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

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. 


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