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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!

Sunday 16 December 2018

Siemens is Serious About Serial Production with AM — Materials Solutions is Just One Case in Point

Throughout 2018 reports (and opinions) about additive manufacturing (AM) processes evolving into true production-ready technologies have escalated significantly. As I reported post Formnexta few weeks back, many AM OEMs and ecosystem partners are now promoting their equipment and technologies as production capable. Supporting this trend is an increasing number of visible applications, with plenty of evidence to suggest significantly higher number of this type of application still in stealth mode. 

As fast as this narrative has intensified this year, I suspect we have barely scratched the surface and this trend is only going to increase into 2019 and beyond. It was perhaps fitting then, for Materials Solutions to host the grand opening of its new dedicated AM factory in Worcester this past week, witnessed by a host of VIPs and clients. The following day, Materials Solutions, a Siemens company, following the latter’s acquisition of the former in 2016, welcomed a press contingent to the site to tour the new facility and get a briefing on the direction and vision of the company — all centred around production applications of AM. 

As 2018 closes out and the new year dawns it was an apposite visual manifestation of the production evolution with AM. The last time I visited a Siemens AM facility, in Finspang (Sweden) last year, I made no secret of the fact that I was impressed with the company, its’ realistic approach to AM for production, and the specific application it revealed– the critical burner component for its gas turbines. At that time, while there was reference to the acquisition and collaboration with Materials Solutions, but no clear evidence of alignment. A year later and that has all changed – indeed, for me it was the one of the main take-aways from the visit. 

The alignment of Siemens as a leading and experienced user of metal AM processes, as well as a service provider working in collaboration with OEMs and their supply chains was crystal clear. Across three divisions based out of the Sweden, Germany and the UK, Siemens’ approach is realistic, holistic and unified. 


Believe it or not, for such a large company, this is rare. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have been speaking with people from large OEMs who seem oblivious to the AM capabilities within a different division of the same organization, particularly if it’s in a different geographic region. 

From Thursday’s press briefing and conversations with division leaders, namely Markus Seibold (VP AM Siemens Power and Gas, Germany), Vladimir Navrotsky (CTO Siemens Power Generation, Sweden) and Phil Hatherley (General Manager of Materials Solutions, UK) I was left with the distinct impression that Siemens continues to expand and deliver its vision for metal AM through application development and production applications with a strategic roadmap for implementation. In particular, Navrotsky’s understanding of and passion for the capabilities of metal AM are a key driver, I suspect.  

The new Materials Solutions digital factory is a major milestone on that roadmap. Material Solutions itself has an almost 10-year history, dating back to 2009 when the company was founded by Carl Brancher, with the aim of solving complex issues with metal AM. In the early days, the focus was very much on application development, qualification and proving the selective laser melting (SLM) process within manufacturing environments. The new factory continues to build on this heritage with a marked paradigm shift towards serial production, according to the three division leaders who were all very much on the same page. Of course, this was a press event, and this narrative was likely coordinated and planned, but beyond the rhetoric there is a great deal of visible action — not to mention the results coming out of Siemens. And once again, what can be seen, is just the tip of the iceberg. 


Listening to Markus, Phil and Vladimir during the sit-down session, another key take-away was the focus on serial production. In Sweden, lead by Vladimir, they’re already doing it with cost savings and added value. Phil is committed to bringing these same advantages to Materials Solutions’ partners and clients. Again, it did not come across as rhetoric, and it was interesting to hear Phil define serial production in terms of “certified parts” and the ability to produce any volume of certified parts repeatably and reliably, with every stage of the process (design, build, material, traceability, qualification and post processing) dialled in. 

In terms of applications, there is a keen understanding at Materials Solutions that identifying the right applications to maximize the time and cost efficiencies of AM is vital to successful production applications. To highlight this point, during the tour, Phil showed the press delegation a highly complex part that one would assume would be a great fit for AM. However, due to its size (it was big) it too 39 DAYS to build. The EOS machine it was built on handled it without issue, the part was proven and qualified, but the time and cost of a 39-day build was just not acceptable.  


While the focus of the large new Materials Solutions factory was certainly the AM capabilities (currently 19 metal systems, with the capacity for 50 in total), the set-up went to illustrate an end-to-end digital process, with increasing levels of automation being built in too. The facility also offers design and scanning capabilities, process simulation through new software development from Siemens other key division, qualification services, build, inspection, certification and post-processing. Moreover, there was no hiding from the fact that growth and evolution is still ongoing, particularly on the automation side. Materials Solutions is working with Solukon on more automated post-processing of AM parts. But, as Phil delightedly pointed out, “sometimes we just use one of these”

The other project underway, involves a mezzanine level of the factory, which is currently not being used. However, the plan is to integrate an automated material handling system, using LPW’s huge material hoppers, which will automatically feed the machines on the factory floor, and negate manual filling of the machines. 

Siemens really is serious about AM, moreover it is a company leading by example with application development, collaboration and supply chain awareness. Sharing expertise through Materials Solutions and further driving the vision for a digital factory enabled by AM. 

Monday 19 November 2018

An Overview from Formnext 2018

Progress and Growth 
The annual gathering of the global additive manufacturing (AM) and 3D printing sector took place in Frankfurt last week, for Formnext, which is now, indisputably, the de-facto event on the calendar. 

The physical size of the show – should visible proof be required — was testament to the expansion and growth of the AM and 3D printing sector. More than 600 exhibitors congregated within Halls 3 and 3.1 of the Frankfurt Messe, with some prominent AM companies hosting stands that were comparable in size to small mansions. Moreover, I understand that the floor space for the 2018 edition of Formnext was sold out over 10 weeks before the start of the show, with a waiting list of more than 20 companies looking to fill any late cancellations, most were left disappointed and attended the show as visitors. This goes some way to explain the move that Formnext will be making next year — a shuttle ride away, as in the Euromold days of yore — to halls 11 and 12. I have mixed feelings about this as I will be sorry to lose the natural light of Hall 3/3.1 as well as the identity that Formnext has established in these halls. On the flipside, however, I will not miss the logistical inelegance of navigating three sets of elevators between meetings or press conferences, often at speed and madly tweeting or messaging my next appointment to apologize for being late. The health and safety issues are not inconsiderable and thus remaining on the ground floor throughout the show will be welcomed. 

Visitor numbers were up too, to almost 27,000 and the busy aisles and stands, not to mention literally bumping into people at a frequent rate, attested to the increasing interest in this technology set for designers, engineers and manufacturers identifying solutions for their industrial applications.  

Some Highlights 

Most of these are based within the context of a continued evolution of progress — through hardware development / extended features, increasing numbers of dedicated materials and a definite thrust with AM software development. Overall, the theme that came through is one of developing and offering holistic AM solutions. Countless numbers of conversations at Formnext, both on and off the record, pointed to this. Notable this year, was that there were very few announcements of anything really new in the here and now (although there is plenty new in the pipeline – see later in this post). 

