Jeremy Pullin is a delegate at the Additive Manufacturing Users Group (AMUG) Conference (for users, by users) in Chicago, USA, this week. As a user of additive manufacturing (AM) technology for more than 15 years and a regular attendee of this event in previous years, Jeremy is well placed to report on some of the week’s hot AM topics. Here he provides some of his exclusive insights for Disruptive.
The 2017 AMUG Conference is most definitely bigger than ever. In fact, I have been reliably informed that it has sold out for the first time in its history, meaning that more than the 1,600 delegates that are actually here wanted to come. Add to that the non-delegate, exhibition-only people and we are looking at well over 1,700 people gathered here at the Hilton in Chicago to learn and share information about additive manufacturing (AM).
There can be no doubt that the work put in by the organizers and other volunteers is immense. The number of parallel talks and training sessions number well over 20 for many of the time slots. Any organization wanting to cover a high proportion of concurrent talks needs to be sending teams of people, and for many companies that seems to be exactly what they are doing.
Additive metal technologies seem to be everywhere and anyone that thought powder bed was the only metals process out there would certainly have had their eyes opened. Relative newcomers such as Vader, Markforged and XJet have all had very well-attended booths and talks. There is also a lot of buzz (from the main stage to the bars) speculating on what ‘Desktop Metal’ will be bringing to the party—and when. There are plenty of nods, winks and nudges but actual information is as scarce as an AMUG weight loss program (the food in plentiful and calorific). There are, of course, quite a few well-established players in the powder bed metals market, but the game is well and truly on for alternative metal technologies, especially at a lower entry price point.
One reoccurring theme that is getting a high proportion of discussion time was expressed during the main keynote of the first morning by the inimitable Todd Grimm, who once again did not fail to deliver a captivating and informative performance. He compared the deluge of new market entrants in the AM industry with an avalanche—an unstoppable force of mass and momentum that will overwhelm all who stand still in its path. This analogy has been referred to many times since, including by 3D Systems’s founder and SLA inventor Chuck Hull during his own presentation.
The avalanche itself does not refer solely to new players entering the market but also to the high number of new products and incremental tweaks to existing offerings from industry incumbents. For newcomers, it can be tricky to identify the tweaks as they are often described in terms such as ‘ground breaking, paradigm shifts in technological possibilities heralding game changing new possibilities for productivity.’ There is a definite mix in the nature and tone of announcements at this year's event Conference—from wholly new products, through genuine steps forward to others where companies simply include features to give their products unique selling points regardless of how useful they actually are. The latter feels a bit like the glut of graphic equalizers that appeared on the amplifiers of home music systems during the 1980s.
Another big theme here is new and emerging plastics materials. Progress in this area can be broken down into two groups.
First, users are no longer content with accepting the properties that standard 3D printing materials can give them. They want the same properties that they can get from engineering polymers that are processed via conventional methods. Companies such as BASF, Carbon and Somos are all showcasing such materials. This is not so much a drive for new super materials but rather a desire for representative prototypes and parts that designers are already accustomed to. People here are saying such things as ‘Yes I want to 3D print it, but I also want it to have a durable living hinge, survive sterilization and look and feel like an injection molded part'.
The second materials group is composite filaments. It seems that more and more people are filling FDM filaments with materials such as glass, metals, carbon fibers, etc. This is not particularly new but it seems to be becoming ever more commonplace.
The term ‘lbs per hour’ has been used many times here too, I’ve noticed. This is a term that we are going to be hearing more and more of as the big area machines become ever more commonplace and it certainly does seem to be something that the manufacturers of such systems are competing on. Figures of anything up to 50lbs per hour are being claimed for some of the larger plastics machines.
Overall, there seems to be a shift in the air. The desire for AM to achieve the extraordinary is being replaced by the desire to achieve the ordinary. In recent years, people have proudly talked about using AM for jet engine fuel nozzles and highly complex geometries, but this year people are proudly boasting about the manufacture of elastomer grommets and flip cap bottle lids. As familiarity of what AM can do has grown, AM system providers can no longer rely on wowing people with being able to grow parts and the talk here is now about AM competing with conventional manufacturing.