5/24/2019 | 9 MINUTE READ

10 Impressions of Rapid + TCT 2019

The largest additive manufacturing exposition in North America is now a mature industry trade show. Here is what the editors of Additive Manufacturing Media saw at this year’s Rapid + TCT.

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Rapid + TCT, the largest event in North America dedicated to additive manufacturing (AM), was held this week at Cobo Center in Detroit, Michigan. Final numbers on attendance have not yet been released, but according to its organizer SME, approximately 6,000 people saw exhibits and demonstrations from approximately 400 exhibitors. Additive Manufacturing’s editors covered the show, which offers a snapshot of the state of AM right now. Here is some of what we saw:

1. Conversation Turns to Digital

No more is the focus on AM technology dominated by the physical capabilities of the machines. Notable this year was a clear awareness that the machines are being adopted and deployed, so that a response is needed now to the impediments in the digital realm to using them effectively. “It’s all about data,” said Chris Schuppe, general manager of GE Additive’s AddWorks group. “3D printing is garbage in, garbage out.” For this reason, the latest stage of the company’s advance of additive relates to software development—that is, relying less on established software providers and established model data formats in favor of modeling and build-preparation solutions tailored to specific additive modalities and machines in order to realize the full promise of their capabilities. HP, signaling a similar priority, announced the name change of its additive business unit to HP 3D Printing and Digital Manufacturing. Another company notable in this realm is Velo3D, appearing at Rapid for the first time with metal AM technology that is digital in as much as physical. Part of this company’s years-long development before launch was developing a sensor and response system for every potential failure mode it could identify in an additive build, with the aim of getting to an AM system requiring less special process knowledge and fewer special considerations in the part design.

2. Advance of Tailored-to-Patient Solutions

Customized medical or dental aids such as orthotics were more evident this year, as this long-recognized promise of additive has now been realized and is being delivered in many cases. EOS had representatives from Aetrix in its booth taking foot scans, because the former company is currently providing the manufacturing of custom insoles tailored to the foot shape and pressure regions of individual feet. Carbon showed production of molds for dental aligners tailored to the patient. And in a presentation by HP, the company announced that the Smile Direct Club will soon have 49 production 3D printers dedicated to serving this company’s orthodontics market. AM is moving into production, and not just production as we understand it, because mass-customization of individualized products is a type of production that AM is distinctively suited to deliver.

3. Distributed Manufacturing Is Coming Closer

Being able to manufacture parts near where they are needed, even divided across multiple locations, is a goal that is getting closer and closer. In a keynote address on the first day of the show, HP’s Christoph Schell, president of HP’s 3D Printing and Digital Manufacturing business, spoke about the company’s recently announced Distributed Manufacturing Network, an initiative that connects HP 3D printers at seven partners worldwide and enables the company to offer open capacity to customers as available. “This is infrastructure as a service,” Schell emphasized at a press event later that day. The promise of such an infrastructure on a large, global scale is that it could enable manufacturers to produce parts at the last possible point, reducing shipping and lead times. “The cost per part is the same, whether you run the printer in Palo Alto or in Bangladesh,” Schell said.

But distributed manufacturing is not just beneficial for consumers and end-use parts; it can also influence internal operations. This is something that Ultimaker is seeing play out with some of its own customers. The company’s Ultimaker Cloud platform enables users to network their 3D printers and distribute jobs from the cloud to connected printers in any location. One example on display at the show was an assembly tool developed by Ford; the design and print profile reside in the cloud, so that any Ford facility on the globe in need of this tool can access this digital information and print the tool on demand.

4. An Emphasis on User Experience (UX)

3D printing has become steadily more sophisticated over time, with machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) now commonplace topics at a show like Rapid + TCT. But one of the most significant innovations to come from the smarter processing of data is actually a simplified experience for the 3D printing user. For example ParaMatters, a company within the XponentialWorks umbrella, showcased its CogniCAD 2.0 generative design platform which generates lightweighted structures automatically optimized for stress, stiffness and deformation constraints. The software outputs watertight STL files, making it faster and easier to get a job to the printer, and is designed for ease of use even by designers without 3D printing or generative design experience. “Previously, design was done by expert engineers with FEA experience,” says Avi Rechiental, co-founder and chairman. “This is an AI toolbox for those who don’t have that expertise. It democratizes AM.”

Markforged’s Blacksmith, an AI tool for “adaptive manufacturing,” offers a similar promise of ease of use. The software uses laser scans of 3D-printed parts to automatically make adjustments to the CAD design in Eiger. The program learns from each successive iteration, autocorrecting and improving results over time. While Blacksmith offers clear benefits for helping to dial in a part more quickly, founder and CEO Greg Mark sees even greater benefits. AM is facing a workforce challenge, without enough engineers and operators who know 3D printing; to solve this problem requires training and retraining, but also “making 3D printing actually easy to use,” he says. But the solution is not just intended for AM; in the future it could bring adaptive manufacturing to CNC machining, injection molding and other processes.

