11/26/2019 | 20 MINUTE READ

Formnext 2019 Emphasizes Complete Additive Manufacturing Process Chain — Well Beyond 3D Printing

The biggest AM event gets bigger. The sophistication of attendees advances. Materials, digital tools and postprocessing are prominent. Here are 10 impressions of this year’s show.

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In additive manufacturing (AM), the important choices begin before 3D printing. The design freedom does not begin with the geometric freedom, for example, but instead begins with the material. The chance to choose the right material and even tailor properties is the most fundamental requirement for seeing AM realize its promise, and this has implications for the growth and direction of Formnext. The world’s leading trade fair devoted to AM ought to feature an expanding role and prominence for materials — and we saw this very advance in the show this year.

But there is more. Additive manufacturing does not end with 3D printing. Because practically every AM production part requires some form of postprocessing, AM inherently entails postprocessing as much as it does 3D printing. Thus the growth of Formnext ought also to include an advance in the prominence of postprocessing, and we saw this, too. In various ways, the annual Formnext show — now in its fifth year — grew strikingly bigger and more mature this year. The show was held last week in Frankfurt, Germany, and just part of the advance we observed was seen in how much more of the floorspace and how much more of the conversation focused on the other aspects of succeeding with AM. Far from being a 3D printing show, Formnext is more and more an event fully about additive manufacturing, including all that AM entails.

Here are our impressions of this year’s show:

1. Formnext Gets Bigger

The show is and has always been held in the Messe Frankfurt exhibition grounds, but this year it relocated to a larger space within this massive facility. The show that once occupied two floors of one hall, with just escalators in between, this year occupied two floors apiece of two different halls, meaning there could sometimes be considerable walking time between different appointments in different booths (a lesson both of us hope to remember when we’re scheduling appointments next year). The show’s total floorspace this year increased from 36,000 square meters in 2018 to 53,000 this year.

2. … and More Mature

But as notable as it was, the floorspace increase was arguably not the most significant change in the show from last year to this year. Instead, exhibitors frequently — no, routinely — commented to us on the change in the nature of attendees they met at this year’s show. Attendees in general did not come primarily to learn about 3D printing processes, but instead arrived already clear on their aims for additive manufacturing, with clear needs and questions in mind related to realizing these aims.

“Last year, it seemed like too many visitors were still too focused solely on production,” said Greg Mark, CEO of MarkForged, in a conversation at his booth. “AM for production is for some manufacturers, some applications, while others are a long way from it.” The far more valuable application he sees for many manufacturers is tooling. That is, don’t use additive manufacturing as the production process, but instead make parts through conventional processes more efficiently because of lightweight, design-optimized tooling made through AM. And the difference he saw at Formnext this year, he says, is that users and potential users now get this. They know the power of 3D printed tooling, they know AM technology is still advancing, they know some parts are good candidates for AM production today while other parts might wait for the technology to advance for years yet, and they know where their work fits along the continuum of the state of AM technology today.

In other words, AM is now understood, or better understood than it has been. Attendees arrive at the show knowing what they can and will do with AM. The result: Formnext now feels somewhat less like a tech exhibition and somewhat more like an established industrial trade show.

3. In Some Senses, Additive Has Outgrown “Disruption”

Perhaps as a consequence of AM’s growing maturity, exhibitors seemed to talk less about how their products will disrupt industries, and more about how they cooperate with manufacturing systems already in place. AM will disrupt industries, but there is a sense that its way in at the enterprise level will be to avoid creating excess disruption. That means removing barriers to adoption, with equipment that is easy to use and affordable. It also means integrating with systems that are already in place.

Software company 3YourMind has seen that bringing additive into a large company requires a great deal of change management, and its products have been developed to help make additive integration less of a disruption, says Brian Crotty, marketing team manager and PR. The company offers AM-specific ERP and MES packages that integrate with other manufacturing software, as well as a Part Identifier tool that helps companies find the right use cases for 3D printing. Confidently identifying that low-hanging fruit helps a company focus its energies and use AM effectively early on, paving the way for more innovative applications later.

