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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 10 February 2017

The 3D Printing Industry is Just Like a Tree …..

Just because one branch of the 3D printing and additive manufacturing (AM) industry is demonstrating success, it does not necessarily follow that other branches are not living up to expectations or are failing. My reason for opening with that statement will become clearer if you choose to read on, but the use of the word “branches” here was chosen because one analogy I use for the 3D printing & AM industry in my daily attempts at comprehension is that of a tree.

The seed was planted more than 30 years ago and quickly sprouted roots (the different additive processes that emerged in the early years). The trunk grew upwards and thickened (which I think is analogous with the rapid prototyping umbrella) and started to sprout branches (as the strong processes and materials development found valid applications) that today are sturdy and strong and are now branching out in new and different directions themselves. For me the branches are thus analogous to technology process types, material types, application developments etc, and they can intertwine in complex ways.

I see two of the lowest and thickest branches of the tree as the divergence of materials — plastics and metals. There are of course new and thin branches (twigs?) at this low level too — ceramics for example. However, I see the plastics and metals branches currently growing at the fastest rate, sprouting more branches from the original and producing a great deal of fruit.

On the plastics front the branches are going in myriad directions. Too many to cover every single one of them, but some stand outs are: multi-axis robot arms (Envisiontec, Stratasys, 3D Systems); multi-materials (Stratasys & 3D Systems); isotropic parts and minimal post-processing (Rize); and new engineering materials, notably from Carbon and HP, but also Stratasys, FormLabs, Roboze and EOS. One very new branch, just a bud really, in the form of a promised new system, has also emerged this week from Coobx, a Liechtenstein company. The brand is Exigo, featuring LIFT (light initiated fabrication technology). There is very little to go on, except an eye-catching teaser video, but to me it looks CLIP-like. The lid will be lifted on March 9th, according to the company’s founder Marco Schmid, who has revealed that 18 months of R&D has gone into the development of the Exigo along with numerous patents.   

On Twitter, the accusation of hype was levelled at Coobx, based on the style of the teaser video. Personally, I thought this was a bit harsh, the video is overly dramatic maybe. Extravagant even. However, no claims have yet been made that can or cannot be proved to be over exaggerated, which is the definition of hype, and certainly what happened with 3D printing in general a couple of years back. Despite the whole “hype” thing dying down (Phew!) this was not the only time I’ve seen it referenced this week.

I was somewhat disappointed to read a comment from Rize, VP of Marketing, Julie Reece, who told 3DPI at the recent SWW17 event: “Just as there was hype in the consumer/hobby market, we’ve seen similar hype in the metal market.” I have to respectfully disagree with this comment.

The successful growth and fruit bearing developments of the 3D printing plastics branch does not negate the same growth vector of the metal branch of 3D printing. There are some really amazing developments here too. Again, I can’t list them all, but the ones that stand out for me right now are XJET’s nano particle jetting process (when they introduced it at the end of 2015 most people assumed this was a decade away or more); Matsuura’s metal hybrid additive and subtractive machine; OR Lasers’ focus on democratising metal 3D printing with a capable machine well under €100k; and LPW’s work with metal powders. The latter of these I was able to get deeper insight on this week, and to understand how LPW is addressing issues around traceability and quality control — two massive issues for powder bed processes —  from the production of the powder, through storage and transit, in-process, through recycling and reuse. It’s complex but imperative work, and some of the results that I was privileged to see, are very impressive and could really open up applications and uptake.

There is also Desktop Metal. I’m reserving judgement on this one. Much like Coobx, there has been much teasing about the new system (due for unveiling later this year by all accounts). There is absolutely no visibility on the process or capabilities but there has been a vast amount of publicity around the amount of investment in this start-up company (founded 2015), which as of this week totals $97 million, following a Series C round of funding. One imagines the investors do have a tad more to go on than the generic marketing speak about metal 3D printing that dominates the company’s PR and website. Which is why I’m trying to stay open minded, and remain hopeful that this is another fruit bearing branch of the metal sector.

If you look at a tree in detail — it is wondrous and complex. Some components are immediately obvious in their presence and function, others take time to see and work out where they sprout from. This is how I see the 3D printing industry right now!

Tuesday 7 February 2017

Stratasys Knows that Prototyping Apps of 3D Printing Are Still Foundational

So Stratasys side-stepped CES and waited for SolidWorks World (taking place this week in LA) to unveil its first big product announcement of 2017.

It’s an interesting one too — the F123 series of 3D printers. I had time to ponder when I was introduced to the tech last week under NDA, and later received the PR, which certainly conveys the intent. “Stratasys Targets Professional Prototyping” is right there in the header. The company is pretty much going back to basics with the F123 series, and has done something significant for its largest application market — companies that use 3D printing for the product development process.

Obviously there is also quite a bit of marketing language in the PR too, with terminology attributed to the F123 series that many 3D printer vendors have used in recent years. “First-In-Class,” “Office-Friendly,” and “Engineering-Grade 3D Printing Solution” are all there. It’s easy to roll your eyes and ignore these terms because you’ve probably heard them many, MANY times before, raising expectations that are never quite met.

