year because I strongly believe this is the biggest consumer-facing growth area over the next 5 years. I was delighted when Peter agreed to present earlier in the year and fascinated to get some real insight into the company on Wednesday. Again, the passion for 3D printing and the limitless possibilities were what made this presentation stand out for me. Peter's approach is about the technology and what it can do, but this is always aligned to the people that are engaged with it, what they are doing and how they are doing it. It's all about sharing and openess. I was staggered to hear that Shapeways has in excess of 180,000 designs within its online database — all with designer copyright (not Shapeways - Pete was extremely clear about this when we chatted later) and these designs are available to everyone that visits the site. He referred to the Shapeways community at one point as an SME, indeed it is still a small team operating at peak performance, but I think this will change imminently. I just hope they keep the community spirit as they grow. Needless to say, some of the designs that were showcased are simply stunning, totally imaginative with huge consumer appeal. Beyond the visually beautiful there is also plenty of functional products available, showcasing, in my opinion the two greatest benefits of 3D printing.

Another unforgettable highlight has to be Richard Noble's keynote presentation on Day 2. Richard is the leading inspiration behind the Bloodhound - 'Engineering Adventure' - a car that is being designed and built to reach 1000 mph. And indeed, inspirational is the key word in every sense. It was palpable in the conference theatre — standing room only — as Richard's revelations about the project captured imaginations, petrol heads or otherwise, and engaged people at every level. It was also the loudest presentation! Richard's passion for speed is well documented, but someone in the know informed me that Richard has recently "got" additive tech, and his passion about it is growing. Dan Johns — who has been using additive processes for many years and is truly passionate about his subject area — followed up Richard's presentation the next day with a slot that demonstrated just how additive tech is being used in the Bloodhound development process and to manufacture some key components on the final car. Dan joined Bloodhound a few months ago, a smart move, and unsurprisingly the number of car components made additively is increasing the longer he is there. He is engaging with the additive machine vendors for this project, with an open invitation for them to collaborate, look at the car — inside and out — and find the best applications for their technologies. This is, in my opinion, a brilliant idea that will showcase the technologies, the applications they excel at (they are not all the same) and bring them before a potential audience of billions when the car gets to South Africa. A real win win win situation. Any of them that don't grab this opportunity will be missing a trick!

The other keynote presentation, on Day 3 of the conference, was given by industry veteran Todd Grimm. This is a man I respect greatly because he has a unique way of fusing immense passion for and knowledge of the technology with a healthy dose of realism — the way he engages his audience is truly inspiring. After defining the 3D printing landscape as it stands today, Todd's central message was to embrace the possibilities of 3D printing, but make it personal, challenge everything you read and hear and find the right solution for you — because ultimately, there will be one. I struggled to disagree with anything he said.

It would be remiss of me not to mention a couple of other presentations that caught my attention. Ross Authers of Clarks International (shoes) gave an insightful presentation on how traditional, age-old skills can merge seamlessly with the very latest technology (aka 3D printing) to produce truly appealing products. In itself this is a nice story, technology integration is often cited as a fundamental barrier to adoption, but Clarks is an excellent example of how, with the right mindset, it really does not need to be. The fact that Clarks have significantly reduced development times, increased their product range dramatically and improved its bottom line is the proof, if any were needed, that this is not just rhetoric.

And finally, Kelly Sant, a lecturer at the University of Brighton's Faculty of Arts and one half of 'Arash & Kelly' gave a fascinating presentation on a brilliant application of combined technology — 3d printing and injection moulding. Instincts suggest we are going to hear a great deal more about this in the coming months.

I would like to personally thank all of the presenters at the TCT Live 2011 conference on Additive Manufacturing and 3D Printing, with sincere thanks also extended to the Conference Chairs who gave their time to do so. The success was down to you guys.

Time to start dedicating some thought to 2012! I picked up some interesting leads during the show, but if you would like to present next year, or you know of a 3D printing story that deserves a great platform then drop me a line, love to hear from you.

So that's the conference round up. There was plenty of gossip and exhibitor chat also, but that was with my other hat on, and I will turn my attention to that next week. In the meantime I have much correspondence to catch up on, now that I am back in the real world!!

Thursday 22 September 2011

Less Revolution and More Evolution as New 3D Printers Hit

Two new kids in the fold this week. One joined the party straight off, the other will follow soon.

