4/30/2018 | 7 MINUTE READ

Impressions of Rapid + TCT 2018

Exhibitors offering additive technologies to challenge conventional production was a striking development this year, though some of those technologies are not yet obtainable.

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The 2018 edition of Rapid + TCT was held last week. The annual event is the leading North American exhibition for technology related to additive manufacturing. This year, the show was held in Fort Worth, Texas. The show changes venues every year, and more significantly, the show itself changes every year. The application of AM continues to expand, the technology of AM continues to advance, and the interaction of these two ongoing developments continues to change the way we think about AM. The closing of each year’s show thus offers a chance to take stock and note what we might infer about the current state of additive manufacturing from the character of this year’s event.

Here are my impressions of Rapid + TCT 2018:

1. The Conversation Turns to Production

In covering Rapid over the years (“Rapid” is the show’s original name and still its nickname), I have noted the transformation of the show from a small event touching many uses of 3D printing to an ever-larger event focused primarily on industrial applications of AM. That transformation is done, and Rapid became that industrial show prior to this year. However, this year, I see a different transformation underway. In the past, I believe practically every industrial exhibitor would have shared the assertion that additive manufacturing is a complementary industrial option not competitive with conventional manufacturing processes. Now, while that point remains valid, the circle in which it is valid is seemingly getting smaller. Rapid + TCT this year included various exhibitors promoting current or soon-to-come AM technologies directly competitive with injection molding or machining on both cost per piece and material properties in short-run production. In the future, we might quickly come to accept that production-scale AM rightfully comprises a meaningful share of the technologies in the additive realm.

2. No Dominant Exhibitor

The past two years’ Rapid events each featured a major new entrant to the AM space that obtained both prominent exhibits on the show floor and opportunities within keynote presentations to make a significant product introduction. Those companies were HP (2016) and Desktop Metal (2017). In each case, partly because of the platform the show organizers provided, the company somewhat defined the signature of that year’s event.

That was not the case this year. There was no one exhibitor towering above others, no one introduction obtaining the largest share of the buzz. What to infer from this is unclear. At this writing, I do not know whether the lack of one major exhibitor obtaining and deploying this platform is the result of a deliberate choice on the part of the show organizers, or the result of there simply being no company this year with an offering appropriate to that level of buzz.

One possibility is that this absence is the natural effect of the maturing of the technology. It might be that the technology options in general have to some extent stabilized. There will still be dramatic, disruptive and as-yet unanticipated advances in the technology, but they will increasingly focus on specific arenas of AM (tooling, low-volume production, higher-volume production, targeted industry needs) rather than being candidates to capture the interest of the whole show.

3. The Material Moment (or Metal Moment)

The preceding point notwithstanding, there were still promotional opportunities within the keynote presentation opening the show. Arconic opted for this platform to announce its new aluminum powder alloys developed for AM. The announcement was meaningful on its own, but also significant as the most prominent example of another notable landmark of the show this year: the extent to which efforts to develop materials tailored to AM and/or custom to AM—specifically, material-development efforts independent of those of the AM machine providers—are now bearing fruit.

I am mostly referring to metals. However, the greater application and variety of carbon-fiber-filled polymer material was also apparent at this year's show. In noting this, I am still talking about metals, because reinforced polymer’s increasing application as a lightweight replacement for metal is a transition that AM will continue to facilitate.

The new aluminum alloys from Arconic include one that leverages the rapid solidification rate of powder-bed AM to achieve twice the strength of conventional aluminum alloys at temperatures above 200˚C and 10 times the elevated-temperature fatigue life of an alloy such as Al10SiMg. In other words, far from a conventional alloy adapted into AM, here is a new alloy made possible by AM. Meanwhile, another new alloy from the company is an AM version of 6061 providing crack resistance during the AM build to deliver properties like wrought 6061-T6. I offer these specifics within what is otherwise a general summary of my impressions because these details illustrate something about AM’s advancing maturity. This option for manufacturing is now accepted, pervasive and established enough to merit a major company’s development and production of metal alloys for this process alone. Other metal suppliers at the show also offered new metal options—and new metal matrix composite options in at least one case—that are available solely for and because of additive manufacturing.

4. We Are Kept Waiting

It has become a quirk of the additive space that some promoted technologies are not yet available for purchase and not yet even complete in terms of their commercial readiness. Some promoting these technologies send confusing signals about how available their new approach to additive is. I met attendees this year who had been duped by this—two co-owners of a manufacturing business who had traveled far to attend Rapid because of opportunities they see with their own customers to make use of additive technologies that have come to light only in the recent past. These business owners were primed to embrace the technology and the disruption that comes with it, but they were disappointed to discover that the solutions appealing to them were not yet obtainable. After speaking with them, I turned to glance around the show floor, and found it wasn’t hard to run out of fingers on one hand and move to the other hand when counting the exhibitors I knew were showcasing technology of delayed or dubious availability in just this way.

I know the reasons. Technology development is difficult. The path is uncertain, and subject to hitting snags that must be addressed before the product ships. Technology development also feeds on investment, so much investment that interest has to be generated and sustained as the development is ongoing. Plus, it is arguably a service to the eventual user to make clear that this option is coming before that user commits to a different choice.

Nevertheless, I hope this quirk is temporary—a marker of the moment and the phase we happen to be passing through where the development of AM technology is concerned. Too much of this kind of ambiguity, too much reveal-and-withhold, can breed skepticism sufficient to cast a shadow on not just these technologies, but the perception of the readiness of additive manufacturing in general.

5. No Time to Tweet

One other impression is personal, so I’ll hold it for last: This year, my own team was at the show in force—so much so that along with the advance of additive manufacturing, the advance of Additive Manufacturing contributed to my experience of this year’s show. I was one of three AM editors covering Rapid this year in addition to our publisher, while other team members serving other roles on the brand were engaged at the show as well. The commitment and activity were striking to me, because I can remember earlier years when I covered the show alone. For the editors’ part, there was so much to see and learn about, and so many contacts to make or renew, that each of us was forced to largely abandon the secondary aim of trying to cover the show through social media. A marker of how much was happening at this show and how much it drew us in was how little we tweeted about it.

These are exciting times, because additive is a significant technology. We are privileged to get to be of service within this active, important space, and we came away from Rapid this year—the group of us—all practically overwhelmed by the extent of the promise of what we get to be a part of. To our readers: Thank you for your attention, and for all the ways you make your enthusiasm and response known to us. To our advertisers: Thank you for your support, which is enabling us to keep pace (maybe) with the advance of additive and the progress of its transformation of manufacturing.   

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