Checking 3D Printing’s Pulse at the 2017 RAPID+TCT Conference and Exhibit

Lux Research recently attended the RAPID+TCT Accelerating 3D Manufacturing event, which brought more than 330 exhibitors and 4,000 attendees together for four days of keynotes, technical sessions, and networking. RAPID had over 100 more exhibitors than the 2016 event, covering every aspect of the additive manufacturing value chain. From materials suppliers to system providers, here are the top five takeaways with impact assessment, which includes a list of the five most notable companies at this year’s event.

1. Leading chemicals and materials companies were present, demonstrating increased interest in this market opportunity for metals, thermoplastics, and additives. Notable exhibitors included SABIC, Henkel, Covestro, Arkema, Praxair, and Sandvik.

High importance: Commoditized material costs will continue to drop while branded higher performance materials will become readily available through third parties as well as through direct partnerships for open-platform printing systems.

2. The Society of Mechanical Engineers (SME) announced its Independent Technical Evaluation of Additive Manufacturing Consortium (ITEAM), which will launch in 2018 to create an online repository of material and machine capabilities in collaboration with industry and academic partners. The goal of the consortium is to provide answers to the fundamental questions around 3D printing, like “Can [or should] this part be printed?” and “What is the best material, process, and machine to use?”

Low importance: The ITEAM consortium’s goals are admirable but it will be many years before the resources it aims to create will be comprehensive enough to be valuable for the average user; for-profit additive manufacturing companies such as Senvol are already providing free and paid data services and will benefit from the industry’s growth

3. Hybrid additive-subtractive machining systems are becoming more prevalent to enable net shape 3D printed part production and repairs with less equipment and with fewer process steps:

  • Optomec showcased a new hybrid system that combines subtractive capabilities with its Laser Engineered Net Shaping (LENS) additive technology in an inert atmosphere for aluminum and titanium processing.
  • Mazak exhibited a hybrid system that incorporates a direct metal laser sintering head developed by Hybrid Manufacturing Technologies into one of its five-axis milling systems.
  • Additec announced its first product, a directed energy deposition print head that uses metal wire or powder, to provide additive capabilities to CNC or robotic systems as a retrofit.

Average importance: Hybrid systems are not a significant growth segment for additive systems, but are a necessary step towards additive process integration into conventional manufacturing workflows and promoting awareness around additive’s capabilities

4. Metal additive manufacturing system options have expanded drastically, with lower cost systems now competing for existing and new markets with costlier direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) and directed energy deposition (DED) systems. In addition to Desktop Metal, companies such as Xact Metal, Aurora Labs, and Markforged offer printers priced between $50,000 and $200,000.

Average importance: Lower cost metal additive manufacturing is a combination of reducing equipment costs and feedstock costs. Lower equipment costs will appeal to a larger market segment, but only systems using less costly metal feedstocks (such as wire or low-quality powder) will capitalize on new applications.

5. The five most notable emerging printing companies at RAPID 2017 in terms of technology:

  • Titan Robotics develops large format FFF printers using thermoplastic pellets as material feedstock; material capabilities include ambient condition printed polypropylene (PP) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Demonstrating PP and PVC printing, particularly from less processed material feedstocks, is a promising start for this relatively new startup.
  • Essentium develops multi-walled carbon nanotube (MWNT) coated thermoplastic filaments and a plasma-based ambient condition hardware add-on for FFF printers that can produce mechanically isotropic parts that also have electromagnetic interference shielding properties. If this technology can find a few early use cases that benefit from its two-part value proposition, it has a chance to change common perceptions around FFF technology.
  • Impossible Objects develops a carbon fiber-reinforced high-performance thermoplastic composite sheet 3D printing technology; it received the 2017 RAPID+TCT innovation award. This company is bridging the gap between conventional carbon fiber-reinforced composite processes and 3D printing, merging existing performance capabilities with some of the automation and design benefits inherent to 3D printing.
  • Aurora Labs develops research-oriented low-cost powder feedstock metal printers with direct metal laser sintering and directed energy deposition capabilities. Bringing full control and low cost metal printing opens up a more academic and experimental side to a technology category that has largely been prohibitively expensive for non-industry users to invest in.
  • Desktop Metal develops metal injection molding (MIM) printers with integrated support release function for production applications; the process requires post-processing heat treatment using a microwave-assisted furnace. Reduction in post-processing time with significant materials selection and speed is changing the break-even point for a number of low production volume applications.

Overall, these companies are strong indicators that materials and process innovations will continue to drive the $6 billion additive manufacturing industry’s growth, and provide manufacturing solutions that compete with, and in certain cases even surpass, conventional manufacturing technologies.

For more information on 3D printing and the conference, check out this episode of the Lux Research Podcast below.

By: Dayton Horvath