Renishaw has things coming, that were not ready for this show, but they will probably emerge early in the new year. The imposing Renishaw stand was a great demonstrator of how far this engineering company has come in making AM more reliable, more productive and just better — by joining the dots and getting involved in application development. A stand out example here is the collaboration with Betatype on the production of higher volumes of parts through intelligent and powerful software.  

BigRep unveiled two new large scale industrial machines (the Pro and Edge 3D systems) that extend the capabilities of its portfolio courtesy of them being compatible with high performance materials and featuring the company’s innovative metering extruder technology (MET) which reportedly permits higher print speeds along with increased precision and quality parts.  

High resolution, full colour 3D printers also made a resurgence at Formnext this year, with two notable developments; one from Japanese company Mimaki, with its binder jetting system: the 3DUJ-553 (ultra jetting, with build size of 500 x 500 x 300 mm). The system was launched last year but is now commercially available with more than 1 million colour options. Mimaki’s strong credentials in the 2D printing sector with advanced technology and processes have served it well, and it has to be said, the output from the machine is impressive, if creepy at times. 

RIZE also showcased its new full colour system based on its augmented deposition process. The XRIZE 3D printer is the planned progression from the RIZEOne 3D printer and introduces the same fast and precise build capabilities with minimal post-processing for functional prototypes, tools and end use products with the option to select from a colour palette of more than 800k colours (CMYK). In a nice twist, the company was offering a free RIZEOne 3D printer to anyone purchasing an XRIZE, which will be shipping in the next few months. The deal is still live, but not for much longer and was a new one on me. 

As I mentioned in my previous post, the dominant narrative across every aisle I traversed (numerous times) at Formnext was about production – whether that was 'real', serial or increased. 

One company doing this to its own tune, and admirably so, is Carbon. The company offers a sophisticated AM solution for production with polymers using its Digital Light Synthesis process and intelligently joins the dots with an emphasis on software and, most pertinently, materials to make it perform. Moreover, the company is keeping its promises in lowering operating costs for production applications. Just ahead of Formnext, Carbon announced it was slashing the cost of bulk volume orders of its most widely used resins, from $150 down to $50 per litre. Phil DeSimone, co-founder of Carbon with his father, wasn’t at the show but messaged me when I posted a picture of the many pairs of Adidas FutureCraft trainers on their stand (still tickles me, but there were no pink ones!). Phil told me: “Since Carbon first installed a 3D printer in 2016 we have gone from $300 to $150 [and now] to $50 based on the back of large scale production applications like Adidas; and based on the fact that our printers are being used and used a lot (97.5% of our install base prints every month). We firmly believe in providing this savings back to our customer base in order to drive digital manufacturing further and to blur the lines for when one needs injection molding. Our competitors have been in business for 30 years and over that time no one has been able to drive down costs of materials (roughly remaining the same price over that time frame) because no one has been able to get to production at scale.”

I’ve quoted this at length because I agree with his assessment. Material costs are a vital part of the business equation of AM for serial and higher volume production applications. Until a similar path emerges on the metal side of the industry that contributes to significantly reduced cost-per-part, wider adoption and growth will remain slow. It won’t stop, by any means, but I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard someone say “cost-per-part” is the ONLY thing that matters for production. It’s not actually the “only” thing, but it’s probably top. 

I also attended meetings and/or press conferences for a whole host of other leading AM companies and without fail the emphasis was on growth, expansion and progress. 

XJet, just the week before Formnext had a breakthrough with supports for its metal process as well as expanding its ceramics business and company headquarters. Dror Danai was his effervescent self as he informed a packed press conference of the latest developments, including a show and tell to demonstrate the safe means of support removal they have achieved. His hospitality, along with the rest of this smart team at the stand party later that evening, was equally engaging. This was conducted in collaboration with contract manufacturer Oerlikon, who last year invested in the first Xjet ceramic system and continues to grow its AM channel business with full integration of AM systems into its wide ranging capabilities. A conversation I had with Dan Johns of Oerlikon more than a year ago now, continues to ring true in terms of how important it is to get the integration of AM right. This company is a beacon in that regard, I believe. 

Desktop Metal remains bullish about its metal production system, citing installations with partners in 2019 and positive responses from partner application development projects. Progress at Voxeljet, 3D Systems, and SLM Solutions was evident through collaborations and significant application development. VJ, CEO at 3D Systems could not overstate the importance of partnerships to drive applications, even while introducing system portfolio extensions. At SLM Solutions, the traditional vast stand was an eye-catcher, but I can’t quite put my finger on what’s going on there. I do know a lot of people have left or are leaving. The rumour mill is rife with theories and opinions, which I am not prepared to repeat or comment on. But from my own experience of the the press conference, I will say that the company does seem to have lost its way a little. There was the familiar narrative, of production and growth, but it was literally read from a script. 

OR Laser has taken a different route to secure growth with its respective metal AM developments. The company, now under the umbrella of Coherent Inc, continues to drive its accessible AM portfolio of metal systems and showcased the latest developments for reactive materials as well as mobile flexible units. Talking with Uri Resnik about the transition was both enlightening and encouraging. 

Catching up with Neil Siddons and Sean Wootton at GE is always a pleasure, those two just make me smile, without fail and we made plans for some deeper insights away from Formnext. But even getting down to the serious, albeit brief, discussions at the show the dominant theme from GE is currently about consolidation — “making what we have even better,” as Neil put it, and this is being driven by customers and partners. 

AddUp is another company that is very quietly and industrially going about its business. Of course, this strength and belief comes from the insider knowledge – proven, high volume application of metal AM for Michelin, which was the very foundation of the company. The growth here, from the company’s launch just a couple of years ago is telling, including the acquisition of BeAM. 

It’s probably getting a bit boring now, but HP’s Formnext narrative was similarly all about new partnerships, growth and progress. The “new” metal system remains years from being commercially available, even while it teased with some metal parts. Lots of new applications with MJF were on show – for prototyping, tooling and manufacturing (as opposed to production) applications. 

So even while the messaging is bordering on repetitive and boring, what this goes to show, I believe, is that there is a real consolidation taking place across the industry — of technology, processes and adoption. And even while there are a growing number of new and joining players, the technology is becoming increasing “normal” and embedded across industry sectors. 

Software Development 

Another stand out theme from the show was the progress around software development specifically for AM. 

Simulation software definitely dominated here, but there are other software disciplines that are also being recognized and developed at pace, albeit by fewer players. I mentioned the increase in visibility of AM-specific simulation software after the TCT show in September, when Materialise, ANSYS, Autodesk through its Netfabb brand and GE were all promoting significant developments with this genre of software. At Formnext these companies were all talking it up, joined, notably by Siemens and ESI.  

