After an intense first day at formext 2017, during the SLM Solutions day one closing party, I asked Terry Wohlers, the first and best known covering the additive manufacturing industry, if he and other industry pioneers could have envisioned the evolution and excitement now surrounding all that is 3D printing “We all knew it was going to grow and we could even guess in which general directions – Terry said – however, what we could not have expected was how many challenges we would have to overcome to get there”.
That is how the AM industry grows: by solving enormously complex problems which open up new opportunities, each one with its own new set of problems to solve. That’s why, as Terry explained, the industry is expanding so rapidly and creating so many new jobs. While no one is getting rich, in what is still largely an investment-led industry, digital industrial additive manufacturing is certainly not taking jobs away, rather it is completely redefining the human element in its interaction with automated, ultra-optimized, production systems.
The road ahead is a long one. If anything, as the path becomes clearer it also becomes clearer that it is much longer than many could have imagined even just three years ago when formnext was born from the ashes of Euromold. A new show for a new era. An ultra-modern, E3-like conference for an industry that needs to shed its old skin and embrace its new role as the bleeding edge of technological advancement in all of manufacturing. An exciting industry, driven by entirely new dynamics which originate both from the very top, from giant companies like Siemens, GE, HP, and the very bottom, from the myriad of innovative startups that continue to emerge and populate the industry with new ideas to solve those new problems.
An investment-led industry on a decade-long run
Apart from a few exceptions — Stratasys, 3D Systems, EOS — the gigantic, elegant booths that drove the 100% growth in exhibition space and 53% growth in the number of exhibitors were financed by the significant investments that major international enterprises have decided to commit to in this next phase of expansion. As the industry completes its transition from single to serial digital part production, the biggest players are moving early to grab a share of what they expect to be a giant apple once it ripens.
While these investments are substantial they may not be as risky as one could think. GE is investing heavily to capitalize on its acquisition of Concept Laser and Arcam, taking their business to the next level. The two companies combined likely represent the majority of metal systems sold and with GE’s capital they can further escalate both in terms of technological evolution and revenues. For HP the investment is ongoing, focusing primarily on expanding its partner and distribution network while accelerating the development of — much needed — new material capabilities for its MJF technology. Likewise, Siemens is both investing and partnering with several major established industry players — including Stratasys and EOS, for example — to expand its own and their AM software capabilities.
At the same time traditional industry leaders, are continuing to invest to further advance their prototyping capabilities while scaling up toward production. EOS is doing this with the new state of the art P500 polymer SLS system while 3D Systems is evolving its SLA technology towards modular automated and affordable production with the Figure 4 system — and a number of other systems — and Stratasys is reinforcing its leadership in its still unparalleled voxel control capabilities with the new GrabCAD Voxel software. Meanwhile, Materialise, another company which has been leading the industry for years, is reaping the benefits of this transition, continuing to grow and even meeting Wall Street’s appreciation.
HP, GE and major material manufacturers such BASF, Sabic or Covestro are all in it for the long haul. Traditional rapid prototyping industry leaders are investing heavily in their future production capabilities and other well-funded startups like Desktop Metal and XJet are also investing heavily in finalizing and fine-tuning their technologies while building their sales and partner networks.
This – incidentally – is why stocks are low in 3D printing. The returns are not short term, no matter how you look at it, and — beyond the early hype bubble — this does not catch the interest of financial analysts and investment funds who might rather make a quick buck with cryptocurrencies. The problem – of course – is that while giants like GE and HP have the financial strength to tough it out through many difficulties, other smaller companies need to get it right in as few tries as possible. One way or the other the AM industry will grow, it just remains to be seen who will populate it and it will not necessarily be those with the most revolutionary tech.
At formnext there were many positive indications that most companies are heading in the right directions. XJet announced it met its goals within the first two days of the show, Additive Industries closed a big deal with SMS Group, one of the largest plant manufacturers for the metallurgical industry, to accelerate AM integration in the production workflow — from raw material to final parts.
Desktop Metal may be further behind in bringing its production system to the market but development is ongoing and its marketing investments have revamped the entire metal binder jetting sector, with leading companies in this area, like Digital Metal, thriving. Ironically, as Desktop Metal’s machine gets bigger, Digital Metals’ detail capabilities get even smaller.
Others are entering the market from the main door. For example Australia-based SPEE3D was presenting its ultra-fast supersonic 3D printing technology, which is able to produce steel and copper parts at near net shape — which means critical surfaces then need to be CNC’d, just like DED parts — at an incredible rate and significantly reduced costs by accelerating powder particles at three times the speed of sound.
Portugal-based Adira even went head-to-head with GE on who’s got the biggest metal SLM build capabilities. Apparently, the two technologies are very similar. Both seem to use a “tile system” which enables the production of very large parts without sacrificing resolution and speed. The lasers basically build the part by vertical (Z-axis) layers and also by horizontal X and Y layers. Both platforms promise full scalability — even larger systems and parts — and while GE is still in a relatively early stage of its technology demonstrator — with launch scheduled for next year — Adira has already sold its first functional system to Poly Shape.
SLM Solutions’ new largest system, the SLM 800 was not in the race for largest in the world, however, the company did throw by far the biggest Day one closing party.