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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 20 November 2015

A Review: Frankfurt for Formnext

For a short while early in 2015 many in the 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing sector believed that the annual tradition of heading to Messe Frankfurt just before Christmas had ended. After last year’s 20th edition of Euromold in Frankfurt at the end of November, its organizers, Demat, announced a change of dates and venue; this year hosting the event in Dusseldorf in October. But then Mesago, in partnership with TCT Events, announced they intended to keep the Frankfurt tradition alive and plug the gap on everyone’s calendar with “formnext powered by TCT.” This event took place over four days this week, a little earlier than usual to accommodate the Thanksgiving holidays in the US, among other things.

Even knowing I was going to the inaugural edition of formnext, I have to confess as I prepared for the trip to Germany, I was still kind of expecting a re-branded Euromold — along with the vast scale and the sometimes overwhelming hustle and bustle that entailed. And I was not alone it seems, at least two people that I know of arrived at formnext in Hall 3.1 of Messe Frankfurt after a detour via Hall 8/11 (Euromold’s old home). But this was not Euromold, indeed, I am reliably informed, Euromold is not Euromold anymore — there’s gossip there, but I’m not at liberty to divulge. However, while Demat and close partners reported success back in October, the general consensus seems to be that it did not live up to its reputation as a huge global manufacturing show garnered from its hey day in Frankfurt. And while I personally would deem formnext as achieving success, particularly for a 1st edition, similarly I would not currently categorise it as a global show. The scale of the event was impressive, this courtesy of some heavy investment from some of the main exhibitors, and together they almost filled hall 3.1 of the Messe Frankfurt. The vast stands of some of the big AM companies were certainly reminiscent of Euromold, although I suspect at least one or two of them were still getting a ROI on stand investment. That said, the brand new Stratasys stand was the biggest stand I have seen at any show, ever, to be frank! And SLM Solutions went large with a brand new aerospace theme too.

I think what struck me the most was that this was clearly an additive manufacturing industry event — it may not seem like it but I chose those words carefully. The dominant (if not singular) focus was on industrial developments and applications of additive tech for the manufacturing sector. Once again drawing parallels with Euromold this was a whole different ball game, as Euromold’s origins were firmly rooted in tooling and moulding, which subsequently successfully evolved a huge additive manufacturing and 3D printing following. The tooling and moulding was visibly missing from formnext. It might be a tad unfair to keep harking back to Euromold and drawing comparisons between the two but when the orgainsers very intentionally moved to capitalize on the hole that Euromold left in Frankfurt, it cannot be unexpected.

The overall impression that formnext 2015 left me with was a very well organized show of moderate scale that was well received by exhibitors and visitors alike. The exceptions here were a few international visitors (US and Australia) that had been expecting the old Euromold. These people were of the opinion that they could garner the value that formnext offered much closer to home, one of them telling me: “this is just a regional additive show, with big stands.”

Being a touchy/feely type of person, I have to say that the “feel” of the show was brilliant — the buzz was tangible and there was a great deal of positivity and engagement. Companies and individuals all contributed to this and I was delighted to be part of it for two out of the four days — I literally don’t think I stopped talking and listening the whole time I was there, with the exception of about five hours sleep. And in this regard there is much to report.

As I mentioned above, at formnext there was a heavy emphasis on industrialization — in terms of the position of the show, the new offerings from exhibitors and the interest of visitors. I believe this is actually reflecting the shift across the whole sector this year but formnext crystallized this and provided visitors with a clear view of the direction that additive technology is taking for the manufacturing process chain. Thus it should come as no surprise that metal processes were dominant on the show floor, and the German OEMs were there in force — EOS, Concept Laser, Realizer and SLM Solutions occupied great swathes of the floor, together with newcomer Trumpf and alongside Additive Industries from the Netherlands, Renishaw from the UK and Arcam from Sweden.

Two big themes dominated — automation of the additive processes as part of end-to-end manufacturing solutions (the so-called “factory of the future”) and new standalone metal machines.

Both EOS and Trumpf introduced new metal additive manufacturing platforms at formext. EOS’ M100 is a product of its partnership with Cooksongold on the M080 for precious metals. This is a similar set-up but for the EOS range of metal materials and slightly bigger. Trumpf’s new technology is a new proprietary metal powder process offering from this traditional machine manufacturer. Two different sized machines were being exhibited — the smaller of the two is commercially available immediately, which makes a nice change, and the larger, more complex version will be available middle of next year.  

Concept Laser and Additive Industries both revealed new concepts for “the factory of the future.” Despite sounding like a cliché the concepts themselves were both very impressive, if similar and showcased how modularity and automation can maximize the potential of additive technologies as part of an effective, efficient and economic production line. Along similar lines, but not as comprehensive, Renishaw, SLM Solutions and EOS were demonstrating new in process software for quality management. Renishaw in particular seems to be on to something here, according to the feedback I’ve heard from 3rd parties.

