3D Printing

First it was the Conference, Now a 3D Printing Exhibition Round Up @TCTLive 2012

At the end of last week I wrote a round up of the TCT Conference, because during the event the conference auditorium is where I have traditionally had to concentrate my time and effort. It is always worthwhile and I learn a lot; the downside is that I do not get as much time as I would like on the show floor to talk to people, catch up on all the latest releases and spend quality time with the 3D printers. It has been mentioned to me, by more than one person, that I am just a blur during the show — it’s probably true and the state of my feet (still painful) are testament to the fact that I go hither and thither where I can, when I can. The other problem of course is that exhibitors having a successful show (lots of people on the stand, which was the case last week) are often not available when I can slip away from the conference, so I don’t always get to speak to everyone I want to.

That said, I gave it my best effort, and, like The 3D Printer Spy (if you haven’t watched it yet, I recommend it), sometimes I just watched what was going on, which was almost as much fun!

2012 saw the majority of all the big hitters in the 3D printing sector exhibiting at TCT Live — specifically the companies offering high-end professional 3D printers for manufacturing and prototyping applications. 3D Systems, Stratasys, EOS, Objet, Mcor, Concept Laser, Arcam, Renishaw, ExOne, Sciaky, Envisiontec, fcubic and SolidScape were all present and correct demonstrating the tremendous growth and continued interest in professional 3D printing applications.

The companies offering metal printing capabilities are going from strength to strength as far as I could see, but as ever, specific applications have to be kept under wraps. Talking to Lars Ryberg at Arcam he was telling me about how much of an impact the company is having on a range of medical applications, quietly getting on with the business of printing in titanium — repeatedly, in larger volumes than ever before. So much so that it is almost too easy to lose sight of how cutting edge the electron beam melting (EBM) process is. I challenged him to tell more stories in public and he promised me he would see what he could do.

EOS is another machine vendor where I would love to see more publicity — it would be well deserved. The Laser Sintering process used by the company’s e-manufacturing 3D printing solutions — in a very wide range of materials from nylon and PEEK through to metals and now gold — is one of the most effective and productive processes out there for professional applications. EOS has now formally announced, but not yet launched, the Precious M 080 machine — a system developed specifically for sintering gold. I mentioned the Cookson Precious Metals presentation in my conference round up, and it will probably come as no surprise to learn that Cooksons and EOS are working in partnership in this area. It is really exciting times and I heard that the order book is strong.

Stratasys, and their well-equipped UK reseller Laser Lines, were manning the most impressive TCT exhibition stand this year, IMO. With no less than nine machines  — from the largest (Fortus) down to the smallest (Mojo) 3D printer — the team was there in force and engaging with the visitor demographic — right across the board. The Stratasys / Objet merger is due to be wrapped up by the end of the month and all were talking about it in very positive terms including the complementary technology portfolio that will be available from a single source.

Catching up with Martin Forth of Envisiontec, I never fail to be impressed with the resolution of their latest demonstration models. This is yet another company that quietly goes about its business, which, it seems, is as strong as ever. Again I heard about some really interesting applications of the Perfactory systems, which the company is hoping to share soon. Permissions allowing.

One highlight of the exhibition was that I was really delighted to finally come face-to-face with was the BluePrinter. The team — Hannes, Torben and Niels — were there in force and they were keen to share the capabilities of this Selective Heat Sintering (SHS) process. This is a new 3D printer with much to live up to, competing as it does with laser sintering. I liked what I saw and the parts that were on show, from a €10,000 3D printer were robust and pretty impressive. Other visitors at the BluePrinter stand, there were many, seemed to concur.

The other big change on the exhibition floor was the dramatic increase in entry-level machines. The so-called ‘prosumer’ systems aimed at SMEs, hobbyists and consumers.

I spoke to the guys from Makerbot who were happy to wax lyrical about the Replicator 2 and seemed to regret that they didn’t have one on site with the hoards that were coming to the stand. They had a definite pride in being part of the Makerbot movement and were happy to talk about the industry per se. They were lovely guys but they did tense up a little when I asked them about the closed source issue and the conversation seemed to end quite quickly after that.

I also got to see MiiCraft, Leapfrog, Ultimaker, Fabbster and Sumpod — the printers and parts off them, which is my favourite bit. The MiiCraft parts are amazing — tiny, but really very impressive resolution, as expected off a resin system. Leapfrog parts are much bigger, being as it is a deposition process, and the most impressive of the build chambers on show, but it lags behind in resolution.

And there we have those trade-offs again (see my Barriers to Adoption Series). I really look forward to the day they become non-existent – as I believe they will, one day!

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