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!

Monday 23 April 2012

A1 is Maxing it Up

I got to see the new Maxit 3D printer from A1 Technologies on Friday last. A1 was exhibiting at the TES Resources North show in Manchester, and seeing as that city is a hop, skip & a jump from me, I decided it was an opportunity not to be missed.

When I excitedly tweeted about it, one response I got back was "but it's just another RepRap". Well, yes, it is! No denying it. I'll be honest, my heart sank momentarily, as I wondered how many others respond like that. It didn't last long. That is the beauty of the whole RepRap concept and the genius of Adrian Bowyer's vision of an open source 3D printer. Anyone can take the basic premise and develop it and make it better. Not everyone that tries will succeed of course, but this is one instance where I believe that is precisely what has been done. It's an incremental improvement, granted, but that needs to be accepted as the norm by the 'additive informed' because there is no sea change yet visible on the horizon.

A1 Technologies is jointly run by Martin Stevens and Trupti Patel — two of the most ethical, unassuming and yet passionate people I've had the pleasure to meet in this industry. A1 Technologies is a 3D company, that is to say a company that provides accessible (ie easy to use and low-cost) tools for designing and making in 3D for anyone. The complete portfolio of products has been put together with a view to the whole design AND make process. Designing in 3D (Chameleon), Scanning in 3D (David Laserscanner) and Making in 3D (Maxit 3D printer and Studiomill 5-axis machine).

Before the Maxit, A1 was a reseller for another RepRap platform, indeed the company sold the very first sub £1000 machine in the world, and since that time has been a strong advocate for low-cost 3D printing. However the fire-fighting and problem solving that went with this was time-consuming and difficult — specifically in terms of supporting clients with assembly, reliable 3D print results and consistency. It was this that prompted the decision to change course and invest in their own R&D to overcome these specific problems. The result is the Maxit. It is an entry-level, self-assembly machine but it will not be the cheapest platform on the market, and it was never intended as such. The criteria for development was that stated above and as such, while it can print some of it's own parts, the mechanics have been sourced to ensure reliability and consistency and the number of parts is greatly reduced over comparable platforms, such that it can be assembled by ANYONE in one day. I challenged this claim, with a raised brow, but Martin insisted this was a prerequisite and it has been tested, tested and tested again. Furthermore, one of the beta machines is due to arrive at a secondary school in the next week or so, and this is the first challenge for the students - it will be documented.

The primary target market for A1 at this point is education. As Martin explained to me on Friday, this is not to exclude other markets now, but these technologies have to be introduced to our next generation of designers and engineers. Martin is an ardent believer that education is the way forward for UK & indeed global engineering & manufacturing by putting the technology into the hands of students so that "they learn by doing, not just listening and watching." Bascially, I couldn't agree more. Just some basic asking around at my daughter's school has left me flabbergasted at the lack of resources in this area. I am formulating my own personal mission in this area separately!!

Back to A1, what I saw on Friday was a company that doesn't just spout the rhetoric, they get on the road, weekly, to practice exactly what they preach and put the tech into the hands of kids. According to Martin, this approach has never failed to excite and enthuse the students that get the chance to try the technologies for themselves. As the Maxit 3D printer becomes commercially available within the next month or two through a number of different channels, this is only set to increase.

So there we are, there is yet 'another' RepRap platform hitting the streets, some of you may pull your noses up at it, but, the reasons for its existence as well as its capabilities and where it is headed, I think, are extremely positive and will make a difference.

Thursday 19 April 2012

All Change Again - And a Personal Epiphany

While I have been kept busy, fruitfully so, I had been thinking that things have been pretty quiet across the 3D printing universe recently.

Silly me.

It all started kicking off again last week. The first announcement came from (surprise surprise) 3D Systems (3DS), which announced on 10th April that the company had acquired My Robot Nation. It caused a bit of a stir because many had assumed that the 3DS spending spree was on hold while its numerous other acquisitions were consolidated into the business. Obviously, 3DS are not yet where they want to be, and, after short respite, the acquisitions are go again.

