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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!

Monday 17 July 2017

A Review of the International Conference on AM and 3D Printing

This conference, which took place at the Nottingham Belfry hotel and conference centre and is hosted by the University of Nottingham, once again, did not disappoint. The 2017 edition was the 12th annual event in this series and increased once again in both size and stature with in excess of 250 delegates and more than 30 exhibitors on site, according to the organizers. Following a well-trusted formula, the emphasis was well and truly on the provision of information — both through the high-level, in-depth conference presentations, and the intensive networking opportunities afforded during the conference days.

The quality of the conference programme was high and broken into two parts over three days. Day one took place on Tuesday 11th July and was run separately to the “main event” which took place over the next two days. The first day was dedicated to the “Industrial Realities of Additive Manufacturing” while the following days ran under the conference title.

In terms of the demographics of the attendees, it was unmistakably an educated and knowledgeable crowd, when it comes to AM. Prof Phill Dickens,’ who introduced the industrial day, took a straw poll that highlighted this nicely when the vast majority of hands raised indicated some involvement with AM in their work. There were a handful of delegates completely new to AM, seeking information for their business — and they picked a great place to start! Phill’s off-the-cuff poll also revealed a wide cross section of industries represented across the delegate base, including all the usual suspects such as aerospace, defence, automotive (elite and road cars) and medical plus a few others besides. As you might expect there was also a strong academic and research contingent.

Talking of ‘usual suspects,’ though, Phil Reeves, from Stratasys Expert Services, opened the Industrial Realities day with a presentation he entitled ‘Understanding the Production Economics – The Harsh Realities of 3D Printing.’  Some readers may understand the double entendre in the reference to ‘usual suspects’ – namely that Phil’s longevity in the additive industry, corresponding depth of knowledge and pragmatic approach sets him up better than most to deal with the ‘harsh realities.’ However, Phil’s presentation utilised the term “usual suspects” throughout to highlight the problems that industrial sectors face when implementing AM for part production, accompanied by suspect police line-up imagery on his slides.

Given that Phil only had 30 minutes, he did a stellar job of raising the issues and challenges that are often seen as barriers to adoption for many companies. After denouncing many of the press promises of AM and 3D printing, Phil highlighted how, in 2017 the reality is more …… conservative and additive technologies are not as widespread as we have been led to believe. The reason for this, Phil stated, comes down to five “usual suspects,” namely accuracy, build speed, part size, part cost and mechanical properties.

It’s hard to argue that these challenges are not still barriers to adoption. I still hear them cited by users of AM tech over and over again. Phil made an excellent point in his summation, however, that all five issues do not have to be solved all at same time. In terms of production applications with AM, the focus should always be on the application, and he believes more and more application specific hardware systems will emerge (think fuel nozzles, orthopaedic implants, hearing aids etc). Additive production systems developed and built for specific parts and components at higher volumes where the economics make sense. In this way, “the machines might cost $8 million, but it doesn’t matter if the value that comes off them justifies that investment.”

I do not think Phil is wrong here, it’s no secret that the huge multi-nationals are leading the charge with additive manufacturing for production applications; their deep pockets for hardware acquisition, integration capabilities and R&D make it a no brainer. That said, opportunities do exist for smaller and medium sized companies with additive manufacturing that should not necessarily be overlooked, but they do tend to involve more risk. This was the message from the presentation given by Sophie Jones, General Manager of AM consultancy firm Added Scientific. The presentation was centred around Sophie’s research, supported by Innovate UK, which included interviewing a number of smaller companies involved with AM in the UK. While it can be argued that this research has a regional bias, I think the barriers to adoption that Sophie identified for smaller organisations are universal.  

The first, and arguably the most significant challenge, cited by all the firms is access to finance. In this regard, the feedback illustrated how banks are reticent about funding for AM, largely because they do not understand the technology base and how to finance it. As a result, Sophie highlighted some hair raising examples of small, privately funded companies taking high personal risks to purchase of machines, it shouldn’t be this way, but if options are limited there is often no other route. Other challenges and barriers to adoption for SMEs raised in Sophie’s presentation included firms requiring back up revenue streams to support AM activities; the issue of global supply chains, while sales were largely domestic; the need to educate customers; the AM skills shortage; and, last but not least, industry accreditation – ISO accreditation is vital, as most customers demand it, particularly those working within highly regulated industries.

Looking to other highlights from across the three days, and one that stood out was an evening meeting organised as an extra-curricular activity by Sophie Jones, by invitation only, for women in AM. It was well attended, by 20 women, a testament to the noticeable increase in women working in this field. However, the fact that this is even an issue that needs highlighting, and that the percentages overall are still low, means there is still much to be done.