First is the Buildatron 1, which was launched at the Maker Faire event in New York last weekend. The byline that has been steadily accompanying this new kid's marketing chatter is: "A Revolutionary 3D Printer".

It's not!

Sorry to be blunt, but it really isn't. Furthermore, the stated and single purpose of Buildatron Systems — the company behind Buildatron 1 — is to "Build a Revolution through affordable 3D printers and robotic devices." And it's not just Buildatron — the word 'revolution' is over-used, and more often than not, used incorrectly, around 3D printing.

To be clear, in terms of definitions, a revolution involves a forcible overthrow of an existing system or a dramatic and wide-reaching change in the way that something works. Therefore, it could be argued that 3D printing does offer a 'revolutionary' approach to manufacturing industry and making things per se, because it challenges the way things have been made for many thousands of years. However, I think that even this is tenuous because 3D printing is never going to replace or change every other method of manufacturing and making — it just offers a great alternative.

I get the aim of the folks at Buildatron Systems, the intention is grand but I don't think 'revolution' is the way to go. The Buildatron 1 (DIY and assembled models), in my opinion, is a great example of how 3D printers are evolving to bring the consumer better, more usable and accessible 3D printers. This is a good looking printer, an evolution of the RepRap open source project. It has some really neat selling points that do set it apart from comparable models on the market, apart from how it looks, including a proprietary internal gear-fed plastic spooling cartridge system. The website is designed to engage a community, the information provided is broad and sound. Another one to watch closely. 

The other new 3D printer announced this week is Origo (one of my first questions is where this name came from??). This is a really cool looking machine, vital to the target demographic: children! I love the ideology behind this development, and it emerged yesterday that Joris Peels has had significant input on this so my hopes are high. The downside is that when pushed by Joshua Johnson (@protobotind) on twitter about when we could expect to get our hands on one of these machines, the typically honest response was 18 months — 'if things go according to plan, which they probably won't'. Origo also revealed that the planned retail price is $800, no assembly will be required. This is evolution at it's best. No real indicators on the performance of the machine, but it was being bandied around that it will be the EZ-Bake oven of 3D printing. Again, I took a deep breath with that one, I remember my daughter's EZ-Bake oven, and it was no where near as much fun as it was supposed to be, and I know for sure I wasn't the only parent to think that and my daughter wasn't the only frustrated child. I think they might need to rethink that comparison. If my instincts are correct, they don't need a comparison at all. Kids will love it.

But this type of news is only going to increase as the evolution of 3D printing gathers pace — which it will!

Monday 5 September 2011

It’s a Post-Summer Round-Up ….

Well, that was a long summer! The children went back to school this morning, with little drama, and the house is scarily quiet. It’s going to take a few days to adjust again I think.

The decision I made (three years ago this month actually) to go freelance, was finally taken after a very difficult summer of juggling way too many balls, the result being two discontented children that felt sidelined and one very guilty me, because I knew they had a point. The flexibility that freelancing offers still requires some juggling skills as there is still work to be done, but I can cut back during the summer (work & expenditure) and spend some real quality time with much happier bunnies!! And so we did but it did drag somewhat towards the end. I think the summer felt so long this year because the weather in my part of the world in no way reflected the season. Good old Britain!

Anyway, I kept an eye on all things 3D printing and additive, and, like me, it went pretty quiet over the summer. It’s more of a behind the scenes time, gearing up for the autumn shows, launches and announcements. There were a few exceptions of course and here is my take on Summer 2011…..

The biggest nugget of news emerged a couple of weeks ago when MakerBot announced it has garnered a USD$10 million injection from a series of investors led by Foundry Group. I find this interesting and important for a few reasons. While industrial and consumer awareness of 3D printing has taken a huge leap forward this year through a variety of converging sector activities, it is still just a first step in moving towards a world that takes 3D printing for granted. This news from Makerbot, for me, signifies the second step — outside investment from sectors that see huge potential in the technology. Furthermore, Makerbot, classed as a start-up company, makes and sells entry-level 3D printers based on open-source technology — it is one of a handful of successful companies doing this, but rather than succumbing to acquisition, as others have, and being swallowed up by a larger corporation, this investment will allow Makerbot to build on its success with new developments and scale-up as well as strengthening its own identity.