My Robot Nation (MRN) is a relatively new start-up, a consumer facing business, engaging its customers in customised design and supplying the 3D printed results. It's a good fit with 3DS, the new owners of ZPrinting, as the MRN interface produces full colour digital models that are printed on ZPrinters. The whole business, including the founders who were originally from the gaming industry, will be folded into the Cubify division of 3DS to further develop its reach and consumer interaction. Like I said, a nice fit.

This news was followed on Monday by a much more potent, albeit previously forecast, announcement from Stratasys and Objet, in that the two companies are set to merge to form the largest 3D Printing vendor company visible on the sector's landscape. Valued at $1.4 billion, this new company, to be called Stratasys Ltd, has really grabbed people's attention in a number of ways. First and most obvious is the sheer size and scale of the new operation. The share prices of both Stratasys and Objet increased by 25% and 20% respectively within 24 hours, so the response is largely positive. Furthermore, the combination of these two technology bases, complementary for the most part, will also bring together two of the very best R&D departments within the 3D printing sector. I think we will see some very interesting developments from this. A few on the twittersphere had seen this one coming after the news broke a few weeks back that Objet was on the market, myself included. The prediction now is that Stratasys Ltd will need to introduce &/or acquire metal capabilities to firm up its standing in terms of a fully comprehensive 3D printing technology portfolio. My hunch is that we won't have to wait too long for this to happen.

All in all though, I think this is a positive merger, a combination of two of the most operationally successful 3D printer vendors. And it should be noted that my language here is a reflection of the language used by both Stratasys and Objet in their corporate releases about this venture. Both were at pains to convey a mutual coming together, never once was the word acquisition used. I thought that was quite telling in itself! 

This particular announcement also set tongues wagging about the consolidation within the 3D printing sector, with bets being taken on how long before only the two largest companies are left standing. Either that, or one of the truly vast electronic/tech companies joining the party properly. If you didn't catch that, it was a reference to HP's half-hearted dalliance with Stratasys to date. Personally, I don't think the 3D printing sector will ever be reduced to just two dominant companies. I certainly hope not anyway.

And then on Tuesday came a further announcement from 3D Systems, which on that day, acquired Paramount Industries. Headed up by Jim Williams, Paramount is renowned for its use of 3D printing technologies for additive manufacturing applications, most notably in the aerospace and medical industries. Indeed Jim is a veteran user of additive tech, and has been working in this field since the origins of rapid prototyping way back when. Offering complete design to manufacturing services, Paramount will fit right into the 3D Systems corporation, alongside Quickparts & 3Dproparts, with specific emphasis on manufacturing capabilities. It is another nice fit, but I can't help but wonder how many more companies can and will be accommodated under the 3DS umbrella?

As things continue to change, and they will, as the consolidation takes a shape of its own and awareness increases apace, I should just mention that I had my own epiphany (finally) on the terminology around this industry. I was mid debate with a couple of people (Al Dean, Kevin Quigley and Jim Woodcock) about how 3D printing is different to additive manufacturing, and should be defined so. Al, who is never one to pull his punches, argued that they are all 3D Printers, "bang, done!" I was arguing that a "3D printer" is not the same as an "additive manufacturing" machine. I used the analogy that a Vauxhall Corsa is not the same as an Aston Martin. Kevin then commented, I think in agreement with me, that similarly an £800 CNC machine is not the same as a £500k CNC machine. Which is when it hit me — fully, completely and overwhelmingly. A Corsa is NOT the same as an Aston Martin, but they ARE both cars. An £800 CNC machine is NOT the same as a £500k CNC machine, but they ARE both CNC machines. A Makerbot is NOT the same as an EOS P700 but they ARE both 3D printers. The differences between 3D printers comes from the capabilities offered, the applications they serve and the users that employ them. Therefore, context is vital, but responsibility for this must fall to the marketing & branding by the machine vendors as well as commentators and journalists.

It really is that simple. And that is exactly what this industry needs — simplicity with context.

