Arriving four hours early for an event is kind of embarrassing, yet nowhere near the most embarrassing thing that happened to me today (tomorrow on the date stamp for this article, but don’t ask me to explain the time zone differences that cause that anomaly as jetlag is kicking in).
So after a couple of meetings, I got to be a tourist in New York City for a couple of hours, which was a fun surprise. Face planting a busy avenue was not quite so fun! That was REALLY embarrassing. Composure restored somewhat I headed for the Empire State Building. Amazing. Fortuitous that I had no internet access to check my news feeds and emails, which were red hot with big 3D printing news, and I got to experience this wonder without guilt, which didn’t kick in until much later.
With a 360˚ panoramic view of the New York skyline firmly stored in my memory, I headed back west to the Javits convention centre for the serious business of the day — a series of workshops hosted by Inside 3D Printing’s organizers: Mediabistro, ahead of the 2 day full conference and exhibition which starts tomorrow (today according to the date stamp — brain fry, anyone?).
Four workshops were hosted across two, two-hour sessions. I could therefore be found scurrying between rooms, the plan was to catch an hour of each.
The first workshop where I was in attendance was a two-parter — aptly titled The XYZs of 3D Scanning – Making Reality Digital. It was presented by Michael Raphael of Direct Dimensions (up first) and Duann Scott of Shapeways and his own venture Bits to Atoms.
Finally meeting Michael Raphael in person, briefly before the session kicked off and at length subsequently was lovely, because he is such a lovely person – who I have communicated with many times over the years, since my earliest work at Rapid News. Michael was one of the first authors I commissioned way back when — 1996 to be precise, a year after he had left working directly for an aerospace company and founded DD. Michael outlined a brief history of the 3D Scanning industry, something he is very well placed to do, pointing out the high end systems that have been around a while, he started with a FaroArm, and the more recent proliferation of entry-level 3D scanners. Believe it or not, there are now more than 100 commercial organizations across the globe offering 3D scanning hardware, which, as he pointed out, are presented in detail in the Wohlers Report. Michael drew some very interesting parallels with the 3D printing industry itself, as well as intelligently highlighting the co-dependence of the two.
Simply put — 3D scanning = digital information in. 3D printing = digital information out. However, in the real world it is obviously much more complex than that, dictating that digitizing the world around us is challenging, to say the least.
This was the launch pad Michael used to expand further on the many different tools and workflows for 3D scanning — touching on metrology and quality, the main focus was, unsurprisingly on 3D printing. He covered hardware, software, processes and applications to this end.
Asking the question: “Where next? What’s the killer app?” there was an audible in take of breath as the packed room waited to be enlightened.
The disappointing next line was: “I don’t have that answer.” Qualified with
“But …. There will be one!”
Michael handed over to Duann Scott, a self-described Designer Evangelist, who is one of those rare breeds that talks softly yet with complete authority. His knowledge and application about 3D printing was real and no nonsense. He was talking to a relatively clued up audience that knew but generally hadn’t experienced 3D printing for themselves. He covered all the basics with some anecdotes that were well received. With space being an issue, as ever, I’ll stick to the stand-out one for me.
Talking about the capabilities and application of 3D printing, Duann conveyed well what 3D printing is good at — and what it is NOT good at, at least yet. Citing an unspecified application he had seen at Disney, Duann explained how the entertainment giant was utilizing multi-material 3D printing (ie Stratasys Objet tech). The main point being that the application demanded 3D printing part of a part, stopping the process, adding additional components by hand (lights / batteries etc), and then resuming the 3D printing process. Duann’s point was two-fold — first, we (as a species) have already worked out how to successfully manufacture the lights and the batteries, why waste time and energy on figuring out how to 3D print them less successfully. Which led to his main point — focus on automating the process of adding the additional components into the 3D print
While, I’ve heard similar things from other 3D printing vendors about a focus on automation it has been about the pre & post 3D printing processes — this is the first time I’ve considered it in-process.
This made so much sense to me.
The workshop running parallel to this one was given by Erin Arden, who is Training Manager at MakerBot. Titled Desktop 3D Printing – From Start to Finish the workshop was very much about the practicalities of hands-on 3D printing, specifically with the MakerBot family of 3D printers. As I joined the audience, we were talking (and it was very interactive) filaments. Erin was talking up PLA filment, citing how much easier it is to work with over ABS, obviously, seeing as the MakerBots are optimized to process PLA. However, she did concede that there are certain applications where ABS can be a better option, namely for functional prototyping.
Moving on to practical applications, a member of the audience posed medical applications. Erin went on to talk about prosthetics being an ideal demonstrator of how 3D printing can make a real difference. MakerBot was the vendor that was involved with the original Robohand.
However when someone suggested implants, Erin was quick to say NO! Definitely not on a MakerBot (or equivalent) because, for starters, it does not offer a sterile environment. There probably another million reasons why not, but time was running short.
She went on to talk about infills, support structures, densities, build plates and setting up on back end. Software was covered too — proprietary and Meshmixer .
Focusing in on the build plate issues, one interesting take away was how this is representative of the evolution of 3D printing and how it is progressively getting easier and more seamless. The 2nd generation MakerBot required the build to be checked at four discrete points, the 3rd generation at three point, the 4th at two points. With the latest, 5th generation it is still 2 points, with immediate feedback supplied on the LED (rather than through a failed print). There is also a feeler gauge available, one of the many handy tips and tricks for successful 3D printing with a MakerBot that the audience got hold of today.