Another implication of additive integration is that an AM engineer's job duties don't look equivalent to a conventional manufacturing engineer's; the same person may be expected to have an understanding of materials, design and postprocessing as well as 3D printing, if not more. With this type of multifaceted job in mind, Dassault Systèmes presented its 3DXperience as a modular suite that unites a number of previously separate software products covering materials science through postprocessing for 3D printed parts. According to Rani Richardson, CATIA technical sales director, the software now provides a more seamless experience for both user and enterprise. "We're taking those short digital threads and bringing them into one long digital thread," she says. "The goal is to make these different products invisible to the user." The modular nature of the software also allows users to buy what they need while keeping other systems they may already be using —  a frequent refrain from software developers at this year's show in particular. 

3D printed parts from ParaMatters

Broad applications and ease of use were points of emphasis from machine builders and software developers alike. ParaMatters, a software package for design and optimization, is working to integrate a range of “digital fabrication” processes such as injection molding and CNC machining in addition to 3D printing. “We want to solve challenging engineering problems, not just shapes,” says Michael Bogomolny, co-founder and CTO. “Designers should be innovators, not CAD operators,” adds Avi Reichental, founder and chairman of XponentialWorks, ParaMatters’ venture partner.

4. The New Design Freedom Is Materials

The conversation around materials has also significantly changed. To date, the characterization of materials in AM has routinely taken the form of “almost but not quite,” with material properties almost approximating their equivalents in conventional processes, and the range of selection of common material types almost matching the range for conventional processes (while the selection of exotic materials fell far short). Now, however, that conversation has inverted, as material suppliers dramatically expand their presence and the range of their offerings, and as materials increasingly become available in AM that actually surpass what materials applied in conventional processes are able to deliver.

Marc Saunders, Director of AM Applications for Renishaw, offered an interesting perspective here. Porosity was a shortcoming of metal AM years ago, and the makers of metal AM technology have overcome this by realizing greater control over the consistency of the additive build. But in selective laser melting (SLM), one secondary effect of metals formed through this now tightly controlled laser melting is a metal microstructure that is also very consistent. The result of this in some cases is metal properties exceeding those of the same metal if it would be applied through casting or forging. “For titanium 6-4, we’ve seen yield strength increases of up to nearly 50% over wrought properties, and elongation-at-break increasing up to 20%,” he says, with both properties able to be tailored through heat treatment. Manufacturers applying metal made via AM thus can achieve a much greater safety margin, or can introduce greater freedom into their design allowables.

Optomec copper 3D printed parts

Various AM machine suppliers touted newly developed knowledge and capability for printing copper. High thermal conductivity makes the material a challenge for processes relying on melting. In this array of copper parts shown by Optomec, the one at far left is particularly challenging. The fin requires different laser parameters near the base than farther out because of the way the larger cylinder form draws heat away from it.

In polymers, one of the challenges of material development is the striking difference in platform complexity for additive versus conventional processes. AM is not in any way a single, coherent process in the same way injection molding is, but instead polymer AM consists of a range of very different processes, and even machine types delivering the same type of AM process can differ significantly. As a result, AM polymers are frequently introduced with a specific AM platform in mind, and the range of 3D printer brands having significant installed bases now creates a variety of pathways. “Partnerships are an important way forward for us,” said Keith Cox, senior business manager for additive manufacturing for materials developer Sabic, who went on to describe the variety of forms partnerships might take — with a larger materials company in some cases and with a 3D printer OEM in others. An example of the latter is the introduction of the company’s Extem polymer, a high-temperature material in the family of the company’s Ultem material that was developed in partnership with — and for use on 3D printers by — Roboze.

In the area of greater design freedom through materials, arguably the most significant development we saw at Formnext was shown by 6K. The company manufactures AM metal powder using a process that does not require wire or ingot as an interim step. The interim step is instead feedstock in a rough powder-like state milled and compressed mechanically. This change introduces some new possibilities. For one, AM powder from reclaimed material becomes more practical; the company showed a 3D printed Inconel 718 part from powder made out of reclaimed machining chips. More dramatically, the powder-like feedstock offers a way to merge metals and hold them together for alloying when they otherwise would not be alloyed together. The company showed a part made from an as-yet unnamed alloy of a range of metals — chromium, cobalt, copper, iron and nickel — whose radically different melting points previously precluded them from being combined together into a single material. (See these examples and learn more in this video filmed at the 6K booth.)

