TCT Show 2017: 3D printing is bigger, better and busier

TCT Show, which ran September 26-28, brought the expected feelings of nostalgia from a shared history dating back 22 years. This was my 20th year of attendance, having missed a couple while on maternity leave over the years. While the three-day show did, as ever, prove to be exhausting, I will never miss the stress that went with the organizational side of things.

The professional organization and production of this year’s event—which has increased in both size and stature—was impressive.

You can never overstate the positive buzz that comes from attending one of these 3D printing industry shows. No information-gathering medium—in digital or analogue format—compares to seeing tech at first hand and talking to people. There is never enough time to see all you want to.

My first in-depth conversation was with Kevin Smith, now an independent consultant working to help companies implement additive manufacturing (AM) in industrial environments. As we walked from the registration desk towards the show floor, I couldn’t help laughing out loud as Kevin pointed to numerous exhibits in our immediate vicinity saying: ‘That’s not production!’

Kevin argues that one of the main problems with AM is, ‘it’s still premium, not production, and the vendors are holding it back with high capital and consumable costs.’

I took his point, even while pointing to a couple of obvious exceptions, which he in turn acknowledged. The other key problem Kevin identified through his activities with big industrial firms is that AM is not a solution to every manufacturing challenge, while there are lots of opportunities that are still being missed. I pointed to an increasing shift towards specific application development work by many vendors.

The following three kept throwing up this theme of AM and production in various ways.

The definition of ‘production’ applications within the context of AM has traditionally been parts manufactured directly using additive technology for end-use applications (with or without post-processing). Part volumes are often considered a necessary factor for ‘real production’. This volume quantity can vary dramatically depending on who you talk to, but over 10,000 parts per year seems a fair, if arbitrary, number to settle on. Of course, as I was often reminded, this is still low compared with injection molded parts.

A very clear example of where things are going with AM came from Carbon. The large stand was augmented by huge images and real examples of the adidas Futurecraft 4D trainer/sneaker. Talking with Phil DiSimone about the adidas application and Carbon’s announcement of a new material pricing structure, I got to really understand where Carbon is going with real-world production capabilities: with certified, cheaper materials at high volumes that can compete with injection molding on volumes, economics and quality.

He drew in my notebook the familiar ‘per part’ pricing graph that is often used to illustrate where AM is cost-effective for production and the cutoff point where injection molding (IM) supposedly takes over. ‘It’s nonsense, and it gets me mad,’ Phil said.

Considering what Carbon has achieved with adidas—reinforced by adidas vice president (VP) of technology Gerd Manz, during his keynote presentation—it is not surprising that Phil feels frustrated at the resistance towards viewing AM as a true production technology. This very visible consumer application is just the first, with two more production applications from automotive partners BMW and Ford set to be revealed ‘very soon’.

What is suggested in that graph was true when the industry started out and for quite some time after. Now, though, it should be used with caution as an application-specific illustration for economic comparisons, not as a general rule for AM.

Carbon is developing serious, high-volume production applications with a polymer-based process, while most conversations about production assumed that metal processes are driving production applications.  The misnomer is that polymers are for prototyping and metals for production. The Desktop Metal Studio platform, for example, was developed to offer metal prototyping capabilities.

Ceramic materials, which arrived earlier in the development cycle, are notably increasing in visibility; 3D Ceram was represented at TCT Show by 3D Matters. There was no XJET at the event, but they will be at Formnext.

As an aside, a brilliant overview of AM materials development and application came during a #3DTalk organized by Nora Touré, founder of Women in 3D Printing, and Laura Griffiths, deputy group editor for TCT Magazine. This women-only panel session featured experts in their respective material fields, covering resins, powders, research and application development. I believe the recording will be available on the TCT Magazine website.

Unsurprisingly, the metal AM vendors occupied a large proportion of the floor space at TCT Show. Most of the big metal companies had a strong presence, with SLM, EOS, Renishaw, Trumpf, 3D Systems, Additive Industries and of course GE, which encompasses GE Additive, Concept Laser and Arcam, all with prominent stands.  They are all focused on large-scale production, and here, scale refers more to the size of the parts rather than the volume. Even so, it is hard to deny the progress with ‘real’ production applications, however you define it.

All these companies are reporting increasing order numbers, often multiple machines from the same companies. SLM specifically reported a 50-unit order from China recently.

There is an increasing split within the metal AM sub-sector between powder bed melting and binder jetting with subsequent sintering processes. At TCT Show, this was immediately observable by noting the latest offerings from UK distributor Laser Lines. The company’s sales director Mark Tyrtania was very excited to offer the metal AM systems from both Desktop Metal and OR Laser. He was quick to assert that there is no conflict because the two processes, as they fulfil very different application requirements. Mark reported considerable interest in both platforms at the event, as well as sales, but he wouldn’t be pushed on specific numbers.  

