TCT 2018 – Musings from Meandering the Show Floor
After a “big show” hiatus for me personally, I jumped back in last week and headed to the TCT Show 2018.
TCT is by far the largest gathering of Additive Manufacturing and 3D printing companies and people in the UK. It has continued to grow in both size and stature since its first edition, at which I was present, in 1996. By virtue of its longevity and reputation it remains one of the must-attend events on the AM/3DP calendar for many companies in the industry. The fact that it is on my own “turf” and doesn’t involve a flight is only one reason I love going to TCT, another is my personal history with the event and I still get that rush of adrenalin ahead of the doors opening, but I think that’s down to muscle memory. Now, almost a decade after being directly involved in the organisation I still get a fleeting feeling of panic that something might go wrong or someone won’t show up. Nostalgia, maybe? Weird, definitely! No further comments required.
Now running over three days, even without the tri-annual Interplas show running alongside, the continued growth of the additive manufacturing and 3D printing industry was reflected on the show floor in terms of the number of exhibitors (250+) some with dedicated stands other sharing, or represented by distributors. There were many highlights to be seen, some key announcements and plenty of information to be gleaned from exhibitors and attendees alike. But, there were also discernible negative vibes on certain AM issues, which do need to be addressed. I’m going to give it a go, later in this post, in as constructive a way as possible.
Most of the big AM companies were on the show floor, with some notable exceptions. No Carbon or HP stands, as there have been in previous years. HP was represented by a distributor (Europac), as was Desktop Metal (Laser Lines), XJet (Carfulan Group) and Mcor (Creat3d). In addition, there was an absence of larger AM machine platforms — both metal and polymer. After a huge showing at IMTS for the AM sector and formnext just six weeks away, my own opinion, shared by numerous other people I spoke with was that this has a direct effect on the largely regional (in terms of visitors) TCT show. But that is not to misrepresent the value, scale or importance of the TCT Show — it is more representative of a shift in emphasis, a crowded Q3/4 calendar and TCT’s own expansion of global events. In addition to its events across multiple continents, the Rapid News organisation announced a further event for 2019 in Shenzhen.
Another result of TCT 2018 coming so quick after IMTS and ahead of formnext was a lack of key product launches or announcements, although there were some around incremental developments and new partnerships. It made for an environment that was more about networking, information sourcing and updates — one of the TCT Show’s great strengths.
For me, the key highlights from TCT came from new application developments with AM. The most mind blowing of these could be found on the Added Scientific stand. For anyone not familiar with the organisation, Added Scientific is a consultancy firm with a team of AM experts (Phill Dickens, Richard Hargue, Chris Tuck, Ian Ashcroft and Ricky Wildman among them) that bridges the gap between academic research and industrial companies looking to maximise the potential of AM. At TCT, the team, managed by Sophie Jones, were demonstrating for the first time how metal AM has been successfully applied to develop a UHV chamber for a quantum sensing rig in a joint partnership with the Universities of Nottingham and Sussex. Now, quantum physics is a discipline way above my comprehension levels, but in doing a bit of background research in an attempt to grapple with it, this recent article from Medium, helpfully provided some insight into quantum sensing “also known as quantum metrology. As the name suggests, the goal of this trade is to exploit the peculiarities of the quantum world to build new and improved sensors and measuring devices.” It states it is an 11 minute read, but if you need to re-read certain bits, numerous times, as I did, it takes a tad longer!
It is an interesting digression, to be sure, but really the main point to understand is that the equipment used to construct a quantum sensing rig, in this case a UHV chamber, is extremely complex — in design and functionality.
The image below shows the traditional design of such a chamber (left) while on the right is the new design, additively manufactured. The difference is stark — this goes way beyond what we typically understand by “redesign.” By combining systems engineering analysis with design for AM (DfAM) and materials testing; the size, weight and power requirements for the equipment could all be reduced while improving the overall functionality. Talking with a number of team members about this application, I am not overstating things in terms of this being revolutionary for how AM can be realised for future quantum applications. This application has got some quantum physics scientists very excited, apparently. That made me smile, but maybe that’s just because it conjured images of the ‘Big Bang Theory’ lot! Cliché, or what?
Another fascinating application of AM, this time with polymers, was to be found on the Europac stand. Achieved using HP’s MJF process this was another conversation that had me laughing out loud, as people kept it real. Jacob Turner from Bowman Additive Production took the time to explain the application to me. As the head of AM at Bowman, he was well placed to do just that, but also showed me what he called “a really good and a really bad example of AM!” Specifically, the roller train itself, which would have been largely impossible to produce any other way, with the degree of functionality achieved was the good one, you won’t be surprised to learn. While the display stand it was resting on, a solid right angle of material (think book end) had also been 3D printed for the show — pointlessly and at a ridiculous cost, according to Jacob! It was an excellent, if originally unintentional, demonstration of how AM is most effective with specific application development to realise improved functionality and reduced costs and/or added value. When it’s used just for the sake of it, it is pointless and expensive, and achieves very little.
On the added value issue, one other production application highlight is worth noting from the TCT show floor. This was to be found on the large Sodick stand. I got chatting to Paul Lodge, a Director of Cable First, a client of Sodick. He was there to talk to visitors about how his company has benefitted from implementing a Sodick hybrid metal platform to transform its work flow, notably for the production of mould tools. Paul was not backwards in talking to me about the difficulties in sourcing decent tools. “We’ve got toolmakers on our suppliers list, and they’re very capable, but there’s not enough of them. We make a whole range of cables – from what you’d expect all the way through to the cables required for wind turbines at sea, and they’re ‘big’ cables that have to withstand harsh environments.” The tools required for this are complex and the lead times, assuming a tool maker is available, is lengthy. “We want to make cables easier,” Paul intimated. “And that’s what AM does for us.” When I asked about the economics, I was slightly taken aback when Paul breezily commented, “oh, it’s not cheaper.” He was referring to the cost of the tools, but, when I asked him to explain, he went on: “it adds tremendous value to what we do, both in terms of getting the best possible tool, with an efficient design that minimises core cooling times. Indeed, he revelled in telling me, reducing the cooling cycle time by just 10 seconds per cycle equates to a saving of 1388 hours from a tool life of only 500,000 cycles. The overall added value, according to Paul, was a no brainer, so much so that while Cable First installed the Sodick OPM 250L for its own in-house tooling requirements, it is now offering a service.