5. Postprocessing Is Prominent

There were CNC machine tools at this year’s Formnext. To be fair, there always have been — CNC machines adapted for additive, including hybrid machine tools. But this year, there were CNC machines doing just cutting, nothing else — that is, just postprocessing of AM parts. One was in the Spee3D booth. This company’s supersonic 3D deposition process builds metal parts rapidly, and the rough form of a copper hammer printed in about 6 minutes was finish-machined in the same booth in a machining center cycle of about the same length.

Spee3D booth at Formnext 2019

CNC machining is a postprocessing option for AM, so Formnext this year included live metal cutting. In Spee3D's booth, copper hammers made additively were CNC milled to finish tolerances.

Meanwhile, another exhibitor showed CNC machining with no 3D printing going on. Machining center maker Roeders demonstrated its machine as an effective resource for rapidly milling intricate parts, including (but of course not limited to) those made additively.

These machine tools were notable curiosities within a much larger general trend apparent at the show: the expansion of the presence of companies offering postprocessing options. Postprocessing is necessary to complete practically any production part made via AM, so by necessity, the advance of AM into more and more production applications means Formnext has to more and more become a platform for postprocessing options. As Additive Manufacturing Technologies (AMT) CEO Joseph Crabtree expressed it: “Postprocessing is the key to unlocking AM.” Too much postprocessing of printed parts is still performed manually. “Some of the most boring tasks are what limits 3D printing today.”

Machining is an automated solution that applies far beyond additive. But within additive, chemistry is sometimes the key to an automated solution. AMT provides an example. Its PostPro3D system applies a proprietary chemical vapor smoothing process to polymer parts. In metals, something comparable comes from Hirtenberger. This company’s exhibit emphasized its proprietary chemical process for postprocessing metal additive parts, a process that begins with support structure design guided by the company to produce supports lending themselves to being cleanly and easily dissolved.

dyemansion car part

While most 3D printed parts require postprocessing in a practical sense — to remove excess material, set properties, etc. — aesthetics are increasingly important. This automotive cover sample shown by postprocessing equipment provider DyeMansion is designed for use on a test vehicle. It was important that the part both function and look like the final component, which meant dyeing the PA11 print in addition to surface finishing. 

6. Processes Find Their Places

Perhaps another aspect of the maturation of AM technology and its prospects is this: In metal AM, gone from Formnext was any pronounced sense of jockeying between the different processes. SLM, EBM, binder jetting, DED — conversations around new machine models or incremental advances in any of these areas began with the assumption that this particular process has its place, and even has its sweet spot applications, but relinquishes other applications to other processes whose sweet spots land nearer to that work. In metal AM, there is a lot of opportunity to go around, and a range of choices for best meeting those opportunities.

GE tool steel at Formnext 2019

Tool steel is one of the new materials GE Additive introduced for electron beam melting (EBM) on its Arcam machines. EBM is a metal AM process particular suited for bulky parts, the company notes.

GE Additive is particularly effective at presenting this. Arguably it needs to be; the company’s product line includes different metal AM machines applying three of the four processes listed above. Many of the advances shown at Formnext this year related to the GE Arcam line of electron beam melting (EBM) machines. EBM is a powder-bed process, as is SLM, and the two processes might make sense for the same metal, but even here the two different processes have their places. As VP of Engineering Annika Ölme explains, “Titanium 6-4 is a key overlap material. But if the part is bulky, EBM is probably the better process.” The consistent heating of the build in EBM ensures better control over material stresses. However, an EBM build entails unsupported powder, “so you’d want to use the laser process [SLM] if the part has channels that make it hard to get the powder out.”

