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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!

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! 

ADDITIVE INTERNATIONAL 2018: A Round up of the Pre-conference Conference in Nottingham

My annual pilgrimage to Nottingham for the Additive International conference happened recently (10th-12thJuly). As I may have mentioned once or twice previously, I am a big fan of this event, due to the huge amount of new information I always discover during the three days, not to mention the networking opportunities that always throw up plenty of off-the-record insights. This year proved to be no different.

The Nottingham event, renamed and rebranded for 2018 as “Additive International” under the organisation of Added Scientific and the company’s rapidly growing team is a permanent calendar fixture for many people in the additive manufacturing sector, me included. There are always new faces, however, and at the Nottingham Belfry venue, this event has reached capacity in 2018, according to Sophie Jones, Managing Director of Added Scientific. 

For some years now, the event is split into two – with day one offering a pre-conference day full of updates on UK AM research activities. I have always found this to be extremely valuable in that it provides keen insights into trends around AM, the often overlooked challenges and issues and where the next breakthroughs are happening. Traditionally, this pre-conference conference has highlighted a great deal of academic work, but this year saw a change of pace. The day was run in collaboration with Innovate UK, which is part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) the national funding agency investing in science and research in the UK.

Under the banner “Business Innovation in Additive Manufacturing” the day was dedicated to highlighting 32 of the 50 AM projects that Innovate UK is supporting. You may wonder why not all 50? I’ll admit it did occur to me, too, but according to Robin Wilson, who heads up Innovate UK, fitting 32 into one day was quite stressful enough. And as the day unfolded, I took his point. Sessions were dedicated to specific areas of research, specifically: 

New Additive Manufacturing Processes
Med Tech
Post Processing
Inspection Systems
New Materials / Conductive Components
Large Scale / Construction
Tooling / Hybrid Processes
Aerospace – Large Project. 

Each session then started with a 10-minute presentation, with a headline project that provided insight into this area of research, development and commercialisation progress. The session then progressed to a series of 2-minute pitches highlighting the progress of other projects in this area. It was fast paced and, barring a singular mishap, slick in operation providing some key insights. The 2-minute presentations all followed the same formula – throwing a spotlight on the key objectives of each project, the progress that has been made to date, future goals and how the project contributed to the UK National AM strategy. It really worked very well and fulfilled the self-imposed remit of sharing information and highlighting some of the UK’s most advanced AM research heading towards commercialisation. 

Obviously there was a huge amount of IP beneath these glossy 2-minute presentations. The representatives of each project, usually fronting for wider partnerships, had been asked “to share as far as possible” but there was always an awareness that there was much more going on beneath the surface. From a business point of view – that’s a given and was generally well accepted across the audience. 

One observation across the day was the high number of these projects that are due to end in March 2019. In line with the Brexit deadline. It was never explicitly said out loud, but the implication was clear and as in many other areas across UK industry, it threatened a darkening cloud with no clear solution. 

Two other key themes that emerged time and again across the day, and across sessions, were automation and connectivity. The focus on these areas is actually diverse but uniformed in the call to action to ensure improvements in both for successful AM implementation – specifically in-house but also across supply chains. 

It would be impossible to cover every project presented during the day in this post – to give you an idea, the shorthand notes I took during the event yesterday totalled almost 4,000 words. So here I am going to highlight a couple of projects that really stood out for me, and hopefully follow up with a more comprehensive project overview post-conference. 

I think the most inspirational project presented was the collaboration between Andiamo, Additive Flow and Barts Health NHS Trust. The name of the project — CON-DIG — does not do it justice, but hints at the focus, namely Connected Digital Additive Manufacturing to develop the interface between product design, AM systems and in-process data for a feedback loop to improve both design and production operations. 

For this particular collaboration the focus is to “create data driven, family-centred healthcare product design” with a direct impact on real, young, human lives through the accelerated, patient-specific development and manufacture of 3D Printed orthotics for children & adolescents. As Alexander Fluke, from Additive Flow, explained it: Barts has 1000s of patients that fit into this category worldwide, and while each case may have commonality, every one of them requires different treatment through the application of the orthotic providing different amounts of force over time. Conventionally, these orthotics take six months to produce from consultation and measurement through to fitting on the child or young person. Thus, often they end up being redundant by the time they are ready, due to the inconvenient fact that children tend to grow over a six month period. 

And this is the exciting part of this project, the one that really makes a difference, in that Andiamo is able to accelerate the manufacturing process from 6 months down to 1 week. Moreover, by using functional graded materials and functionally grading the orthotic in a way that is targeted to the specific requirements of each child’s medical issue it becomes easy to see why AM is such a good fit here. 

Innovate UK was obviously proud to be funding this project which is demonstrably improving lives and “empowering children to be children” by receiving BETTER treatment, faster. The project is currently half way through its 18 month span, the goal is to roll it out. It’s one of those applications where you want to stand up and cheer because it’s a real application, applied in a realistic way and DOING GOOD; but I had to stop myself, you know, being at a professional conference and all. 

The other project that really stood out for me was presented by Dan Mace of Archipelgo in the “New AM Processes” session. He introduced his two-minute pitch with three words, but it got a great deal of attention. He said: “We jet glue.” The project is called “SmartDrop” and the premise is a connected digital additive manufacturing platform, using inkjetting technology. In a nutshell, Smartdrop is a non-contact jetting process for viscous liquids targeting applications that include shaped and programmable adhesive, efficient coatings and primers. 

The objectives of this project include creating a SmartDrop prototype system, then subsequently place this system at a lead customer site, with the ultimate goal of commissioning a Smartdrop manufacturing system facility. To date the prototype system has progressed well, and has demonstrated that the technology is scalable at narrow width. Moreover, options for manufacturing have been identified. The project is running until 2020, and definitely one to keep an eye on — in the UK and globally. 

What the Innovate UK day achieved more than anything else, at least for me, was to to serve to highlight the tremendous rate of growth taking place in the 3D printing sector, it certainly seems to have tipped into exponential. The ideas, the funding, the projects and the collaborations just here in the UK are expanding at a tremendous rate and that is certainly being mirrored across Europe, the US, Canada, Australia and China, if the rest of the conference was anything to go by. 

That round up will follow.