Siemens’ main driver at its Formnext press conference was the launch of its simulation software. Not at all surprising, and the software capabilities have been driven by the company’s own internal and prolific application development with metal AM. Not surprisingly it came over as an extremely robust and intelligent solution for improving workflow and reducing failed builds. There was also news of the new AM manufacturing centre opening in December in the UK. However, the nugget of news that really caught my eye from Siemens was in the form of its financial services offering. Siemens has identified investment and financing as a barrier to adoption of AM and is proposing financing solutions and extended payment terms through colloaboration with OEMs in the AM sector. Don’t get me wrong, this is one small step on a very long (probably painful) journey, but it is to be applauded and more financial institutions and OEMs need to be looking at initiatives like this. 

My first appointment of the entire show was with start-up co-founder Lee-Bath Nelson of LEO Lane. I’d done a bit of background checking to have my ducks in a row when sitting down with Lee, I’ll confess, I was a tad intimidated to learn that she had been a VC for a large part of her career, but I was also intrigued to understand more about this patented software development for AM workflow process control for serial production applications. As it turned out this was one of the most insightful and delightful interviews of the week, followed up by an in-depth conversation later that evening at the Women In 3D Printing gathering, post-show hours, and with a glass of wine in hand. 

Lee is highly intelligent, extremely knowledgeable when it comes to AM (having invested in 3D printing companies over the years, including but not limited to Objet) and, best of all, really open and easy to talk to. The proposition LEO Lane offers is a workflow system that can be easily incorporated into existing production workflows, but specifically builds in IP protection and consistency enforcement through automated parameter and settings analysis for AM processes, as well as archive a digital inventory and track everything. Lee summed it up as “software-as-a-service, that allows management to sleep at night AND save money.” She was also effusive about “playing nice with others,” supporting this statement by telling me about certified partnerships with SAP and Materialise. There are others, but none that can yet be discussed in the public domain. Any company looking to integrate AM for production, should not overlook this development — particularly if peace of mind is an important factor.  

Looking Ahead: New Products & Processes on the Horizon (Not Commercially Available)

When I said above that there was nothing really new at Formnext this year, that was not to say that there are not new and interesting things in development. Some of these were introduced or revealed in more detail at the show last week — but it is really important to make a distinction here between what is new and commercially available to the market now, and what is “potentially” on the way to market. I’ve been around the block enough times now to understand that exciting new processes, with genuine potential to disrupt the status quo don’t always scale up and make it to market, and even when they do, it invariably takes longer than originally planned and/or stated.  

Stratasys teased the introduction of its new, metal AM process earlier in the year. Details were sparse, to say the least, but at Formnext the company drew back the curtain a little further on the details. Layered Powder Metallurgy, or LPM, was described by Andy Middleton, Stratasys’ EVP as “unlike any other metal AM process to date and offering very competitive economics.” And as more of the details were revealed at the company’s press conference, I would concur with the former and am keeping an open mind on the latter. LPM is a metal powder bed process, but unlike powder bed fusion (PBF) or binder jetting, it uses compression and a “secret sauce” jetting material around the outside of the metal part. No other material other than the metal powder makes up the part composition. Parts are reportedly 99.9% dense but do require subsequent sintering. Moreover, the company is only releasing the process with Aluminium material to begin with, a strategic decision based on customer demands and a current pain point across the industry. This, again, according to Mr Middleton. But other materials are destined to follow. Still very much in development, Stratasys reported that Beta LPM systems will be installed in 2019, with commercial availability remaining a question mark. 

Another company that generated a great deal of interest with a new ‘in development’ additive manufacturing process was EOS. When it comes to robust reputation and market penetration, EOS is right up there with its polymer and metal industrial laser sintering / melting systems. So it is right to take the introduction of the LaserProFusion system seriously. This system is all about reaching the potential of serial production with AM through increased productivity and automation, through the increased use of lasers (up to a million, the company quoted) which results, with some clever number crunching, in producing production polymer parts in high volumes that compare with injection moulding. Each part (as shown in the picture) is reportedly produced in 7 seconds. (100 parts per build, in 700 seconds = 7 seconds per part [I think!]). However, this system is [at least] two years from commercial availability, according to EOS. I added the ‘at least’ because one assumes this is 'if' all goes according to plan. With such hardware developments, it rarely does. 

Other interesting developments, some way off commercialization, could also be found at Formnext from Aurora Labs (Australia) for large components produced in metal alloys on the fly, the Fraunhofer Institute with its innovative TwoCure process, V Shaper with its 5D printing proposition (based on 5 axis machining), LSS and Aerosint.

One issue I do believe needs to be raised here is that while I do love discovering and reporting on these new technology developments — they are amazing with some very driven people working on them with passion and belief — these breakthroughs can be misleading for uninitiated and/or new visitors to a vast event like this. You would hope that common sense would prevail, but in today’s world that is not something that can be taken for granted, so it is important to clearly distinguish between what is possible now and how long potential users may have to wait for a solution that is in development that may work for them. Sometimes even seasoned professionals (industrial and press) struggle with this. Moreover, there are marketing people that (sometimes intentionally) blur the lines, which is unhelpful. 

In Conclusion

Full disclaimer, despite the inevitable wordy and unwieldy nature of this post, I barely made a dent in what was on show at Formnext during my two and half days. I should have gone for the full four days!  

Main point here, though, for visitors and non-visitors alike, read overviews like this — find the nuggets that may be interesting for your work. Then follow up, talk to other people, create internal and external networks, collaborate. And keep pushing the industry on through new and improved applications, whether for prototyping, tooling, manufacturing or production. That’s the real value in Formnext for the AM and 3D printing sector, and it comes after the boot pounding. 

The other best bit is the people. I met up with so many lovely people, new friends and old. Thank you one and all. You’ve all given me lots to think about. 

Friday 16 November 2018

Additive Manufacturing for “Real” Production: Where are we?

Here’s my take following Formnext 2018 and a year of evolving insight ...

There was one word that was used more than any other at this year’s edition of Formnext in Frankfurt, which took place this week. You guessed it: PRODUCTION. It was invariably accompanied by other words, usually “serial” or “high-volume” — all within the context of additive manufacturing (AM) processes. This is, and has been for a while, the ultimate application goal with AM. Indeed, now more than ever, it appears to be within reach, with some evidence, and plenty of hearsay, to suggest it is happening right now. 

