About Me

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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 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.