Clichés exist for a reason, we might as well use them: “new era” is often used as a mere marketing term and it may in fact be an “error” to always talk about new “eras” in any industry, including AM. “Eras” are defined as “long and distinct periods of history”, which in geology can last millions of years; they are subdivisions of “eons”, that are indefinitely long. While two years could be considered a long period of time by certain standards, as fast as AM technology is evolving, it may be a hyperbole to say that an entirely new era in AM can dawn every two years or so.
Yet, the AM industry goes through significant changes over a period of two years, and these usually manifest themselves at Formnext. This year is no different (perhaps even more so, since it has been three years since the last full-scale show), although the changes this time may be affected by a combination of AM maturing into an actual production manufacturing technology, the lingering effects of an unprecedented (in modern times) global pandemic, and the macroeconomic challenges affecting all manufacturing, from supply chains to unpredictable demand.
There is a lot of uncertainty ahead. This does not help if you have to sell expensive machines in a recessionary economic environment. It does help if those machines can be used to rapidly generate profits (and revenues) in an uncertain environment. And it should help if you can help manufacturing companies address the unpredictability of demand. In some ways, the additive manufacturing industry should look at the generalized global political and macroeconomic uncertainty with optimism.
Most of the largest companies that have bet big on AM – HP, Nikon, GE, Siemens, BASF, and Jabil among others – are plowing ahead with investments and bullish long-term visions. They can do so because they have very large shoulders which will enable them to cruise through any rough seas ahead (that’s good for the AM industry as a whole). At the same time, some are pulling out (Xerox, Covestro, Mitsubishi) but from our understanding that is due primarily to an unconvinced approach to AM in the first place. The mid-size ones, which in many cases are also AM industry market leaders (Stratasys, 3D Systems, EOS – and we also include Desktop Metal among these) are doubling down on AM. They’ve seen AM hype cycles come and go many times already (that and the fact that AM is what they do).
By now we have also seen a couple of AM cycles come and go. We have seen recessionary cycles come and go. Fortunately, we have not seen full-scale global war cycles and we hope (and are confident) that it won’t come to that. Either way, even after a terrible war, technology and industries tend to come back stronger, and newer. AM can be the technology driving the world out of the many challenges that lie ahead. In order to be that, to do that, AM users need to come up with – and continue to raise awareness around – applications, use cases, case studies, and solid value propositions.
We look at AM as the technology of the future but really it’s already the technology of the present. Formnext 2022 showed that AM processes can become faster and more automated, and that AM parts can become a lot larger. AM technology itself is no longer a limit to productivity (if it ever was), the limit remains in terms of visualizing, designing and making the materials available for a much larger – by at least two orders of magnitude – range of applications. Most core AM companies’ booths (by core AM companies we always mean hardware, materials and service provider companies) had a few dozen applications representing the tens or at most hundreds of applications they work on with their clients. To fulfill AM’s goal of evolving into a valid production solution there need to be (and could be) thousands and even tens of thousands of different AM applications. Not necessarily just more part units for the same applications but more different applications with many different types of parts.
Consumer products for polymers,
From speaking with major core AM operators our understanding is that polymer companies are looking to the consumer products segment as a major growth area. Who are these companies? Mainly EOS and Siemens working on the eyewear business (which is already generating demand for over a hundred thousand product units); Carbon (with partners such as Oechsler, Dedem and Erpro) working on the midsole business (millions of product units produced and growing) and the sports equipment business (including bicycle accessories and backpacks), while HP is continuing to grow both footwear (midsole business) and sportswear (custom ski googles, backpacks and more). Materialise is focusing mainly on eyewear and footwear (midsoles). Incidentally, most of these companies – along with several others – are aggressively targeting the dental aligner business but that’s a topic that will require a specific in-depth analysis in our upcoming Medical/Dental AM Focus next February.
Stratasys, which remains the AM industry’s market leader, is working on a bit of everything: high productivity automation on the Origin photopolymerization platform, greater material accessibility on the Neo SLA platform (after the Covestro AM materials acquisition) and even high-speed thermal PBF applications. At the same time, Stratasys is the only company taking a multicolor PolyJet approach to end-use consumer products: from textiles and fashion products to pens and perfumes, this technology’s possibilities have truly only begun to be explored.