For context, and following the changes of the industry as I see them, I am now differentiating between manufacturing and serial production applications of AM, as well as the well-established prototyping and increasing tooling applications.Specifically, I find myself categorizing applications as follows:

Product Development / Prototyping:using AM/3DP processes for developing new products – to prove concepts, improve design integrity through fast iterations and determine form, fit and function. Material selection and identification can also be included here – prototyping in the end use material, or close. 
Tooling:Using AM/3DP processes to produce rapid tooling and/or investment casting parts to speed up the production process for small to medium volume parts and to overcome many of the limitations of traditional tooling methodologies including but not limited to very long lead times and extortionate costs. 
Manufacturing:using AM/3DP for single use / very low volume products and parts. Examples from this category can be found right throughout the supply chain – from large OEMs down to individual “cottage industry” type companies. It also includes using AM for general and customized jigs and fixtures etc. 
Production– medium to high volumes (serial), high quality (to regulatory standards) repeatable production of products / parts. 

I know this is far from perfect, most notably how manufacturing and production can be used interchangeably and there is the potential for confusion here, but when offered with context and perspective, this is the best I’ve come up with, so far, at least. [Feel free to let me know any thoughts on this ….] 

Anyway, back to Formnext and the opinions that framed the conversations around production during the course of the week were many and varied — even vastly contrasting in some cases. 

For instance, one conversation was beyond bullish, and included the statement: “Serial production with AM is proliferating, everyone is doing it.” I raised a brow, and challenged that with my own thoughts that it is growing, but most serial production applications of AM are not visible; but it is far from “everyone.” 

Another conversation, was the converse, including the proposition that: “’REAL’ production with AM will take decades.” Guess what? I raised a brow, and challenged that with my own thoughts that it is growing, but most serial production applications of AM are not visible yet; but there is real progress, with evidence and I cited the usual. 

It was weird to find myself using virtually the same argument to counter two such contrary points of view. I have no idea if I left a lasting impression or tempered either of these views in any way, but you never know. To be fair, however, the majority of conversations were more in line with my position of growth and expansion around application development as well as AM being integrated into real production workflows at increasing volumes, albeit most still not in the public domain. The general consensus I picked up on this week is that serial production applications with AM processes offer the biggest opportunities for the growth of the sector. 

As you would absolutely expect, the AM Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) are ‘bigging’ up the production narrative. The OEMs offering metal were leading the way, but there was also plenty of the same from the polymers side as well, notably Carbon, HP, Stratasys and 3D Systems. The latter currently offers both metal and polymer AM solutions while Stratasys and HP will, at some point in the next couple of years (maybe longer), also commercialize their metal systems that are currently in development to complement their industrial polymer AM solutions.  

The real / serial production narrative was everywhere in various forms, including but not limited to “increased productivity”, “increased / improved production workflows” and so on. So, while I do, generally, agree that this is the direction the industry is heading in terms of growth; it does not and should not in any way take away from the prolific and still proliferating prototyping, tooling and manufacturing applications with additive processes (as defined above). They are here to stay and will continue. The fact that this different narrative is generally understated — because it is now the norm for most companies that develop new products — is actually a good thing in many ways, but I am not convinced it should be quite so understated at an event like Formnext. 

The standard, well-documented production applications of AM are still highly visible and being cited as the “proof” cases. You know the ones – the GE LEAP engine bracket (metal) and the Carbon / Adidas FutureCraft shoes (polymers). It is hard to keep the frustrated tone at bay here, but this is where we are for one good reason — these are pretty much the only applications that have approval for publication and to be out in the public domain. Although, on that, there is another, albeit under-used example, that I was beautifully reminded of this week, by Lee-Bath Nelson, co-founder of LEO Lane. And that is Michelin. I can’t put it any better than Lee, so I am going to quote her: “Michelin opened the kimono on their use of metal AM production. They’re producing a million metal AM parts per year, which is incredible.” 

Michelin, however, had the means and the wherewithal to develop their own systems to achieve their goals. This was not an off-the-shelf solution, and there are not many other companies across the world with the financial standing to do this, or subsequently invest in a new company / partner to commercialize the resulting system (AddUp, which has now also acquired BeAM). 

But here is the rub, while these are the stories that continue to be told, there are actually many others that the OEMs can’t talk about in the public domain. It’s long been the case as far as ‘case studies’ are concerned, but this week I specifically asked OEMs about the “invisible applications” in generic terms – most, if not all agreed that compared with what they can talk about, there was >80% production applications, many serial production, not visible. A large majority also agreed that it was highly frustrating, particularly for the industry as a whole. 

Their inability to talk, invariably comes from their customers’ fears of losing a competitive advantage - probably rightly - if frustratingly, so. I’ve been clued in on a couple on trust, most wouldn’t go beyond talking about this generically. However, for me this does, up to a point, justify the increasing narrative and rhetoric around AM for production. There are many more happening than can be seen and the OEMs are scaling up to generate more based on what they already know but can’t say. 

Of course, there are still challenges across the entire production workflow – some specific to AM capabilities and some to do with integration. It is important to remember that not all AM processes (still, currently seven categories) have the capabilities to meet the requirements of serial production applications. And, even for the AM processes that can, they are rarely, if ever, going to provide a standalone solution, so integration into existing workflows can be a real bottleneck that has to be overcome. Costs also remain a major barrier to adoption — both capital and per-part. To date the production applications that are out / emerging utilize the capabilities of AM to justify the costs through added value that overcomes the cost either over the lifetime of the product / part (eg GE / Michelin) or through higher volumes (eg Carbon & Adidas). 

However, until costs come down, which I believe they will, wider adoption throughout the supply chain is unlikely to increase dramatically. Financing, too, can be brought in here, but I saw one chink of light on this issue, this week – from Siemens, believe it or not. Another barrier that remains is build speeds - EOS might have an alternative and interesting answer to this with its introduction of polymer LaserProFusion process this week, but it’s not an imminent solution for the market. On the metal side, GE and Betatype and others are working on solutions for speed. Other limitations are being overcome before our very eyes too, issues such as simulation, qualification and verification are key here. 

As ever – the reality of AM for production is a conundrum of positive progress and frustrating reservation. However, I believe the evolution is happening out there, right now.

This issue was so dominant at Formnext, I have chosen to write this post separately from the general overview of the show, which will include specific news, highlights and other themes touched on here. It will follow soon, and include more details on the companies, products and people I have referenced in this post, such as LEO Lane, LaserProFusion, GE, Siemens, Carbon etc. 

Tuesday 2 October 2018

An Overview of TCT 2018 - Some highlights & some thoughts

After a “big show” hiatus for me personally, I jumped back in last week and headed to the TCT Show 2018. TCT is by far the largest gathering of Additive Manufacturing (AM) and 3D printing companies and people in the UK. It has continued to grow in both size and stature since its first edition, at which I was present, in 1996. By virtue of its longevity and reputation it remains one of the must-attend events on the AM/3DP calendar for many companies in the industry. The fact that it is on my own “turf” and doesn’t involve a flight is only one reason I love going to TCT, another is my personal history with the event and I still get that rush of adrenalin ahead of the doors opening, but I think that’s down to muscle memory. Now, almost a decade after being directly involved in the organisation I still get a fleeting feeling of panic that something might go wrong or someone won’t show up. Nostalgia, maybe? Weird, definitely! No further comments required. 