I plan on doing some more in depth posts on the progress of additive metal developments and automation for Disruptive Magazine, as well as a post providing more insight on the two new laser sintering machines (from Ricoh and Prodways). Not enough time or space here, so watch out for them next week.

A final point on “traditional” additive metals though, the US metal OEMs were notable, to me at least, by their absence — nothing from ExOne, Sciaky or Optomec was visible at formnext.

However, there was a significant presence from the big traditional printing/imaging companies all entering the 3D realm imminently. The biggest splash by far came from Ricoh, which introduced its new industrial laser sintering machine. It was exhibited on the show floor and it was running. Furthermore, there are beta machines heading out the door and it will be commercially available mid-2016. This approach contrasted starkly with HP, which had a small stand at formnext with a corresponding number of personnel handing out a white paper on the company’s Multi-Jet Fusion technology. The plan, I was told, is still to launch at the end of 2016 but no further details or insight. Personnel from Canon were also present, but not on a stand. The Canon R&D in Japan is notoriously secretive and nothing (NOTHING!!) will be revealed until the proper time. After attending Canon Expo in Paris last month I already knew this, but God loves a tryer, and I do keep trying …. On Canon though, I had an interesting chat with a 3D Systems insider. Without actually saying it, they implied I was certainly on the right track with my suspicions about a Canon acquisition. I may or may not have been heard trying to subdue a squeal! 3D Systems did have a presence at formnext, very understated by their usual standards. That said, we all know the company is in a state of flux, but my source tells me that it really is in hand. I pressed for more … “IT. IS. IN. HAND. You’ll see.” Patience is a virtue, but not one I’m blessed with.

As I expressed to my 3D Systems friend, the most frustrating thing about them, as I see it, is that the company has all the right component parts, they are just very badly put together and don’t work properly, with too much superficial marketing. No comment, just a wry smile that referred me back to the above. I did get to see a very interesting metal part mind you — again, showing real potential but no evidence of execution in the market place — yet!

And then to the formnext giant — Stratasys’ stand was “mahoosive” dwarfing every other stand on the show floor. Obviously an intended tactic, but it kind of worked, and despite its size it was constantly full of people. At the heart of the stand serious business meetings were numerous, while on the fringes, where all of the tech demos were staged, Stratasys personnel were introducing newcomers to the full Stratasys ecosystem. Upstairs the high level executives were conducting high level meetings, at least some of them with investors I noted. They were all there — David Reis (CEO), Elan Jaglom (Chairman) and Scott Crump (Founder). I attended David Reis’ keynote presentation at the formnext conference ahead of a one-to-one interview. The presentation went well enough, its message key to the company’s industrial strategy but lacked somewhat in its delivery. But when I got him alone, that all changed. He was animated, gracious and open during our chat. Indeed, as I mentioned on Twitter, I came away believing it was one of the most honest interviews I had had with a CEO in my whole career. We talked shareholders, MakerBot, corporate strategy and the future and he held his hands up to mistakes and some slow responses to market conditions — some corporate, some his personally with plans to rectify them. What I didn’t know as I spoke with him and found out about 10 minutes after I departed, was the raft of redundancies that had been implemented across Stratasys hours before — globally and top to bottom. My source, who doesn’t want to be named, understandably, did not receive one of the brown envelopes but was visibly shaken and has yet to work out the repercussions for their role. I went to seek out a couple of other trusted Stratasys sources to get their take on it, but I backed off in the end because they were all still processing the news themselves and were obviously quite distressed behind the rehearsed, still professional smiles. It was not good, particularly when all I could offer was hugs and an anonymous voice IF they wanted to talk at a later date.

For anyone interested, I am going to report on the David Reis interview in more detail for Disruptive.

Other notable conversations over the two days with exhibitors were with Prodways, a truly innovative company that is still flying somewhat under the radar, even considering the serious moves the company is making. Some lovely people there too. Materialise is another company that brings a family feel with its personnel even despite its continuously swelling ranks. At formnext the company announced version 20 of its Magics software as well as the certification for flight ready parts.

Off the show floor it was lovely to catch up with lots of different friends from across the industry. Florian Horsch and Chris Volker kept me smiling through the sleep deprived fog – love those guys and excited to hear about Chris’ new adventure with VoxelWorld focused on high level designs for life-style products via additive manufacturing. Other favourites such as Andy Allshorn and Kerry Hogarth ensured I ate properly (something I’m not good at when away from home, and not even then!) and both have brilliant projects ongoing. Andy, as ever, is much in demand with his consultancy and servicing business, which does not surprise me in the slightest. What he doesn’t know about the internal workings of SLA machines and how to get the most out of them is not worth knowing!