All this being said, there were at least two new metal additive processes debuted at the show. Tritone demonstrated its “Moldjet” process, which uses polymer 3D printing as an in-process aid to metal 3D printing. In Moldjet, one layer of a polymer mold is printed, with metal then delivered into this mold via a paste made of binder carrying metal powder. This layer of polymer and metal paste is then hardened, then another layer is added via the sequence of mold, paste, hardening — and so on. At the end of the build, the mold is dissolved to reveal the metal part, which is completed via a final sintering step. Advantages are many, according to the company: The process is safe because the powder is contained; inexpensive metal injection molding powder can be used; a range of many different metals can be applied this way (part examples in Inconel, titanium, stainless and tool steel were all on display); support structure removal is eliminated; and large parts are attainable without fear of distortion.

Parts made with metal lithography from Incus

Another metal process introduced at Formnext came from Incus, a spinout from Austria-based Lithoz. Its Hammer Series printer uses a photopolymer filled with metal powder as the feedstock. The material is spread across the bed with a blade, and then selectively cured with light projection—the same mechanism used for stereolithography. An infrared lamp removes excess material before the green parts are debound and sintered. The process is suitable for finely detailed small parts like these.

7. Suppliers Are Building the Ecosystem

materials in the Ultimaker booth

Walls of compatible materials have become a common site in booths at Formnext, highlighting not only the material options and freedoms available to users, but also the partnerships that a given equipment supplier has in place. Even a printer supplier like Ultimaker that manufactures its own materials also partners with suppliers to bring diverse options to users. Material supplier Solvay introduced a polyvinylidene fluoride (PVDF) material launched in conjunction with Ultimaker. Application parameters downloadable from Ultimaker ensure effective use of the material in this brand of printers.

Additive manufacturing is increasingly a group effort. Applications seen in booths almost always had more than one partner credited, and that's a result of how AM seems to happen. Materials supplier DSM for instance showcased a number of projects from hand braces and youth prosthetics to a functional footbridge that had been manufactured as the result of the company bringing together all the necessary pieces for the project including hardware, software, and in some cases even materials made by other suppliers. "No one company can do it all. We need ecosystems of partners," says Hugo da Silva, VP additive manufacturing at DSM. "You get the customer and the application, then build the right blocks around it to make it work at a cost that makes sense."

HP is another example, with high-profile partnerships with Siemens, Materialise, materials suppliers BASF and Lubrizol, and, more recently, postprocessing equipment provider Rosler (whose AM Solutions-branded booth was another example of point no. 5 on postprocessing). "We could try to do all things ourselves," says Rebecca Campbell, 3D and digital manufacturing business director, "but that's not how we accelerate adoption." For HP acceleration instead means strategic partnerships that help to remove barriers to adoption, as well as cross-pollination of knowledge through efforts including its Digital Manufacturing Network (DMN). (In fact, two of its DMN partners recently combined with each other — see our report on GKN’s acquisition of Forecast 3D and what it will mean).

8. Robots Have a Special Relevance

Robots find a place at any industrial trade show, but robots have a special relevance to additive manufacturing, another point that was apparent at Formnext. One, robots showed their usefulness as (literally) outside-the-box solutions for delivering the most fundamental 3D printing method: material deposition. FDM or DED need not be performed inside something like a printer or machine tool, but instead in some cases can be performed more cheaply and flexibly with a deposition head mounted on a robot. Examples of this could be seen throughout the show, and Siemens even demonstrated control technology aimed at making robots more effective for additive manufacturing.

Siemens robot demo at Formnext 2019

The demo of the robot as a means of polymer 3D printing uses a robot from Comau, extruder from CEAD and Run MyRobot Control from Siemens.

Two, additive is an important enabler to robotic automation in any and every application where robots might be applied. Back to MarkForged, and Greg Mark’s point that the value of tooling is underappreciated. He largely means gripping tooling when he speaks of this — robot tooling. A very large manufacturer the company is working with foresees savings of around $100 million (not a typo) from the shift to 3D printed tooling, in large part for these two reasons: (1) Lightweight gripper tooling made from 3D printed reinforced polymer instead of being assembled from steel allows robots to move faster, increasing production rate, and (2) the freedom to make tooling internally via 3D printing instead of outsourcing means tooling designs can be iterated liberally until engineers arrive at designs perfectly suited to the needs of the application. 3D printing means no longer settling when it comes to tools. (See one example in the MarkForged booth.)

