Additive Manufacturing Industrializes: A Serious Show Shows A Serious Industry

Trade shows and conferences are time- and energy-intensive expeditions often requiring significant travel and expense. The best events prove their worth in bringing together the people who make an industry and the decision-makers who drive it -- and in additive manufacturing, Germany is proving to be a destination of note each November.

Frankfurt drew 26,919 visitors and 632 exhibitors to the 2018 edition of formnext last week, perhaps the largest event on the calendar in additive manufacturing. With 49% international attendees and exhibitors representing 32 countries, formnext serves not only to provide some of the finest networking opportunities in this young industry but to act as a bellwether of some of the strongest trends in additive technologies. At this year’s edition -- 25% larger than in 2017 but with 37,231 square meters of floor space already dwarfed by the 58,000 square meters announced for 2019 -- formnext showcased an important trend in and of itself: additive manufacturing is big business.

The technology suite, comprised of seven ASTM-recognized categories from binder jetting to material extrusion, is quickly advancing in terms of both scale and scope. As 3D printing continues to progress toward industrial applications, industry is taking notice -- and not just this one. Manufacturing overall, an approximately $12 trillion global industry, is set to feel the impact of additive manufacturing throughout operations.From new design considerations to a shortening supply chain, industrial 3D printing is changing the shape of industry.

Serial Production

A major theme in 2018, “serial production” was on everyone’s lips, from CEOs at press conferences to engineers at startup booths. Producing large volumes of product reliably, repeatably and affordably is the increasingly-reachable carrot-on-a-stick for 3D printing as improvements are made in hardware speed and quality, design capability in software and widening portfolios of engineering-grade materials suited for manufacturing environments.

A notable uptick in recognizable multinational companies made the show floors a who’s-who of production as well-known global materials suppliers such as BASF, DSM, GKN, Henkel, Lubrizol, SABIC and Solvay presented new polymer and metal materials suited for additive manufacturing. Alongside these were hardware and software producers with similarly high global profiles that have taken interest in 3D printing: GE, HP, Mimaki, Siemens.

Name recognition is widening as more massive global corporations turn attention to participation in the 3D printing industry, many with legacies in 2D printing or leveraging decades of expertise in materials science to address a nascent technology suite. And many of these were at formnext, ready to share similar messaging alongside additive-focused mainstays and startups: 3D printing is heading toward serial production.

The technology is now, in a quickly increasing expanse of applications, ready for prime time in manufacturing. There are of course still hurdles to be addressed, and appealingly this message was not buried at formnext; skills gaps, constraints in terms of speed and price-per-part, failure rates, high initial investment, risk-averse business models slowing adoption rates and more came up even during formal press conferences. That messaging is not “This Technology Will Solve Everything!” is a major step forward for a young industry that has been plagued by hype; expectations are becoming more realistic for what additive manufacturing can deliver.

In addition to high-volume production of end-use parts, ready-for-manufacturing applications include important but often unsung uses including 3D printing custom jigs and fixtures suited to a particular job or production line, as well as tooling and replacement parts. Desktop 3D printers often address these applications; functional 3D printing is not limited to only million-dollar systems. “Manufacturing” is a broad spectrum, and so too are fits for 3D printing under this umbrella.

Simulation

The software side of additive manufacturing is increasingly taking its turn in the spotlight. Generative design, topology optimization, digital twins: advanced design processes leveraging and enabling the unique geometries possible with additive manufacturing as well as automating and monitoring the processes involved (i.e., pre- and post-processing, the printing process itself) are stepping forward with new solutions. Simulation especially is drawing attention as first-time-right printing comes into focus.

Limiting failure rates is obviously a top concern, as making the most of machinery uptime and reducing material waste put expensive resources to their intended use, the first time. Simulating production environments as well as the conditions parts will actually endure allows for a better understanding of how a given design with specific parameters in terms of material and technology will perform throughout its creation and its functional lifetime.

Digital twins in particular came up at several press events at formnext, with companies such as Siemens highlighting benefits of a simulated twin to a physical process or product. Examining digital twin in product, production and performance, Siemens executives acknowledged that first-time-right products represent the next major step in industrial additive manufacturing -- and the best way to ensure that is before approaching the machine, with process simulation.

Industry

Industrialization of a young technology is no mean feat. “Challenge” and “opportunity” are often discussed simultaneously, as one begets the other. Examining challenges as potential opportunities for new solutions is not always the most appealing endeavor, but that’s where some of the strongest strategic positioning can take place.

Israeli startup LEO Lane offers services for controlling, protecting and tracking products with particular focus on intellectual property and part quality. Company executives noted at formnext that the best timing to introduce a new business plan is after identifying an existing problem -- but before that problem becomes acute. Intellectual property protection is a rising focus in 3D printing for good reason; sending files around the world as digital inventory solutions continue to rise increases risks for hacking, espionage and other misappropriation and misconduct. Rather than wait for a major IP debacle to raise awareness, LEO Lane’s co-founders created a preemptive solution for the market: the potential challenge of IP protection presented a major market opportunity for LEO Lane.

Together with the trends observed through presentations, conference sessions, meetings, chats at the many networking events and other integrated offerings of the week, formnext itself serves as a prime example of industrialization in additive manufacturing: an event drawing close to 27,000 attendees from around the world highlights the seriousness with which major companies and small startups alike are approaching this technology. Similar in size to FABTECH for metal forming, fabricating, welding and finishing; the National Business Aviation Association’s Business Aviation Convention and Exhibition (NBAA-BACE); and the Game Developers Conference (GDC), formnext is taking its place among industry-standout events around the world. Trends in attendance and programming reflect growth in rising industries, and it is observable that larger shows in manufacturing and advanced technologies reflect larger industries -- with maturing messaging.

Read the full article in Forbes.