bugatti 3d printed engine protocube 2

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One of the main challenges that industrial innovationis facing is undoubtedly 3D printing for manufacturing. Today, additive manufacturing technologies are a rather popular standard in the prototyping sector, especially in terms of industrial design. Virtuous examples such as Divergent3D, in which 3D printing becomes the main process to build end products, are still an exception in the production field, but the technique is the top objective that the industry is working towards. This ambition was concrete and tangible even at Formnext, the main European exhibition for the additive manufacturing sector.

In order to assess the most interesting innovations presented at Formnext 2018, 3D Stories has asked Marco Cravero – a seniorconsultant in the additive manufacturing field at Reply – his opinion. Together with Marco, we have made a critical selection of the thousands of new ideas andproducts presented at the event, in order to identify which ones to followclosely in the coming months.

(FLT) – In terms of macro trends, what was your general feeling as you visited Formnext?

(MC) – The definitive overcoming of the “enthusiast” phase, which has led to the failure of the related home printer market. Today, 3D printing is especially directed towards the professional sectors, and in particular towards manufacturing. Rather than a simple gut feeling, the numbers related to the boom in technology linked to metal and ceramic printing are comforting. Up until last year, the stage was dominated by polymers, which are nonetheless growingly interesting in terms of content. In general, business related to 3D printing is offering a growing amount of interesting solutions, to the point that topics currently require a selection process.

(FLT) – What is the most distinguishing feature of such revolution?

(MC) – As well as presenting individual models, the big shots in metal 3D printing (Renishaw, GE, EOS, etc.) also focused on the setup of production lines, complete with all the main devices to implement proper 3D printing systems. The focus has thus veered to a broader concept, both in terms of technology and in terms of implementation at a manufacturing plant. Moreover, we have noticed strong attention towards technology related to the creation of materials. Indeed, manufacturers of atomizers – used to physically produce metal powder for 3D printing processes –were well-represented at the exhibition. If a market starts developing in this field as well, it is clear that there is a serious interest in producing such material. Another element that proves the attention towards such type of manufacturing is the great number of case studies represented: anything from furnishings to car wheel rims or musical instruments, with certainly futuristic designs, able to capture the attention of spectators, involving them and triggering their fantasy.

3d printed metal part
The creative potential of 3D Printing is truly limitless (credits Protocube Reply)

(FLT) – Until now, metal 3D printing has gained popularity especially in the top-notch aerospace and medical fields. What is changing?

(MC) – There is a general increase in manufacturing technology that lets us expect a growingly broad use, both in general applications and in more specific applications, aimed to solve a particular industrial requirement. In parallel with processes based on laser sintering, it is also interesting to notice the growth of solutions related to the main methods used for metal 3D printing, namely DMP (direct metal printing). Along with the usual all-stars, we have finally seen new brands – such as BeAM (BeAdditive Manufacturing) – seriously presenting their machines. The advantage of depositing material by means of a 5-axis robot arm breaks ground to unprecedented implementations, not only in terms of creative freedom. Think of, by way of example, the fixing of parts already manufactured: a very recurring demand in the industrial context. Traditional production methods do not have such flexibility at all, thus I believe such systems will have good commercial success, even in the relatively short term.

This scenario has opened the way to a number of hybrid solutions, which expose truly evocative concepts, as does the Portuguese company Adira. One of the main limits of laser sintering is the print area, given by the dimensions of the powder bed that the laser acts upon to make parts solid. To overcome such issue, Adira has presented the TLM (tiled laser melting) system, distinguished by a printing head able to move across a large-sized powder bed. Logically the head only operates on 2 axes, not 5 like a DMP robot arm, but the attempt to combine the strengths of more than one metal 3D printing method may certainly have a bright future.

(FLT) – Among the most innovative applications, which are the ones to follow, in your opinion, with the greatest attention?

(MC) – There are really a myriad, but I’ll limit my choice to just a few. The first one is Viridis 3D, a robot arm system developed by Envisiontec, which allows to print using sand, which would cut time consumption enormously compared to the traditional procedures. We’re talking about something that could be even created in a single day, versus processes normally lasting weeks.

Another beautiful technological idea is the Spee3D, with its Supersonic Deposition Technology, a patent that deals with material deposition in a truly innovative way. In this case, material solidifies upon being “propelled” at an extremely high speed, without the need for a fusion process. It is this aspect that would eliminate any kind of issue related to possible deformation of printed objects, due to the high melting points of material used in standard, currently more popular deposition procedures. Spee3D is the practical and concrete example of today’s opportunities in the 3D printing world, in terms of new ideas and implementations.