On the acquisition of start-ups front, 3D Systems has acquired BotMill. This is not surprising in terms of 3D Systems’ history of acquisitions, but it does raise a brow in terms of how it will fit into the stable alongside previous competitors that have also been acquired by the AM giant.

Accessibility to 3D design for 3D printing has also increased over the summer, with Tinkercad — ‘a new and faster way to create designs for 3D printing in your browser’ — hooking up with both Shapeways and i.materialise. Both of these successful 3D printing companies now accept Tinkercad files for 3D printing in their labs.

ZCorporation announced a great initiative based on educating the next generation of makers — EngineeringZone. This scheme, endorsed by local Congressman Tierney, invites high school classes to visit the company and get hands-on with 3D printing.

Stratasys has released the data findings of a 1-year study into specific performance characteristics of its two, main FDM materials. Covering the effects of time, temperature and the environment on the mechanical properties of PC and ABS 3D printed parts, this study offers greater insights for industrial users into the potential of the technology.

Tomorrow see’s the opening of ‘The Power of Making’ Exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Running until the 2nd January 2012 this event rightly places a heavy emphasis on new ways of making things — including 3D printing. I’m looking forward to getting down there.

And looking ahead a few weeks, TCT Live is fast approaching, starting 27th September. It’s looking bigger and better than ever! 

Sunday 31 July 2011

3D Printing Process Overview

After the last couple of weeks, I decided to put together a quick and easy overview of the processes for anyone that is interested in 3D printing. I intentionally avoided going into specific definitions and materials, which would be too complicated for an exercise such as this. There are many good sources of information for those across the internet for anyone that wants it. If you need help locating it, give me a shout. I have never seen anything like this though, and it would have been useful when I was starting out. It is intended only as a starting point .....

*I don't claim that this is an exhaustive list, but I hope it's helpful.  

Planes, Refrains and 3D Printing's largest Audience yet.

Another eventful week in the world of 3D Printing – long may it continue.

New Scientist magazine ran a feature in print & online covering work undertaken at the University of Southampton that resulted in the design and build of the world’s "first fully 3D printed flying aircraft". The title of the piece is a little deceptive – the ‘uninitiated’ as they have been labelled in certain quarters will probably be imagining themselves boarding a plane that has been completely 3D printed.

This project actually demonstrated some impressive results for a model plane-sized UAV. The aircraft was designed by the  engineering team from Southampton and 3D printed by 3T RPD — a reputable 3D printing service provider — all within a week and on a low budget (£5000).

The video release has had lots of attention and rightly so, this successful application (10 minutes in flight) has huge implications for many different applications of UAVs. Add a real time camera feeding images to a safely positioned computer & operator and no one but a hard core 3D printing fanatic would shed a tear if one of these aircraft was shot down over dangerous terrain! Just an idea. 


And then on this week’s edition of BBC Click, Spencer Kelly, the show’s presenter underwent a head scan. This was to demonstrate the capabilities of hand-held 3D scanning and 3D printing.

The episode is definitely worth a look and can be found here:

A great many positives, with current applications described and reducing costs allowing the technology to go mainstream; along with the customary talk of the future. This included a nod to the open source RepRap project with machines that replicate themselves. Already starting to happen, incidentally. It also described the sustainability and environmentally-friendly benefits of producing products locally.

I was slightly disappointed to see that the film location was described as a ‘rapid prototyping lab’. In fact, the episode was filmed at Ravensbourne, a university sector college in London, with what looked like nice range of equipment. This out-dated description is not overly helpful for the industry’s efforts to move forward with standardized terminology. But this was the least of the confusion that emerged. 

Initially Mr Kelly describes the materials that can be 3D printed under the categories of ‘plastic’, ‘resin’ or ‘even food’. Later on in the broadcast he categorises 3D printing into three types —again according to materials — but this time it is powder, resin and paper (it was product placement only for those in the know). Kelly went on to explain the powder bed, inkjet process quite well, similarly for the paper process, but this completely overlooked the powder sintering and deposition processes. With the resin system, he simply looked in the machine and described it as a ‘large microwave’ with little more added about the process itself. No mention of vats and/or cartridges.

Kelly went on to interview Jeremy Gardiner, Ravensbourne’s course director. This guy seemed to knew his stuff, but unfortunate editing led to further contradiction. Asked, “Is there anything you can’t use to print?” Gardiner replied, “There are certainly lots of different technologies out there. You can boil it down to two, really. Additive processes and subtractive ones.”