Friday 13 April 2012

Vote for the TCT Top 20

TCT is 20 years old - gulp - that makes me feel old. 

As part of its celebrations to mark this anniversary the magazine is currently taking votes from readers and the industry at large to find the Top 20 Influencers to the Additive Manufacturing industry (no mention of 3D printing but I think 3D printing people will get voted anyway!). The results are to be published in an upcoming issue.. This is a great feature — last carried out 5 years ago for the 15 year anniversary — and over a 1000 votes were cast back then. With the explosion of online activities and social media in particular, I would expect the vote numbers to be exponentially higher this time round. I will be very keen to see the results too, so much has changed in just five years in this vibrant industry, which continues to evolve apace.

I urge you to vote, and, if, like me, you want to recognise the work of more than one of the many fantastic individuals within this industry that dedicate their careers to driving it forward technologically and/or help people to understand it, you can vote more than once, although the Editor might frown at you a little (sorry Jim). I've voted three times. After which I kept thinking of more people that I really should vote for too. But I've made my choices and I'll stick to them. However, below is a list of people that I think will make the grade based on the work they have done in the last five years, although it should be noted that one has left the industry recently and one (maybe two) is due to formally retire. 

Can't wait to see if I get close:

In alphabetical order ie not my preference order or where I think they will come in TCT's Top 20 line up.

Adrian Bowyer, Bath University / RepRap
Phill Dickens, Loughborough Univeristy
Todd Grimm, T.A. Grimm & Associates
Lisa Harouni,  Digital Forming
Dan Johns, Bloodhound
Hod Lipson, Cornell University
Jason Lopes, Legacy Effects
Gary Miller, IPF
Vanessa Palsenberg, iMaterialise
Bre Pettis, Makerbot
Jeremy Pullin, Renishaw
Julie Reece, previously ZCorporation
Abe Reichental, 3D Systems
Martin Stevens, A1 Technologies
Scott Summit, Bespoke Innovations
Graham Tromans, GP Tromans & Associates
Wilfried Vancraen, Materialise
Peter Weijmarshausen, Shapeways
Terry Wohlers, Wohlers & Associates

Wednesday 11 April 2012

Exodus from Loughborough & Genesis at Nottingham

So, I'm pleased to report that after a little digging around I do have the low down on what is going on at Loughborough University, for anyone that is interested. I have a number of sources & some of the information I have gleaned is conflicting, but essentially, I think I understand the decisions that have been made and what will be taking place as a result over the coming weeks, months and possibly years. And as is my disposition I'll share what I have learned.

For some years Loughborough has been considered by many to be the UK's centre of excellence for research into Additive Manufacturing (AM). While it remains to be seen whether this epithet changes, as I tweeted last week, there is a fundamental shift taking place that will reverberate for some time. In brief, the core AM research team from Loughborough, headed up by Professor Richard Hague and minus a couple of notable exceptions and a few additive machines, are going back to their roots at Nottingham University along with the bulk of the EPSRC funding as a result of Professor Hague been the primary grant holder.

It seems that the Additive Manufacturing Research Group (AMRG) moniker will remain at Loughborough, headed up as of last week by the newly appointed Professor, Russ Harris. However, this is yet to be finally determined. Russ will be focussed on his primary research areas: Ultrasonic Consolidation and Medical Applications.* Professor Phill Dickens, the guru behind the original Rapid Prototyping (RP) Research Group, will remain at Loughborough "for the foreseeable future." Take from that what you will, but personally, I get the feeling it's to do with approaching early retirement. Phill's original PhD students, most now Professors in their own right, have flown the nest. As stated, Richard and his 45+ strong team are going back to Nottingham University — their original home back in the '90s for the early research into RP under Phill, after which they took a short tenure at De Montfort University before settling at Loughborough.

