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Writing, tweeting, debating and occasionally getting a little over-excited about 3D Printing. But always aiming to keep it real!

Monday 9 October 2017

TCT 2017: 3D Printing is Bigger, Better and Busier

As expected the TCT Show, which ran 26-28th September, once again brought feelings of nostalgia, born of a shared early history dating back all 22 years. This was my 20th year of attendance, having missed a couple while on maternity leave over the years. While the 3-day show did, as ever, prove to be exhausting I will never miss the stress that went with the organisation side of things. Thus the professional organisation and production of this year’s event, which has increased in both size and stature, is impressive. The team behind it, which has also increased in numbers, will likely have suffered both stress and exhaustion and thus deserve much kudos, not to mention a great deal of sleep now the event has closed its doors.


On the upside you can never overstate the positive buzz that comes from attending one of these large 3D printing industry shows; there is no information gathering medium — in digital or analogue format — that compares to seeing tech at first hand and talking to people IRL, no matter which direction the conversation goes. The downside is that when shows get this big you can not see everything you want to (or should) see, or talk to everyone you want (or should) talk to.

Anticipation was high and within a minute of walking into Hall 3 of the NEC in Birmingham I had bumped into a friendly face and thus started my first in-depth conversation at TCT. It was with Kevin Smith, now an independent consultant working with companies to help them implement additive manufacturing (AM) within industrial environments. As we walked from the registration desk towards the show floor, I couldn’t help laughing out loud as Kevin pointed to numerous exhibits in our immediate vicinity saying: “that’s not production, that’s not production, that’s not b****y production!”

As our conversation about AM for production got more in-depth, Kevin expounded on his thoughts about AM for production applications. “One of the main problems is that it’s still premium, not production, and the vendors are holding it back with high capital and consumable costs.” I took his point on board, even while pointing to a couple of obvious exceptions, which he in turn acknowledged. The other key problem Kevin has identified through his on the ground activities with big industrial firms is that many AM vendors are “still trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, but there are lots of square holes.” Essentially, Kevin was highlighting the issue that AM is not a cure all for every manufacturing challenge, but that there are lots of relevant opportunities out there that are still being missed. While I could not categorically disagree, I was able to point to an increasing shift towards specific application development work by many vendors.

Overall, this conversation was both beneficial and insightful, because the three days that followed kept throwing up this theme of AM and production in various ways.

The definition of production applications within the context of AM, has traditionally been parts manufactured directly using additive technology for end use applications (with or without post-processing operations). However, what did become obvious at TCT this year across a number of conversations and presentations is that there has been a shift here too whereby there is an acknowledgement that part volumes are often considered a necessary factor for “real production.” Depending on who you talk to, the volume quantity can vary dramatically, from five figures to seven figures, but in excess of 10,000 parts per year seems to offer a fair, if arbitrary, number to settle on. Moreover, as I was oft reminded, this is still low compared with injection moulded parts.


There is one, very clear example of where things can go with AM, indeed are going right now, and that came from a very visible exhibitor on the show floor — Carbon. The large, high and central stand was augmented by equally huge images and real examples of the application that makes this point — the adidas Futurecraft 4D trainer / sneaker. There has been a large amount of coverage of this application since its unveiling earlier this year.  However, talking with Phil DiSimone about the adidas application and Carbon’s TCT announcement about the company’s new material pricing structure I got beneath the glossy headlines that focus on the big consumer brand and the 3D printing sound bites to really understand where Carbon is going with real production capabilities, with certified, cheaper materials at high volumes that do compete with injection moulding on volumes, economics and quality.

He went so far as to take my notebook off me to draw the familiar per part pricing graph that is often used to illustrate where AM is cost-effective for production and the cut-off point where IM supposedly becomes a no-brainer. “It’s baloney,” Phil said “and it gets me mad.” (There also followed a discussion on the spelling of baloney versus bologna). Considering what Carbon has achieved with adidas, reinforced by Gerd Manz, VP of Technology at adidas during his keynote presentation at TCT, it is not surprising that Phil feels frustrated at the resistance to view AM as a true production technology. Moreover, this single visible consumer application, while the first, is by no means the last and two more production applications from automotive partners (BMW and Ford on the record as Carbon partners), are all set to be revealed “very soon”.

Apart from the anticipation of the applications themselves, I think a useful take away from this is that the graph in question originated because it was true at the point of origin, and for quite some time after. Now, though, it is being rendered invalid and should be viewed with caution — it can now only ever be used as an application-specific illustration for economic comparisons, not as a general rule for AM.