The way I see it is that Stratasys has taken its considerable knowledge and experience of making 3D printers to resolve some of the issues. According to the company, these F Series printers are not an improved MakerBot/U Print, and they’re not dumbed down Dimensions, they’re new machines, developed from the ground up to offer a prototyping solution (using the additive FDM process) that is easier to use, faster and more reliable. The office-friendly and ease of use are two big issues, particularly in combination. 

During the webinar last week, Jesse Hahne, President of the design firm CAD (Center for Advanced Design), was introduced as a Beta tester of the F370 model, the biggest system in the series. He was convincing in his testament of how easy this machine was to use, relaying how switching materials and print heads was incredibly simple — Stratasys has ensured these vital operations are much more intuitive, taking only a minute to achieve. In addition, Jesse also highlighted a specific application for a helmet. Previously it had been necessary to prototype it in six parts (on a U Print), but on the F370 it was produced in one piece. Moreover, Stratasys was keen to stress how the F123 series encompass 15 new patents no less. Most of which are dedicated to making the systems more mechanically sound, reliable and intuitive.

The point is to offer a real and economical solution for the complete prototyping workflow, from initial concept verification through design validation and right up to fully functional models for testing, with the ability to do this in innocuous settings — offices, labs and classrooms etc.

In terms of the actual economics, no precise visibility on price, but some sources are quoting “under $20k.” So the costs might still prohibit many. However, it terms of price / performance ratio, this could well prove to be a marked step forward. Also, with there being three models in the series, there will be a price range, but the compromise will be on size not quality or capabilities of the machine. That said, there is still a compromise. We’re not quite there yet! I understand that the F123 series will be commercially available (ie due to start shipping) at the end of March.
Usability of 3D printers is still one big frustration and even remains a barrier to adoption. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, 3D printers (of any spec) tend to be time-consuming things. For hobbyists, that’s no big deal, in fact it’s kind of the point. If you use them for your job, then the actual machine preparation and operations are just frustrating things that eat up your day. It will be interesting to see how far the F123 series of 3D printers goes in overcoming these issues.

In terms of Stratasys’ overall strategy, you need to look at the product announcements over the last 12 months. The J750, launched in April of last year, is all about developments around 3D printing with advanced multi-material capabilities. On the production front, Stratasys hammered its stake in the ground when it unveiled its two additive manufacturing demonstrators in August 2016. Stratasys is clearly committed to driving R&D on every front for 3D printing, highlighting that it’s not all the same thing. And this latest announcement, I believe, is certainly an important indicator that prototyping applications are still the cornerstone of the 3D printing industry. And will probably remain so for many years yet.

Thursday 2 February 2017

Some Thoughts from the MAPP Launch Event

On Tuesday I attended the launch event for MAPP at the University of Sheffield. MAPP is an EPSRC funded Future Manufacturing Hub (€10 million over seven years), and the acronym refers to “Manufacture using Advanced Powder Processes.” It’s important to understand that this is not just about additive manufacturing, and it’s not just about metal powders! Although if yesterday is anything to go by, they are the two subject areas that most people want to talk about.

I tried not to have any pre-conceptions about the event, or the project itself, ahead of arriving in Sheffield. But driving over the very foggy Pennines, at snail pace, I certainly wasn’t expecting such a high turnout — there were more than 150 delegates. This attendance level certainly made for a lively, busy and informative day. The speaker line-up was stellar, to say the least, and positively reinforced the composition, mission and intent of the MAPP project. Said mission, posted around the venue was hard to miss: MAPP's vision is to deliver on the promise of powder-based manufacturing to provide low energy, low cost, and low waste high value manufacturing routes and products to secure UK manufacturing productivity and growth. Our mission is to work with academic, commercial and innovation partners to drive the research needed to solve many of the fundamental challenges limiting the development and uptake of many powder-based processes.”

Of course this puts a spotlight on the age old dichotomy that exists between academia and industry, and MAPP, in line with the increasing manufacturing catapult centres across the UK, serves as a functional conduit between the two. MAPP is essentially a consortium of five universities (Sheffield/Imprerial College London/ Leeds/Manchester/Oxford) with 17 further partners from industry (powder material suppliers and OEMs). The people I spoke with on Tuesday from all sectors were certainly open, enthused and motivated by MAPP and keen to contribute input believing the output would be exponentially more positive.

According to Prof Iain Todd, Director of MAPP: “We are in an exciting time for powder-based manufacturing. New market opportunities are rapidly opening up across a diverse range of high value sectors such as aerospace, energy, medical and automotive.” Few would argue with this, the number of materials companies that are focusing in on powders, particularly metal powders, is significant. This is because demand is increasing dramatically. While the opportunities are real, as you might expect there are challenges and barriers. These were specifically identified by Prof Todd as being: variability of input material and thus process outcomes; lack of explicit process understanding; absence of suitable real time modelling; no direct link from processing to in-service performance; and a skills gap for the next generation of engineers to make this all happen. Indeed, the professor stressed this last one, as an issue that: “time and again, I hear it over and over. We NEED the people — new people that understand these issues and the experience to overcome them.”