Now running over three days, even without the tri-annual Interplas show running alongside, the continued growth of the additive manufacturing and 3D printing industry was reflected on the show floor in terms of the number of exhibitors (250+) some with dedicated stands other sharing, or represented by distributors. There were many highlights to be seen, some key announcements and plenty of information to be gleaned from exhibitors and attendees alike. But, there were also discernible negative vibes on certain AM issues, which do need to be addressed. I’m going to give it a go, later in this post, in as constructive a way as possible. 

Most of the big AM companies were on the show floor, with some notable exceptions. No Carbon or HP stands, as there have been in previous years. HP was represented by a distributor (Europac), as was Desktop Metal (Laser Lines), XJet (Carfulan Group) and Mcor (Creat3d). In addition, there was an absence of larger AM machine platforms — both metal and polymer. After a huge showing at IMTS for the AM sector and Formnext just six weeks away, my own opinion, shared by numerous other people I spoke with was that this has a direct effect on the largely regional (in terms of visitors) TCT show. But that is not to misrepresent the value, scale or importance of the TCT Show — it is more representative of a shift in emphasis, a crowded Q3/4 calendar and TCT’s own expansion of global events. In addition to its events across multiple continents, the Rapid News organisation announced a further event for 2019 in Shenzen. 

Another result of TCT 2018 coming so quick after IMTS and ahead of Formnext was a lack of key product launches or announcements, although there were some around incremental developments and new partnerships. It made for an environment that was more about networking, information sourcing and updates — one of the TCT Show’s great strengths. 

TCT Highlights

For me, the key highlights from TCT came from new application developments with AM. The most mind blowing of these could be found on the Added Scientific stand. For anyone not familiar with the organisation, Added Scientific is a consultancy firm with a team of AM experts (Phill Dickens, Richard Hague, Chris Tuck, Ian Ashcroft and Ricky Wildman among them) that bridges the gap between academic research and industrial companies looking to maximise the potential of AM. At TCT, the team, managed by Sophie Jones, were demonstrating for the first time how metal AM has been successfully applied to develop a UHV chamber for a quantum sensing rig in a joint partnership with the Universities of Nottingham and Sussex. Now, quantum physics is a discipline way above my comprehension levels, but in doing a bit of background research in an attempt to grapple with it, this recent articlefrom Medium, helpfully provided some insight into quantum sensing also known as quantum metrology. As the name suggests, the goal of this trade is to exploit the peculiarities of the quantum world to build new and improved sensors and measuring devices.”It states it is an 11 minute read, but if you need to re-read certain bits, numerous times, as I did, it takes a tad longer! 

It is an interesting digression, to be sure, but really the main point to understand is that the equipment used to construct a quantum sensing rig, in this case a UHV chamber, is extremely complex — in design and functionality. 

The image below shows the traditional design of such a chamber (top) while on the bottom is the new design, additively manufactured. The difference is stark — this goes way beyond what we typically understand by “redesign.” By combining systems engineering analysis with true ground-up design for AM (DfAM) and materials testing; the size, weight and power requirements for the equipment could all be reduced while improving the overall functionality. Talking with a number of team members about this application, I am not overstating things in terms of this being revolutionary for how AM can be realised for future quantum applications. This application has got some quantum physics scientists very excited, apparently. That made me smile, but maybe that’s just because it conjured images of the ‘Big Bang Theory’ lot. A cliché, I know! 

Another fascinating application of AM, this time with polymers, was to be found on the Europac stand. Achieved using HP’s MJF process this was another conversation that had me laughing out loud, as people kept it real. Jacob Turner from Bowman Additive Production took the time to explain the application to me. As the head of AM at Bowman, he was well placed to do just that, but also showed me what he called “a really good and a really bad example of AM!” Specifically, the roller train itself, which would have been largely impossible to produce any other way, with the degree of functionality achieved was the good one, you won’t be surprised to learn. While the display stand it was resting on, a solid right angle of material (think book end) had also been 3D printed for the show — pointlessly and at a ridiculous cost, according to Jacob!  It was an excellent, if originally unintentional, demonstration of how AM is most effective with specific application development to realise improved functionality and reduced costs and/or added value. When it’s used just for the sake of it, it is pointless and expensive, and achieves very little.  

On the added value issue, one other application highlight is worth noting from the TCT show floor. This was to be found on the large Sodick stand. I got chatting to Paul Lodge, a Director of Cable First, a client of Sodick. He was there to talk to visitors about how his company has benefitted from implementing a Sodick hybrid metal platform to transform its work flow, notably for the production of mould tools. Paul was not backwards in talking to me about the difficulties in sourcing decent toolmakers. “We’ve got toolmakers on our suppliers list, and they’re very capable, but there’s not enough of them. We make a whole range of cables – from what you’d expect all the way through to the cables required for wind turbines at sea, and they’re ‘big’ cables that have to withstand harsh environments.” The tools required for this are complex and the lead times, even assuming a tool maker is available, is lengthy. “We want to make cables easier,” Paul intimated. “And that’s what AM does for us.” When I asked about the economics, I was slightly taken aback when Paul breezily commented, “oh, it’s not cheaper.” He was referring to the cost of the tools, but, when I asked him to explain, he went on: “it adds tremendous value to what we do, both in terms of getting the best possible tool, with an efficient design that minimises core cooling times. Indeed, he revelled in telling me, reducing the cooling cycle time by just 10 seconds per cycle equates to a saving of 1388 hours from a tool life of only 500,000 cycles. The overall added value, according to Paul, was a no brainer, so much so that while Cable First installed the Sodick OPM 250L for its own in-house tooling requirments, it is now offering a service. You kind of expect the OEMs to talk like this about AM (with the exception of the cost issues), but when a customer does it — so naturally, and enthusiastically — you know something good is happening. 

A standout product announcement that came from TCT was from Xaar, who announced a new print head for liquid photopolymers. In terms of Xaar’s previous engagement with 3D printing, this was a bit on an eyebrow raiser, actually. The company is taking 3D printing very seriously — it launched a separate 3DP division, headed up by Neil Hopkinson, last year, but has been working with 3D printing for more than 10 years. The focus then was very much on the high speed sintering process, developed by Hopkinson, and the inkjet head development for powder bed processes of this nature. This announcement though, indicates a new direction in developing specific, high performance inkjet heads for direct deposition of photopolymers. Talking with Angus Condie (Director of Integration and Applications) and Michael Seal (Business Development Manager) as well as Simon Kirk (Senior Product Manager) there has been a specific goal with this development called “High Laydown” to achieve better performance through expanded material properties with photopolymers, and a dedicated move towards manufacturing. According to the team, this print head enables high viscosity resins, at a higher rate of throughput (5-10x faster than existing photopolymer processes) that results in 80 micron layers and higher functionality and durability of parts. The new Xaar print head has been developed in collaboration with material supplier BASF, but no indication of the system platform, as yet, probably because there isn’t one. Xaar was open is saying this is not commercially available, they’re looking for an OEM partner to find a route to market. That was part of the reason they were at TCT. As UK networks go, it’s one of the best to find what you’re looking for. I’ll be very interested to see where this goes.  