I purposely focused on Carbon first within the context of the “production” theme emerging from TCT because the company is developing serious, high volume production applications with a polymer based process. It is fairly safe to say that most conversations about production were predicated on the assumption that metal processes are driving production applications. While the metal AM processes are certainly making huge headway in this direction, it is important to highlight that this is a misplaced assumption.

The divergence between metals and polymers, in many ways, is a good thing with a notable increase in acceptance that these sub-sectors are each validated in their own right and not in competition. However, the misnomer comes when assumptions are made that polymers are for prototyping and metals are for production. The example above is submitted as evidence, while in reverse you have the Desktop Metal Studio platform, developed to offer metal prototyping capabilities with viable economics and, according to the company, quality.

Earlier in the development cycle is ceramic materials, but these are notably increasing in visibility, 3D Ceram was represented at TCT by 3D Matters.  There was no XJET at TCT, but they will be at Formnext.

While we’re on the subject of materials, a brilliant overview of AM materials development and application came during a #3DTalk organised by Nora Touré, founder of Women in 3D Printing and Laura Griffiths, Deputy Group Editor for TCT. This was a women only panel session featuring experts in their respective material fields covering resins, powders, research and application development. The breadth and depth of the session was inspiring and I believe it was recorded and will be available on the TCT website in due course.

Back to metal AM now though, and unsurprisingly the metal AM vendors did dominate a high proportion of floor space at TCT. Most of the big metal companies had a strong presence, with SLM, EOS, Renishaw, Trumpf, 3D Systems, Additive Industries and of course GE, which encompasses GE Additive, Concept Laser and Arcam all with large and prominent stands – they are all, as would be expected, focused on large scale production, and here, scale refers more to the size of the parts rather than the volume of parts. Even so, I think it is hard to deny the real progress with “real” production applications, however you define it. All of these companies are reporting increasing order numbers, often multiple machines from the same companies. SLM specifically reported a 50-unit order from China recently. These companies were by and large all reporting busy stands, high levels of serious interest and the obvious growing maturity of the event and the industry itself. The other commonality was that the next big announcements would be coming at Formnext, a few off the record hints and knowing nods but the end of the year reveals in Frankfurt is a tradition that will be hard to break.

An interesting dichotomy within the metal AM sub-sector can be seen by considering the processes used for metal AM production — powder bed melting versus binder jetting with subsequent sintering processes. At TCT this was immediately observable by noting the latest offerings from UK distributor Laser Lines. The company’s Sales Director Mark Tyrtania said that he is very excited about offering the metal AM systems from both Desktop Metal and OR Laser. As much as he agreed that there is an interesting dynamic, he was quick to assert that there is no conflict because the two processes are very different and will actually fulfil very different application solutions. Mark reported considerable interest in both platforms at TCT, as well as sales, but he wouldn’t be pushed on specific numbers.  

The ORLAS Creator metal 3D printer from OR Laser was only visible at TCT via Laser Lines and it was the machines’ first appearance in the UK since its launch at Formnext last year. It is currently the only commercial, smaller, more economical hardware system that is based on the powder bed, layer melting process commonly referred to as laser melting to provide parts with precision and strength. The company is reported to be ramping up its production capacity to meet unprecedented orders of the machine.

By contrast, Desktop Metal had a large and prominent stand of its own at TCT and I was delighted to speak at length with the company’s CTO and co-founder,  Jonah Myerberg. This was, surprisingly, one of the most pragmatic conversations that I had at TCT. It surprised me in a good way, and made me realise that staying open minded is really, REALLY important — in general, but specifically in this industry. It’s something you always know but can be harder to always do. I will cover the extensive nature of this conversation in a separate article, suffice to say, the company’s grip on reality is firm, according to Jonah, confirmed to me  when he said: “Everyone wants that perfect 3D printer but it doesn’t exist,” and then going on to explain that Desktop Metal is fulfilling a gap in the market with an original and valid solution, but it won’t solve every manufacturing problem.

The Desktop Metal relationship with Stratasys is likely a significant factor in the Laser Lines deal mentioned above, as Stratasys’ industrial systems have long been the AM star in Laser Line’s offering and the partnership between Desktop Metal and Stratasys, including sharing distributor channels was announced earlier this year at Rapid.

Another relative newcomer to the metal AM space at TCT was Digital Metal. I use the word relative as Digital Metal is a Hoganas company, born of the parent company’s long history of metal powder expertise and original entry into AM in 2010. Digital Metal was established in 2012 with the development of precision metal systems notably for micro sized products. To date, this proprietary hardware has been used by Digital Metal to provide a dedicated service, according to Digital Metal’s General Manager, Ralf Carlström. Ralf, a metallurgist, has been with Hoganas for 30 years, and he relayed that the service has proved so successful with customers requesting their own machines that the decision was taken to make Digital Metal an independent entity along with the commercial availability of the DM P2500 this year. With two high profile ‘DM’s competing in the same space, it might be necessary to rethink the name of the hardware, but the parts off the machine were very impressive indeed.