Some polymer companies are also exploiting the aerospace segment. One is of course Stratasys by leveraging the trustworthiness and reliability of its industry-leading F900 FDM system (which printed some of the Artemis parts now on route to the Moon), which costs a lot more than any other comparably sized system but remains a top seller because it enables aerospace suppliers and OEMs to rest easy. That is worth a lot in an increasingly uncertain market landscape. The leading SLS companies also continue to target the aerospace segment as a key development area segment for flame retardant materials.
Aerospace for metals
Most metal companies are looking primarily at the aerospace segments. It was unfortunate that the Space Tech Expo took place in Bremen during the days of Formnext, requiring many companies to double their efforts for less effective results. However space and aerospace clearly represent the biggest development area for all metal PBF companies. The race to space is exciting and it is asking for larger single parts that cannot be produced in any way other than AM. Other technologies cannot even come close to competing in terms of quality and value proposition on rocket engines, nozzles, heat exchangers and other complex fluid and gas flow components. Between NASA’s SLS rocket finally heading to the Moon as we write, powered by largely 3D printed RS-25 engines from Aerojet Rocketdyne, SpaceX serially manufacturing increasingly optimized and increasingly printed Merlin engines, and dozens of other NewSpace companies internalizing their AM, space is on its way to becoming one of the largest vertical segment for AM adoption. From space to defense, many of these applications will eventually be implemented to fly civil aircraft as well. It’s not a question of if as much as when (which remains a big question) but many plastic parts are already flying on commercial aircraft and some metal ones are starting to as well.
The aerospace industry wants large machines because that’s where AM’s value proposition (of integrating more and more subassemblies into single parts) is clearest. “There is so much interest around our technology and we’ve already sold two large Sapphire systems to Aerospace companies in Europe,” Mr. Dirk Rathsack, Managing Director at Velo3D, revealed during our chat at the Velo3D booth. “There is so much interest from aerospace and aviation but also from oil and gas – even some from automotive tooling. We now have a good infrastructure and are ready to address OEMs as well as all others through our network of contract manufacturers.”
One of the most evident “battles” during Formnext was the one on large format metal PBF between Velo3D, SLM Solutions, EOS (via AMCM) and the rising Chinese hardware OEM Eplus3D. Velo3D is a relatively new entry and has rapidly built a solid position after going public, while SLM Solutions was taken off the public stock market as a result of Nikon’s acquisition, one of the biggest news in AM this year. To celebrate SLM introduced a custom system that could produce parts as long as 3 meters, while EOS continues to explore larger custom systems via its AMCM partner. Eplus3D currently has the largest “standard” system on the market, the EP-M1250, with a build volume of 1258 x 1258 x 1350.
While large metal 3D printers represent the fringe in metal PBF development, and a “battle” between giants like Germany, the US and China, there are also several metal AM hardware companies that are growing by establishing a base in their country of origin and expanding globally via USPs. That’s the case of Prima Additive in Italy for cost/quality ratio, AddUp in France (and in the US) for productivity, or Renishaw in the UK (as well as in India and around Europe) for reliability, just to mention a few.
Among the metal AM services, Oerlikon is one of the companies that is making the biggest efforts in bringing the AM industry together through the highly successful AMTC conference. Aerospace industry veteran Giulio Feliziani, now in charge of Business Development at Oerlikon, showed us what could be achieved by presenting Oerlikon’s ongoing work with Airbus Defense and Space and the company’s own capabilities for quality assurance through full redundancy and transparency through the entire AM production process.
Electronics for all
Metal, but perhaps even more so polymers, are also looking at applications in the electronics industry as a key growth area. Some companies more than others. Fortify’s new CEO, Lawrence Ganti told us about the company’s unique and interesting approach to focus specifically on high-value opportunities in the electronics and RF segment. His experience in more established, high-margin segments such as biotech had led him to view 3D printing with high initial skepticism “Fortify started from a material-centric approach to use composites for high-value applications and then identified their novel photopolymerization AM process as the ideal production method – he explained – which helped to make the material stronger. Now my job is to focus in order to successfully scale and in order to do this we identified high value, low volume parts: right now that’s the RF space.”
Another rather holistic approach to electronics AM comes from the company that more than any other has already been able to cash in on the promise the complex additively manufacturing integrated electronic parts could one day deliver: Nano Dimension. It may still be a long time coming but the company’s vision is to combine AM processes such as its proprietary AME electronic printing capabilities, Admatec’s ceramic and metal AM capabilities and Nano Fabrica’s micro SLA capabilities, with AI software and automation systems, to directly produce finished products.
