The annual pilgrimage to Frankfurt almost didn’t happen for me this year, but I have to say, I am glad I made the decision to go. Booking flights and a hotel a couple of days out from the show was not my most favourite activity in the world, but when my alarm went off at 3am on Tuesday 15th November, it was the start of two very long, caffeine-fuelled but wholly insightful days. I usually meet a friendly face sooner or later at big events and this year it was definitely sooner when Chris Sutcliffe from Renishaw and Liverpool university tipped my hat just after landing at Frankfurt airport. Turns out we’d been on the same plane and it made the cab ride much nicer.
Walking into Hall 3.1 at Messe Frankfurt for the 2nd edition of Formnext and it was immediately obvious that the show had grown in size and stature since the inaugural edition. Frankfurt in November is still the place to be, and the organisers have stuck to their word in avoiding Thanksgiving week for our US friends. Looking at some of the coverage of Formnext during last week and since, there is a heavy emphasis on metal additive manufacturing. It was many people’s take-away, and certainly the metal vendors’ stands did dominate the show. It’s where I am going to start, but be assured, metal AM is by no means the be all and the end all of this sector.
Not long after stepping foot into the hall, I bumped into Lars Ryberg of Arcam and prompted a conversation about the GE deal (originally to buy out majority shareholdings in Arcam and SLM Solutions, but now Arcam and Concept Laser). He was definitely buzzing and confirmed that with 74% of Arcam shareholders agreeing to the deal, it was going ahead, despite the original target of 75% from GE. Apparently 74 is “close enough.” The other parties in this deal were all present too — GE themselves and Concept Laser. As was SLM Solutions, the company that lost out. Representatives from Arcam and Concept Laser were certainly very upbeat about the deal, GE was more measured, and despite some heavy marketing materials across Formnext, it turns out there is a prepared story and only some GE people are allowed to tell it. Other GE peeps I met, while smiling, were tight lipped and hesitant one even going so far as to say he was “not allowed” to talk about it. The public messaging is all very political and can be found in the GE press releases and they are ‘not allowed’ to deviate from the hymn sheet.
Arcam and Concept Laser are both telling similar stories to each other, likely directed by the GE higher ups — not much is going to change in terms of operations and R&D. Each will retain its own branding and identity, and operate as they are now from their respective HQ’s in Sweden and Germany. I imagine this is true for the short term, but I know I am not alone in being more sceptical of this in the longer term.
On the SLM side, I caught up a source there who was as open with me as they could be, not completely I suspect, but definitely more than GE. When I asked about the money grab, they were non-committal, but did reveal that their personal view was that GE was not a bank or finance company and that with the SLM stance there would always have been a lack of control. In the longer term, my source did say they think it would be in SLM’s and the market’s best interests to remain independent and on the open stock market. There was also an indication that there would be greater interest in SLM’s products from GE competitors in the aerospace sector! This was not a unique point of view — I got a similar story from Renishaw and EOS too.
I’ve been quite open about my doubts on this whole GE deal since it was first announced — I do have questions on just how it will change the 3D printing and additive manufacturing landscape. It’s not the change(s) itself that bothers me, change is good — rather whether it will be for better or worse, but at this point it is hard to tell. Beyond the doubts though, it is fascinating to see how GE has evolved from a user of AM technologies; to a user and a service provider (through the acquisition of Morris Technologies) both internal and external; to a user, a service provider and a vendor. User evolution is, I suspect, going to become a more common occurrence — something that struck me as I learned more about AddUp 3D at Formnext also.
That was the big gossip story, obviously. On the actual technology development front, there are similarly some cross-overs.
The most noticeable theme was an emphasis on the front-end software — streamlining the process from design to print and making the inbetween steps (file clean-up, fixing, slicing) virtually invisible, while retaining ALL of the design data for archiving. This was particularly a big deal for Renishaw who announced a new partnership with Dassault and further development of its QuantAM software. Along similar lines, SLM was promoting its joint venture with CADS GmbH, while EOS announced a 2.0 version of its EOSPRINT software together with cooperation agreements with Siemens and Autodesk to further improve user experience at the front-end of metal additive manufacturing.
EOS further announced an extension to its EOSTATE Monitoring Suite for quality assurance and process development in metal 3D printing with the introduction of a new tool — EOSTATE Exposure. This solution — a combination of a special camera and the EOSTATE Exposure software — supports the intelligent, real-time monitoring of the AM build process by analysing the melting and cooling behaviour of the complete melt pool meaning that any errors can be detected automatically and subsequently evaluated. This allows for full traceability and consistent production high quality parts. One other snippet from EOS, which came during the press conference, was a comment from the company's Chief Marketing Officer, Dr Adrian Keppler, who said, during an overview of EOS hardware portfolio: "today the power source is a laser, in the future it might be something else." No indication of what or when, but the implication is that there is a great deal going on in the EOS R&D department right now!
SLM Solutions brought some hardware updates to Formnext in the form of the redeveloped SLM280 platform that has more than 90 modifications. Most notably this includes a full redesign of the gas flow for greatly improved performance and surface finish. The SLM 125 has also undergone an overhaul and now includes meltpool monitoring and laser power measurement to improve precision.
Arcam’s main technology news was a new cobalt chrome material for the Q10plus metal additive manufacturing platform. The target is the medical implant market, but you have to imagine the aerospace