New partnerships and collaborations were the order of the week, there was a host of them announced during the TCT show. Shapeways and Stratasys revealed their new partnership, based on Shapeways acquiring a J750 platform and now able to offer the full colour advantages that this system offers. Laser Lines, with a large presence on the show floor, had a space dedicated to its new partnership with Additive Industries, who also had a small stand of their own. Additive Industries is arguably leading the way in terms of offering a full “turnkey solution” for production with AM, according to Laser Lines’ account manager, Paul Tickle. Additive Industries has installed systems at Sauber and BMW, with one (undisclosed) recipient in the UK due to install one in Q1 of 2019. The most information I could get was “it’ll be near Bristol” which narrows it down some, but still leaves plenty of options for where it might be going. My money would be on Airbus or UWE — just a hunch, could well be wrong. At Laser Lines, the Additive Industries solution sits alongside the Desktop Metal and OR Laser metal AM offerings; as well as Laser Line’s long term offering of the full range of Stratasys systems. More recently the company has also been a distributor of Formlabs 3D printers.

Other partnerships announced were from XJet, who has signed an agreement with Carfulan Group, who will be distributing XJet’s ceramic and metal systems based on the novel NanoParticle Jetting process; and US based Link3D who announced a new partnership with the Aachen Centre for AM to promote its AM workflow software across Europe. 

Across my time at TCT, I took some sparse opportunities to dip in and out of the conference sessions. A specific highlight was a research presentation given by Candice Majewski from the University of Sheffield. Her presentation highlighted a project that was exploring how to incorporate anti-bacterial properties into polymer laser sintered parts. To date, the project was showing encouraging results in terms of combining LS polymers with a silver based additive with known anti-bacterial properties. Candice was able to share that they were achieving good dispersion; with no discernible effects on the properties of the printed part or human side-effects; and repeatable positive results when the parts interact with bacteria.  Important to stress this is still research, but exciting in terms of the possibilities and where this could be successfully applied in terms of applications and reducing the need for antibiotics, which, if their use is not reduced, by 2050 could see 10 million people per year dying from antibiotic resistance. Where AM can support the human condition — now or in the future — you will find me, and many others, cheering. But all kudos should go to those researchers, like Candice, that are actually laying the foundations. 

One other highlight to mention came to my attention as I sat sipping much-needed coffee on the first morning of the show, waiting for the doors to open. A gentleman asked to share the table I was sat at, and we got chatting — I know, shocker, right? Lykle Scherps had made the trip to TCT from Cyprus (he is originally from the Netherlands). His primary purpose for the trip was on behalf of his company, Zesty Technology, of which he was a founder, and its development of an innovative extruder for desktop 3D printers. The innovation comes largely from the reduced weight — a functional 26g, compared with the industry standard 300g, in combination with the ability to control the extruder remotely and a very simple loading mechanism. For any open source advocates, this is definitely worth a look, IMHO. Moreover, with more than 1000 units sold to date, and a second gen product in development, Lykle also set me up for the show pondering another interesting dichotomy –  the uses of 3D printing / AM for prototyping and/or production. The Zeisty extruder is currently produced with outsourced AM, but Lykle is looking to install an in-house system to fulfil the company’s production requirements as well as provide a much needed high-end AM service in Cyprus. At the moment, two AM systems almost meet his needs — both the HP MJF process and EOS’s nylon SLS are contenders. However, according to Lykle, neither process offers everything he needs for his application, they both have pluses and minuses. And there, once again, is the age old story of this tech sector. There is no silver bullet – no matter what any marketing person tells you — even in 2018. 


Production AM versus Manufacturing versus Prototyping & Product Development

The discussion with Lykle immediately highlighted a theme that continuously raised its head across TCT — the product development versus production applications of AM. The event brought this divergence of the industry into sharper focus. Over the years it has ebbed and flowed, but once again it was very obvious in both exhibits and conversations over the course of the week. However, it is no longer just about huge metal platforms versus small desktop filament plastic extrusion machines. It is all much more nuanced than that. The metal and nylon powder bed fusion systems are, clearly, out front when it comes to high-end, high-value production — examples of high performance, increasing volumes of production parts are proliferating at a faster rate than ever before. However, the smaller polymer systems, desktop and otherwise (one example would be Ultimaker) are also becoming more industrialised and promoting similarly increasing numbers of end-use applications. The volumes vary, as does repeatability, and invariably they are not critical mechanical applications, but, they serve a purpose and in so doing cannot be dismissed as “not production” out of hand. 

I know there will be industrial die-hards out there that will disagree with me, and that’s okay, but from my own perspective my understanding and lexicon is shifting in terms of the all-encompassing manufacturing applications of 3DP/AM for any and all end use products and parts, versus the high(er)-volume, high-end production applications for critical components and products. For me, there is no longer a clear differentiation in terms of process, system or material used.

AM-specific Simulation Software

One area of the AM ecosystem that is seeing sweeping developments from multiple companies is AM-specific simulation software. The development and commercialisation of such software is driving towards improving the workflow around additive processes and to eliminate costly and time-consuming build failures. Whether for product development or production, there are an increasing number of simulation software tools to relieve this pain point. The simulation of digital models within the build chamber to identify errors during build was in evidence from many companies. Materialise launched their latest offering in combination with the Magics 3D Print Suite for metal AM, ANSYS talked about theirs on the tech stage, Autodesk’s Netfabb Simulation is another, and GE was promoting GEONX (pronounced Ji-on-ex, not Geo-N-X, in case you were wondering). Of the latter, I was surprised to learn that it was announced on the last day of Formnext last year, considering so little has been heard of it since, but, it’s getting a big push now. 

Over and over again, conversations at TCT reverted to the issue of Design for AM (DfAM) and the lack of skills and people to drive uptake and adoption of the processes deeper into industrial sectors through intelligent design. I think perhaps the conversation that covered it best was with Tom Fripp, Managing Director at Addition Design and Research. He related to me how one of the many visitors to their stand, on learning more about the company’s R&D approach to design services for AM as a strategic partner, described AD&R as “the missing link.” On consideration, it is really hard to disagree with this simple statement. Companies like Addition Design and Research can — and do — bridge the current gap to design skills for sophisticated AM projects. Moreover, they can provide the insight and training into developing those skills with collaborators. In the longer term though, academic syllabuses have to provide the training and human resources that the industry requires. 

