I slept for what felt like a hundred hours at the weekend, I’ve got a million USBs on my desk, and I’m starting to remember what lunch at actual lunch time looks like again. Yes, it must be the week after Formnext and now that the team is done pounding the floors of Messe Frankfurt and presenting yet another first-class TCT conference @ Formnext, I’ve actually had a chance to gather my thoughts from four days of additive manufacturing (AM) launches and conversations.
With around 35 press events divvied up between the TCT editorial team, I prepared myself for the onslaught of superlatives and “revolution”s which have become commonplace at such events where a 3D printed metal lattice just doesn’t have the same pizazz as years gone by. But as I trekked across both halls and back and forth between meeting rooms, I was met with a very different sense of excitement as conversations were more about “hey, look at how this SME is using our machines” compared to “my build plate is bigger than yours”.
This feeling was perhaps summed up best in a great conversation I had with Christine Furstoss, Vice President & Chief Technology Officer at GE Additive. Speaking as someone who has spent her entire career at GE, a metallurgist by trade but working with AM since 2011, Furstoss said:
“I think it’s a revelation and not a revolution. I think it’s a revelation that we can change some of the constraints we’ve had to live with. We now have to figure out how do we industrialise it, we now have to make it accessible to small, medium enterprises. When I can get a small auto repair shop to think about additive, because now they don’t have to have a bunch of spare parts on their shelf because they can print it, and I can make it easy for them to run, when I can do that, that’s when additive takes over.”
Of course, this shift didn’t mean big hardware launches were completely done away with. GE Additive was just one company with hardware news as it announced the availability of its Concept Laser M Line Factory systems which debuted at the very same event three years ago. The machine was one of the first modular style systems introduced, running autonomously with robots transporting between process stations, a concept which has now become synonymous with the “factory of the future” vision, and now having undergone rigorous testing, is ready to be shipped to initial customers in Q2 next year. Seeing this concept finally coming to fruition is a sign of the industry’s ongoing progression and GE also announced software and materials updates, cementing the idea that AM is not simply about the machine.
This was also clear on the TCT Introducing @ Formnext stage where I was able to moderate a number of the materials and software sessions. These talks, served in snappy 15 minute segments are a great way of learning what’s new across each sector of the industry whether it’s new hardware developments or post processing techniques. To see a talk about software for post processing (often referred to as the industry’s dirty little secret) draw in such a crowd was extremely encouraging and speaks volumes about the way people are now thinking about additive. Sure, it’s great that you’ve got the design and printing down, but what happens after? And if additive is truly a digital technology, surely that digitisation should extend to any post processing steps too? Link3D’s new Post Processing Management platform addresses those concerns.
Digitisation was a big theme throughout. Machine tool and laser manufacturer, Trumpf, said digitisation is a key term for manufacturing. It’s addressing that with its own TruConnect Industry 4.0 concept and also in its Smart Factory in Chicago where people, machines, automation and software all interact together. Though, Trumpf has typically used the Frankfurt event to launch AM hardware, there were no major launches here but it did announce updates to its TruPrint 5000 system, which can now be preheated to 500 degrees Celsius, and a new green laser concept, opening AM up to even more materials and applications.
There were less concepts and “coming soon”s and more shipping dates (Desktop Metal, for example, is getting ready to ship an updated version of its Production System which offers incredible detail and productivity) and customer stories which is a welcome change when so very often we come across machines that aren’t even close to being on the market or in some cases, we see once and never hear of again. ExOne, 3D Systems, Arburg, Rize and BigRep also exhibited new machines. The exception here was Stratasys which opted to share more details of its gradually teased metal 3D printing technology with some sample parts but no hardware on display. It now has a name, Layered Powder Metallurgy, and is based on a three-step process combining traditional powder metallurgy with Stratasys’ PolyJet ink-jet technology.
Speaking about the company’s decision to drip feed details rather than going all out with a big curtain drop launch, Rafie Grinvald, Director of Product Marketing and Management, Stratasys, told TCT: “This is Stratasys, we are not releasing technology which we don’t believe in, we are not releasing technology which we don’t think will bring value to customers. So we are in development, we are developing the solution, we are working with our customers and we are now shipping our technology to those partners, they will test that technology, we will get the thumbs up from them and then we will go to the market.”
Though some visitors may have been expecting more from the metals side, Stratasys had some tricks up its sleeve on the materials front with new capabilities and colours for its polymer processes. In addition, we saw new medical grade materials from Solvay, incredibly soft SLS materials from Sinterit, new ceramic material and soluble support from Xjet, and material profiles from Ultimaker with DSM, BASF, DuPont and others.
On software, Materialise and Simufact both showcased updated simulation tools to assist print right first time, saving development time, materials, costs, which are helping to push production, and MachineWorks demoed the latest version of its Polygonica software which is being leveraged by key industry players.
This year felt different, we started seeing evidence of this at TCT Show in September where incremental developments, which may have once gone unnoticed alongside shiny new hardware, are now becoming all the more crucial. We’ve got the tools now and companies are putting considerable stock into developing the various parts of the value chain to ensure they can be successfully integrated into industry.
I think it’s a good thing we’re not as focused on AM being a “revolution”. In fact, I can’t tell you the number of conversations I’ve had over the years with industry folk who would love nothing more than to do away with the word along with other infamous tropes like “disruptive” and “innovation ecosystem” (sorry, what now?). It might not be a so-called revolution but what we are able to do with this technology now, will be a revelation to those who may have previously thought it didn’t apply to them or was inaccessible, too complicated, not the right materials. Even I, who sometimes suffers from the same tedium our Head of Content, Daniel O’Connor described in his recent IMTS review, felt newly invigorated by some of the speeds, materials (lots of ceramics, silicones and new ways of printing precious metals) and application examples I saw.
There was a lot to see and learn year and we will be continuing to bring you news and interviews from the show floor over the next few weeks and in our upcoming Formnext Review. Subscribe here to receive your free print copy.