This last one was necessary to say, because it’s true, we all know that it’s true but it was not a direct issue addressed on the day. It certainly needs some grave attention though.

You don’t have to be a materials scientist to fully understand the challenges Iain was talking about — good job really because I don’t even come close. But as the most basic level, when it comes to powder manufacturing processes: the quality of the input (powder) determines the quality of the outcome (part). You might be thinking “Duh!” but actually in terms of the current situation, the quality of powders and the many different ways of producing powdered material that have a direct effect on that quality is occupying the activities of many material scientists. It is time and cost intensive work, but vital for the progression of the AM industry. Moreover, the characteristics of high quality powder for, say, the laser melting process do not necessarily translate directly to the EBM process. One step on from that is how the powder material reacts in-process. Currently this is a big barrier in that there is only limited, if any, monitoring capabilities which contributes to output that is variable. The goal is consistent, reliable, certifiable outputs. The way to do this, according to the MAPP vision is to make the powder material designed for process and then to monitor that process with dynamic control via machine learning such that the output has the necessary quality built in.

In line with this, then, Prof Todd outlined the three themes of the MAPP research programme: in-situ process, characterisation and modelling and control. Much of the rest of the day drilled down into these themes, with presentations from Rob Sharman, Global Head of AM at GKN; Peter Lee from the Uni of Manchester & Research Complex at Harwell; Alison Waglund from Johnson Matthey; Andrew Bayly from the Uni of Leeds; and Phil Caroll, CEO at LPW.

I couldn’t keep up with all of the science, my brain is just not wired that way, but some of the big picture themes that emerged from the day gave me plenty of pause for thought in terms of what still needs to be achieved with additive manufacturing to meet the needs of widespread industrial applications.  

The big one (after powder quality), which recurred over and over throughout the day was in-process monitoring. If you actually stop and think about this, it goes way beyond putting a camera inside the build chamber of a hardware system. Which, if I’m honest, is kind of how I thought about it. To get the certified quality of part demanded by many industries, especially the highly regulated ones such as aero and medical, in-process monitoring demands critical information at the nano-scale.

A couple of stand-out technological advancements in this area were highlighted on Tuesday by Peter Lee. Lee talked about his work at the Research Complex at Harwell which focuses on in-situ AM synchrotron set up using the Diamond Light Source (DLS) facility. This revelation blew my mind somewhat, as Peter explained that the DLS is 10 billion times brighter than the sun. I seriously thought I’d misheard, but he repeated it (and I triple checked). The extremely high energy x-rays of the DLS permits the characterisation of metal products, inside and out, which in layman’s terms means you can look through very thick / dense metal. Peter expanded how this means that it is possible to look at materials in different ways, and more specifically look inside powdered metal materials to better understand how to make them and what happens to them as they are processed in side an AM system.

Peter also went on to outline some of his work at Manchester University which involves developing an AM process replicator. Essentially this enables system users to see the meltpool in-process. He reported (and showed) some very encouraging results that are allowing for the characterisation of metal powders in-situ.

Another bombshell moment came from Phil Carroll of LPW, when he focused on the user costs of metal AM with powder bed processes. LPW is a multi-disciplined company focused on AM, however powder materials is a primary discipline. Part way through his presentation, Phil highlighted one of the often cited advantages of AM, namely how it minimises material waste. He then went on to illustrate through some costings developed in house, how waste (and the inherent costs) is still an issue with AM. I’m following up on this and will cover it in more detail a separate feature as it needs attention.

Finally, my day in Sheffield also highlighted some fascinating research into future manufacturing technologies. In particular, Diode Area Melting got my attention. It’s a process that was described as being similar to HSS in terms of it being fast and scalable in its approach with Stainless Steel material. The process uses laser modules with higher wall-plug efficiency compared with traditional fibre lasers, and laser spot overlap and focus can be adjusted to provide efficient optical pre-heat and component stress reduction. Moreover, DAM has the capability to instantaneously switch laser bar wavelength, enabling the processing of different materials. Seemingly a very interesting emerging AM powder bed process.

I was also very interested to learn more about Fast Forge, a new process for the production of aerospace grade titanium alloys. This is a Sheffield Uni project, not directly part of MAPP, but notable nonetheless. It is said that the Fast Forge technology will provide engineers with more design flexibility, and potentially lead to improved buy-to-fly ratios. This is being achieved through research into a new process that will transform rutile sand into novel titanium alloy aerospace components in three steps; production of titanium powder from the rutile sand, field-assisted sintering technology and a one-step forging process.

In all, the MAPP launch event was hugely encouraging and I look forward to seeing where this goes. I will certainly be registering for the first industry conference in 2018 to find out more. For industry and academia there will also be engagement and outreach programmes opening up.

In closing, I just want to relay a conversation I had with a source from an automotive company that was in attendance. When I asked how things were going, the response was — “We’ve come a long way in 20 years [of using additive tech], we are doing what we did 20 years ago but much more efficiently, much more cost-effectively and in much higher volumes. We’re still waiting for the next step-change though, but it does feel like it’s close.”