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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 12 May 2017

If You Were @ Rapid+TCT, Probably No Need to Read This!

Ahead of leaving for Pittsburgh last weekend to attend Rapid + TCT, I had a couple of deadlines to meet, including a headline Editorial commentary for the latest issue of Disruptive Insight which went out while I was away. During my travels, I saw the notification that it had been published and, habitually, pushed it out over my social media channels.

It seemed to strike a nerve in various quarters and generated traction — both on social media and the show floor at Rapid + TCT. Within that piece I focused on the evolving nature of sensationalised marketing activities across the 3D printing and additive manufacturing industry, and the real consequence of user cynicism. I also posted a follow-up piece after talking to the two companies at Rapid that I had highlighted — as examples — in the original post, in the interests of fairness. There are lots of opinions flying around on this, and I have been trying to put together a bigger picture view to clarify my own thoughts further.

Marketing is an essential part of any successful business — generating attention and sales for that business is key to survival and growth. That’s a given, and generating attention in an industry that is experiencing strong growth itself, with increasing numbers of competitors can be tricky and demanding. It can also lead to hyperbole and exaggeration, and that’s where the problem lies. I hope the debate continues.

As I looked down on the Rapid + TCT show floor from the glass-sided bridge that crossed over it, it struck me how this type of event is, fundamentally, a massive marketing platform offering a way to get companies’ messages out directly to potential customers one-on-one, as well as to wider audiences via an increasing 3rd party press corp, some of whom can get quite competitive too.

Competition is not bad in and of itself — it drives progress and innovation, I believe. However, it can also trigger bad behaviour from people involved in it. I’ve witnessed this a few times during my career, both directly and indirectly. Sometimes it can be humorous, other times it is much more hostile. Invariably bad behaviour is unnecessary. I’ll likely circle back to this throughout this review!   

The first day of Rapid + TCT was all about information — the show floor was still being built up. Workshops and tutorials ran all day, with a heavy focus on 3D software and additive manufacturing (AM) for medical applications. There was a very high concentration of highly knowledgeable and skilled medical people all sharing and updating their peers. It was inspiring.

The main conference event kicked off after lunch with a 4 hour keynote session, again featuring some of the leading-lights in the AM industry. SME, the co-hosts of this event, and America Makes were prominent during this session and expounded the tremendous growth both organisations are experiencing. It became a recurring theme across the entire event.

During the subsequent keynote presentation by Mickey McManus, Autodesk’s Chairman of MAYA and Research Fellow Office of CTO/Future of Learning, more themes were teased out that would reoccur over the following days that are of great importance to the AM industry, specifically: cocreation, machine learning and skills development, the moving boundaries between the digital and the physical worlds and the opportunities available for early adopters. The latter of these followed Mickey’s assertion that with 3D software and 3D printing: “You haven’t seen anything yet.” A bit of a cliché, certainly, but with good reason — I heard many variations on this while I was in Pittsburgh, and indeed for the last couple of years. “We’re still just at the beginning.” “We don’t know what we don’t know, but I do know we only know a tiny fraction about 3D printing right now.” Etc. (That last one blew my mind, but just taking it at face value here.)

Independent consultant Todd Grimm followed Mickey’s presentation with a consummate delivery of a keynote rounding up what’s new in 3D printing and AM, with a nod to 3D scanning too. It was fast-paced and provided a very quick flash past of new hardware platforms that now feature on the competitive landscape of AM. Once upon a time, Todd’s presentations (he’s been doing this for many years) would cover historical context and every new development from the past year. That’s all changed – he only went back to August 2016 in his coverage, and while the names of everything new flashed past on one of his animated slides, he could only highlight some of them in his speech due to time constraints. Another, but particularly effective pointer to the tremendous growth that the AM industry is enjoying.

