10 Impressions of Formnext 2018

The size and scope of this year's Formnext exhibition offered plenty to see, but also reinforced additive manufacturing's continuing maturity. 10 impressions from Additive Manufacturing editors.


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This year’s annual Formnext exhibition in Frankfurt, Germany, included 632 exhibitors within 37,231 square meters of exhibit space, making it one of the largest events in the world focused entirely on additive manufacturing (AM) technology. The size helps convey the scope and significance of AM, because exhibits provide the space for large machines, varieties of machines and multi-story booths from exhibitors, along with an abundance of exhibiting companies that even attendees knowledgeable about AM might be discovering only for the first time. The size also provides for an inclusiveness allowing the event to represent what is effectively an annual statement on the advance of AM so far. Here is what Additive Manufacturing’s Peter Zelinski and Stephanie Hendrixson saw at the show this year:

1. Attention Turns to Subtleties

Perhaps the most striking theme in this year’s show related to advances that were invisible rather than apparent and incremental rather than transformative. The pace of innovation in additive manufacturing has historically meant that AM events frequently feature the introduction of machine designs or ideas in 3D printing that are eye-catchingly novel, and this year’s Formnext certainly did have that on display.

However, conversations with major exhibitors made clear how much their attention has now turned toward innovation in the area of relatively subtle and nuanced technological challenges aimed at optimizing the effectiveness of AM as an industrial solution. Renishaw is one example. Last year, the company had introduced its four-laser solution, and it was showing the productivity gains possible with this platform. This year, the conversation turned to the advances in process knowledge being made on this platform, including the extent to which the work of one laser out of the four might subtly affect the work of the other lasers. Research on this topic is confirming a counterintuitive conclusion: Multiple lasers in AM work the most consistently when the beams are close together, not far apart. That is, beams affect each other the least when they are seemingly close enough to be in one another’s business. Why? Research seems to be showing that the short-range effect of material spatter from lasers does not significantly affect other lasers, but condensate and smoke resulting from the laser’s work—an effect prone to drift farther—has a greater chance of causing one laser to momentarily perform differently than another laser within the same build. Therefore, the best consistency comes when lasers are risking one another’s spatter for the sake of experiencing condensate and smoke to the same extent.

The increasing pursuit of subtle gains is a striking observation for this reason: It suggests the maturing of AM. In the areas of established manufacturing processes such as machining, researchers have had decades merging into centuries in which to figure out processing nuances. They are still figuring them out. The shift of attention by AM users and developers to similarly significant but narrow process details is an inevitable sign of AM’s increasing maturity and acceptance, along with the increasing extent to which it is relied on and expected to perform as a repeatable and controllable technology.

2. Continued Importance of Startups

Meanwhile, small independent companies continue to advance AM by pushing forward new and challenging products and technologies. Formnext features a Startup Area dedicated to this fact, and this part of the show floor made a fitting platform for us to reconnect with some of the more intriguing technologies we’ve found in our travels this year.

The big names in AM recognize the value of startups as well. One of the new exhibitors at Formnext was a startup spun out by EOS: Additive Manufacturing Customized Machines, or AMCM. The company is dedicated to engineering bespoke AM machines to meet the needs of specialized users. A user requiring, say, an unusually tall build volume or a green laser effective for copper might have a difficult time obtaining this from a company such as EOS hoping to maximize its sales of standard machines—a point EOS recognizes. AMCM’s role is therefore to stand independently so it can receive and deliver on these challenges.

3. Strong Presence of Postprocessing Technologies

Users of AM have largely accepted that 3D-printed parts will likely require postprocessing of some sort, whether that means support removal, cleaning, surface finishing or all of the above. Powder reclamation units, parts washers and mass finishing equipment were common sights on the show floor. A joint booth housing both PostProcess Technologies and its new partner Rosler included both the former’s automated support-removal equipment and the latter’s mechanical surface finishing solutions, for instance. Machining even had its place at this 3D printing show; we saw hybrid systems capable of printing and machining parts in a single setup, innovative workholding solutions for finishing metal parts, and even a bandsaw supplier touting its solutions for 3D-printed part cutoff.

4. Binder Jetting’s Rising Prominence

If binder jetting once seemed to be a niche process among the possibilities for metal AM, that place was temporary. In the past, powder-bed fusion processes more quickly ascended to prominence because they have offered such effective additive solution for high-end, high-intricacy parts in expensive alloys for sectors such as aerospace and medical. Binder jetting seemingly would need to focus on parts more basic than a hip implant or a jet engine fuel nozzle. Now, we are discovering what a large and important niche this is! Advances in the speed, precision and cost-effectiveness of binder jetting are revealing this technology to be a promising production solution for steel components in manufacturing sectors as mainstream as automotive. In the past, companies such as ExOne were champions of binder jetting, and this company had its latest advance in this metal AM process on display at the show. Now, exhibitors such as Desktop Metal and HP also showcase binder jetting solutions and GE Additive has announced its metal AM portfolio will include binder jetting as well.

5. Interplay of Polymer and Printer

Many new materials were launched in the wake of Formnext 2018, but there seemed to be increased recognition that effective use of these materials stems from effective use of the 3D printer and its parameters. As a result suppliers are focused not just on providing 3D printing materials or printers, but in ensuring that the given materials will work for the given printer. Ultimaker, for example, announced a new portfolio of polymer filaments from third-party suppliers that are compatible with its 3D printers. The key to this announcement, however, was not the availability of the filaments but of the print profiles for these materials. Users wanting to try these filaments can skip trial-and-error and jump right into 3D printing with already dialed-in parameters by downloading these profiles through a portal in Ultimaker’s Cura print preparation software.