The ORLAS Creator metal 3D printer from OR Laser was only visible at TCT Show via Laser Lines. This was the machine’s first appearance in the UK since its launch at Formnext last year. It is currently the only commercially available, smaller, more economical hardware system based on the powder bed layer melting process, commonly referred to as laser melting.

By contrast, Desktop Metal had a large stand of its own at TCT Show and I was delighted to speak at length with the company’s CTO and co-founder Jonah Myerberg. Our extensive conversations will be covered in a separate article, but this remark proved to me the company’s grip on reality is firm: ‘Everyone wants that perfect 3D printer, but it doesn’t exist.’ He went on to explain that Desktop Metal is filling a gap in the market with an original solution, but it won’t solve every manufacturing problem.

Desktop Metal’s relationship with Stratasys is likely a significant factor in the Laser Lines deal mentioned above, as Stratasys’s industrial systems have long been the AM star in Laser Line’s offering. The partnership between Desktop Metal and Stratasys, including sharing distributor channels, was announced earlier this year at Rapid.

Another relative newcomer to the metal AM space at TCT Show was Digital Metal. Digital Metal is a Hoganas company, born of the parent company’s long history of metal powder expertise and its first entry into AM in 2010. Digital Metal was established in 2012 as a developer of precision metal systems, notably for micro sized products.

This proprietary hardware was originally used by Digital Metal to provide a dedicated service to end-users. When customers started requesting their own machines, the decision was taken to make Digital Metal an independent entity along with the commercial availability of the DM P2500 this year. With two high-profile DMs competing in the same space, it might be necessary to rethink the name of the hardware, but the parts off the machine were very impressive indeed.

A similar dynamic in polymer AM to that highlighted by Laser Lines with metal came from a lengthy conversation with John Beckett, managing director (MD) of EuroPac; another multiple AM process distributor.

EuroPac’s long-established place in the 3D ecosystem comes from its expertise with 3D scanning equipment. The company’s first foray into AM, a natural extension for a 3D scanning company, came around eight years ago, when the company became a successful distributor for ZCorp, which evolved into a relationship with 3D Systems after it acquired ZCorp.

John said this relationship came to an end for various reasons, most notably because EuroPac did not want to be tied to one AM supplier. EuroPac now offers two industrial-focused AM processes—stereolithography (SLA) from Union Tech and multi jet fusion (MJF) from HP. John highlighted that despite both being polymer processes, they fulfil very different application requirements and don’t really compete.

Since being approved as an HP distributor in May, EuroPac’s sales of the HP machines have multiplied. The machines at Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) and at the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) are public knowledge, but all we know about the other machines is that they are in the aerospace sector.

An issue raised at the International Conference on AM in Nottingham a few months ago was the difficulty in obtaining finance, and this was cited by John as a recurring problem for industrial AM equipment. He thinks HP can help resolve this through its own banking facility in Dublin. He said: ‘This can support leasing deals for HP equipment. It’s active now and set to increase. I believe it could change the marketplace.’

This issue also popped up when talking to Lars Ryberg, who has returned to Arcam and will be working out of the UK. He also cited finance as a major challenge for potential customers, but now with the might of GE behind Arcam, new financing options are being opened up.

These are positive steps around the financing challenge, but they are baby steps. The status quo is that the biggest companies are financing their own equipment, but this will not open up AM in a way that allows potential users to select the best AM tool for their application. Independent banks need to get on board with this and not just in the UK, but globally.

The focus on production can overshadow the still prolific applications of additive technologies for prototyping and tooling. It is still strong and still growing, and some choice examples follow.

One of the most amusing was the presence of Formula 1 teams to promote the partnerships they have established with 3D printing companies. I got some insight into 3D Systems’s relationship with Renault Sports Formula One Team when I visited the facility earlier in the summer and reported on it for the last issue of Disuptive Inight here. The Renault F1 car was prominent on the 3D Systems stand at TCT Show, highlighting the prototype and production parts. In contrast, Stratasys was highlighting its partnership with McLaren Racing, also with a car or two sited in the hall entrance to the show.

I sat in on the keynote presentation given by Simon Roberts, chief operations officer (COO) at McLaren Racing. It is actually a very similar story to Renault Sports—they’ve been using 3D printing for 20 years or so for prototyping and faster product development, ‘but now we’re on the edge of a breakthrough for manufacturing.’

It does feel we’ve been teetering on this edge for a while, and I suspect Simon was being extremely reticent in his presentation with his competitors in such close proximity. We were never going to get the full story of 3D printing at McLaren. I did smirk privately learning that the love-hate relationship between the F1 teams was clearly reflected in a similar relationship between these two 3D printing companies!