As yet there is no formal identity or branding in place for the new centre at Nottingham, which seems a bit strange, however the focus is very much on the work they will be doing and one of my sources was at extreme pains to stress that this was much more important. He's not wrong, not based on the activities that are planned as he revealed them to me. Now, don't get me wrong, I do know that what I got was very much the party line, there has been much going on behind closed doors, this was alluded to in the conversation, and it doesn't take a genius to realise that the gloves have probably come off a few times in various quarters. It is unlikely that everyone is happy, but, everyone is smiling! 

I must confess that I like the shape of what is emerging and find it fascinating in terms of the research focus that is planned. Essentially this comes down to a "back to basics" approach for multifunctional development of 3D printing. (Yup, they've caught on, and are moving away from the AM label to functional 3D printing. Didn't see that coming at all, but I think I like it, too!) Again according to my source, this approach will all but negate the existing additive technology platforms and using the last 20+ years' of RP/RM/AM research they will combine this with a much deeper scientific research element. And this, apparently, is where Nottingham won out — considered, as it is, to be one of the leading global scientific research universities. The interdisciplinary opportunities are vast I'm told. It seems the financial pockets are deep too. 

To be honest, I'm still processing this and therefore will most likely have thoughts to add to this at a later date. But my initial response is that this is probably a good thing. (I am purposely covering my backside with the 'probably'.) The existing additive technology platforms offer industry much, you know I believe THAT, but in terms of developing further it is currently all about tweaking the processes and focussing on materials. Going back to basics to find new ways of actually processing existing and/or new materials, with the 20+ years of R&D knowledge that is abounding within the new Nottingham research team, it is not beyond the realms of expectation that they could bring about a dramatic and dynamic shift in additive capabilities — a completely new generation of intelligent 3D printers that bridges the industrial and personal uptake of 3D printing. It's a fascinating take on the current situation and one that I have to say, suggests that the team does seem to have its fingers on the pulse of what is happening in the real world. 

When I tweeted last week to see if anyone know what was happening after my first hint of this, the twittersphere (at least my bit of it) was not forthcoming with information. Academics are not exactly prolific on Twitter, and as much as they are into personal networking I kind of get the feeling that Twitter is considered to be beneath their efforts. Shame really! What did happen was a reemergence of the Industry vs Academia argument.  It is hardly a secret that there has been a long term stand-off between the two with industry arguing that the vast sums of funding capital that is pumped into academic research would be much better used on the front line of industry for SME's and apprenticeships. It is also argued that the capital equipment placed in research centres are ring fenced solely for research activities that may or may not become embedded in industrial outlets as a result. Furthermore these activities are only carried out by senior academics & post graduates, when it would befit the universities to open the equipment up to undergraduates and promote applied excellence that would be of value to employers and not just newly qualified career academics.

These are valid opinions, but, with a central, fairly neutral position within the argument I have had a clear view of both sides for many years, and I still stand by own opinion that actually, both academic research and industrial testing and implementation of that research are vital components in driving additive technology forward — not that either side would readily admit it, but they need each other. That said, it's always going to be an uncomfortable relationship.

I think that just about sums up the feedback I got anyway! Please feel free to add your thoughts and perspective on this - regardless of which side of the fence you are on.

Another interesting aspect of this is that despite Richard going full circle (Nottingham, De Montfort, Loughborough, Nottingham) in the wake of that circle, each of those universities has retained a dedicated and valuable research base into AM / 3DP. There are many others in the UK too: Liverpool, Sheffield, Cambridge, Cranfield, Lancaster, Bath, Exeter and UWE. There will be more but that list was off the top of my head.

All of which gives what my source told me a ring of truth, and that is that the UK has the largest and most developed scientific research base in the world for Additive technology.

It remains to be seen if we (the UK) can build on this. I want to believe it, but age and experience, not to mention the current government, leave me hoping rather than expecting to see this claim materialise and grow into itself to maximum benefit for the world at large.

* Russ will be presenting the specifics of some of his AM research for medical applications at TCTLive in September. And surgery schedules allowing, the medical staff he works with will provide the user's perspective and how it impacts their work and their patients' lives. I don't know about you, but that's a huge draw for current AM in my book.