Notice the “two technologies” following Kelly’s “three processes” earlier. Not good. I know subtractive processes have a lot to offer within the big picture of engineering and manufacturing, but in the context of this programme, introducing the subtractive option was counter-productive.

Furthermore, and this is annoying, apart from Mr Gardiner casually dropping into the conversation that printing in titanium implies you are printing a hip replacement; there was no explanation of metal-based processes. EOS/Arcam/Concept Laser/Optomec/Renishaw – all of these companies need to up their game on the awareness front. The spark from 3D printing is bursting into flames and now is the time to engage and demonstrate the advantages of additive manufacturing.

/Climbing down from my soapbox/ Maybe I’m getting a little pedantic – the BBC coverage was great in terms of getting the message out and demonstrating applications. Newbies that want to know more can follow up — right? The TV and online audience from this is a significant one, indeed I was woken up by hubby (on early dog walking duty) to be told “your stuff is on the news – look /switches on tv/ — I didn’t know it was THAT advanced!” /sigh/ He did bring me a cup of tea though.

And Stephen Fry obviously saw it, resulting in his refrain on twitter: “I think I need all three of those 3D printers – link” Well that went out to 2.8 million followers!!

This, on top of THAT youtube video exceeding 7 million hits,  coverage on BBC Radio 4 profiling Digital Forming and an extensive article in the Daily Telegraph which heralded 3D printing as ‘The Technology that could Reshape the World’ [http://t.co/M3jYuIz] means that 3D printing has definitely come before a larger audience than ever before.


Tuesday 26 July 2011

AM vendors missing a trick?

Putting together my previous blog post made me poignantly aware that the majority of additive manufacturing vendors (those that manufacture metal systems and/or those pointing predominantly at industry) have a very poor internet presence, some in terms of their own sites and most in terms of visibility on the social/business media sites. I think I already know why this is — from my own painful experience of trying to extract stories from them in the past — working with industrial clients, NDA's are everywhere and they make it very hard to promote some of the most compelling additive manufacturing stories!

ZCorp and Objet are leading the way in making their presence known globally. They regularly publish their own blogs and comment far and wide on forums and social media sites. They are getting significant profiling as a result of their efforts. There is also a notable but more subdued presence from Stratasys, RepRap (& derivatives), Mcor and 3D Systems (although DDD gets a lot of coverage from many different sources due to its acquisition strategy - I am a good example!!).

They probably already know who they are, but just in case — EOS, Arcam, Optomec, Fcubic, Envisiontec, Renishaw (previously MTT), Huntsman, Concept Laser, Voxeljet and Sintermask. These are some great companies doing some incredible things with additive technologies — but you need to share more :-) 

Top Picks - Recent Applications of 3D Printing

So I promised I would, and, good as my word, here are my favourites.

It probably doesn't need saying, but this has been a completely subjective exercise. These are the ones that, for me, have the 'wow' factor. You don't have to agree!!

In no particular order .....

The Mushroom Cloud Shaped Nuke Lamp is visually beautiful and conceptually disturbing.  It is designed by Veneridesign and available from Shapeways.  Found courtesy of technabob.

Process: Laser Sintering 

Came across this on Twitter, courtesy of  Jason Lopes (@jasonmlopes). It’s really not pretty, but impressive & realistic replication nonetheless!

Process: Polyjet (Objet)

“We’re on the verge of a revolution,” says Clarks International Digital Development Manager Ross Authers. “It is a revolution of efficiency and of process.”

This is an often-overlooked application of 3D printing these days amidst the excitement of  3D printed products for sale direct to the consumer. However, 3D printing is a vitally useful tool in many product development processes — ensuring that the right products get to market in the fastest possible time. Clarks is a fantastic example of how an established UK company has adopted new technology to achieve a cleaner process. And I just love the "Britishness" of this design.

Process: ink jet (ZCorp - colour)

The Nexus Choker is designed by Igor Knezevic. This necklace is available from i.materialise's gallery. I voted for this in the company’s recent design competition because I just love it and would (will) wear it!

Process: Laser Sintering

This original, one-off titanium wedding ring is designed by Ann Marie Shillito in Cloud9 and 3D printed by i.materialise. It is personalised perfection — the bride is Ann Marie's daughter, Kari.