Prior to arriving in Pittsburgh, I had two must-attends on my radar. One of them was the panel session that rounded up Monday’s conference session and brought together some industry giants — Fried Vancraen, (Materialise, CEO); Vyomesh Joshi (3DS, CEO); Greg Morris (GE Aviation, Additive Technologies Leader); and Stephen Nigro (HP, President, 3D Printing). For me, Fried stood out in both stature and experience, not deviating from his firm beliefs that the value of 3D printing and AM always lie in meaningful applications. Greg Morris, like Fried, has a long and successful career in the AM industry. Greg, now at GE since his company Morris Technologies was acquired by GE, is the dominant force behind the LEAP engine nozzle production application of metal AM. It is THE go to application for explaining the current advantages and potential of AM in terms of topology optimization, light weighting, qualification etc. Rightly so, but I could barely suppress a snigger when Stephen Nigro commented: “how many times are we going to hear about the GE LEAP engine nozzle?” It was funny because many people have whispered that behind the scenes, many many more have likely thought it, but this was the first time someone said it out loud in the public domain, as far as I’m aware. So while the LEAP engine nozzle application is totally valid, hugely transformational in nature, and will likely go down in AM history — until there are 20/30/40 more examples of similar stature out in the open it is hard to claim real progress. I say ‘out in the open’ because there actually are more, they’re just all still a secret.  

There were some other, bordering on comical, alpha-male moments on the stage during this session, but I think the main take-away for the audience came towards the end, as the panel did concur on one major point: the industry needs to come together to progress standards.

Tuesday morning, following a girly breakfast with two amazing women — Sarah Goehrke and Mara Hitner — got underway at the convention centre with a truly surreal moment when some slam poetry, about manufacturing apparently, was delivered prior to the early keynote session. Maybe it was too early in the day (8am), or maybe I am just too old, probably a combination of the two; but it really flew right over my head and seemed somewhat misplaced IMHO. I do get that the organisers of Rapid + TCT are upping the ante and going for cool delivery and audience interaction, rather than the traditional industrial delivery which can get quite dry, but this struck me as trying a bit too hard. The graphic story-boarding only contributed to this feeling. That said, as I mentioned, it’s probably just because I am old and boring!

This session was all about metal AM, with presentations by Philippe Cochet of GE and Ric Fulop, the CEO of Desktop Metal as well as a panel session, sponsored by Desktop Metal, and featuring individuals from three companies that Desktop Metal are engaging with.

Desktop Metal (DM) was definitely the darling of Rapid + TCT 2017 – the company made a huge splash and generated an equally huge amount of attention. I can only guess at the $$$ they paid to get that attention — as well as the sponsored panel session, DM also sponsored the free WiFi access for visitors across the whole event with unavoidable messaging, and had one of the largest stands on the show floor, which was packed full with visitors every time I saw it. I got a few moments with Ric who showed me some of the parts, briefly explained how the “easily removable” supports and parts can be designed for uniform shrinkage, but he was literally run off his feet with huge demands on his time, so he agreed to answer any questions I send to him, imminently.

I’m still reserving judgement on the DM process(es) and the parts off it. I heard varying and sometimes conflicting opinions from others about it too. Ultimately I have been left in no doubt that the DM processes have been developed by some very clever people, they are progressive and there is definitely a “secret sauce” involved that is not in the public domain. But I am also certain that there will be limitations to this process, particularly for production applications.

The other notable announcement from DM actually came during the Stratasys press conference — specifically a partnership agreement between the two companies that will support an aggressive go-to-market strategy for DM via Stratasys’ reseller channels.

Stratasys used Rapid + TCT 2017 to host a major press conference, it took up a lot of time, but that’s ok because I’ve always found that time spent with SSYS people rarely disappoints. And this opportunity was no exception. Unfortunately, most of the good stuff is off the record, but we’ll get to that.
The headline of the Stratasys press conference was the introduction of its Continuous Build 3D Demonstrator. This follows the Infinite Build and the Robotic Composite 3D Demonstrators that the company unveiled mid-2016. I have to say, I do like this approach and Stratasys is completely upfront with it too. These are not, yet, commercial systems and there is no pricing or timeline for shipping provided. It’s more like a public beta test, whereby the company is willing to demonstrate its direction and partially lift the lid on its R&D activities.

If there is maybe one slight complaint that could be levelled here it is in the naming of it. “Continuous Build” is perhaps a little deceptive, and in 3D printing implies a conveyer belt approach but that is not what this 3D demonstrator is about. The Continuous Build concept is all about automation and modularity. The 3D printing element of it — Fortus quality no less — is actually just an enabling function of it. The automation is controlled by an innovative cloud-based architecture that is linked to multiple “cells” that can vary in number and geographic location. The goal is continuous production capabilities, whereby each individual cell is fed print jobs with minimal operator intervention, automated part removal and intelligent control for queue management and load balancing, courtesy of Stratasys’ GrabCAD infrastructure. Moreover, if a print fails, that job will automatically be routed to the next available cell, again without operator intervention. The platform is wholly scalable from three cells ad infinitum.

