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

Monday 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. 

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