Process: Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS)

Wednesday 20 July 2011

Get a Grip People

The follow-up to my last post was supposed to be an upbeat listing of my favourite, most recent finds of 3D printing apps. It is coming together and will follow soon.

This, however, is not it, and it is not quite so pleasant. Although, I have just read the biography of a new follower of mine on twitter, which goes: "100 % Honest, always Dedicated and incredibly Exciting. Work hard - Be nice - Dream big. Sponsored by God. Social media pundit." Anton Perlkvist

As a result of being reminded that I do aspire to live my life by a similar code, what follows will be less of a rant than I had in mind as I launched my computer!

It is just so disappointing when the darker sides of human nature come to the fore. Some of the contentious comments that are flying around as the result of the Zcorp video going viral last week are beyond ignoring now, not least because they are at times ridiculous, petty, and just downright rude — and I'm not just referring to the scanning issues, but won't go there right now. Also some of them are coming at me directly, I imagine because I like to talk up the positives, so, anyway, as a result, I am not going to maintain the dignified silence that I originally intended. Uh oh, probably going to regret this huh!!?

And just for the record, this is my blog, sponsored by me, and all comments are my own!

Right, anyone on the inside of the 3D printing / additive manufacturing industry knows that the technology is not perfect. We can probably all agree on that. There are plenty of shortcomings (materials, repeatability, blah blah blah). Similarly for other product development technologies such as scanning and design software. And this is the choker for me, the majority of these ill-informed comments are generally all about the pre-build process, but are tarnishing the end result as well — 3D printing. These people seem to have got their knickers all twisty about the scanning process and the subsequent editing of the 3D digital model. Because it wasn't included in the video, certain commentators are making the assumption that there is something sinister going on about the whole process. Such nonsense. There are many laser scanners available today, and they are amazingly accurate tools for collecting surface data — but they're not perfect. This surface data is fully modifiable in mid to high-end 3D CAD packages, which allow the designer to add in features that can then be 3D printed. Yes, it can be time consuming and no, not everything can be printed, but we're getting there.

The point? It's this — if all of this process was documented in the video, how many of the 4.5 million viewers would have watched it?? I've sat through a fair number of CAD demos in my time, and the capabilities are amazing, but watching someone else design can be as interesting as watching paint dry if you are not that way inclined. The intention was to get people interested enough to watch and share.

Furthermore, this video wasn't issued as an ad, it wasn't a ploy to deceive, rather it was conceived as an informative marketing piece and as such I think it does exactly what it says on the tin. I suspect that there are individuals at Zcorp that are as taken aback as anyone else at the success it has seen. Anyone with an ounce of common sense will appreciate that the reality of the process is somewhat longer than 2 minutes.

It's has been suggested to me that this video is as fake as a TV cookery show — well, I'm not sure which shows they watch, but I've been able to follow a recipe and I have had some pretty successful results from TV chefs. Thank you very much.

This is where I am at:

3D laser scanning produces real data, this data WILL need modification for accurate 3D printing, but with a good recipe and a good cook — IT IS REAL.

It'd be great if we could draw a line under all this playground politics, but hey ho, that's the optimist in me.

3DP/AM Apps Increase & Improve

As usual, I have been spending some time looking at the breadth of 3D printing (3DP) / additive manufacturing (AM) applications ‘out there’. It is something that I have been lucky enough to do for many years now, but this week I approached the online search conscious of the many “newbies” that were potentially doing the same thing following the viral video and TV air time on a series of news/information channels. 

A couple of things struck me.

The first was how pleasing it is to get pages of links that all take me directly to genuine 3D printing applications or commentaries on tech developments, rather than having to scroll through copious irrelevant sites that either offer 3-dimensional products / photographs / films or 'superior, can't be beaten on price' 2D printing services. Of course, there are also plenty of ads promoting companies that offer 3D printing services, but in this context, I don't think it is such a bad thing. Overall, this is an improvement on even just a few months ago when I set out looking for new applications for the TCT Live 2011 programme (which, incidentally, is complete and can be found here: http://www.tctmagazine.com/x/tct-live/v-seminar.html)! For anyone newly interested in 3D printing or additive manufacturing, the fact that there is a wealth of applications and information at their fingertips is great and will hopefully serve to develop their curiosity into something more.

