The Rapid + TCT conference is rapidly establishing itself at the reference yearly event for AM in North America. The 2017 edition, taking place in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, from May 8th to the 11th, marked yet another year of growth, with over 70,000 square feet of exhibition space compared to just around 15,000 square feet in the 2013 edition. In fact so many companies were present that the news announcements are almost too many to keep track of. At the same time it is clear that this is really just the beginning of something destined to become infinitely larger.
I am attending in my role as Senior Analyst for SmarTech Publishing. We have a booth and we offer the most accurate and detailed market reports on the AM industry, including my latest report on AM in Civil Aviation. I finally got to meet the rest of the team and they are just great. I have never people who know so much about the AM industry’s dynamics and, in general, are so familiar with the way markets grow and evolve. This is us in the image below:
As previously mentioned there were almost too many things to talk about: Rapid + TCT 2017 was just a great show. Not as organized as Formnext, certainly not as nicely located as In3Dustry, but certainly vibrant with excitement and rapid market developments. I’ll try to go over most of the important stuff that I learned about. I’m sure I missed just as much.
In the opening press conference, industry leader Stratasys presented yet another new system concept: after the Infinite Build and Composite demonstrators, this time the company focused on continuous production with a multiple print engine, fully automated platform. The concept is not entirely new: many companies, including Stratasys itself through its MakerBot Innovation Center platform, have been working on 3D printer farms (with 3DPrinterOS offering possibly the most effective solutions to date), however Stratasys has recently been focusing on pre-existing good ideas and working to make them work to satisfy Stratasys top QA standards. It this platform can truly deliver on full automation and repeatability it will be a success. After all everyone else has been “borrowing” Stratasys FDM technology so it’s time for Stratasys to take some ideas back. To further validate this concept, the investor of FDM himself, Scott Crump, unveiled the new system on the show floor.
Next up is a company that I have known for a long time and that I really admire. That’s because, when I began covering 3D printing, it was a video from Mike Littrel’s CIDEAS, on their use of all major technologies (Stereolithography, Laser Sintering, Polyjet and FDM) to make a model car that helped me begin to get an understanding of what was possible. Now CIDEAS has grown so much that they 3D printing full size cars and better than ever car models (like the one in the photogallery above) but they are even launching their own 3D printing technology.
Pittsburgh was a pleasant surprise. The idea I had of the city itself was not exactly dreamy and the first impression, driving in from New York City and arriving at rush hour after a seven hour drive (and a speed limit that is way to slow), did not help. Instead the city is charming, as are its inhabitants, and the center is nice to visit. But it reamins a “steel” city and foundry applications did have a major impact on the show, as did large size metal laser deposition systems and applications. ExOne, Optomec, Arcoic, Sintavia, Sciaky, Trumpf and several services showed off their large size metal 3D printing capabilities
Of course metals deposition is not the only technology capable of building big parts. There were of course very large 3D prints on the showfloor and when I say large I meant it as in Cincinnati Inc’s BAAM. I was happy to meet them so that I could admit to them that I was wrong. When BAAM was first introduced I thought it would never work. Instead they are now selling their systems to third parties like SABIC and continuing to demonstrate that large size manufacturing of composite parts is a big part of the future of AM and they are not the only ones. 3DPlatform also showed their largest machine yet.
While there were lots of news on the industry’s evolution not many were related to new technologies. Impossible Objects took a radically new approach to composite additive manufacturing with a system which takes sheets of choopped carbon fiber, selectively applies a liquid to it then applies thermoplastic powder to the liquid. The process is repeated until the 3D part is complete. The result is extremely strong composite parts: Impossible Objects is planning to start delivering beta systems this year.
GE Times Three
The effect of GE’s acquisition of Concept Laser and Arcam are only partially visibile. All three divisions were present with separate booths. Concept Lasers did not make any major announcements and is still actively working on full integration with the mother company. Arcam did present the complete redesign of all its activities – including AP&C. GE did announce that its GE Additive Technology Lab in Pittsburgh will become a GE Customer Experience Center
Carbon and Adidas at Your Feet
Carbon officially presented its new M2 system as well as the new finishing stations. The real news is that the company is now ready to exit the startup phase and start churning out serial products. The Adidas midsole project is expected to lead to production of a hundred thousand 3D printed midsoles. With its business model Carbon is now setting the standard for the future of serial AM: users rent the systems for three years and the company retains full control: all 3D printing is done through a connected cloud network. The process now includes both the M1 and the larger M2 system as well as the new finishing stations – which are also connected and know all information on every part.
Desktop Metal Stars
Without a doubt Desktop Metal was the star of this year’s show, even beyond offering the complimentary free Wi-Fi. With its FDM based 3D printing technology for prototyping and its binder jetting based 3D printing technology for serial part production it did not introduce anything entirely new, it just made it a lot better. The FDM process is actually made up of several stages, which include producing a green part (metal + polymer + binder) a debinded “brown” part and a full metal final part after furnace firing. This “desktop” system works together with the new binder jetting system which is expected to be up to 100 times faster than current metal technologies, at significantly lower costs per part. Those – like me – who though binder jetting was phasing out need to think again but that’s quite typical in the 3D printing industry.
I realize that the large companies building the 3D printers and evolving 3D printing processes are the ones that make the most noise but for some reason I am very much fascinated by finishing processes. RePliForm developed a metal plating technology that can literally turn a weak plastic part into a strong composite component able to undergo heavy testing. It also makes 3D printed parts look amazing.
Bye Bye Pittsburgh
The only thing Pittsburgh seems to love more than its sports teams is its bridges, event the 3D printed ones.