Who doesn’t love a good success story? Hearing about triumphs in business can motivate, spurring additional developments to build on proven methodologies, bolstering the mood of an industry. On the flip side of the coin, learning more about the challenges inherent in a given category can feel demoralizing, understanding that something just isn’t quite there yet — and may indeed never be as presented. It’s the balance of success and challenge that keeps an industry grounded in reality, in what can come to pass in real-world conditions, and it was at this crossroads that the annual International Conference on Additive Manufacturing and 3D Printing was held last week in Nottingham. I trekked to the UK for the event, which fulfilled its promise of a carefully curated agenda of high-caliber presentations from industry-leading minds. Kicked off with a pre-conference day focused on the Industrial Realities of Additive Manufacturing, the full conference filled the next two days with sessions ranging from automotive to scientific research to lunar 3D printing, all peppered with developing technologies and approaches.
A full house during Xaar’s session, presented by Neil Hopkinson
‘Curated’ is indeed the word of choice for this event, as AM Conference attendees are focused on getting the most out of the unique opportunity to hear directly from those behind the latest scientific papers, industry shaping research, and cutting-edge hardware and software. Geared toward industry and academia, rather than a commercial focus on sales — or, indeed, press, as I was one of four media guests invited for the full agenda — the conference maintains integrity without the stuffiness that might be expected at a high-level meeting of the minds. The AM Conference is led by the University of Nottingham’s Centre for Additive Manufacturing (CfAM) and, as of last year, CfAM spin-out company Added Scientific.
I had the opportunity to learn more about the event directly from the source, as I sat down on the final day of presentations with Sophie Jones, General Manager of Added Scientific, recording our chat in the first video interview from 3DPrint.com:
Several key themes emerged throughout the conference, each orbiting the central idea of reality. What is the reality of additive manufacturing? What is the realistic future for the technology?
Almost surprisingly at an AM-focused event, the Star Trek Replicator was only thoroughly referenced once — and even then, it was referred to as “the dream” as Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory‘s Maxim Shusteff discussed the concept of “true 3D” and the still-existing barriers in 3D. Shusteff posited that “true 3D” has not yet occurred, that “the quest for 3D fabrication is unfulfilled” as yet; LLNL, for its part, is making headway in this area with photopolymerization-centered work with holography.
A big barrier to adoption of 3D printing technologies has, for the past several years, been the damage done to their reputation by over-hyped announcements and early media coverage. While several presenters referenced the hype cycle, the company behind the famed visualization, Gartner, released its 2017 Hype Cycle just one day ahead of Research VP in AM Pete Basiliere’s presentation: “Beyond the Hype.” For the 2017 cycle, Gartner examines 38 technologies; “Two-thirds of these are to the far left, where you should be asking: do I care, should I be doing something,” Basiliere commented, while “on the right is where the technology has matured.” He then went on to make a bold claim regarding the future of 3D printing:
“By 2035, 3D printing will be commoditized — that means we will not be as concerned about the material, the technology, the printer, as we will be about the content. I don’t care anymore in 2035 what machine did it. The analogy here to 2D printing is spot on, you don’t care how your document is printed. The same thing will happen to 3D printing.”
Pete Basiliere presents the 2017 Gartner Hype Cycle for 3D Printing
In a room full of some 250 delegates interested in the broadening range of 3D printers, including hardware producers such as Stratasys and XJET, the projection turned more than a few heads. Still, once the rumbling settled down, that expectation of commoditization began to make more sense as it’s the same barriers to entry, the same challenges standing in the way of adoption, that we’re seeing industry-wide over and over again. And, ultimately, the same goals of improving manufacturing processes and transitioning into the heralded Industry 4.0.
Among the most common challenges seen in the rise of additive manufacturing, brought up throughout the AM Conference proceedings, are:
Among that last category were five areas that Stratasys’ Dr. Phil Reeves termed “the usual suspects”:
Important to note of these areas, Dr. Reeves explained, is that it is not necessary, nor advisable, to tackle them all at once. He said:
“Don’t try to solve all five problems at the same time, because you don’t need to. Trying to solve all five problems at the same time doesn’t address what the end user needs… We have to engineer solutions economically viable for their solutions…engineer a machine where you know what the applications are so you can engineer for them.“
Further of note was the reminder that this technology does not, and should not, exist in a vacuum.
“3D printers shouldn’t be standalone machines anymore, they are parts of integrated systems,” he said.
A key feature threading through many of the other barriers to adoption — notably skills, financing, and regulation — is the need for the dissemination of knowledge. Conferences such as this event work well as the foundation for an exchange of information, through sessions as well as great opportunities for networking. The industry can only continue to grow as information is made more available, and not only to participants. Government agencies need to be aware of business possibilities so financing can take place in getting companies off the ground to the benefit of both industry and economy, as Added Scientific’s Jones noted in her session.
Dr. Tim Minshall of the Institute for Manufacturing regarding skills/education in AM: “It’s not a big thing, it’s THE big thing”
More broad awareness can additionally lead to expanding opportunities in education, as both formal schooling and job-based professional upskilling need to be bolstered in this fast-growing and fast-changing industry. A common refrain from many industry participants is that there simply isn’t enough of a skilled workforce in place to fill all the positions open now, much less those that will continue to appear with the evolution of additive manufacturing as a profession. On top of these, regulations need to be created and adhered to as additive technologies spread across mission-critical areas such as aerospace, to ensure both safety of performance and manufacturing, and awareness that these are viable methods for industry.
The AM Conference 2017 covered a great deal of ground, and here we have only touched on the very tip of the icebergs presented. We’ll soon be taking a deeper look into many of these areas and presentations with the latest from-the-ground information in 3D printing.
[All images/video: Sarah Goehrke for 3DPrint.com]