Robot grippers are technically tooling, but at least in one case they are also illustrating the future of additive manufacturing as a distributed production process. Ultimaker showcased a modular tooling system developed for Gerhard Schubert GmbH, a supplier of automated packaging lines. The main body of the gripper is metal, but the jaws are 3D printed plastic and can be easily popped out and exchanged, potentially saving months of time when a line changes over. But the interesting thing about this case is that the tooling is made on demand, in the customer’s facility. Gerhard Schubert creates the design and then stores it as part of a subscription service; when a customer needs a replacement or new part, the job is sent directly to an Ultimaker printer within the facility to be manufactured. “It’s a set of spare parts in a virtual warehouse,” says Paul Heiden, senior VP of product management, noting that this is the direction spare parts, and perhaps production parts, may be moving.

9. AM Machines Expect Production

Farsoon’s FS301M SLM machine introduced at the show was designed with an emphasis on increased build speed, a generous build area (305 by 305 mm) within an economical footprint; and safety, in the form of a contained powder handling system assuring no personal protective equipment is needed while loading powder. But another notable feature of the machine is this: It can only be accessed from the front or the back. Its engineering assures no entry into the machine is needed from the side. This is because Farsoon assumes the machine will be used for production. That is, the company expects the machine will be used alongside other machines like it, side by side within an AM factory. This development by itself says something important about the advance of AM. In previous decades (not to mention early in this one), AM was seen by many as purely a prototyping technology. Today, new AM offerings are led by equipment for which production is the expected application.

Spectral 3D printer from 3ntr

Not just metal machines offered features focusing on production. The new Spectral 3D fused deposition modeling (FDM) printer from 3ntr features a G code-programmable door latch to aid in robot loading/unloading of build plates. In the US, 3ntr is represented by Plural AM.

The increased presence of automation equipment also speaks to the expectation of production. EOS demonstrated its Shared Modules, a system that connects a metal 3D printer with powder sieving/setup and depowdering in separate units. Powder and parts are held in an “exchange frame” that can move between all of these machines, carried by a lift trolley or automated guided vehicle (AGV). The advantage in productivity is clear — to keep the printer running while pre- and post-print tasks occur elsewhere — but Dominik Hertle, product line manager and one of the developers of this system, also points out the inherent safety in minimizing human contact with metal powder in this way.  

On the polymers side, NXT Factory (pronounced “Next”) exhibited a similar concept with its high-speed QLS350 "Quantum Laser Sintering" system. The printer’s build envelope is removed with an AGV to allow for parts to cool and be postprocessed separately. To keep the cost of this system affordable, however, the company built its own AGV from the ground up without any extraneous features. It's possible that the show will see not just more automation integration, but more automation targeted to AM in the future. 

10. AM Is Reaching New End Markets

Exhibitors across the AM supply chain were showing applications for markets not previously spotlighted at Formnext. Dental was especially prominent, with many companies displaying tooling like thermoform molds for aligners or dental devices themselves, particularly among resin-based printers. Formlabs and Photocentric both introduced printers dedicated for dental applications during the show, and Carbon announced the availability of KeySplint Soft Clear, an FDA-cleared material from Keystone Industries for dental appliances. (For thoughts as to why dental is having its moment, see this Twitter thread.)

Nexa3D 3D-printed dental guides

Dental appliances and tooling were common display pieces. As a demonstration of its printer's speed, Nexa3D (also part of XponentialWorks’ venture portfolio) displayed this tray of 14 dental guides printed in just 7 minutes.

But dentistry wasn't the only unusual end market. Oil and gas, consumer lighting and rail were among those that stood out at Formnext 2019. Gefertec emphasized its work with Deutsche Bahn employing wire arc additive manufacturing as a solution for quickly creating replacement wheels for trains long in service, and Stratasys introduced its Rail Solution, a combination of printer technology and materials dedicated to production of plastic parts for rail cars.

“The idea is that we can take what we’ve learned with additive manufacturing for aerospace, and apply it to rail,” says Patrick Carey, senior VP – strategic growth for Stratasys. While initial applications for this platform will focus on providing legacy parts to keep existing train cars running, spare parts could be an entry into more significant applications as they have been for other industries. “If we can solve this problem now, putting AM parts into a new car later is natural,” Carey says.

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