Second, there is a definite divide in the type of applications that exist. Even going back to the earliest days of rapid prototyping (RP), this divide was in evidence, but today it is stark. I am referring to the aesthetic versus the functional applications of additive technology (I did consider labelling the difference as sparkly versus non-sparkly or consumer versus non-consumer, but they were technically less correct!). Even using the aesthetic versus functional terminology it should still be noted that the terms are not mutually exclusive, as the aesthetic products often have a function and functional products can look attractive. However, I believe it makes the point I am making most successfully.

Whether the dominant aim is to achieve an aesthetically pleasing product or a fully functional part or prototype, the designs and products being realized with 3D printing are just so impressive — occasionally breathtaking and always inspiring.

As a commentator (and a consumer, it must be said) I am constantly blown away by much of the aesthetically pleasing 3D printed products available and I aspire to own them in the fullness of time. However, it is important to recognize and fully appreciate the engineering brilliance and technical capabilities of AM parts. You may have picked up on the nuances of the language I am using (3D printing for aesthetic/consumer facing applications and additive manufacturing for functional/industrial applications) but without getting into the whole terminology debate once again, I think this works. As 3D printing continues to take centre stage, it is vital that the strides being made within industrial applications are not overlooked. A few days ago, EADS and EOS announced a collaboration exploring weight reduction with the DMLS (direct metal laser sintering) process. Weight reduction has been cited as an advantage of additive manufacturing for some time, but the huge benefits that can be derived from it — particularly for aerospace companies — cannot be underestimated in terms of money, sustainability and the environment.

Being on the fringes of this industry (as I consider myself to be) is a really great place. The industry is truly blossoming as I always believed it would. New companies are being set up at an increasing rate, based solely on 3D printing. More established 3D printing/AM companies (previously RP bureaux) are reporting growing order books and increased uptake, and the vendors of the machines, in the main, are reporting year on year growth and profits. The revenue being generated by these applications is vital to the continued growth of the industry and indeed, western manufacturing economies.

Fabulous stuff.

Talking of fabulous, watch out for my favourite finds — coming soon — a hat tip to some of the sensational work of the designers and the technology.

Thursday 14 July 2011

Chocolate, Gold, Solar Power & Going Viral — A Week in 3D Printing. Not Forgetting it's getting a tad Naughty!

So much is happening in the world of 3D printing. Social media tools and staying in touch with my contact network are great for keeping abreast of all the latest developments — I love that aspect of my work. But perhaps the thing I love the most is getting different pieces of the puzzle and fitting them together in a bid to establish a clear picture. I remember when (I sound like my Grandma) getting one significant announcement for the next issue of TCT was a big deal. Right now the announcements are coming thick and fast and 3D printing is going viral.

Thanks to a fabulous video from ZCorporation this week, which was posted on YouTube [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZboxMsSz5Aw] 3.5 million people (and counting) have watched 3D printing in action. While the 3D printing process itself is quite clearly the central focus (hurrah), it is almost certainly the enthusiasm of David Kaplan, Theoretical Physicist at John Hopkins University, that has caused the video to go viral. The way he encapsulates the "wow" factor of 3D printing on film is definitely contagious. I, like many other 3D printing ambassadors, (that's what I am apparently) have seen the wow factor expressed when explaining the process to someone for the first time. It's always a great moment. But while we are able to share these experiences, and enjoy the knowledge that one more person has discovered the potential of 3DP, it is a hard one to convey with words alone — spoken or written. The fact that ZCorp has caught this on film and shared it, is momentous. Every single convert to 3DP is a valuable asset to the industry, but to be introducing, and possibly converting, millions in one hit is truly a watershed moment. It doesn't even stop there. The success of the video has seen numerous news crews gaining access to ZCorp's facilities and reporting on the technology.

The other three notable announcements recently are much more process development oriented.

First, a collaborative research project between the University of Exeter, the University of Brunel and Delcam software has resulted in a 3D printer producing chocolate products. Although not commercially available yet, the premise is that this easy to learn and use printer will appeal to a mass market, with future plans to introduce other materials for consumer products such as jewellery and accessories. I am looking forward to the time that I can replace my chocolate fountain centre-piece with a chocolate 3D printer. Naive & overly optimistic? Possibly.