At the press launch, Stratasys was keen to show evidence of how and why this approach is so important for different volume production applications and had three key customers on hand to explain it from their point of view, namely In’Tech Industries, the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), and FATHOM. It all made a great deal of sense actually, and keenly illustrates Stratasys’ holistic approach to providing production solutions for manufacturing applications — and not just in the aerospace and automotive sectors. The company’s horizons are much, much broader than that!

So, a couple of snippets on those off-the-record conversations, there were a few, but I have no intention of getting anyone into trouble, suffice to say that there is a general consensus that the company has made some mistakes in the past, one of particular note. But I also picked up on a unanimous determination to learn from those mistakes and build from them positively. The metal connection, innocuous as it is at this point, with DM is also strategic for the long term and, there is “A-LOT” more still to come from SSYS with the demonstrators. Looping back to my earlier points on competition, it was very interesting talking about how competitors influence Stratasys’ approach. One source openly acknowledged that HP in particular gave Stratasys “a much needed kick” in 2014, in terms of ramping up R&D and its approach to the market. Today though, across the board at Stratasys there is little to no fear that HP poses any sort of competitive threat. To be fair, I’ve heard similar from sources outside of Stratasys too, one an ex HP employee.

That’s how things stand today, but the promises of HP with regard to AM for the future cannot be dismissed easily either, particularly around its R&D into embedded electronics. Moreover, HP continues to drive its market activities for multi jet fusion with a triple announcement this week. The company announced a new partner for its ‘open platform’ for materials development, namely the chemical company Henkel, who joins BASF, Evonik and Arkema among others. Notably HP has also revealed new, extensive global sales channels with 30 partner companies that will become resellers of the multi jet fusion platforms. In addition HP is working with a number of experienced 3D printing service providers. Just yesterday, Materialise announced it has started offering production services on its two MJF platforms, which were still behind locked doors a few weeks ago.
It was only at this point that I got to spend time on the show floor. To be frank, I was barely able to skim the surface with only a few hours of show time left before heading to the airport, but some of my technology highlights are here:

I was really interested to get deeper insight into the 3DEO offering. There is some cross-over with the Desktop Metal narrative here, specifically it is a new, low-cost metal 3D printing process, it uses MIM materials and it is innovative and disruptive in nature. There is plenty to differentiate it though, because the extremely clever team behind it is offering this process as a service, demonstrating good results and does not appear to be over-promising anything. The process itself is intriguing — it is, at first glance, a powder bed binding process. However, the nature of the binder delivery is absolutely key and there is a hybrid approach included in the process in that a subtractive tool precisely cuts away at the defined geometry every few layers. Moreover, the team is open about the limitations of MIM materials, particularly in terms of shrinkage and densities. But, like, I said they are demonstrating some impressive results.

There was another new, low cost ($120,000) metal 3D printer on show at Rapid + TCT too: the Xact Metal XM200. This is a small, portable powder bed fusion process with a build volume of 127 x 127 x 127 mm, a 250 W Fibre Laser and layer resolution down to 20 μm. As yet the material palette is small, the platform can work with 316L Stainless Steel and Inconel 718 Superalloy. However, Titanium and Aluminum composites and Maraging Steel are under development.

The low-cost metal market is expanding dramatically, and the other players — OR Laser and  Mark Forged — were also at Rapid.

One other nugget that should be tucked away for users of the stereolithography (SL) process is a new system coming from CIdeas. There are currently no specs on this platform, but some intriguing teasers from CEO, Mark Littrell about his new company Paxis, which has developed a new approach to 3D printing with resin with opportunities for increasing printing speed, scalability and intelligent resin consumption — without huge vats of resin. Jason Lopes left Legacy Effects to work here, which speaks volumes too. One to watch, for sure.

On company news and developments there were Rapid + TCT announcements from a number of industry incumbents. Notable among these were the new materials from EnvisionTEC. Talking to Sarah Webster, it was clear that material development remains a key focus for CEO Al Siblani. New materials were also unveiled by SABIC.

