Insight from the International Conference on Additive Manufacturing & 3D Printing

This conference, which took place at the Nottingham Belfry hotel and conference center and is hosted by the University of Nottingham, once again, did not disappoint.

The 2017 edition was the 12th annual event in this series and increased once again in both size and stature with more than 250 delegates and 30 exhibitors on site, according to the organizers. Following a well-trusted formula, the emphasis was on the provision of information, both through the high-level, in-depth conference presentations and the intensive networking opportunities afforded during the conference days.

The conference program was broken into two parts over three days. Day one was run separately to the main event, dedicated to the ‘Industrial Realities of Additive Manufacturing’, while the following days ran under the conference title.

It was an educated and knowledgeable crowd when it comes to additive manufacturing (AM). Prof Phill Dickens, who introduced the industrial day, took a straw poll that indicated a handful of delegates were completely new to AM, with a wide cross-section of industries represented across the delegate base, including all the usual suspects such as aerospace, defense, automotive (elite and road cars) and medical, plus a few others besides. As you might expect, there was also a strong academic and research contingent.

Phil Reeves from Stratasys Expert Services opened the Industrial Realities of Additive Manufacturing day with a presentation entitled Understanding the Production Economics—The Harsh Realities of 3D Printing.’ Reeves’ presentation utilized the term ‘usual suspects’ throughout to highlight the problems that industrial sectors face when implementing AM for part production, accompanied by suspect police line-up imagery on his slides.

After denouncing many of the press promises of AM and 3D printing, Phil highlighted how, in 2017, the reality is more conservative and additive technologies are not as widespread as we have been led to believe. The reason for this, Phil stated, comes down to five ‘usual suspects’, namely: accuracy, build speed, part size, part cost and mechanical properties.

It’s hard to argue that these challenges are not still barriers to adoption. I hear them cited by users of AM tech over and over again. Reeves made an excellent point in his summation, however, that all five issues do not have to be solved at the same time. In terms of production applications with AM, the focus should always be on the application, and he believes more and more that application-specific hardware systems will emerge (think fuel nozzles, orthopedic implants, hearing aids, etc.). These are additive production systems developed for specific parts and components at higher volumes where the economics make sense. ‘The machines might cost 8 million USD, but it doesn’t matter if the value that comes off them justifies that investment,’ said Reeves.

I think he is wrong here. It’s no secret that the huge multi-nationals are leading the charge with AM for production applications; their deep pockets for hardware acquisition, integration capabilities and R&D make it a no-brainer.

That said, opportunities do exist for smaller and medium-sized companies involved with AM that should not be overlooked, but they do tend to involve more risk.

This was the message in the presentation given by Sophie Jones, general manager of AM consultancy firm Added Scientific. The presentation was centered around Jones’s research, supported by Innovate UK, which included interviewing a number of smaller companies involved with AM in the UK. While it can be argued that this research has a regional bias, I think the barriers to adoption that Jones identified for smaller organizations are universal.  

The first, and arguably the most significant challenge cited by all of the firms, is access to finance. Banks are often reticent about funding for AM, largely because they do not understand the technology base. Jones highlighted some hair-raising examples of small, privately-funded companies taking high personal risks to purchase machines. It shouldn’t be this way, but if options are limited, there is often no other route.

Other challenges and barriers to adoption for SMEs raised in Jones’s presentation included firms requiring back-up revenue streams to support AM activities; the issue of global supply chains while sales are largely domestic; the need to educate customers; the AM skills shortage; and, last but not least, industry accreditation. ISO accreditation is vital, as most customers demand it, particularly those working within highly regulated industries.

Additional highlights included an evening meeting organized by Jones, by invitation only, for women in AM. It was attended by 20 women, a testament to the noticeable increase in women working in this field. However, the fact that this is even an issue that needs highlighting, and that the percentages overall are still low, means there is still much to be done.

Highlights from the conference proper were many and varied. The research into a new additive process being undertaken at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), presented by Maxim Shusteff, stood out. This is a new, faster photopolymer process called fast volumetric fabrication. A video clip showing part formation in a resin bath taking a couple of seconds blew my mind. I was not alone. There are no layers involved in this; the process is enabled by a truly three-dimensional holographic light source. As always with new processes, Shusteff qualified our excitement about this new process (increased speed, no free surface, no substrate and more predictable/traceable process models) with this statement: ‘Holography is interesting, and we’ve shown it’s possible, but it has limitations.’  