5. Meeting Expectations in Materials

Long-established manufacturing processes come with long lists of material choices. This is true of both polymer and metal. And in both areas, effort is being made to help AM’s materials list expand to catch up. While innovation of new materials is a promise of AM, a significant focus now is translating existing materials into versions 3D printing can use. DuPont exemplifies this. The company’s aim for its injection molding and blow molding customers is to make it easy for them to embrace AM by providing an array of materials recognized from these processes. Established polymers in 3D printing are ABS and PEEK, the company notes, but it has a thorough catalog in between, and it is working material by material to bring them to additive. In metals, HRL Laboratories illustrates the same phenomenon. Thanks to an innovation in processing, this company has developed a 7000-series aluminum alloy that works effectively in laser powder bed fusion by overcoming the cracking problem the material was previously subject to. The same processing method will help make other metals “AMable,” the company says.

6. Injection Molding Crossover

Though the relationship between injection molding and 3D printing has been tenuous at times, these two processes seem to be finding their footing—to the point that an injection molding press even found its way to the show floor this year. The Babyplast press from ALBA Enterprises is part of a packaged solution from Addifab called Freeform Injection Molding (FIM). Addifab has developed a stereolithography (SLA) 3D printer and resins used to manufacture injection mold inserts. Once injected on the Babyplast or any other injection molding machine, parts emerge with the 3D-printed inserts still attached; this sacrificial tooling is then removed, leaving behind an injection-molded part made from an accepted material with features that would be impossible to mold otherwise. The process allows for 3D printing-esque design freedom with stock injection molding materials like those provided by Mitsubishi Chemical, which hosted Addifab and ALBA in its booth. 

Rapid + TCT 2019 also marked the North American debut of Arburg’s Freeformer 300-3X, a material jetting 3D printer that uses standard injection molding materials. Many of the company’s 3D printing customers are in fact coming from the injection molding industry, seeing this platform as a solution to the problem of low-quantity plastic parts. With no mold tooling, customers can take on smaller jobs that they might have turned down otherwise; prototype parts more quickly; and/or begin pre-series production while waiting for mold tooling, all while using established injection molding resins. 

7. Many Machine Tools

The CNC machine tool as a potential platform for AM combined with the need for machining as a complement to metal 3D printing has now resulted in machine tools and machine tool names becoming more numerous at the show. DMG MORI, Matsuura, Mazak and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries were among the machine tool suppliers exhibiting. Optomec’s five-axis metal deposition machine is built within a machine tool platform; so is Meld Manufacturing’s friction stir welding-based AM solution; so is Fabrisonic’s solid-state ultrasonic additive solution, seen for the first time at Rapid + TCT within a small, low-cost machine model. One other established machine tool name represented at the show was Sodick, which was advancing a method of better integrating additive and machining. One objection to hybrid manufacturing combining these two operations has been the common need for heat treatment between 3D printing a metal part and completing it via machining. Sodick’s answer: heat treatment capability deployable within its hybrid additive machine.

8. Software and Design Tools Getting Faster

The ease of use regarding AM software platforms that feature lattice design tools, generative design and topology optimization were highly evident. Carbon showed its cloud-based Lattice Engine featuring point-and-click drop-down menus that allow the designer to select an array of lattice structures that achieve desired forms, mechanical responses and durability requirements. This was evident in the 3D-printed pads that line the Riddell Sports football helmet on display in Carbon’s booth, in which the lattice structures were customized by zones around the athlete’s head for desired mechanical response. Meanwhile, nTopology’s nTop Platform features computational modeling techniques that do away with the design limitations inherent to STL mesh files, and can quickly iterate spatially varying structures and editable geometries.

9. Advancing Attention to Postprocessing

Postprocessing is, of course, an inherent part of any discussion about additive manufacturing—especially as those discussions lean more heavily toward AM’s expanding reach into true production applications. Massachusetts-based Inert showcased the third generation of its PowderShield enclosure—a modular glove box unit for the removal of metal powders in which the argon gas atmosphere is maintained at precise levels to restrict the presence of oxygen and humidity inside the chamber. After the de-powdering process, all unused powder can be reclaimed through the perforated floor, and the unit can be integrated with third-party systems such as automated sieves and powder hoppers to create closed-loop postprocessing systems.

Additive Manufacturing Technologies (AMT) made a trek across the pond from Sheffield, England, to showcase its automated post-processing technologies for industrial AM applications. AMT’s Blast technology is a physio-chemical process for thermoplastic polymers that takes place within its PostPro3D hardware. AMT says that this automated process can achieve a finished surface quality better than injection molding on parts 3D printed via laser sintering, binder jetting or fused deposition modeling.

10. The Maturation of Rapid + TCT

While post-processing has always been part of the broader industrial AM conversation at Rapid + TCT, these and other ancillary AM processes being exhibited left us with a general sense that the show has advanced almost fully beyond promoting and displaying 3D printing to serving its ongoing use—that is, an established trade show for established processes. After three days of walking the show floor, we left with a sense that the conversations that dominated this year’s show were less focused on flashy introductions of new machines and more focused on conversations that conveyed an overall maturity. Some examples of these conversations include direct-to-consumer custom aids such as orthotics, and numerous conversations about data and processes.

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