Moving back to polymer AM once more, and insight into a similar dynamic as was highlighted by Laser Lines with metal came from a lengthy conversation with John Beckett, MD of EuroPac; another multiple AM process distributor.

EuroPac’s long established place in the 3D ecosystem comes from its expertise with 3D scanning equipment. The company’s first foray into AM, a natural extension for a 3D scanning company, came around eight years ago, when the company became a successful distributor for ZCorp, which evolved into a relationship with 3D Systems after it acquired ZCorp. John was not backwards in coming forwards when telling me that this relationship came to an end for various reasons, most notably because EuroPac did not want to be tied to one AM supplier. Northern through and through, straight-talking is one of John’s most admirable qualities (among many) and he is obviously very happy with the two industrial focused AM systems that EuroPac now offers — SLA from Union Tech and MJF from HP. Once again, John highlighted how despite both being polymer processes they fulfull very different application requirements and don’t really compete. Since being approved as an HP distributor in May, John said, the sales of the HP machines have proliferated. He was able to tell me about the machine at JLR and another at the MTC, information which has been in the public domain for a while, but he was not able to confirm where the other machines are, he would only confirm that they are in the aerospace sector.

Another very interesting point that John highlighted to me was an issue raised at the International Conference on AM in Nottingham few months back, namely that of finance and it regularly being a barrier to adoption. John cited financing of industrial AM equipment as a recurring problem, one that he thinks HP in particular can help to resolve through its own banking facility in Dublin. “This can support leasing deals for HP equipment. It’s active now and set to increase activity. I believe it could change the marketplace.”

Funnily enough, this issue also popped up when talking to Lars Ryberg, who has returned to Arcam and will be working out of the UK. He also cited finance as a major challenge for potential customers, but now with the might of GE behind Arcam, new financing options are being opened up.

These are positive steps around the financing challenge, but they’re baby steps. Moreover, while only the biggest companies financing their own equipment remains the status quo, it will not necessarily open up AM in a way that allows users and potential users to select the best AM tool for their application. Independent banks need to get on board with this — and not just in the UK, but globally.

The focus on production — hardware and applications — does headline events such as TCT, because of the progress being made. But the emphasis belies the foundational and still prolific applications of additive technologies for prototyping and tooling. It’s still strong and it’s still growing. It’s impossible to cite each and every example that was evident at TCT, but some choice examples follow.

One of the most amusing was the presence of Formula 1 teams, relative to partnerships they have established with 3D printing companies. I got some insight into 3D Systems’ relationship with Renault Sports Formula One Team when I visited the facility earlier in the summer and reported on it at Disruptive here. The Renault F1 car was prominent on the 3D Systems stand at TCT, highlighting the prototype and production parts. In contrast, Stratasys was highlighting its partnership with McLaren Racing, also with a car in tow — but sited in the hall entrance to the show. I managed to sit in on the keynote presentation given by Simon Roberts, COO at McLaren Racing. It’s actually a very similar story to Renault Sports — they’ve been using 3D printing for 20 years or so for prototyping and faster product development, “but now we’re on the edge of a breakthrough for manufacturing,” he said.

It does feel as though we’ve been teetering on this “edge of a breakthrough” for a while, but listening to Simon, I suspect he was being extremely reticent in his presentation, particularly with his competitors in such close proximity. We were never going to get the full story of 3D printing at McLaren. I did smirk privately as the well known 'love to hate' relationship between the F1 teams seems to be reflected in the relationship between these two 3D printing companies.
At TCT Stratasys also unveiled new materials —Agilus30 and Digital ABS Plus materials for the J750 3D printer, and the application-specific VeroFlex material, a new, rigid photopolymer which has been specially formulated for the rapid prototyping of eyewear.
The PEEK polymer is also featuring more regularly among 3D printing companies. EOS, at the high end, has offered this material for a while now, while  Roboze introduced a platform last year at Formnext that could process PEEK. At TCT two more companies were demonstrating this capability — VSHAPER and INTAMYS.

Formlabs was highlighting its new Fuse 1, desktop SLS platform, unfortunately without a working machine on site, but there were parts and it was, unsurprisingly attracting a lot of interest. It was a similar story Sinterit.

It was great to catch up with Julie Reece in the UK once again, Julie was overseeing the first introduction of the Rize One 3D printer, featuring the novel (and patented) APD process to the UK market. Julie highlighted some of the challenges of a 3D printing start-up with a truly original process, including generating the right tone and noise in an increasingly noisy industry and staying honest and true to its roots. On an exciting note, the company is close to introducing its new CEO — I was provided with no specific clues other than I will recognise this person, and they are just what Rize needs. Watch this space, I think this announcement will come before Formnext.