And the holographic process is not the end of the story, Shusteff also provided a sneak-peak of another new process under R&D at LLNL, this one called tomographic volumetric 3D fabrication, which shows promise in terms of eliminating geometric limitations. The research on this process is due to be presented at the upcoming SFF event.

As an aside, after this presentation, someone next to me commented: ‘This makes the ‘Star Trek Replicator’ analogy seem possible.’ I disagreed, in the strongest possible terms.

In terms of newer, commercial (or nearly commercial) processes, there were some very insightful ‘X’ presentations from Neil Hopkinson and Dror Danai of Xaar and XJET, respectively.

The high-speed sintering process itself has been well-documented and Hopkinson, as ever, delivered an accomplished presentation. The Xaar business model—both with this process as a service and internal tool—continues to intrigue and will, I suspect prove disruptive.

Danai’s presentation provided some real insight into the almost-ready-for-commercialisation nano particle jetting (NPJ) process with both metal and ceramic materials. The R&D model at XJET is super impressive, as I discovered when I talked directly with Danai at the event. The ‘magic’ behind this process lies in controlling the delivery of the nano particles in a proprietary dispersion material. The enabling tool is the proprietary inkjet head and the temperatures it can withstand. Not a dissimilar narrative to Xaar, actually. Moreover, the anecdote I heard more than five years ago, about ‘inkjet being the future of additive manufacturing’ kept coming back to me during the conference.

In terms of advanced applications highlighted at the conference, delegates were enlightened on some of the intricacies of producing parts for performance bikes for the UK Olympic and Tour de France teams (METRON), cars (BMW), electronic products (Texas Instruments) and hearing aids (Sonova). There was also a long-term AM vision presentation from Airbus, but this was generic in nature with no specific applications referenced.

While none of these applications are wholly novel in terms of the sectors, the Sonova presentation in particular highlighted the over-arching narrative of progress with AM and what can be achieved now compared with when it was first implemented. Sonova, for instance, via its various brands, has been producing millions of small production hearing aid parts with plastic AM since 2007. Ten years later, the company has transitioned to metal AM—with biocompatible materials and improved functionality—at the same volumes.  This is a really big deal for the company and the technology and a great marker of progress for the additive industry as a whole.

I mentioned Xaar’s business model above and I will be digging deeper into this just as soon as I get clearance. Another company that revealed a very interesting business model with AM is Johnson Matthey (JM), a world-leading catalyst manufacturer with core competencies in developing catalytic materials, coatings, powders and ceramics. Funnily enough, the presenter, Samanth O’Callaghan joined Johnson Matthey from Xaar two-and-a-half years ago. Regardless, JM, after initial research into various AM processes in 2009, initiated a very specific, application-based solution for AM by developing a binder inkjet ceramic AM process. It’s another interesting business model, once again based on user evolution, whereby JM also developed and uses its own ceramic materials—not a surprise, considering the company’s expertise.

Of note during O’Callaghan’s presentation was the positive reason for using this process, namely the scalability of binder inkjet technology and the fact that it is ‘faster and cheaper at scale.’ She highlighted the significant post-processing requirements as well as how porous parts are, stressing that this was actually an advantage for the JM application. Today, JM is able to make a better product, more sustainably and cheaper, with its ceramic AM process. The company is in the process of establishing its pilot plant, which will be completed in a few months and is for manufacturing at scale; ‘tons per year’, according to O’Callaghan, with automated bespoke material handling and an integrated end-to-end solution.  

The scope of the program was wide and the presentations so impressive and informative that it is impossible to do it full justice in one round-up article. However, across the three days, four themes kept recurring in presentations and conversations, namely: the skills shortage around AM; funding for AM; AM integration into factory workflows, both digitally and physically; and how this is often resulting in a hybrid (subtractive and additive) workflow.

The content from the three days has given me, and I suspect all the delegates, much to think about in the coming weeks and months. I certainly have plenty to follow up on and write about for the next few issues of Disruptive Insight.

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.