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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 10 January 2017

Learning from Formnext 2016 - Part 2. Don't Dismiss the Plastics!

For me, December 2016 got mostly written off, for various personal reasons, and I was quite happy to see the back of it. Now January 2017 brings a more hopeful outlook! Apologies for the time-lapse with this post, but hopefully still interesting to some. HNY all. Onwards ....... 

Like me, many visitors in attendance at Formnext in Frankfurt at the end of last year noted a strong emphasis on metal AM — either in passing or in dedicated show reviews. Indeed, the metal AM community did dominate the floor space physically at Formnext with vast stands inhabited by the old metal, new metal and, of course, big metal players as highlighted in my previous post. There was also compelling evidence of new metal partnerships (and acquisitions) as well as metal material companies.

However this belies the very real, powerful and, in my opinion, equally dominant developments with plastic 3D printing and AM. A notable trend that emerged in the plastic AM sector through 2016 highlighted a focus on customised manufacturing. While product development processes remain a central application for plastic additive technologies there is a definite shift by some of the leading vendors towards holistic manufacturing and serial production applications for additive technologies.

Stratasys unveiled the direction it is taking into manufacturing earlier in 2016 when it showcased the 3D Robotic and 3D Composite Demonstrators — both developed through industrial partnerships. Customer driven innovation is what it is all about these days. This was central to Stratasys’ messaging at Formnext, along with a new partnership announcement — with Siemens — the two companies are definitely in a serious relationship. The synergy here is easy to see, and Siemens is a massive organisation. Not as big as GE, but huge nonetheless. The central premise is again about holistic manufacturing, whereby AM (Stratasys) combined with intelligent automation (Siemens) and advanced robotics will prove to be a game changer. The other big announcement from Stratasys was the commercial release of GrabCAD Print, which is out of beta. The GrabCAD Print software application is all about simplifying the front end of the 3D printing process — consolidating the various (and laborious) steps in preparing a file for print. This actually emerged as a theme at Formnext, many of the hardware vendors are working on this for their proprietary systems.  

There’s a certain irony, or perhaps it is just natural evolution in the sector, as 3D Systems is also focusing in on holistic manufacturing (with its Figure 4 concept) and customer driven innovation. Indeed, the transition to manufacturing, “on a case by case basis”, was front and centre for the company’s messaging at Formnext. The Figure 4, eye-catching with its use of robotics, was getting a great deal of attention. Although talking with Timothy Miller, while the focus is on manufacturing, I am also picking up a dedicated push for medical applications where 3D Systems has a very strong ecosystem approach through its software, scanning, modelling and production tech; not to mention some very talented and experienced people.

For me the most eye-catching stand exhibit was on the EnvisionTec booth where the company was demonstrating a new binder jetting system. Binder jetting is completely new for Envisiontec, and the RAM123 system has been developed in cooperation with Viridis and utilises a large robotic arm, with a proprietary 28” print head attachment that lays down both the build material and the binder concurrently. Undoubtedly Envsiontec has supplied funding to develop this system, although there was a suggestion it had acquired Viridis, but that is unconfirmed.

Formnext 2016 was the first time anyone got to see a working MultiJetFusion system from HP. It’s hard to overstate the difference it made to my understanding of the process — and it is indeed impressive, particularly in combination with the ancillary equipment that promotes safe material handling and automation. A tour of the booth also highlighted where HP is going with this tech in terms of some very clever embedded electronics that could potentially resolve traceability issues in production. I even got to understand the mind set behind introducing some of this tech so far in advanced of commercialisation. Not so much with the main system — I think that was like normal bugs, but with the embedded electronics the design software does not yet exist to support it — I was told, by Ramon Pastor, that the CAD companies “are working on it.” I actually got a similar story from Nano Dimension, when I talked to Simon Fried, the company’s CBO.

Other interesting non-metal highlights came from BigRep, Roboze and Roland DG. These mostly centred around material developments and capabilities. BigRep, still headquarted in Berlin, but with a shiny new office in Brooklyn, NY announced an interesting cooperation with Kuhling & Kuhling. The resulting delta printer is specialised for high temp printing of Polycarbonate. Roboze, meanwhile demonstrated its robust system that is capable of printing PEEK and PEI. And UK company Roland DG introduced a conceptual ceramics additive machine. In a now familiar story arc, the development of this system was driven by applications, notably from the dental industry. According to my source, the system is a while away from commercialisation but very interesting nonetheless.

There were also a couple of companies notable by their absence from Formnext, namely Mcor Technologies and Carbon. Nothing sinister, I'm told, just calendar clashes! 

This series of posts has, during writing, broken down via AM materials categories. That wasn't originally the intention — but I think it kind of reflects where we are in this industry right now. To follow in part three is some thoughts on the very interesting, albeit, early developments with ceramics. 

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