I also got wind of some really interesting applications in Sweden, courtesy of an Envisiontec reseller. Hopefully going to get a more detailed low-down on these, NDAs permitting.

AMUG representatives were also at formnext in numbers, it was really lovely to meet Elizabeth Goode in person, finally, after many years of correspondence via numerous channels. And, I had an important chat with Paul Bates who was there for AMUG and as a representative of UL. The safety and training issues around AM, particularly as the production applications ramp up was very timely.

Two other stand-out conversations were with Phil DeSimone and Dana McCallum from Carbon3D, although Dana is also aligned with the AMUG committee. These guys continue to impress me and their understated, down to earth, sincere yet friendly approach serves them extremely well, particularly considering what they are bringing to market. I am reliably informed that beta tests with the M1 platform and, more specifically the range of 16 (to date) thermoplastic materials, is progressing well, with commercial launch of the M1 still slated for Q1 in 2016 — no delays, which is nice. The company has grown significantly in the months since its launch earlier this year with 106 personnel now on the books and working hard towards the same goal in California.

It was just a year since I first had my mind blown by the Carbon3D process, and I doubted it would be topped. Silly me! Will I ever learn? And this year Frankfurt served up another mind blowing moment. I have to be really careful how I go about this. Essentially I was trusted with who, what, how and when but much of it is still well below anyone’s radar and has to stay that way for a few more months.

But, I got to see, by way of a video, a new metal jetting process — this is not conceptual research, this is a working process and I saw more than half a dozen parts. OMGoodness people, mark my words, this could be a deal breaker. It’s working at the nano scale and the process is called NPJ — Nano Particle Jetting. My source, a long time veteran of this industry with a very impressive pedigree, claims this is at least 10 years ahead of the research being conducted at Nottingham University in the same area. After seeing the work at Nottingham in collaboration with OCE, I knew this process was feasible, but it’s here much faster than I thought it would be and from an unexpected source.

So, as usual, a visit to Frankfurt has me waffling on for much longer than I intended. It just remains to say congratulations to the formnext organizers, they have built a solid platform on which to build further in years to come and on a more general note as we approach the end of  2015, it seems 2016 has a lot to live up to in the 3D printing land, but somehow I suspect it just might. It’s not all going to be pretty, but I guess growing pains are part of the natural order.

Stay safe people, you know where I am if you want to talk.

Wednesday 11 November 2015

Fighting Hype and History — It’s a Battle Additive Manufacturing Can Win

3D printed houses, 3D printed (super)cars, 3D printed bridges, 3D printed brains ….. I could go on (and on!) referencing the questionable headlines that have appeared across various media channels this past year or more.

To be clear, I do not doubt that there are some innovative individuals pushing the boundaries of additive technologies with some astounding applications. These provide inspiration and raise awareness — both positive things in and of themselves. However, we must return to the problem with many of the headlines and much of the marketing around 3D printing and additive manufacturing at the moment, in that it gives the false impression that 3D printing technologies can do much more than is `actually possible. This is the core of the problem when it comes to inflating expectations of businesses and individuals learning about the tech, followed by the inevitable disappointment when the reality does not meet these expectations. In isolation, disappointment is a fact of life and dealing with it an important lesson, but here, in this context, it can and indeed is, causing problems that are restricting the uptake of additive technologies for industrial applications. The disappointment is leading to a resistance to adopt additive technologies for applications where it could actually shine and bring companies the benefits of better products at reduced cost.

This is not a new problem, of course, and the deflated stock prices over the past 12 months are a reflection of this, but recently I have heard about a number of actual applications that would / could / probably should be using additive manufacturing were it not for this phenomenon.

As I see it, the car/house/bridge/brain etc headlines are getting people excited, eliciting great enthusiasm, bringing hundreds of thousands of click-throughs for certain sites and, indeed, to some degree helping to spread awareness about innovative technology being used for innovative applications. However, these headlines do not belie the reality of the applications whereby 3D printing is only a part of the solution. Today, there is no house, car, bridge, plane, brain — or any other complicated, multi-component, large-scale application — that relies 100% on 3D printing as the production method. Most of the applications don’t even reach 50% utilization; but, until that part of the story is relayed — reliably, consistently and enthusiastically — resistance to the technology will continue from potential users that can benefit from it.

Recently I have seen two different additive manufacturing machines in-situ within manufacturing environments for very different applications. In both cases this 21st century tech was sat alongside much older, still relevant traditional manufacturing equipment. It brings with it new capabilities and thus innovative additions to the existing product ranges and services of the two companies, enabling them to offer their clients more. More innovation, more efficiency and more cost savings — with minimal, if negligible, risk and much to gain. However, in one instance in particular the company was fighting a losing battle in terms of converting potential clients to a better and more cost-effective way of doing things. Even with the evidence in their hands, and impressed with the results, they would not move away from the traditional way of doing things! Of course this is their prerogative, but why, even with solid evidence, are companies that can benefit from AM still resisting?