At TCT Show, Stratasys also unveiled new materials—Agilus30 and Digital ABS Plus materials for the J750 3D printer, and the application-specific VeroFlex material, a new, rigid photopolymer which has been specially formulated for the rapid prototyping of eyewear.

The PEEK polymer is also featuring more regularly among 3D printing companies. EOS, at the high end, has offered this material for some time now, while Roboze introduced a platform last year at Formnext that could process PEEK. At TCT Show, two more companies were demonstrating this capability— VSHAPER and INTAMYS.

Formlabs was highlighting its new Fuse 1 desktop SLS platform. Unfortunately, there was no working machine on site, but there were parts and it was attracting a lot of interest. It was a similar story at Sinterit.

It was great to catch up with Julie Reece in the UK once again, Julie was overseeing the first introduction to the UK market of the Rize One 3D printer, featuring the novel (and patented) augmented polymer deposition (APD) process. Julie highlighted some of the challenges faced by a 3D printing start-up with a truly original process, including generating the right tone and noise in an increasingly noisy industry and staying honest and true to its roots. On an exciting note, the company is close to introducing its new chief executive officer (CEO); watch this space, I think this announcement will come before Formnext.

Other things…
TCT Show was the launch pad for the Additive Manufacturing UK National Strategy 2018-2025. I truly hope this initiative gains momentum and drives real innovation across UK manufacturing, as similar initiatives are undertaken across the world.

TCT Show still opens its arms to the open source and maker communities around 3D printing. These communities are thriving in numbers, spirit and business. Just some of the companies that stand out here are E3D, BCN3D, Lulzbot and Hawk 3D Proto, while individual ambassadors such as Richard Horne (@RichRap3D), Ben Hawksworth Thomas Sanladerer (@toms3dp) and Daniel Norée (@DanielNoree) work tirelessly to promote the ethos and the increasing levels of progress through video productions, social media and meet-ups.

One fly in the ointment for the OS community that was discussed at length at TCT Show was the Ultimaker shift. Since it was founded, Ultimaker has been a loud advocate for it open operations. But the company has signaled that this might be changing, causing some concern that it might be headed down the ‘MakerBot road’.

In a delightful nod to this established and accepted sub-sector of the industry, the founder of the open source 3D printing movement, Adrian Bowyer, who created RepRap, was inducted into the TCT Hall of Fame at the inaugural TCT Awards evening. Adrian was one of five 3D printing industry heavyweights inducted in to this new hall of fame, alongside: Scott Crump, founder of Stratasys; Chuck Hull, founder of 3D Systems; Hans Langer, founder of EOS; and Fried Vancraen, founder and CEO of Materialise.

There were a range of other awards categories celebrated over the evening and all of the winners can be found at the dedicated TCT Awards website. The organizers seemed at pains to highlight during a brief Twitter squabble that all winners were selected by a third-party jury and I don’t doubt this in any way. It can’t have been an easy choice and there are still innumerable worthy candidates for 2018 and beyond.

The AM Ecosystem was also well represented at TCT Show with a high number of ancillary companies exhibiting. I caught up with LPW, 3D SIM and Link3d, the latter unveiling new products for automating the AM workflow, as well as its digital factory—a kind of industrial 3D Hubs. At the back end of the process, post-processing remains a big deal, with big companies such as CIPRES and Guyson bringing automated professional solutions.

CIPRES, in particular, was an interesting one. It is offering a newly launched service developed by Additive Manufacturing Technologies out of Sheffield. This young company has focused in on the post-processing anomaly. The company’s CEO, Joseph Crabtree, told me that they have developed a fully automated, repeatable post-processing technology that provides the ‘missing links’ in the AM digital process chain. The company has a number of high-level industry backers, and I will be very interested to see the full solution when it is presented at Formnext next month. The post-processed parts that were on show were incredible.

Despite TCT show offering a wide range of presentations across three stages, I just couldn’t find the time to get to anywhere near as many as I would have liked. Two-way conversations with eye-contact are always the priority at shows like this and they took precedence. Hopefully the presentations were being recorded for release online at a later date.

Final thoughts
One final aside. Why is there an increase in the number of companies/brands incorporating ‘3’ into their names, followed by a ‘d’ and pronouncing it ‘ed’? For example, Link3D, pronounced Linked, SHR3D, pronounced Shred, and Spee3D, pronounced Speed. Go figure.

TCT Show 2017, like Rapid earlier in the year, demonstrated how the profile of the AM industry has been elevated within the context of global manufacturing. Exhibitors and visitors referenced how the technology is definitely being taken more seriously.

The event allowed me to have some fascinating and hugely thought-provoking conversations, many of which will provide plenty of material for future articles.

Roll-on Formnext.

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.