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SmarTech Publishing Research Note:  formnext Shows AM Industry is Approaching Inflection Point for Production

During the 2016 edition of the formnext show, which took place from November 15th to the 18th in the newest Hall 3.1 of the Frankfurt Messe facility, a number of major trends emerged that show great promise for upcoming, continued and sustainable growth in the AM industry.

One is represented by the show itself. Organized directly by Frankfurt Messe, through its Mesago branch, formnext – like many other major 3D printing shows today – is co-organized with TCT, the UK-based AM industry magazine which has become the reference for many industry professionals. Leveraging on industry knowledge and a modern venue, formnext emerged as the best show this year, one of the best ever for industrial 3D printing announcements and news.

It collected the heritage left from Euromold, which had been the reference for the advanced manufacturing technology but was simply unable to cope with the rapid evolution and expansion of 3D printing as a manufacturing process. AM companies needed their own show and, while formnext is still a very small show, 3D printing evolves so fast that it was very difficult to visit every stand and find out about all the products being showcased.

The major announcements can be grouped under a few different market trends and they all seem to indicated that industrial 3D printing – both metal and plastic based - is now fast approaching the long awaited shift to high volume serial production.

1. Concept Laser, other metal AM system OEM’s are thinking factories
The “factory of the tomorrow/lights off factory” vision was introduced by Concept Laser and Additive Industries last year and both companies took significant further steps toward that objective. The point is that speed is not an issue if you have more machines and they are fully automated. In a theoretical fully optimized and automated process you simply double the speed by doubling the number of machines. Concept Laser showed off its vision, with a computer and mobile platform compatible software able to run dozens of systems and a robotic tray automatically carrying the build platform to the cooling station. Additive Industries showed that its fully-integrated modular system is now being used by Dutch group Kaak to cost-effectively produce high number of serial parts, even parts that were not designed specifically for AM.

These are not the only companies thinking about production. Industry leader EOS held a lengthy presentation to explain how its newest four laser system, the EOS M400-4 is targeting series production with its modular architecture and the EOSPRINT software (supported by announced Siemens partnership). Interestingly enough, while the original SLM patent is close to expiring, several new metal laser powder bed fusion systems were introduced including one by German laser manufacturer OR Laser and another by the Michelin-financed French startup AddUp. Both Sisma and Trumpf also presented new large size systems, including the newest 4 laser TruPrint 5000 four laser prototype by Trumpf.

2. HP vs. EOS and open material SLS
The race to AM for production is presenting yet another very interesting juxtaposition: HP is entering the market with its new plastic PBF technology and this fact alone presents several disruptive elements in the current SLS segment. First, HP’s 3D printer works. Some had doubted it since the machines were not operational at Birmingham’s TCT but the gigantic HP stand at formnext had three systems on display: two for showing the inside and one fully operational and ready to be shipped. While SLS system operators argue they could compete with MJF through extreme process optimization (resulting from more than a decade of experience for most) the fact remains that MJF is already competitive on speed at launch and it can only improve. HP argues that its goal is not taking market shares away form current operators but rather to expand the global market for AM. Nevertheless, a high-ranking official at HP 3D printing was quoted saying that “EOS should definitely be afraid”.

EOS may also have to be afraid of open material systems by Prodways/Farsoon and Ricoh since they are rapidly being adopted by large materials manufacturers as “platforms for SLS material development”, with the result that the range of materials offered is rapidly increasing. Prodways now offers an entry level system (the P1000) priced at €100.000 and a high-end system, the P4500 HT, capable of processing high temperature nylon 6. Ricoh offers nylon 6 as well as polypropylene and the range of powders, including mineral, glass bead, glass fiber and carbon fiber composites is growing.

3. Innovation: Vision vs. Products
Some of the most fascinating items seen at formnext, unfortunately, are still far away and fall under the category of “strategic visions” rather “products”. Companies need to be able to carefully balance their visions with real products that can sustain growth in the time that said vision is at hand. That may be the case for Stratasys. The company is often criticized for failing to innovate rapidly enough however it did offer a carefully balanced combination of products and visions. While the vision is that of large part serial manufacturing with support from Siemens and robotic arm extrusion, the company’s product news is the mc900 with higher productivity and nylon 6 for FDM, and the J750, the only voxel-level full color system on the market today, which is starting to see real industry adoption.

3D Systems also presented its vision: the Figure 4 modular and scalable stereolithography and robotic arm based process to simplify and accelerate series production of plastic parts. At the same time the company launched several materials, both for stereolithography and SLS, and the new 3DXpert software, with which it aims to challenge Matrialise’s dominance in the AM process software segment.

Some argued that real innovation, however, is not coming from market leaders: many other products shown are close to market and could truly change the way we perceive the AM process itself. Both nanoparticle jetting pioneer XJet and electronics 3D printing pioneer Nano-Dimension brought the final versions of their systems to the show, along with new materials and applications. These include ceramics for XJet and 3D printed flexible wiring from Nano Dimension. Even a relatively small company such as Italy-based Roboze presented a range of 3D advanced 3D printable materials which include PEEK, PEI and several composites.

These were just a few of the new products seen at the show, and they were contained in a relatively small area. Next year’s edition is expected to double in size. If that happens the industry will definitely be ready for inflection.


 
Among the many robotic arm-based visions for AM, the Figure 4 by 3D Systems gave a clear insight into serial part manufacturing by stereolithography.

 
Concept Laser further developed its vision for the factory of tomorrow by presenting the software that will run multiple systems and a robotic build tray which moves from
3D printer to finishing station.

 
By opening up its platform, Prodways is establishing itself as a “material development platform” for several large materials manufacturers. Next up is high temperature PA6, which runs on the new top of the line Promaker P4500 HT.

 
Market leader Stratasys focused on strategic partnerships and consolidating its product line up with the new higher productivity Fortus mc900, new nylon 6 materials and by continuing to push the industry leading J750 full color, multi-material 3D printer.

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Davide Sher

Davide Sher is Senior Analyst, 3DP Adoption Studies at SmarTech Markets Publishing and has built an extensive experience as a technology journalist and communication consultant. Davide was born in Milan, Italy and spent 12 years in the United States, where he received his BA from SUNY Stony Brook. He now lives in Milan and collaborates with several 3D printing news portals. He founded 3Dprintingbusiness.directory, currently the largest global directory of 3DP related companies, as well as the leading Italian 3DP news portal Replicatore.it

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