One reason certainly seems to be “why reinvent the wheel” type attitudes, but it seems to run deeper than that as well. In one case reported to me, a one (or even three)-off demo piece is all very well, but apparently there is a future-looking fear at the heart of the resistance. “Can you guarantee that it won’t fail – 5/10/20 years down the line?” Well, no, as there are no standards or precedents that can be used to counter this argument, even though, as in this case, there are no standards for the traditional method for this application. But what there is, is a 50+ year history of precedents and unfailing parts.

So it seems we’re fighting history folks, and fear of the unknown, as well as the on-going battle with the hype. It’s not an easy battle but it is one that I believe, if we all play our part in it, with honesty and determination, we can win.

Onwards …..

Tuesday 3 November 2015

A Recap of An Unhappy October in the 3D Printing Industry

The month of October saw some ugly and unhappy headlines across the world of 3D printing and that’s just the ones that were in the public domain. There’s plenty of private discord too according to some of the communications I’ve received off the record.

The most recent bout of bad news started when, for the second time this year, Stratasys-owned MakerBot announced lay-offs in the US. The company’s CEO, Jonathan Jaglom, took to the MakerBot blog to inform the world of this unfortunate development. Even the hardest hearts can’t find this type of action easy, despite the marketing speak that it is wrapped up in. These are people’s lives! Thus it was either incredibly bad timing, a notable lapse in judgement, or both, that saw the Stratasys board voting on a half million dollar bonus for its CEO just a day after the redundancies. Whether he deserves it or not, and I’ve seen arguments on both sides that have merit, the timing of it was horrible.

Following that debacle another emerged surrounding the Singapore based desktop 3D printer manufacturer Pirate3D. This young company originally sailed to early success and secured phenomenal funding, initially via Kickstarter and later from other more traditional sources. However, it emerged last month that the company has faltered rather alarmingly, and seems to be on a trajectory similar to its contemporary Makible. Again, via blog post, the company’s CEO, informed the world that operations were frozen for at least the next three months. Citing financial issues and an inability to meet its promises, it’s not looking good for the self-styled young entrepreneurs who claim that they have all lost their life savings too. A very sad case of a group of youngsters that tried to run before they could walk and have suffered from a lack of the experience I mentioned in my previous post. Hard not to feel some sympathy, but then, I didn’t invest in a machine, unlike the many Kickstarter backers who are justifiably feeling aggrieved.

3D Systems didn’t have an easy month either, with rumours of lay-offs and the closure of its Massachussetts facility as well as a law suit decision that will see the company paying out in excess of $11 million to a previous employee that had worked for 3D Systems following the acquisition of his company four years ago. The acquisition of software company Print3D was a strategic one, which obviously did not go according to plan, and considering the number of acquisitions 3D Systems made, you have to wonder how many others are smarting now. Then to top it off, last week, in the closing days of October, Avi Reichental stepped down after serving 12 years as 3D Systems’ CEO. There have been many comments across social media since the news broke, some of them personal and unpleasant, others more considered. Speaking personally, I have always found Avi to be charming on the numerous occasions I met with him, sometimes speaking with him at great length. And I have never, for a second, doubted his passionate belief that 3D printing can make things better. I do intend the dual meaning there — that statement can be taken literally and figuratively. Whether you agree with Reichental’s business methods for managing growth or not or what drives him, what cannot be denied is that he took 3D Systems from relative obscurity and the brink of financial disaster 12 years ago and transitioned it into a multi-national, well-known public company. And, I gather, we may still see him around ….

As I see it, for both Stratasys and 3D Systems, navigating growth has been far from straight-forward, and I would venture that corporate greed and power plays have been central to some of the decision-making in the board room. Balance sheets and responsibility to shareholders will have played a part, but so will personal bank balances — it’s the ugly side of “business” run by human beings. There is not much I loathe more than writing bad behaviour off as “just business” (or “politics”) but it’s common place today, and becoming more and more common in the 3D printing industry too, a consequence of the industry’s growth. What is equally sad is how many people accept and/or dismiss such behaviour without comment or kick-back, rather it just generates a sigh or a shrug and it’s quickly over-looked or forgotten. I’m not judging here, I’m absolutely guilty of this myself — noticing it, not liking it but at a loss as to how to change it or make any sort of difference!

Overall though, I am not too surprised at the big picture, namely the recent consolidation by both 3D Systems and Stratasys. Easy enough to put it down to the age and state of the industry, but I have my suspicions that there may be more to it. With both companies building significant relationships with massive traditional 2D printing and imaging companies, I find myself speculating as to whether the recent moves are preparatory ….

And finally, I saw the news, well-covered by Mike, yesterday that the 3D Printing Fund is heading into liquidation. That's rather sad!