Highlights from the conference proper were many and varied. The research into a new additive process being undertaken at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) — presented by Maxim Shusteff — did stand out. This is a new, faster photopolymer process, called Fast Volumetric Fabrication. The science presented lost me more than once, but a video clip illustrating part formation in the resin bath — in a couple of seconds — blew my mind. I was not alone. There are no layers involved in this, the process is enabled by a truly three-dimensional holographic light source. As always, with new processes however,  Maxim qualified his excitement about this new process (increased speed, no free surface, no substrate, and more predictable/traceable process models) with: “Holography is interesting, and we’ve shown it’s possible, but it has limitations.”  

And the holographic process is not the end of the story either, Maxim also provided a sneak peak at another new process under R&D at LLNL, this one called Tomographic Volumetric 3D Fabrication, which shows promise in terms of eliminating geometric limitations. The research on this process is due to be presented at the upcoming SFF event.

As an aside, after this presentation, someone next to me commented: “makes the ‘Star Trek Replicator’ analogy seem possible.” I disagreed, in the strongest possible terms. And for the record, “Tea, Earl Grey, Hot” — the American script-writers of Star Trek aside, who on this planet needs to qualify that Earl Grey needs to be hot??

In terms of newer, commercial (or nearly commercial) processes there were some very insightful ‘X’ presentations from Neil Hopkinson and Dror Danai of Xaar and XJET respectively. The high speed sintering process itself has been well documented and Neil, as ever, delivered an accomplished presentation; however the Xaar business model both with this process as a service and internal tool continues to intrigue and will, I suspect prove disruptive. Dror’s presentation provided some real insight into the almost-ready-for-commercialisation nano particle jetting (NPJ) process with both metal and ceramic materials. The R&D model at XJET is beyond impressive, I discovered when I talked directly with Dror at the event. The “magic” behind this process lies in controlling the delivery of the nano particles in a proprietary dispersion material. The enabling tool is the proprietary inkjet head, and the temperatures it can withstand. Not a dissimilar narrative to Xaar, actually. Moreover, the anecdote I heard more than five years ago, about “inkjet being the future of additive manufacturing” kept coming back to me during the conference.

In terms of advanced applications highlighted at the conference, delegates were enlightened on some of the intricacies of producing parts for performance bikes for the UK Olympic and Tour de France teams (METRON), Cars (BMW), electronic products (Texas Instruments), and hearing aids (Sonova). There was also a long-term AM vision presentation from Airbus, but this was generic in nature, with no specific applications referenced. While none of these applications are wholly novel in terms of the sectors, the Sonova presentation in particular highlighted the over-arching narrative of progress with AM, and what can be achieved now, compared with when it was first implemented. Sonova, for instance, via its various brands has been producing millions of small production hearing aid parts with plastic AM since 2007. Ten years later, in 2017 the company has transitioned to metal AM – with biocompatible materials and improved functionality — at the same volumes.  This is a really big deal — for the company, for the technology and a great marker of progress for the additive industry as a whole.

I mentioned Xaar’s business model above, and I will be digging deeper into this via a new source just as soon as I get clearance. However, another company that revealed a very interesting business model with AM is Johnson Matthey (JM), a world leading catalyst manufacturer, with core competencies of developing catalytic materials, coating, powder production and ceramics. Funnily enough, the presenter, Samanth O’Callaghan joined Johnson Matthey from Xaar two and half years ago. Regardless, JM after initial research into various AM processes in 2009, initiated a very specific, application based solution for AM by developing a binder inkjet ceramic AM process. It’s another interesting business model, once again based on user evolution, whereby JM also developed and uses its own ceramic materials — not a surprise really, considering the company’s expertise.

Of note during Samantha’s presentation was the positive qualification for using this process, namely the scalability of binder inkjet technology and the facts that it is “faster and cheaper at scale.” She highlighted the significant post-processing requirements, and how porous parts are; stressing that this was actually an advantage for the JM application. Today, JM is able to make a better product, with greater sustainability and cheaper, with its ceramic AM process. The company is in the process of establishing its pilot plant, which will be completed in a few months, and will be manufacturing at scale; “tonnes per year,” according to Samantha, with automated bespoke material handling and an integrated end to end solution.  

The scope of the programme was wide, and the depth of the presentations, individually was so impressive and informative, that it is impossible to do it full justice in one round-up article. However across the three days, four themes kept recurring — in presentations and conversations — notably the skills shortage around AM; Funding; AM integration into factory workflows, both digitally and physically; and how this is often resulting in a hybrid (subtractive and additive) workflows.

The content from the three days has given me, and I suspect all the delegates, much to think about. I certainly have plenty to follow up on and write about for the next few weeks (months?). 

1 comment:

  1. Tea, Lemon.....Iced.

    See I do read more than just the headlines ;)


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