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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!

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!!

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