Other Things ….

In a natural move, with TCT being the dominant, fully-dedicated AM show in the UK it was utilised as the launch pad for the Additive Manufacturing UK National Strategy 2018-2025. I truly hope this initiative gains momentum and drives real innovation across UK manufacturing, as similar geographic initiatives are undertaken across the world. Not every country can be the best / do the most, but these initiatives can only promote ultimate global growth and evolution of AM if they drive action over and above intent.

TCT still opens its arms to the Open Source and maker communities around 3D printing. And these communities are thriving in numbers, spirit and business. The latter is perhaps why it nestles so comfortably into TCT. The enthusiasm and dynamism of this group of people and companies is truly inspiring and the belief in the open source ethos is elemental to all of them. Just some of the companies that stand out here are E3D, BCN3D, Lulzbot and Hawk 3D Proto, while individual ambassadors such as Richard Horne (@RichRap3D), Ben Hawksworth Thomas Sanladerer (@toms3dp) and Daniel Norée (@DanielNoree) work tirelessly to promote the ethos and the increasing levels of progress through video productions, social media and meet-ups.

One fly in the ointment for the OS community that was discussed at length at TCT was the Ultimaker shift. Since it was founded, Ultimaker has been a loud advocate for it open operations, but the company has signalled that this might be changing. The company has not completely back away, but its recent announcement has raised more than a few eyebrows and is causing some concern that “it might be headed down the MakerBot road.”

In a delightful nod to this established and accepted sub-sector of the industry, the founder of the open source 3D printing movement, Adrian Bowyer, who created RepRap, was inducted into the TCT Hall of Fame at the inaugural TCT Awards evening. I was not present at the gala event, which took place off-site on the second evening of the show, but I did keep an eye on the highly-commended and winner announcements as they came through on social media. Adrian was one of five 3D printing industry heavyweights inducted in to this new hall of fame, alongside Scott Crump founder of Stratasys; Chuck Hull, founder of 3D Systems; Hans Langer, founder of EOS; and Fried Vancraen, founder and CEO of Materialise.

There were a range of other awards categories celebrated over the evening and all of the winners can be found at the dedicated awards website. The organisers seemed at pains to highlight during a brief Twitter squabble, that all winners were selected by an extensive third party jury and I don’t doubt this in any way, but I would venture that given there are five inaugural inductees there is a certain level of political correctness going on here in terms of acknowledging longevity and genuine worthiness. Moreover, it can’t have been an easy choice and there are still innumerable worthy candidates for 2018 and beyond.

The AM Ecosystem was also well represented at TCT with a high number of ancillaries companies were exhibiting. I caught up with LPW, 3D SIM and Link3d, the latter of which was unveiling its new products for automating the AM workflow, as well as its digital factory — a kind of industrial 3D Hubs. At the back end of the process, post-processing remains a big deal, with big companies such as CIPRES and Guyson bringing automated professional solutions.

CIPRES in particular was an interesting one, it is offering a newly launched service developed by Additive Manufacturing Technologies out of Sheffield. This young company has focused in on the post-processing anomaly. The company’s CEO, Joseph Crabtree, told me that they have developed a fully automated, repeatable post-processing solution, one that provides the missing links in the AM digital process chain. With a number of high-level industry backers, I am very interested to see the full solution when it is presented at Formnext next month, but at TCT the post-processed parts that were on show were incredible.

Despite TCT offering a wide range of presentations across three stages, I just couldn’t find the time to get to anywhere near as many as I would have liked after scouring the programme, not least because it means I get to sit down for 30 minutes at a time. However, two way conversations with eye-contact are always the priority at shows like this and they took precedence over presentations that are being recorded for release online at a later date ... hopefully!

Final Thoughts

As I — finally — round this post up, I must add one quick, slightly weird aside that I picked up on, namely an increase in the number of companies / brands incorporating “3” into their names, followed by a “d” and pronouncing it “ed.” The evidence to support this: Link3D – pronounced Linked. SHR3D, pronounced Shred. And Spee3D, pronounced Speed. Go figure?

TCT 2017, like Rapid earlier in the year and, I suspect, Formnext next month overall demonstrated how the AM industry has, as a whole, elevated within the context of global manufacturing. Over and over, exhibitors and visitors made reference to how the the technology is, often of necessity, definitely being taken more seriously.

I can’t go into all of the private conversations I had at TCT — most of them fascinating, thought-provoking and, often, off the record. But it does provide plenty of material for future posts.

Roll-on Formnext.

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