Another significant development has come from quality 3D printing service provider i.materialise in Belgium. Users of the service are now able to get their designs printed in gold and/or silver. This has been in development for some time, but it is just fantastic to see these popular and sought after materials available for consumers via a 3D printer. This will definitely up the ante for 3D printing within the jewellery sector. I know what will be on my Christmas list this year.

Solar energy is currently a hot topic, and it has collided — fairly spectacularly — with the 3D printing sector. Markus Kayser has released information on his Solar Sinter project, which "explores the potential of desert manufacturing, where energy and material occur in abundance." Using the sun (in the Sahara Desert) as the energy source and the bountiful sand available at this location as the raw material,  his 3D printer is based on the the sintering process. [http://www.markuskayser.com/]. The potential here is vast, but right now I am just loving the office space.

And finally, this made me laugh yesterday morning. Naughty, but funny!!

Friday 1 July 2011

AMF File Format Approved - Users Are Itching to Try It Out!

The announcement that the new file format for 3D printing has been approved by the ASTM F42 committee went live a few weeks ago. The successor to the widely used STL format, AMF — dubbed by some as STL 2.0 — has been two years in development, and the process has been an inclusive one. Over this time I have watched the mailing list that was set up inviting anyone involved with additive manufacturing and 3D printing as well as 3D CAD to take part in the initial survey and the subsequent discussions, drafts and revisions, which at times got highly technical and occasionally contentious.

All of this bodes extremely well for AMF. It has been a carefully managed process that has taken into account the requirements and opinions of a wide user base. Hod Lipson, of Cornell University & Chairman of the ASTM Subcommittee overseeing the development process of the AMF file format deserves particular recognition for his contributions and management skills.

Since the announcement, I have put out a few feelers to see what people that use AM & 3D printing think. The general consensus is that they are excited about it, believe it will make their lives easier and can't wait to get their hands on it. All of my contacts have indicated that they are not downloading it for themselves, but they are waiting for the CAD vendors and/or AM system vendors to incorporate it into their products and provide upgrades for existing equipment. Fair enough, but who's responsibility is it to get it out there and working for people? There has been little filtering through from the vendors as to when we will see it but I imagine since the announcement, which they will have been aware of ahead of time, there is a race on to get it to market within the product ranges. After all, the first to market could gain a competitive advantage.

Now where have I heard that line before ...... ?

Monday 6 June 2011

3D Printing, The Press & The Future of Manufacturing

The last few weeks & months have moved breathtakingly fast around the world of 3D printing. Particularly since the Maker Faire event in San Francisco in May, the buzz has been tremendous as more and more people are confronted by the reality of 3D Printing. The Maker Faire event is itself a growing phenomenon, but one that fits perfectly with the advent of 3D printing for the individual maker.  Couple this with the advent of simple, easy-to-use 3D design software and the explosion of interest that has been predicted excitedly — and often unrealistically — for many years is materialising in front of our very eyes.

It is also exciting to report that I have lost count of the number of articles, blog posts and references that I have read recently, about 3D printing, in a wide cross section of the press. The Telegraph, the BBC, the NY Times and the Economist are just a few that spring to mind as I write.  It is not that long ago that anyone in the right place at the right time would see me dancing around a room, jumping up and down in delight, if just one reference to 3D printing (or RP, or AM, or Fabbing) appeared in an obscure technology section of a trade magazine. I would then proceed to wax lyrical about it. I think those days can now be confined to the annals of history.

Many of these articles are talking about 3DP hitting the mainstream but I don't think we are quite there just yet. Although I do believe that we are right on the cusp — and, contrary to my own musings even within the last few months, I think I will be around to see it. I'm glad I was wrong too.

The other critical area for 3D technologies that is also being much more widely debated and discussed is that of education. Many western economies are facing a skills shortage, specifically for engineering and manufacturing, the UK among them. There are numerous reasons and contributing factors for this, which the bureaucrats will contemplate until kingdom come, but action is needed. Advanced 3D technology, including 3D printing, is a real — and accessible — solution.  It is gratifying to see that there are growing numbers of champions that are forcefully promoting the advantages of getting 3D digital technologies into schools and into the hands of children. By doing so, I fully believe that the future of 3D printing — right across the board — will be secured and that the strength of western manufacturing can grow once again and continue to return from the East.