Isaac Katz from the Electronic Art Boutique gave a workshop that outlined the many “Tools of Creation and the Future of Retail” all enabled by 3D printing. The main focus, at least initially was on software tools, the ones beyond CAD that make personalized and/or highly detailed models relatively easily. The point being that they have been possible — by hand, but with hours, days, maybe weeks and months of painstaking work. The tools that are available to us today for scanning, simulation and polygon programming produce realistic textures and expressions that can be generated quickly and, again, relatively easily producing superior results. Isaac posited how the digital and physical worlds are converging – with “cool possibilities opening up.”
Perhaps the most telling, and for me personally, the most insightful workshop today was given by Brent Stucker of the University of Louisville. Brent’s longevity in this industry dating back more than a couple of decades gives him gravitas, but it is his easy, accessible manner that keeps his audience captive — even after running over the two-hour session, they all wanted more. And got it.
Using a tactic, also commonly used by Terry Wohlers who will be speaking at the conference tomorrow, Brent requested a quick show of hands to understand his audience and how familiar/new they were to 3D printing. Turns out about half were completely new to the tech, most of the rest had knowledge of it, but no experience, while the minority had real world experience, with literally a handful having more than a decade of additive manufacturing experience.
The emphasis of the workshop was on manufacturing applications. Possibly a clue as to why this workshop was the first to sell out, weeks ago. Entitled Reshaping Manufacturing: Understanding 3D Printing Processes Brent was quick to address “the problems that the advertising doesn’t tell you.” It was pitched perfectly — technical but not too technical.
Starting with a wholly realistic overview, Brent outlined how 3D printing is “changing the infrastructure of how we make things, particularly complex things.” But also how the technologies are encouraging more widespread entrepreneurial spirit, because 3D printing lowers the risks.
Having judged his audience he went back to basics, covering solid models (from scanning data / 3D software), STL files, repair (“absolutely essential” – stressed and stressed again) all before getting to the 3D printing machine where we create the build (orientation / position) and, if necessary, the supports. And we still haven’t pressed the print button. Once you have, IF you get a successful build (more on that later) then you have all the post-processing to deal with.
Definitely a healthy dose of reality for any with romantic (hyped) notions sitting in the audience. But they couldn’t get enough.
Brent systematically outlined the different additive manufacturing processes (SLA, powder bed fusion ie sintering/melting, with lasers and EBM, jetting, binder jetting, deposition etc). He periodically referred to patents too, with a couple of notable highlights — the expirations of Stratasys’ heated build chamber later this year and 3DS’s build chamber heaters for the sintering process.
One of the statistics that Brent threw out there, which is not conclusive by any means, but is based on his broad and deep knowledge, not to mention his extensive contact network courtesy of his day job involving extensive research and chairing the ASTM F42 committee for 6+ years, is the material waste encountered by users of metal powder bed fusion systems due to failed prints. This includes expert users, and to monetize this waste Brent quoted his estimate at between $50k and $100k, PER MACHINE, PER YEAR!!
Solutions are needed. And, he’s been working on one, indeed he has created a new company to do it. When I got to speak with Brent one on one after the workshop I took the opportunity to find out a bit more. This is a bit of an exclusive actually, Brent has been flying under the radar so far, because he and his team are rewriting new simulation software — specifically Finite Element Analysis (FEA) — which will allow these 3D printers to run faster and better in the future. Brent told me there are research contracts in place, it will initially be provided as a service, before being rolled out commercially around the turn of the year. The company is called 3D SIM LLC, and Brent has chosen to go public with it for the first time here in NYC, he will be expanding on it all in much more detail at tomorrow’s conference. It’s got some developers worried already though — some of the big ones have already approached him!
The other topic we covered was the big acquisition news of the day, specifically the Stratasys acquisition of Solid Concepts and Harvest Technologies. Having edited Davide’s article earlier in the day, I had been struck at the time by the range of 3D printing processes that was coming Stratasys’ way within its service centre. It occurred to me this was a smart move. What hadn’t occurred to me, however, was Brent’s extension of this, his opinion being that “Stratasys has acquired expert knowledge, potentially THE most expert knowledge, of how to use its competitors’ technologies.” Smart, and some.
I also got the chance to speak with Michael (Raphael) about the 3DS and Stratasys acquisitions, together with the Materialise IPO filing — I confess, we gossiped unapologetically about the news — and none of it is repeatable!
The other inside scoop I got came from a fortuitous and unscheduled meet up with Bram de Zwart of 3D Hubs. News from the first mover in the local 3D printing service model suggests that Bram and Brian’s vision is really starting to pay off. Bram reported that the average delivery time for 3D printed parts is 1.6 days from a customer placing an order. This demonstrates a key benefit for local production, with the elimination of shipping time. Service is another key differentiator, with it being supplied by a real person rather than via a web interface. A new feature on the 3D Hubs website is the ability for customers to provide a review. To date, average ratings are 4.8 out of five. I also heard a secret, to be revealed soon, but lets just say it’s not just 3D Hubs and their community that believe in this local manufacturing model. Some big players are taking note too, and buying into the concept (not literally!).
Tomorrow is going to be full-on hectic, with no tourist time. I took a quick tour of the exhibition hall during set-up — it’s looking really great. And I saw the car. OMGoodness!! Amazing doesn’t quite cover it.