Print parameters also have a direct impact on material properties, and not just in the final part. LSS Laser-Sinter-Service introduced its Raptor series of SLS 3D printers at the show. A ThermoMelt option on these printers alters the parameters so that high-performance materials such as PEKK, PPA and PPS can be printed at lower operating temperatures. The resulting parts are cost-effective and high density, but perhaps more importantly, the material leftover can be recycled more readily.  

6. Evolving Role of Metal Powder Supplier

Sandvik’s materials group serving the AM market is now Sandvik Additive Manufacturing, a name indicating this company does much more than develop and ship powder metal. The company works with manufacturers throughout their development and deployment of AM, aiding them with steps including the selection of suitable parts, part design and modeling, material choice and development, as well as determining the optimal 3D printing process and completing that process with the right postprocessing, testing and quality assurance. Another materials company, LPW, was recently acquired by Carpenter. LPW brings to this new union sophisticated capabilities for powder traceability while winning access to Carpenter’s metal AM capacity and expertise as consultants in material and process development. In each of these cases, the companies recognize and are responding to the need for the material supplier in AM to play a role different and bigger than metals suppliers in other processes. In metal AM, no material choice can be made independent of other fundamental process choices; only the optimal combination of machine, material and other parameters produces the optimal process for a given application. Therefore, allowing customers to succeed with material choices frequently requires working with those customers while the proper material spec for a given part is still being explored. It even entails consulting with them and joining them in the exploration while the choice of additive machine is still being considered.

7. Enterprise-Level Software for AM

As additive manufacturing moves toward production, 3D printing is coming face-to-face with the same enterprise-level challenges that other manufacturing technologies have. The demand for software solutions that enable companies to secure their data, track the AM process and ensure part quality was evident through the presence of software developers and software-as-a-service (SaaS) providers at this year’s show. For instance, LEO Lane, a software company based in Israel that exhibited in the Startup Area, highlighted its SaaS solution for securing part data. The acronym in the company’s name stands for Limited Edition Object (LEO), a digital asset that protects printable files. Part files are placed into a virtual “container” that holds the print parameters, permissions and even a number of “copies” of a part that can be produced. The bulk of the file lives on the user’s server, but a small piece is stored in the cloud for encryption purposes. A file can be printed only if it is unencrypted with this cloud-based key and if all conditions for its manufacture have been met.

Enterprise-level software solutions are giving additive manufacturers control over their data and manufacturing processes today. Over the long term, however, the promise is greater consistency, increasing automation, and the ability to confidently manufacture locally and/or on-demand, even across multiple suppliers.  

8. Color as a Functional Choice

Throughout the years in which 3D printing was primarily or largely for look-and-feel prototypes, color was a big deal. As the technology’s advance into making functional parts brought us additive manufacturing, the emphasis shifted. Shades of gray became acceptable, because functional manufactured parts have always been something like gray, with painting and other aesthetic surface treatments coming later.

But now polymer-jetting 3D printing processes offering precise control over the form of a functional part are also offering precise control over the color of the materials applied in this way. Stratasys showed this capability and the kinds of parts it makes possible. A 3D-printed tail light lens prototype offered not just the physical resilience but also the color sufficient for this part to function as an operational tail light lens. Also showing this capability was Rize, which offers a 3D printer combining fused deposition modeling with material jetting to leverage the advantages of both. This company has now added voxel-level control over color to the capabilities its printers can deliver.

In a sense, it seems like too much. In the AM space, companies spent years developing and assuring the means of making functional productive parts through 3D printing. That this functionality might now be coupled with control over color seems like a head-scratching advance of capability. Do industrial engineers need it?

They will eventually realize they do, says Rize president and CEO Andy Kalambi. Just as AM consolidates assembly steps by allowing a complex component to replace a subassembly, AM might also consolidate aesthetic steps by allowing a colored component to replace painting. Design engineers of the future will likely develop new uses for controlled color beyond what we expect from manufactured parts today.

9. 2020 Vision

Exhibitors showing or discussing technology still in prove-out and not yet fully commercialized—including new 3D printing processes, significant new machine configurations and new capabilities related to process intelligence—generally seem to cite the same year when they expect full commercialization to come: 2020. And in general, we think that timing is credibly chosen based on what seem to be reasonable expectations and realistic timetables by these companies. If even half of these firms’ aims advance as they expect, Formnext 2020 should be a very different show.

10. Acceptance of Organic Forms

One other observation of Formnext also foretells the future in our view: the prevalence of 3D-printed objects throughout the show resulting from topology optimization or generative design. That is, forms that looks like they were produced by nature. The prevalence—the extent to which these forms are pervasive and commonplace throughout exhibits at the show—indicates the extent to which the connection between optimizing or generative design tools and additive manufacturing is now clear. One allows for the other, one makes the other more powerful, and both AM and these design tools will succeed together and in tandem in the realm of components that cannot be made any other way. At an additive manufacturing show such as Formnext, the weird parts coming from these two capabilities working together are no longer weird; they are an accepted part of the landscape. So as AM advances toward becoming mainstream, how far away are we from a future in which parts and structures such as this are an accepted sight throughout our everyday world?