Apart from a few exceptions — Stratasys, 3D Systems, EOS above all — the gigantic, elegant (almost E3-like) booths that drove the 100% growth in exhibition space, 53% growth in the number of exhibitors and a record number of visitors 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. Here is an overview of some formnext 2018 top announcements and new products that will shape the next year.
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 SLS and DMLS 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.
Racing toward Automation
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.
The AM industry is unique in many ways but one of those ways is how innovation is not just coming from the very top of the pyramid but also from the base. This young industrial segment is still far from consolidating in the hands of just a few major players as most mature industrial segments have for several decades. We are at the dawn of a new industrial revolution, however a revolution of this magnitude takes decades to complete. The best part in the beginning anything new is the galactic chaos formed by a growing number fragments which will eventually disappear or gravitate toward larger stars and galaxies. On this front there were many good news from formnext 2017.
While the biggest news at formnext were exciting, dozens of other companies are now finding their own niche businesses, not just by building and using new 3D printers but also by developing new solutions for everything that surrounds the digital, additive manufacturing process, from design and workflow software to post processing and finishing solutions.
Moving on Up to Production
Not just the biggest companies in the industry are looking at implementing production capabilities. A growing number of mid-size players are also continuing to introduce new concepts and evolving their technologies and materials toward a more automated AM workflow targeted at final part production.
Perhaps one of the most impressive new products seen at formnext is DWS‘s XCELL system. This automated production cell integrates a 3D printing unit as well as a washing and curing uint into a single automated platform, which also stands out for DWS’s unique and stylish design. voxeljet another mid-sized company specializing in binder jetting technology presented its much awaited vx200HSS system, for high speed thermal sintering (in direct competition with HP’s MJF approach). The company also showed off its ceramic capabilities in partnership with Johnson Matthey. Turkish 3D printer distributor Teknodizayin also introduced an original new approach for part removal in its continuous LOOP 3D printer.
While a number of affordable extrusion systems are now focusing on PEEK and PEI capabilities, Roboze has established a leadership in this segment which the company is now seeking to build upon with the new Argo 500 system. This enclosed large size system gathered a lot of interest from many of the show’s professional visitors.
Finding the SLS Sweet Spot
In no other technological segment is this convergence clearer than in SLS. While industrial systems are becoming more affordable (with Prodways offering the P1000 for around €100K and XYZprinting introducing its MfgPro230 xS for around $60K), bench top systems are becoming more efficient and reliable. Sinterit is probably the company that is furthest ahead, selling its highly proficient and versatile Lisa for just under $5K, however Sharebot and Sintratec are also further consolidating their expertise while Formlabs has now set next March for presentation of the Fuse 1 and even brought some of the first parts to see at formnext (which however still need some improvement). Nevertheless, as Formlabs moves into this segment, raising awareness through its marketing muscles, adoption of bench top SLS is likely to pick up significantly.
A few samples of the very first Fuse 1 3D printed parts:
Top-driven Bottom-up Innovation
Bottom up innovation also comes in terms of material. Sometimes the largest companies are the enablers of new bottom driven applications. BASF’s introduction of Ultrafuse 316LX metal polymer composite filament will enable a number of metallic 3D printing applications, in a similar fashion to Desktop Metal’s studio and Markforged MetalX systems.
Another example comes from Formlabs and the new ceramic resin material for its highly affordable Form 2 systems. Announced as a research project within the FormX initiative, the new Ceramic FLCEWH01 is now ready for commercial release (by the end of 2017 as scheduled). Destined for a purely decoration and basic consumer product use, the new ceramic photopolymer mix is going to open up an impressive range of new high-resolutions, complex ceramic product possibilities, immediately driving access cost down from several tens of thousand to just a few thousand dollars.
The smallest new 3D printer on display at formnext was the Russian built Cybermicro system, starting at $350. Several Russian companies were present at formnext. Cybermicro was sharing the booth with 3D scanner manufacturer Thor3D (where I got to try the impressively easy to use Drake 3D scanner). The Russian answer to Micro3D promises much more reliability and print quality than its lower prices american counter part. The company is now seeking to enter the educational market.
The XYZprinting booth was basically a one stop shop for every major technology in 3D printing. The company showed off its new binder jetting, SLS, DLP and full color FDM systems demonstrating it is more than capable to deliver reliable professional technologies at a lower price than just about anyone else in the industry.
Its plaster based full binder jetting systems are fast, affordable and easy to use, so much so that the company was almost “letting” visitors take objects from its display shelves. The same goes for the DLP system. EMEA marketing manager Cin Yee told us laughing that people took the castable resin 3D models more than the silver 3D printed final rings. Thinking back about how only a couple of years ago most companies guarded their 3D printed products on display at shows as if they were made of gold, this may be one of the biggest changes and a key evolutionary trend that has taken place.