Another very interesting phenomenon are low-budget SLS (selective laser sintering) printers, such as the one presented by Sintratec, which boasts among its peculiarities the possibility to be mounted by purchasers themselves: a first for 3D printers of this type. It’ll be appealing to try it and test its performance. Should it take at most a 15,000-euro budget to enter the sintering field, captivating possibilities would open up for designers and small companies, currently forced to outsource the creation of prototypes/products made using certain materials.

(FLT) – From a multiple-material 3D printing perspective, may we expect tangible innovations?

(MC) – It is too soon to say, but even in this case the ideas presented are definitely enticing. Multi-resin systems are nothing new, but the technology to print simultaneously using more than one powder is indeed. I am referring to the Belgian company Aeorsint, which has presented a printer that can handle two powders at once in the same printing bed. In general, the entire area at Formnext dedicated to this included truly interesting examples. We shall see whether the solutions presented will have a continuation in terms of market presence, thus a real implementation in the manufacturing context.

(FLT) – What are, instead, the most widespread,standard solutions that are gradually consolidating their market positioning?

(MC) – I believe that at this moment in time, it is worth mentioning FDM (fused deposition modeling) solutions by Desktop Metal and Markforged.

The former – which presented its production system at Formnext – is technically a startup, but its funders include the likes of Google, BMW, and Lowe’s. It offers very scalable solutions, certainly more affordable than laser printers, and able to satisfy every phase of product development. Desktop Metal’s 3D printers are able to “extrude” metal similarly to how plastic is traditionally extruded. Its proprietary technology (Single Pass Jetting) has been patented at MIT by the group led by John Hart – which is also one of the founders of the startup – who offered quite compelling speeches at Formnext.

With a certainly different FDM solution to that offered by Desktop Metal, Markforged once again proves to be one of the world’s most reliable manufacturers, able to print using plastic, metal, and a wide range of composite materials at accessible costs, without users having to rely on huge manufacturers such as Stratasys or 3D Systems. I believe the research in the composite material field is quite interesting in the scope of optimizing tooling processes, leading the way to the so-called metal replacement: the use of materials that are a valid alternative to make what would normally be made using metal. This implies the need for specific skills in the design field, but may allow truly surprising time and cost savings, without having to invest on extremely high-end technology.

(FLT) – What surprised you, instead, in a negative sense? In particular, I refer to the manufacturers that may have somehow not lived up to expectations.

(MC) – One of the things you realize the most as you visit an event like Formnext is how far the worlds of marketing and web communication are distant from the real world, represented by operating 3D printers, which is what interests professionals in this sector the most. Just to mention one, we have closely followed the evolution of the Fuse 1 by Formlabs. After the success of the Form 1 and Form 2, allowing resin printing with a budget of less than 5,000 euros, we hoped to finally lay our hands on an equally accessible SLS technology: a cost of 10,000 euros for this kind of 3D printer would truly revolutionize the market. I am using the conditional tense, because the Formlabs stand at Formnext focused essentially on the Form 2. In order to see a Fuse 1 in real life, I had to specifically ask a staff member, who in any case showed me a disconnected machine, with some of the parts even showing signs of rust! Strange, given that the Fuse 1 had already been presented as a demo version at CES, last January. I could go on mentioning other known disappointments, but I shall limit myself to Formlabs, simply because it was the one I expected the most out of. Hopefully our mistrust will be proven wrong in the near future.

(FLT) – To stay on the “mysterious” behavior topic, what innovations can we expect by Carbon?

(MC) – Carbon put on a big display at Formnext, with every one of its models set up in a production line, but the machines are still very inaccessible. The quickness of its CLIP tecnology makes it extremely interesting for manufacturing purposes, and it has published well-know case studies, but is in fact not up for sale, it may only be rented, and has no distributors in Italy at the moment. Another undoubtedly “mysterious” product is the one presented by XJet, which boasts an enormous amount of followers due to the fact that its printing technology uses both metal and ceramic nanoparticles. The company has numbers, which was confirmed by the number of visitors at its Formnext stand, but we still ask ourselves when we will finally see its printers actually in service.

The 3D STORIES journey to the discovery of 3D printing technology and solutions for manufacturing continues. In terms of predictions concerning metal 3D printing, we invite you to read the next article, related to the end of the year 2018, which has seen most of the mentioned predictions come true – https://3dstories.protocube.it/3d-printing-market/

3d printed car bigrep
An intriguing scale prototype of a vehicle, presented by German 3D printer manufacturer BigRep (credit: Protocube Reply)

This post is also available in: Italiano

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Francesco La Trofa

Architect and journalist with 20 years’ experience in 3D technologies.
Consultant to public entities and 3D businesses for aspects relating to design and communications.
Head of editorial content at Treddi.com and co-founder of Digital Drawing Days, the only event of its kind in Italy.
Actively involved in research and teaching at Milan Polytechnic.
Edits 3D STORIES for Protocube Reply.