The Current Big Issue

And here, regrettably, we have to confront another issue that is currently having negative impact on the AM industry – and it’s a problem that’s getting bigger and more noticeable. OEM companies that are over-promising on capabilities and delivery dates, and failing, often miserably, to deliver, which results in consequences that seep out across the industry in the form of frustration, unmet expectations and even stalling sales. 

There are a growing number of companies that have fallen into this trap of over promising and under delivering. To be fair, the causes are not always clear cut — but often comes down to under-estimating the difficulty of transitioning from a working, provable concept to a scaled up production operation while maintaining reliability, quality and keeping a lid on costs. There are many examples of this phenomenon linked with the Kickstarter culture in years gone by. But more recently this MO has become increasingly familiar with OEMs of different sizes. Mcor is an earlier example, with its Arke platform, but I understand that in this case, lessons have been learned and things are turning around. They’re doing it quietly, but when they come back, it will be with all of the necessary foundations in place to meet customer expectations. Good for them — I really hope it is so, and will be cheering for them loudly when it happens. Formlabs is another company experiencing similar with its laser sintering platform — the photopolymers are still doing extremely well, the Form2 is well established, proving reliable and cost-effective for many users with increasing material options — but the transition to a different process with the same business model is not straightforward, apparently, and there are delays. I can’t help but wonder if similar will happen with the new Prusa photopolymer system — another company that has built a stellar reputation with a fantastic product — that can’t resist trying to replicate it with another, very different process as a way to grow. It’s not necessarily a natural transition. 

While this issue is not limited to the AM industry by any means, it has become a bigger and uglier beast within this sector of late with the promise of “bigger,” “faster” and “better” metal systems — most notably from HP and Desktop Metal. These companies have made huge sweeping promises of innovation and disruption to metal AM, based on binder jetting tech in various forms. There are however, moving goalposts in terms of when these systems will be commercially available beyond stakeholders and investors. 

Strangely enough, metal manufacturing processes — as innovative as they might be in the lab where they are developed, or the factories where they are tested — are hard. And they don’t happen quickly. It takes a long time to stablize, make consistent and commercialise. Recent history is right there to back this up. The PBF/EBM companies have two and half decades of R&D as well as serious application development behind them and they are only now just getting there, and rightly so. 

These “new” systems are still under development, unproven in commercial environments and not tested at scale to meet industry expectations or the orders that follow. High levels of investment or huge corporate infrastructure are utilised to persuade (subliminally or otherwise) industry watchers and prospective buyers of stability and scaled up production, that in reality is no easy feat and often becomes a stumbling block. Of course, pre-ordering is a key sales strategy for some companies — but the months, sometimes years, of waiting for delivery are frustrating (at best) and damaging (at worst).

So many people have talked about this issue in various ways this week, but all of them were pointing to how it stalls the whole market — and that’s not good for anyone whether vendors, stakeholders, users or potential users.  

It’s odd to hear myself say this, but I agree with Dave Burns, who during his presentation at TCT, suggested that more companies should stay in stealth mode for longer. 

However, not wanting to end on a pout, I’m going to round up with one amusing little anecdote that made me smile – noticing people’s job titles at TCT. Obviously, eyes are drawn to the obligatory badges at a show like this. It’s always tickled me that so many people attach great status to their job title, but it was so heart-warming to see some people that really don’t and attempt to convey something more. Two stand out examples were the “Office Astronaut” at rigid.ink and the “Captain of Education” at Jellybox. Brilliant. 

Tuesday 31 July 2018


After the pre-conference conferenceat Additive International, the actual 13thconference in this series got underway on July 11thand ran for two days with a full programme of full length presentations and networking opportunities. As Prof Richard Hague of the University of Nottingham highlighted in his welcome address, the aim of this conference remains “to show you something new.” This conference is very, very good at that. For me it always crystallises just how much I don’t know — and that’s a really good thing. Moreover, Additive International in its 13thiteration continued to demonstrate the vast potential of additive manufacturing, always contextualised in reality — whether within the realms of academia, the real business world or somewhere in between. This also goes some way to explain the programme mix of cutting edge research presentations and industrial insights. 

Reporting on the numbers is more black and white, according to the organisers the conference attendance continues to grow. The 2018 edition welcomed 360 delegates from 19 countrie, giving credence to the international title. There were also 37 exhibitors in the parallel exhibition and 19 speakers presenting on a variety of topics and sectors. 

One of the first themes of the conference that quickly came into focus for me happened during the first presentation by Abby Juhl for the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL). Her presentation was specifically titled “New Approaches to Functionality and Colour” of AM, which belied the much more complex nature of the work being undertaken at the AFRL into additive technology for wearable flexible hybrid electronics or functional electronics. However, just a minute or two into her presentation, Ms Juhl specified that this advanced application is for prototyping and research activities. This pronouncement recurred at various times over the course of the programme. It wasn’t addressed by anyone specifically but served to illustrate, to me at least, that while manufacturing and production applications are indeed proliferating, some of the most challenging and useful applications of additive tech remains in the prototyping realm, with much deeper research behind it. 

In terms of the AFRL research, the focus is very much on the materials and processing for the man machine interface. As an example Juhl offered pilots and the ability to access real time diagnostics of their physical condition using biosensors during flights, combat flights in particular. Wearable electronics need to be flexible and stretchable and additive manufacturing can be used to create that flexibility and stretchable electronics. Juhl threw out a nice motto they use too: “print what you can, place what you can’t!” Anything but a throw-away line, this serves to illustrate that AM is a very useful tool, but rarely an entire solution in isolation. 

Considering advanced materials, Professor Iain Todd from the MAPP EPSRC Future Manufacturing Hubgave attendees an enlightening presentation. He covered a great deal, but it was his angle that piqued interest, namely “Designing Alloys for Metal AM: Don’t blame the alloys!” Other insights on new materials for AM were delivered by Christopher Spadaccini from LLNL but he started with a vital point that it is essential to understand, namely that advanced approaches to AM are enabling new components and materials for next gen solutions but no single advancement (whether materials / hardware / software etc) can be successful in isolation. Modelling and Design, Synthesis, AM process and materials as well as qualification & certification are all inter-related.  

Another interesting point he made was about 3D designs and the multiple constraints that come with it. Despite the whole “complexity is free” rhetoric that is often alluded to with AM, we are still working within different manufacturing constraints – for instance computers can still produce geometries that even AM can’t cope with.  We are further refining these 3D design and attempting fabrication. LLNL design optimisation code: topological optimisation program for linear elastic regime. Progress - We can now optimize material response in the large deformation dynamic viscoplastic regime (see slide). New direction we’re going (in addition to multi scale and multi physics). 

