formnext 2017: a quick review

Frankfurt was once again the place to be last week for anyone in 3D printing and additive manufacturing (AM). Mesago hosted the third edition of its formnext exhibition and the growth—of the show and the industry as a whole—was immediately obvious. This year the event housed 471 exhibitors across almost double the floor space compared with 2016 and across two floors of hall 3 at the Frankfurt Messe.

This is just a quick overview of my formnext 2017 experience—due to the time taken to move between halls up and down multiple escalators, I did not cover even half of the show.

The most well-attended press conference I went to on the first day was delivered by GE Additive, which unveiled its Project A.T.L.A.S. metal AM system. Some thoughts on this, as well as adira can be found here. Indeed, it was a fitting start and re-iterated the increasing growth and scaling-up themes that would keep recurring.

Industrial laser company Trumpf, a relative newcomer to the AM industry, introduced its third new machine in as many years, the TruPrint 5000. This latest metal platform iteration operates with three of Trumpf’s 500-watt fiber lasers, each guided by scanners, producing complex components up to 300 mm in diameter and 400 mm in the Z axis. The TruPrint 5000 also features an automated transport mechanism for part removal, while maintaining the inert atmosphere and automatically re-calibrating the build chamber ahead of the next build. It’s all about increasing productivity.

Increased productivity was also behind the new offering from UK metal AM vendor Renishaw, which showed the latest addition to its machine portfolio, the RenAM 500. Unlike many of Renishaw’s competitors, the company has not increased the platform size, but it does now incorporate four lasers and increased automation. Robin Weston, marketing manager, made the point by showing me, live on the stand, production of a complex galvo mounting block for the RenAM 500 itself (this is like RepRap on steroids, and some). The exhibit was in three parts and illustrated how far the part was built up after 19 hours with 1 laser, how far it was built up after the same time with two lasers (both visually demonstrating the complexity of the interior) and the completed part—built in 19 hours, with four lasers.

SLM Solutions was promoting a new and bigger metal AM platform, the SLM 800, on a bigger and re-designed booth. During the show, news came through that the company had secured an order for 20 of these machines to one company in Asia. This, on top of the sale of fifty 500-series machines around the time of the TCT show, offers a sure sign that confidence is burgeoning in metal AM in general and selective laser melting (SLM) in particular.

OR Laser showed another metal powder bed laser melting platform that had a significant upgrade. At the other end of the scale, the Orlas Creator is a small, accessible but highly capable machine that raised a lot of interest (and orders) when it was introduced last year, according to Uri Resnik, co-founder and chief operation officer (COO). This year the company introduced the Orlas Creator Hybrid, which adds a CNC machining capability to the 3D printing features of the original Orlas Creator and was launched along with new cloud manufacturing services.

Xact Metal is another relatively new market entrant for accessible metal 3D printing. CEO Juan Mario Gomez believes that the company’s Xact Core technology sets Xact apart, and at the show launched a bigger 3D printer, the XM300 with a larger build volume of 254 x 330 x 330 mm.

I was looking forward to finding out more about Spee3D, and I was not disappointed by this new metal machine which employs a unique ‘ultrasonic’ cold fusion process. It was running on the show floor and drawing a great deal of attention. It does achieve remarkable speeds, which once again translates to increased productivity. Talking with co-founder and CEO Byron Kennedy, I also got a better idea of where Spee3D fits within the AM landscape. It is not trying to compete with existing metal AM processes, rather it is filling a gap that these other processes leave in terms of producing fast, low-cost, high volumes of casting grade parts. They can be complex parts, but do not have to be.

It was also great to re-connect with Jonah Myerberg of Desktop Metal who showed me around the company’s production system and the automated ancillaries that improve productivity. Yes, it’s that word again, and lots of companies are focused on it, because that is what their customers are demanding.

While metals did dominate, they were not the only star of the show. Nowhere was this more evident than on the EOS stand. EOS is a fine example of the value of both metal and plastic AM for industrial applications and places an equal emphasis on both. During the company’s press conference, they highlighted how they generate almost equal revenues from both. EOS used formnext to unveil its latest polymer platform, the EOS P 500 as well as its partnership with high-profile sports brand Under Armour.

Over at the Voxeljet stand, CEO Ingo Ederer introduced a new high-speed sintering machine. This proprietary machine is the result of a license of the HSS process developed by Neil Hopkinson. Voxeljet was also keen to highlight its collaboration with Johnson Matthey on processes and ceramics materials.

HP, meanwhile, used formnext to show how it is scaling up its polymer jet fusion offering, and this does all seem to be going in the right direction. Ramon Pastor showed me around the new, bigger 4210 platform, which he described as ‘another step towards break even’ compared with injection molding. It is not just about the 3D printer, however, but also the volume and cost of materials, which he said will come down to 30 USD per kilo.

One of the best straplines of formnext came from Stratasys: ‘The Power of Additive. Applied.’  The company should keep running with this: it’s spot on because that’s exactly where the power of AM lies—in the applications—and always will. Stratasys was fairly understated when it came to big announcements at this formnext. The company’s presence was unmistakable, of course, with a big and busy stand, but the press conference was modest when compared with previous years.

Stratasys did introduce a new software offering, GrabCAD Voxel Print, for greater control of the design for AM process. This is a vital development and an interesting one, particularly listening to Stratasys’s partners who are working with it already. However, there was a notable emphasis on consolidation for Stratasys, with the company highlighting the success of the F123 machine series for prototyping in particular as well as its partnerships and industrial customized solutions. Andy Middleton, president of Stratasys EMEA, reinforced this numerous times and told me, off the record, what to expect in 2018/19. For now, though, this cash-rich company is acting quite conservatively.

A few different conversations about software at the show revealed a consensus that it’s still not good enough to support high-volume, automated AM, and more needs to be done.

One of my personal highlights was catching up with the XJET people. First at the scheduled press conference which formally introduced the Carmel AM system in commercial form, based on the company’s proprietary nano jetting process and running ceramic materials (metals are due to be commercialized very soon), as well as announcing the first global installation of the Carmel at Oerlikon. Later in the day, XJET hosted a party at its booth to honor the 68th birthday of Haim Levi. They went all out for this AM industry veteran of 32 years, who founded Cubital back in 1985. It was a wonderful reminder of the history and the humanity behind this industry.

About Rachel Park

Rachel is a passionate advocate of additive manufacturing/3D printing technologies and the industry that has sprung up around it. However, as the hype and hyperbole has gathered momentum, her aim is always to offer a reasoned voice in the midst of inflated expectations and to cut through the noise in order to provide a realistic outlook of how things are.