While this may be a more long-term vision, more immediately, the opportunity for AM in electronics comes from 3D printed polymer dielectric components for circuitry and enclosures. Available for well over a decade, AM is becoming a standard solution for electronic housings. “We see tremendous growth in aerospace and in the electronic sector,” said Moritz Kügler, Vice President Polymer Materials at EOS, “there are quite a few companies that are looking to customize their housings for all electronic applications, making it easier to customize geometries but also compatibility across different geographies and systems.
Other relevant trends
While there was no groundbreaking innovation at Formnext 2022 (which would make our reporting a lot easier), there were several interesting trends emerging. This should not come as a surprise for a show that counted as many as 802 exhibitors across 51,148 square meters, and an impressive 29,581 professional visitors.
Polymer AM production and automation
Especially in polymer manufacturing, it has now become evident that the only way to lower the cost per part is through increasingly automated and effective workflows. That’s much easier said than done. Post-processing hardware leaders such as AMT and Solukon are proposing solutions that, however, represent only a part of the equation. Some AM hardware companies, starting with HP and Carbon and to some extent Stratasys, are proposing their own proprietary automation solutions.
Some new polymer AM production solutions were also among the most interesting new(er) technologies seen this year. The PBF process from Evolve, in particular, promises high throughput of extremely precise parts, but also resin-based material jetting processes such as those from dp Polar (now 3D Systems) and Inkbit’s Vision Controlled Jetting are looking to increase batch count dramatically.
There is only one company that is working to put it all together. It has taken some time but the AM Flow vision is finally starting to come together, as an ideal – and necessary – solution for automating AM in those regions where the cost of labor is high and it is becoming increasingly difficult to find qualified personnel. The most important missing part to AM Flow’s system was introduced this year with the AM Quality hardware, to rapidly evaluate the quality of a part. In metal, Theta Technologies, with the RD1-TT system, is the only other company that is working to provide a rapid and accessible NDT solution.
New materials are necessary to drive new applications and adoption of AM. Developing, qualifying and optimizing a new material, whether it is a metal alloy, a polymer, or a ceramic, takes a long time but things are moving. The number of Formnext exhibitors offering AM materials across all these categories is enormous and it is not possible to cover them all here. But we can offer some highlights.
Copper and aluminum alloys are the hottest materials in metal AM right now and they keep getting hotter. Constellium’s CP1, now qualified for Velo3D systems, is the latest in a growing line of aluminum alloys developed specifically for AM, extending all the way to Ricoh’s strategic focus on aluminum binder jetting. Representatives of another Japanese company, Mitsui Kinzoku, explained that they were driven to Formnext by the growing demand for copper powders. That’s also not a surprise: ever since Trumpf showed it could be done on PBF many companies have come along including EOS – where Markus Glasser, Senior Vice President EMEA confirmed the skyrocketing demand, especially for space applications, Velo3D and GKN (with the GRCop-42 alloy) GE Additive (with Arcam EBM) and many more. A few years ago it was considered an impossible material to print; now it’s considered the ideal material. This is an important lesson.
The range of polymer materials also continues to expand although perhaps not at the rate some would hope. EOS’s Kügler highlighted how PA6 is a material that automotive customers ask for but it is not an ideal material to print. So the industry needs to develop printable materials that can deliver the same properties. For example, Jabil showed us the PK 5000 polyketone powder, developed internally to be more eco-friendly, and deliver improved strength, chemical resistance and resilience in comparison to general-purpose nylon materials. Other companies continue to focus on the sustainability of their polymer materials.
Ceramics remains an amazing family of materials in AM and there is no doubt that the segment is growing in terms of technology availability, accessibility, productivity, material availability and adoption. Some of the most advanced applications in 3D printing are ceramic ones, ranging from aerospace (including casting) to dental and medical products. The fact that ceramics are sought after is also confirmed by the fact that 3dpbm’s Ceramic AM market report continues to be in high demand.
So do ceramic AM applications. Current market and technological leaders Lithoz and 3DCeram are expanding their reach with new materials and products. Lithoz introduced the new LithaBone HA 480 medical material for patient-specific bone replacement implants made from bioresorbable ceramic as well as glass micro 3D printed parts using Glassomer’s glass material. 3DCeram continues to focus on the high productivity of its industrial systems while also introducing the high versatility (in terms of available materials) of the new 3DCeram-Tiwari M.A.T. (Multi Additive Technology) extrusion system.
