Additive manufacturing in 2019 – applications, smarter factories and the “slow revolution”

If you’ve listened to the latest episodes of the TCT Podcast, you’ll be up to speed on all of the biggest developments in the additive manufacturing (AM) industry from the last 12 months (if you haven’t, you can catch up here).

As is the case with every year that comes with a packed calendar of events, there were plenty of product launches, business moves and case studies to pick from – so much so we had to record two episodes. Now we’re just a few weeks into the new year and as the industry gets back into the swing of things, it’s time to start looking ahead to the next 12 months in the design-to-manufacturing world.

In years gone by, the first week of January usually consisted of a long schlep to Las Vegas for the annual CES consumer electronics mecca where the 3D printing marketplace was once prime real estate to be seen amongst tech giants and launch your latest wares. The role of 3D printing in the consumer space has changed considerably since the days of roaming the 3D Systems’ booth, and while we’re seeing fewer 3D printing-related launches coming from the show, you can bet it’s still very much there, even if not in the form of AM machinery. As Formlabs’ CEO Max Lobovsky recently commented, “of the more than 4,000 CES exhibitors, 3D printing was likely part of the ideation, development or manufacturing for more than 90% of them.”

We’ve been saying for a long time that it’s all about the applications and this is further proof that 3D printing is being adopted to not only speed up and streamline workflows, but as a tool to facilitate further innovation. Major 3D technology launches aren’t as frequent as they used to be, machine manufacturers aren’t fighting for the biggest superlatives (come on guys, you can’t all be the fastest) and as we found at Formnext, companies are more eager to tell stories about how their technologies are being applied in the real world. It’s one of the reasons I look forward to the Additive Manufacturing Users Group conference every year (taking place on 31 March – 4 April in Chicago) as it gives you the chance to converse with real users who are applying the technology daily. Well, that and the constant flow of food and drink.

Smart(er) factories

‘Factory of the future’, ‘digital factory’, ‘Industry 4.0’, we spent a lot of time last year discussing smart factories as companies adorned their marketing materials with images of modular factory floors, manned by robots and clean as a whistle. For a long-time, these ideas felt a little “pie in the sky” but several companies have now made significant progress towards turning the smart factory into a reality. In December, we visited Siemens UK AM facility at Materials Solutions where they’re already implementing IoT, VR and more from design to printing and quality inspection, and across the Atlantic, machine tool manufacturer, Trumpf is connecting machines, automation and people inside its stunning Chicago-based Smart Factory.

“Smart” may not be the norm just yet (even Siemens still opts for a hammer and a chisel to get rid of unwanted metal support material) but the foundations are being laid to make factory floors ‘smarter’ at least. The UK’s “Made Smarter” programme was promised investment of up to 121 million GBP from the government towards the end of last year to bring AM, artificial intelligence, automation, virtual and augmented reality and IoT to UK industry. At the time, Prof. Juergen Maier, Chief Executive at Siemens explained how most businesses could benefit from some form of AI or automation whether in a digital or physical capacity and it will be interesting to see how that funding is leveraged to bring that to fruition.

Building on current trends, robotics will form a big part of that smart factory realisation. AM companies are already applying robotic arms to automate tasks like Voodoo Manufacturing’s 3D printer factory in Brooklyn, while others are incorporating arms into machinery to increase flexibility and productivity, such as Autodesk’s Wire Arc Additive Manufacturing process or 3D SystemsFigure 4 system. What’s more, collaborative robots or “cobots” are enabling even greater integration into the factory floor, working alongside humans to perform the more dull or dangerous tasks.

Autodesk CEO, Andrew Anagnost, commented: “As we develop simpler, more intuitive interfaces for training robots and intelligent machines, there will be a proliferation of robots in the workplace, essentially becoming our trusted colleagues. Our ability to complete work will be supercharged, enabling us to do more, with less resources and much faster than ever before.”

Slow and steady

Last year saw two significant technology announcements as industry giants Stratasys and HP each threw their hats into the metal 3D printing ring. With 30 years of pioneering polymer experience under its belt, Stratasys began sharing elements of its Layered Powder Metallurgy technology at RAPID + TCT, later unveiling more details about the process at Formnext. It’s a similar story for HP, which introduced its HP Metal Jet technology at IMTS in September. GKN Powder Metallurgy and Parmatech, were the first to get their hands on the technology and are offering Metal Jet through an initial Production Service. Rather than going all out with full commercial launches, both have opted to prove out the technology with partners and this year we’re likely to start seeing the fruits of those announcements as the former is tested by select European customers and the latter, through its production network.

We recently published a column by Todd Grimm who spoke about the need for clear and honest communication in the AM industry, particularly important when it comes to big product launches. In short, we can forgive a little hyperbolic license in marketing material but clear exaggerations of the truth are not doing the industry any favours. As Todd rightfully stated: “As a maturing industry, we expect participants to behave accordingly, maturely.” Don’t just simply say your machine is 100 times faster, give us the numbers, tangible evidence, so that end-users can take that information and use it with confidence. Thankfully, embellished headlines have already started to cool down, so it’s evident that industry figures are taking note.

That said, it may be that 2019 comes with fewer ground-breaking, revolutionary, game-changing (all of your favourite headlines) developments than usual. This is by no means a bad thing. Instead it will be about those incremental developments which need to happen for the various components of the game to level up at a similar pace. Software, whether security-focused like Identify3D and LEO Lane, or design-orientated like PTC, which recently acquired Frustum generative design software, material science, standardisation, or auxiliary technologies such as post processing – each of these will continue to mature to help deliver AM’s true potential.

Materialise CEO, Fried Vancraen, recently penned his 2019 predictions and summed up this idea of a slow and steady maturation: “For 2019, we expect new users will continue to find their way towards additive manufacturing, and we’ll see an increasing number of companies shifting their production to AM or adding AM into the mix. New product introductions will bring success and failure, and both are key for this steady growth, with the learning opportunities that they present. We don’t expect 2019 to become an inflection point in the history of AM, but the stage is set for another year of incremental steps towards an additive future. The slow revolution continues.”

So, it’s a new year, that means a lot of air miles yet to be acquired and over 20 TCT print publications to fill across Europe, North America and Asia. If you’re doing something innovative in the design-to-manufacturing space – an application, new technology, new research, etc. – get in touch with our editors here

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