Several notable themes presented throughout the duration of TCT Show 2018.
Production AM versus Manufacturing versus Prototyping & Product Development
The discussion with Lykle immediately highlighted a theme that continuously raised its head across TCT — the product development versus production applications of AM. The event brought this divergence of the industry into sharper focus. Over the years it has ebbed and flowed, but once again it was very obvious in both exhibits and conversations over the course of the week. However, it is no longer just about huge metal platforms versus small desktop filament plastic extrusion machines. It is all much more nuanced than that. The metal powder bed fusion systems are, clearly, out front when it comes to production — examples of high performance, increasing volumes of production parts are proliferating at a faster rate than ever before. However, the smaller polymer systems, desktop and otherwise (one example would be Ultimaker) are also becoming more industrialised and promoting similarly increasing numbers of end-use applications. The volumes vary, as does repeatability, and invariably they are not critical mechanical applications, but, they serve a purpose and in so doing cannot be dismissed as “not production” out of hand.
I know there will be industrial die-hards out there that will disagree with me, and that’s okay, but from my own perspective my understanding and lexicon is shifting in terms of the all-encompassing manufacturing applications of 3DP/AM for any and all end use products and parts, versus the high(er)-volume, high-end production applications for critical components and products. For me, there is no longer a clear differentiation in terms of process, system or material used.
AM-Specific Simulation Software
One area of the AM ecosystem that is seeing sweeping developments from multiple companies is AM-specific simulation software. The development and commercialisation of such software is driving towards improving the workflow around additive processes and to eliminate costly and time-consuming build failures. Whether for product development or production, there are an increasing number of simulation software tools to relieve this pain point. The simulation of digital models within the build chamber to identify errors during build was in evidence from many companies. Materialise launched their latest offering in combination with the Magics 3D Print Suite for metal AM, ANSYS talked about theirs on the tech stage, Autodesk’s Netfabb Simulation is another, and GE was promoting GEONX (pronounced Ji-on-ex, not Geo-N-X, in case you were wondering). Of the latter, I was surprised to learn that it was announced on the last day of formnext last year, considering so little has been heard of it since, but, it’s getting a big push now.
Over and over again, conversations at TCT reverted to the issue of Design for AM (DfAM) and the lack of skills and people to drive uptake and adoption of the processes deeper into industrial sectors through intelligent design. I think perhaps the conversation that covered it best was with Tom Fripp, Managing Director at Addition Design and Research. He related to me how one of the many visitors to their stand, on learning more about the company’s R&D approach to design services for AM as a strategic partner, described AD&R as “the missing link.” On consideration, it is really hard to disagree with this simple statement. Companies like Addition Design and Research can — and do — bridge the current gap to design skills for sophisticated AM projects. Moreover, they can provide the insight and training into developing those skills with collaborators. In the longer term though, academic syllabuses have to provide the training and human resources that the industry requires.
The Current Big Issue
And here, regrettably, we have to confront another issue that is currently having negative impact on the AM industry – and it’s a problem that’s getting bigger and more noticeable. OEM companies that are over-promising on capabilities and delivery dates, and failing, often miserably, to deliver, which results in consequences that seep out across the industry in the form of frustration, unmet expectations and even stalling sales.
There are a growing number of companies that have fallen into this trap of over promising and under delivering. To be fair, the causes are not always clear cut — but often comes down to under-estimating the difficulty of transitioning from a working, provable concept to a scaled up production operation while maintaining reliability, quality and keeping a lid on costs. There are many examples of this phenomenon linked with the Kickstarter culture in years gone by. But more recently this MO has become increasingly familiar with OEMs of different sizes. Mcor is an earlier example, with its Arke platform, but I understand that in this case, lessons have been learned and things are turning around. They’re doing it quietly, but when they come back, it will be with all of the necessary foundations in place to meet customer expectations. Good for them — I really hope it is so, and will be cheering for them loudly when it happens. Formlabs is another company experiencing similar with its laser sintering platform — the photopolymers are still doing extremely well, the Form 2 is well established, proving reliable and cost-effective for many users with increasing material options — but the transition to a different process with the same business model is not straightforward, apparently, and there are delays. I can’t help but wonder if similar will happen with the new Prusa photopolymer system — another company that has built a stellar reputation with a fantastic product — that can’t resist trying to replicate it with another, very different process as a way to grow. It’s not necessarily a natural transition.
While this issue is not limited to the AM industry by any means, it has become a bigger and uglier beast within this sector of late with the promise of “bigger,” “faster” and “better” metal systems — most notably from HP and Desktop Metal. These companies have made huge sweeping promises of innovation and disruption to metal AM, based on binder jetting tech in various forms. There are however, moving goalposts in terms of when these systems will be commercially available beyond stakeholders and investors.
Strangely enough, metal manufacturing processes — as innovative as they might be in the lab where they are developed, or the factories where they are tested — are hard. And they don’t happen quickly. It takes a long time to stabilize, make consistent and commercialise. Recent history is right there to back this up. The PBF/EBM companies have two and half decades of R&D as well as serious application development behind them and they are only now just getting there, and rightly so.
These “new” systems are still under development, unproven in commercial environments and not tested at scale to meet industry expectations or the orders that follow. High levels of investment or huge corporate infrastructure are utilised to persuade (subliminally or otherwise) industry watchers and prospective buyers of stability and scaled up production, that in reality is no easy feat and often becomes a stumbling block. Of course, pre-ordering is a key sales strategy for some companies — but the months, sometimes years, of waiting for delivery are frustrating (at best) and damaging (at worst).
So many people have talked about
this issue in various ways this week, but all of them were pointing to how it stalls the whole market — and that’s not good for anyone whether vendors, stakeholders, users or potential users.
It’s odd to hear myself say this, but I agree with Dave Burns, who during his presentation at TCT, suggested that more companies should stay in stealth mode for longer.
However, not wanting to end on a pout, I’m going to round up with one amusing little anecdote that made me smile – noticing people’s job titles at TCT. Obviously, eyes are drawn to the obligatory badges at a show like this. It’s always tickled me that so many people attach great status to their job title, but it was so heartwarming to see some people that really don’t and attempt to convey something more. Two stand out examples were the “Office Astronaut” at rigid.ink and the “Captain of Education” at Jellybox. Brilliant.