The two specific material highlights that emerged from Spadaccini’s presentation, however, are ones to watch out for. The first is a new metal process called DiAM (diode AM), which shapes high-power laser diode light using a dynamic mask. The progress with the DiAM system is advanced — the system is now operational, and there is a commercialisation partner lined up, but this remains “a secret.” The other is a  glass printing process for  the fabrication of functionally graded optical components using AM. This is not as advanced but the research is showing positive results with established control of composition through a custom mixing print head as well as geometric complexity. While they did not dominate exclusively, two of the prominent sectors featured across the Additive International programme were aerospace and medical. Hardly surprising considering these two sectors have AM most deeply embedded — both in terms of real applications and advanced research and qualification. 

Of particular note, was the presentation from Florence Montredon from Thales Alenia Space. Her reasoned introduction would have been familiar to anyone that’s been involved with AM for a while — the motivation for exploring and using AM Thales Alenia Space comes down to the ability to manufacture complex optimised parts and weight saving. In this case, Ms Montredon was referring to telecom satellite structures, and today there are 
nine AM parts on satellites currently in space, the most recent one was launched earlier this year, in March from Bangladesh. What was interesting is that these parts are not produced in-house — Thales currently only outsources AM production, even with the stringent specification required per part, which involves verifying partners in terms of capacity, quality, certification, data management and traceability. I confess, I find this weird, and can only speculate at the reasons why. 

Another really interesting aerospace presentation was given by Paola Caraccolo from Airbus Germany. I mention this because over the years I have seen a fair few presentations on AM from Airbus. The company is, categorically, a super user of the technology, but rarely do they give much away beyond the big picture “blah blah” information. Caraccolo’s presentation, beyond the historical introduction, was different and explored the “Effect of Defects in AM parts.” And it was insightful and packed with information, one highlight of which was “AM serial production is happening right now, but R&D is ongoing. Actually, AM is currently a comparatively expensive process – but it is acceptable for high value applications that achieve weight savings.” Then there was mention of some brackets and I zoned out for a while. He got my attention back when he went beyond using AM just for new aircraft designs, but also for retrofits and repairs before focusing in on different defect types and methods of detection. One solution that has emerged is the patented Airbus 3D SURFIN, which uses CT scans to identify defects and assess fatigue within AM parts. Also the 
Design Assessment of Reliability With INspection (DARWIN) programme, which can deduce global probability of failure. 

The automotive industry also got a nod, with an interesting presentation from Anil Sachdev from GM Global R&D. Mr Sachdev was posing the question: Can metal AM become the Automotive Game Changer? This is correctly based on the assumption that currently, it isn’t, and acknowledged that the automotive industry, while a leader in the adoption of rapid prototyping is well behind the curve when it comes to production. Thus, he posited, “can we now consider AM for high volume production? Can we develop the mindset to get to 1 million parts?” 

According to Sachdev, today additive technologies are used for prototypes (obviously), simple fixtures, concept validation and testing as well as forms and tools for casting. These applications are all normalised and viable both in-house and across the supply chain. However, when it comes to high volume production, it’s just a big no! Automotive companies are well behind the aerospace and medical sectors. This, he says, is because: “We can’t combine out additive expertise and out metallurgy expertise at the moment.” Moreover, the reality for most automotive companies is that AM systems are still too limited in their build envelop size compared with traditional automotive tools and the accuracy and distortion of AM is not good enough — it still requires too much post-processing. Apparently auto companies hate paying for post processing. Another problem he highlighted was that material characteristics are not equivalent – and, pertinently, won’t work. For instance, if auto companies have to use cobalt chrome, they’ll use up the global supply in a year! It’s just not going to happen this way. Rather, he suggested, we need to develop new SIMPLE iron / AL based alloys for automotive applications. His proposed solutions were all based around collaborative opportunities — up and down the supply chain to find solutions through increased throughput, improved accuracy, and common automotive material developments. 

He was a very engaging speaker, and his call to action in terms of collaboration was very compelling — however, it was hard to mask the fact that progress with AM for production remains slow across the automotive sector. 

There was one presentation that did stand out perhaps more than any other. It stood out first because it did not do what it said on the tin, and second for the response it generated from the audience. The presentation was given by Lijuan Zhang from the National Innovation Institute of AM in China (NIIAMC), and it was titled “New materials for SLM.” It never quite got there, rather the presentation raised the issue of infrastructure and investment. Ms Zhang introduced the NIIAMC, and in truth it dominated her whole presentation 

According to Zhang, the NIIAMC is a new organisation (1.5 years), established by the government in China. It is the 2ndmanufacturing innovation centre supported by “Made in China 2025” which is part of a 10 year national plan focusing on comprehensively upgrading Chinese manufacturing industry. This regional organisation currently comprises five leading universities in AM and 13 renowned companies operating in AM machines, materials, components and software development. 

The biggest gasp came when Zhang relayed the funding they were working with — a combination of investments from national and regional government as well as corporate sponsorships and investment. The total is RMB 1.035 billion. It may as well be gazillions, and it’s infinitely more that is available for AM in any western nation undertaking a national strategy. This is not just about technology development, it’s a huge infrastructure project being built over 30 acres. It’s basically a town that is being built and will be fully dedicated to 3D printing and additive manufacturing. It will comprise many buildings — both for commercial and educational purposes, and, get this, a museum for all things AM. The town is due for completion in 2023. But by the end of this year there will be a fully functioning high tech district covering 28,000 square metres. They’re well on their way of actioning the mission, namely to promote innovation and entrepreneurship, and drive transformation and upgrading of Chinese manufacturing industry; evelop core technologies and forge a new supply chain, leverage existing resources and establish a highly collaborative innovation ecosystem to bridge the gap between innovation and industry; and provide education and training in AM technologies to create an adaptive and leading workforce. 

Research areas include design, materials, process, equipment and software; along with standards and certification and testing and validation. The materials covered (and this is the closest we got to the presentation title) include metals / ceramics / plastics / amorphous / supermolecular / composites /functionally graded / nanomicro fabrication / smart material and 4D printing. As you would expect, industrial sectors include aerospace, automotive, medical, building construction  and consumer goods. Zhang also covered organisational structure, development plans (including capacity) and new platforms. She also indicated that there are already more than 40 types of metal and non-metal AM equipment in service along side public and pilot scale testing platforms under construction. At this point we were supposed to find out more about some of the research projects, including the headlining materials for SLM. She was out of time — I’m not quite sure if that was by design or not, but the point was well and truly made. 

I heard more than a few sharp intakes of breath and mutterings from the audience as the levels of investment and the vision for an AM city were highlighted. Many of the mutterings, including my own, went along the lines of – “If only! Just imagine what [insert country of residence that’s not China] could do with that sort of investment ….” 

I know money is not everything, I hate its power to corrupt, but there is no arguing that it can certainly buy advances with AM!