Nov 22, 2017 | By David

The 2017 edition of the formnext 3D printing conference was bigger than any previous edition, welcoming more than 20,000 attendees. The event demonstrated how additive manufacturing is moving more and more towards production from its rapid prototyping roots.

Held in the German city of Frankfurt, the 2017 edition of the formnext additive manufacturing conference took place last week, November 14-17, welcoming more than 20,000 visitors through its doors. The event showed just how big a global phenomenon 3D printing is becoming. Starting with the facts and figures, formnext 2017 hosted 21,492 visitors, more than the 13,384 who attended in 2016 and more than double the 8,982 who joined the inaugural event in 2015. That increased attendance was reflected by an increased number of exhibitors. 470 3D printing companies set up booths at this year’s event, up on 307 from the previous year and 203 in 2015. The increased interest also meant that formnext 2017 utilized 28,129 square meters of exhibition space, making it double the size of the inaugural event.

But if the increased size of the event showcased a growing global interest in 3D printing (and global it was: 46 per cent of visitors came from outside of Germany), then the nature of the actual 3D printing technology on show proved something rather different: that the industry is moving from prototyping to production.

A major factor contributing towards this gradual industry-wide shift, from using 3D printing as a rapid prototyping solution to adopting the technology in final-stage production, is the increased automation of post-processing techniques. 3D printed objects would previously require all kinds of technical manual work in order to finish them off, such as cleaning, heat treatment, grinding, polishing, and cutting. Many, if not all, of these processes can now be carried out automatically by extra modules integrated into a 3D printing system, which makes the technology much more feasible as an option for large-scale, series production of commercial products or industrial components.

Some of the most high-profile 3D printing systems on show at formnext 2017 fit the narrative that this is an industry focused on attempting to tackle the production of end-use parts, not just the fabrication of disposable prototypes.

GE Additive, for example, used its presence at the Frankfurt-based conference to unveil its large-scale Concept Laser metal 3D printer, the first product in its A.T.L.A.S (Additive Technology Large Area System) project. Described as “scalable and customizable,” the GE 3D printer has a huge build volume (1.1 x 1.1 x 0.3 m) suitable for small-scale production in the aviation, automotive, space, and oil and gas industries. It's this kind of boundary-pushing size that could put 3D printing on the map as a tool for the production of large batches of potentially very large end-use parts.

SLM Solutions also unveiled its own large-scale 3D printing system, the 500 x 280 x 850 mm SLM 800, and we also saw a few other major players debuting new production-ready modules or machines that could soon revolutionize the way 3D printing technology is used in manufacturing.

Dutch 3D printing company Additive industries announced the official world premiere of the brand new Product Removal Module, demonstrated as part of its popular MetalFAB1 system, as well as an Application Development Tool. The Eindhoven-based company’s new module will automate the final stage of the metal AM process, as the finished metal part is cut loose from the machine. This module makes use of 4-full-field lasers in order to improve the efficiency of the process, and it will also cut costs and speed up production by eliminating the need for manufacturers to intervene manually or bring robotics into their production lines. MetalFAB1 is set to be one of the first fully-integrated metal AM systems on the market, and this should give it a serious competitive edge.

Other 3D printer manufacturers and service providers demonstrating at the conference included Desktop Metal with its single pass jetting (SPJ) 3D printing technology and metal injection molding (MIM) powder, EOS with its P 500 powder bed fusion 3D printer that is 30 per cent cheaper and twice as fast as the P 396, Mass Portal with the Dynasty AMS, and XJet with its Carmel 1400.

Another sign that 3D printing is entering the age of production is the introduction of established manufacturing companies from outside the AM field, such as Trumpf and HP.

German machining firm Trumpf has a turnover of 3.1 billion euros ($3.6 billion), and is looking to expand even further by helping to bring 3D printing into series production. Building on its expertise from the development of CNC laser cutting and other sheet metal working techniques, Trumpf now offers five different 3D printing systems for manufacturers to implement into their large-scale production process. The company is already aiming high with the new TruPrint 5000 3D printer, which it claims can meet the stringent quality requirements for aerospace and the medical sector. Trumpf is also pioneering the ‘laser-cladding’ process, whereby 3D structures are welded onto existing products. This is particularly useful for the renewal of wear layers on gears and drill bits.

HP is also throwing its hat into the 3D printing ring in a big way, after decades of success with more traditional consumer electronics. Its HP Jet Fusion 3D 4210 printing system, which is designed for industrial-scale 3D manufacturing environments, has been generating some serious buzz. The system should be capable of lowering overall operating costs for manufacturers, while increasing production volume capabilities. The break-even point for large-scale 3-D manufacturing will apparently be raised to up to 110,000 parts (5-cu.-m parts), and the Jet Fusion printer’s advanced thermoplastics manufacturing technology offers a cost per part of up to 65 percent less than the average cost of comparable FDM and SLS printers.

But while these big machines—from companies both new to 3D printing and vastly familiar with it—are making the most serious contributions to 3D printing as a means of production, further evidence of changing trends in the additive manufacturing industry can be found with companies on the opposite end of the spectrum to GE and SLM Solutions: smaller 3D printing companies that made their name in desktop 3D printing but which now seem to be aiming for production-ready systems.

Italy’s Roboze is a good example. Known for its beltless Roboze One FDM 3D printer, the Bari-based company offered a completely new solution at formnext. That new 3D printer is the ARGO 500, whose ability to print carbon-reinforced PEEK and other materials makes it suitable for the fabrication of end-use parts in a variety of industries.

With formnext 2018 already in the works, it remains to be seen just how big a leap 3D printing can make from prototyping to production, but major advancements in design, materials, 3D printers, post-processing, any other technologies mean that additive manufacturing is staking its claim as a viable production technology of the future. Integrated factories with systems that can increase automation and speed up production times will only help 3D printing's cause, helping additive manufacturing tackle further industries beyond its current reach. Over the next few years, we're likely to see the 3D printing and finishing process become increasingly industrialized, and the major trend seems to be towards AM being an everyday option for manufacturers for full-scale series production.



Posted in 3D Printing Applications



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