More interesting news comes from the growing availability and adoption of ceramic 3D printing. Photocentric, a leading photopolymer materials and LED 3D printer manufacturer, introduced ceramic slurries to its visibility light 3D printing process with very interesting results (including the ability to print dark ceramics such as silicon carbide). ExOne’s Sarah Webster confirmed to 3dpbm that silicon carbide is by far the most requested material for its ceramic binder jetting systems (something this writer had accurately forecast a few years back when adoption was almost non-existent). Israeli nanoparticle jetting company XJet also confirmed that its “accidental” venture into ceramic AM remains a strategic asset for the company’s growth strategy. And to confirm it all, BOSCH Advanced Ceramics had its largest presence ever at Formnext.
Massive deposition for all
As mentioned above, there is a definitive trend for going larger, both in polymers and metals. One way to go larger (in terms of part size) in metals is to build larger metal PBF systems with more lasers. Another way to go larger (in terms of batch size) is to increase productivity and reduce costs via metal binder jetting. The third way, which is both larger and more cost-effective is (especially) wire-based WAAM and (in general) all DED technology. As 3dpbm forecasted in our Metal AM market report last year, WAAM technology is now growing rapidly. WAAM systems such as those from MX3D (the M1 now in use at a major automotive manufacturer) and WAAM3D’s finally available RoboWAAM are finally coming of age and industrial adopters are starting to respond. In the same DED segment, one promising company to track is Korea-based InssTek, offering systems for multimaterial metal parts and custom alloy deposition, by mixing different metals in real-time during the build).
That of larger parts is also a major trend for polymer companies. We’ve highlighted this after JEC World: companies like Caracol AM, CMS, Massivit, Ai Build (with Kuka), CEAD and Camozzi (Ingersoll) are dramatically altering the perception that AM is ideal for small intricate parts. In fact, one of the best value propositions of AM is the ability to build very large single parts or very large tools (to produce single parts). The growth in adoption of LFAM technologies with composite pellet material in segments ranging from aerospace to maritime to automotive, furniture and even construction is one of the most relevant trends in AM, as 3dpbm had accurately forecast in our Composite AM market report as early as 2020. In this landscape, Airtech is the company that is most taking advantage of AM-specific composite material demand, as others who had led the way, such as Sabic and Mitusbishi, are progressively fading out.
Change (almost) never happens overnight
Before Formnext we wrote in our Metal AM eBook that this would be the “year of the binder”. It was as all the major metal binder jetting platforms were finally introduced to the market. This does not mean that metal binder jetting will replace metal PBF just like AM will not replace traditional manufacturing. Even when it’s moving fast, change inevitably takes time and happens progressively.
Even the fact that HP’s MJF systems are among the top selling and that the newly announced 5400 series systems will be able to print white parts does not mean they will replace laser PBF systems. In fact, the number of laser PBF units sold will continue to be larger than MJF units for the foreseeable future, with low-cost laser PBF systems such as those from Sinterit and Formlabs further democratizing this technology. Even as François Minec, Global Head, Polymers 3D Printing confirmed that demand of polymer systems remains high, with some larger customers already setting up new factory facilities to be filled with machines, HP understands that change is a gradual process. That’s why the 5400 series was envisioned as a modular system that can progressively evolve by adding new features. That’s also why binder jetting systems such as HPs Metal Jet S100, Desktop Metal’s P-5 and X160, I’lll not overtake metal PBF systems overnight but will grow alongside them, expanding the overall market.
Next year may be the year that EOS finally brings its LaserPro Fusion technology to the market – Moritz Kügler confirmed that the project is still very much underway – and that could be, once again, the start of a new era in AM. But it will not happen overnight.
There were over 800 exhibiting companies at Formnext. I wish I could visit them all and the 3dpbm Formnext team grew to five – highly multitasking – people precisely for that reason: more coverage is on the way for those companies that reached out to us or those we discovered. Even without seeing all the products — especially the newer products — up close, we know that most of these are always either top quality or highly innovative products and technologies. It’s the intrinsic nature of AM to be used to make parts that are (potentially) more sustainable and (immediately) better than those made by traditional manufacturing methods. Making sure that these better parts also represent a clear better value proposition is our homework for the new era of AM on the road to Formnext 2023.