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Additive Manufacturing through the lens of Formnext

Posted on 19/01/2019

Report on the latest innovation in Additive Manufacturing/3D Printing at Formnext, the world's largest global tradeshow for AM.

The fourth edition of the show took place in Frankfurt in November and provided an interesting lens on the additive manufacturing sector, albeit without the context of the wider manufacturing sector.

Growth and Progress

The physical size of the show continues to grow year on year and is testament to the expansion and growth of the additive manufacturing and 3D printing sector as a whole. More than 600 exhibitors and almost 27,000 visitors point to the increasing interest, uptake and adoption of additive processes within industry.

New Machines and Variations

BigRep unveiled two new large scale industrial machines (the Pro and Edge 3D systems) that extend the capabilities of its portfolio courtesy of them being compatible with high performance materials and featuring the company’s innovative metering extruder technology (MET) which reportedly permits higher print speeds along with increased precision and quality parts.

High resolution, full colour 3D printers also made a resurgence at Formnext this year, with two notable developments; one from Japanese company Mimaki, with its binder jetting system: the 3DUJ-553 (ultra jetting, with build size of 500 x 500 x 300 mm). The system was launched last year but is now commercially available with more than 1 million colour options. RIZE also showcased its new full colour system based on its augmented deposition process. The XRIZE 3D printer is the planned progression from the RIZEOne 3D printer and introduces the same fast and precise build capabilities with minimal post-processing for functional prototypes, tools and end use products with the option to select from a colour palette of more than 800k colours (CMYK).

XJet, the developers of the NanoParticle Jetting process, announced a breakthrough with supports for its metal process as well as expanding its ceramics business and company headquarters. The company demonstrated the safe means of support removal they have achieved. Desktop Metal remains bullish about its metal production system, citing installations with partners in 2019 and positive responses from partner application development projects. Progress at Voxeljet, 3D Systems, and SLM Solutions was evident through collaborations and significant application development. VJ, CEO at 3D Systems could not overstate the importance of partnerships to drive applications, even while introducing system portfolio extensions.

Another AM OEM, Carbon, made a significant announcement at Formext. The company, which offers a sophisticated AM solution for production with polymers using its Digital Light Synthesis process, announced it was significantly reducing the cost of bulk volume orders of its most widely used resins, from $150 down to $50 per litre. This might not seem like a huge deal, but actually, material costs are an important part of the business (cost-per-part) equation of AM, particularly for serial and higher volume production applications.

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Materials: Metals vs Polymers

At Formnext, from a first glance, it would be easy to surmise that metal materials and metal AM processes are dominant across the industry. The metal vendors, with huge stands showcasing metal parts of all shapes, sizes and complexity dominated the show floor. However, this belies the actual adoption rates. Polymer systems continue to be the sector’s most widely adopted machines across industries and polymer materials are therefore the most widely used. Evidence of this can be found in the increasing number of big polymer companies exhibiting on the show floor, who are obviously now taking AM very seriously. DSM, particularly with its Somos range of resins, has long been a material supplier for additive manufacturing processes. However, they are experiencing increased competition from companies such as BASF, Mitsubishi Chemicals, SABIC, Solvay and Lehvoss in the development and commercialization of high-performance polymers, including PEEK and ULTEM.

On the metals side, there is also increasing competition, notably between two process types, namely laser powder bed fusion (PBF) and binder jetting. The latter embraces a much broader metal material palette through the use of MIM-based metal powders, which is an attractive advantage. However, the limitations of the technology mean that a trade-off is required in terms of post-processing and final material properties.

Production and Productivity

One highly visible trend at Formnext is a shift in narrative towards “serial” and/or “high-volume” production with additive processes, in contrast to the one-off or very low volumes usually associated with this technology base. This is seen by some in the industry as being the ultimate application goal with AM.

The opinions across the show varied wildly at times, from the extremely bullish: “Serial production with AM is proliferating, everyone is doing it,” to the much more reticent: “’REAL’ production with AM will take decades.” The reality, more likely is somewhere inbetween, whereby it is now starting to happen, and growth and expansion around production application development will accelerate. With some high volume applications of AM for serial production visible, many, understandably, are still not in the public domain.

The real / serial production narrative was everywhere at Formnext in various forms, with specific emphasis on “increased productivity” and “increased / improved production workflows.” There is real growth here, but this does not — and should not — in any way take away from the prolific and still proliferating prototyping, tooling and manufacturing applications with additive processes. They are here to stay and will continue. The fact that this different and older narrative is generally becoming understated is actually a good thing in many ways, because it is now an accepted and “normal” tool for most companies that develop new products.

Challenges for Production

There are still challenges across the entire production workflow – some specific to AM capabilities and some to do with integration. It is important to remember that not all AM processes (still, currently seven categories) have the capabilities to meet the requirements of serial production applications. And, even for the AM processes that can, they are rarely, if ever, going to provide a standalone solution, so integration into existing workflows can be a real bottleneck that has to be overcome. Costs also remain a major barrier to adoption — both capital and per-part. To date the production applications that are out / emerging utilize the capabilities of AM to justify the costs through added value that overcomes the cost either over the lifetime of the product / part or through higher volumes. However, as costs come down, wider adoption throughout the supply chain will increase

Financing, too, can be an issue for many supply chain companies, but there are solutions for companies prepared to look. Innovate UK is funding a wide range of AM projects across different sectors and supply chains.

In Development

Formnext also highlighted some really interesting new systems and processes that are currently in development — but it is really important to distinguish here between what is new and commercially available to the market now, and what is “potentially” on the way to market.

Stratasys teased the introduction of its new, metal AM process earlier in the year. Details were minimal at the time, but at Formnext the company revealed further details. Layered Powder Metallurgy, or LPM, was described by Andy Middleton, Stratasys’ EVP as “unlike any other metal AM process to date and offering very competitive economics.” A metal powder bed process, but unlike powder bed fusion (PBF) or binder jetting, LPM reportedly uses compression and a proprietary jetting material around the outside of the metal part. No material other than the metal powder makes up the part composition. Parts are reportedly 99.9% dense but do require subsequent sintering. Moreover, the company is only releasing the process with Aluminium material to begin with, with other materials to follow.

Another company that generated a great deal of interest with a new ‘in development’ additive manufacturing process was EOS. When it comes to robust reputation and market penetration, EOS is right up there with its polymer and metal industrial laser sintering / melting systems. The new system is all about reaching the potential of serial production with AM through increased productivity and automation, through the increased use of lasers (up to a million, the company quoted) which results in producing production polymer parts in high volumes that compare with injection moulding. However, this system is at least two years from commercial availability, according to EOS.

Looking ahead there is a great deal of interesting additive manufacturing technology available now and on the horizon, with technologies that can support manufacturing companies all through the supply chain in developing innovative products.