FormLabs introduced its new Form Wash and Form Cure solutions for the first time, the intent being to reduce post-processing times. 3D Systems and Optomec both released upgraded systems too.

I got a chance to meet with Andy Snow, EOS’s US VP and talked a lot about industry and company growth. Interestingly, Andy highlighted how GE is still a dominant customer of EOS. This is not surprising, seeing as that LEAP engine nozzle is qualified and produced on EOS machines. There are some rumours (not from EOS) that this is in the process of changing, following the acquisition of Concept Laser by GE Aviation. That said, it’s going to take at least 12 months for a switch over and those LEAP nozzles are still in production.

Carbon was also highlighting its new systems, the team were all visible as they were wearing Adidas trainers with 3D printed midsoles. There’s no denying it — they look cool. The company also demonstrated a new material — flexible polyurethane, which is available via Sculpteo’s 3D printing service as of this week.

As I creep towards 3000 words (sorry!) I haven’t even got to some of the conversations I had in passing during my time in Pittsburgh. I think I’ll save them for a separate post, but themes include making 3D printing more “ordinary”-business compatible, education, women in engineering, post-processing and in-process quality control, among others.

Have a great weekend.

Tuesday 9 May 2017

A Follow Up on Sensationalism & 3D Printing

The latest OpEd I wrote for Disruptive Insight (Issue 4), caused a bit of a stir. I figured it might and I braced myself for the backlash, but sometimes things need to be said, even when they’re contentious. It starts a debate and it invites feedback of all sorts and that’s good. Different perspectives are good.

The issue of increasing sensationalised marketing, and conversations I have had about it with a number of different people, led to that post. I highlighted a couple of examples from the 3D printing and additive manufacturing industry — namely Carbon and Rize — and the feedback came.

To reiterate, one more time, this was not intended to be negative commentary on either of these processes, which I believe are disruptive in nature. And they are representative of a problem that is industry wide. That said, in the interests of fairness I do need to follow up on the original post with this one, following conversations with the both the companies in question.

Subsequent to the original post being published, Phil DeSimone of Carbon pointed out to me that the intent behind the “Stop Prototyping, Start Producing” tagline, is different to how people (me included) have understood it.

In actual fact, what that tagline actually means, according to Phil, is don’t just think about additive technology as a prototyping tool, start thinking about it as a production method. “We’re not telling people to stop prototyping!” I caught up with Dana McCallum of Carbon on the show floor at the Rapid + TCT event in Pittsburgh today to follow up further, Phil is currently in Germany, and I learned that the real messaging behind the tagline holds tremendous value — prototyping, or rather iterating on the same hardware, with the actual materials that will be used for final production is a powerful tool for Carbon’s OEM clients.   

It just needs one more word to more precisely convey that, and I boldly suggested it: “stop (just) prototyping, start producing.”

I will confess, however, I do feel stupid — the actual intent makes a lot more sense than the assumed intent. But you read “stop prototyping” and the immediate implication is that you don’t need to prototype any more. It produces a strong reaction too, which I also explained.

Regardless, there are lessons here, for me and for vendors, I think. I need to be more careful, more rational and ask more questions behind the intent. The vendors do also have a duty of care in their messaging, and the words that they choose and/or omit.

I went to talk with Julie Reece of Rize at Rapid + TCT today too. Her response to the original post was immediate and defensive across the social media channels. But we talked it out, face to face. Understanding her perspective also gave me pause for thought, in that there are many marketing claims made across the 3D printing industry that don’t hold up under scrutiny — “office friendly,” “fully dense,” “unprecedented strength” among them.” She is absolutely right, I said as much in my original post. She also explained how the 25 seconds per part required for removing supports off a Rize platform, compared with 3+ hours for parts off similar machines, was the reasoning behind the tagline. I don’t disagree that the virtually zero post-processing with the Rize platform is a huge leap forward, and extremely attractive for 3D printer users. But as with Carbon, I pointed out that one extra word in the tagline would have the same impact: “virtually zero post-processing” — moreover, it is both true and credible. She did not disagree and we parted friends.

So even though these two examples were used in my original post because they were based on real conversations I have had in recent weeks, I feel like a mission is developing ……

Either that or I just STFU, which has occurred to me too!