Additive Manufacturing at IMTS

Fabbaloo travels to the IMTS and gives an overview of 3D printing’s presence there.

I’ll be honest. Traveling alone to a massive show in a huge U.S. city when you spend most of your days in a small village is fairly intimidating. It is also exciting, and they don’t come much bigger than the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS), held biennially by the Association for Manufacturing Technology (AMT).

In the interests of full disclosure—I was present as a guest of 3D Systems, which held a press event on Monday, September 12, to unveil a new visionary strategy along with a couple of new products—sort of—but more on that later. Due to the nature of my travel arrangements, I had a few free hours on Tuesday to take a quick peek at other additive things—as you do! There was no chance of exploring the other manufacturing tech on show in just a few hours—the exhibition is vast.

IMTS is spread over all four buildings (North, East, South and West) of McCormick Place on the shore of Lake Michigan with more than a million square feet of exhibition space (1,370,256 to be precise) accommodating 2,407 exhibitors. According to the organizers, this year’s IMTS was the largest ever in terms of exhibitors, with the number of registered visitors reported at well over 100,000.

One new addition to IMTS this year was the Additive Manufacturing Pavilion, which was housed in the North Building. I definitely had the sense that the AM Pavilion was “tagged on” in terms of size and positioning. It was a tiny section (less than 1 percent) in the context of the entirety of the show as quantified above. However, to be clear, using the “tagged on” line above is only applied to the size of the AM exhibits—without doubt, the addition of dedicated AM space was not an afterthought; its prominence as a valid and growing manufacturing technology was clear throughout all of the visuals and with the daily marketing press. It was also supported by a two-day conference (hosted in the West Building, which was not particularly helpful). However, the size of the AM Pavilion at IMTS served as an appropriate analogy and timely reminder for where exactly AM fits in the realms of manufacturing technology in 2016.

3D Systems’ presence at IMTS was perhaps the most pervasive on the AM front. Obviously, that can be viewed as a subjective comment based on the above disclosure, but actually I’m saying it based on the fact that the company had a presence in three of the four buildings. Naturally, there was a stand within the AM Pavilion, front and center as it goes, supported by a large booth in the East Building within the CAD/CAM Pavilion and featuring the company’s array of ecosystem software and software partnerships. 3D Systems was also present in the South Building, courtesy of its partnership with machine tools company Methods 3D. To provide some perspective, the 3D Methods’ stand was probably comparable in size to the entire AM Pavilion, and it featured an iteration of 3D Systems’ new modular Figure 4 production system.

Originally unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January, and later at Additive Manufacturing Users Group (AMUG), this is an automated manufacturing line configuration with 3D printing embedded as the production process. The configuration includes the automated production, post-processing and in-line monitoring of high volumes of plastic parts/products enabled by the integration of 3D printing, robots, scanning and software. Anticipating commercialization of this system in 2017, there was no visible pricing, but even when the pricing comes, it will not be standard due to the modular nature of it. This system is a production solution and as such, customer requirements will be different; therefore, each solution will be designed to meet individual needs.

3D Systems’ CEO Vyomesh Joshi and Cofounder Chuck Hull introducing Figure 4 at IMTS.

3D Systems’ CEO Vyomesh Joshi and Cofounder Chuck Hull introducing Figure 4 at IMTS.

Interestingly, some of the IP for Figure 4 was originally filed in 1984 by 3D Systems’ Cofounder Chuck Hull, highlighting how the vision for automated AM was present 32 years ago. In 2016, however, the transition from prototyping to production is central to 3D Systems’ strategy and vision, as unveiled by CEO Vyomesh Joshi (VJ) during a two-hour keynote address. With a notable outward-looking focus, open approach and complete prioritization of the customer in all operations, 3D Systems demonstrated a whole new approach to leading the 3D printing industry.

The AM Pavilion also housed the booths of the North American divisions of voxeljet, EOS, EnvisionTEC, Concept Laser and SLM Solutions—all companies with their headquarters in Germany. The U.S. companies were, naturally, there in force too. 3D Systems, as already mentioned, together with Stratasys, Optomec, ExOne, Sciaky, HP Inc. and Carbon, with the latter also having a stand in the West Building.

UK-based AM company Renishaw was also present at IMTS, but only in the East Building in the Quality Assurance space. Renishaw had a vast stand, competing well with Hexagon, Zeiss and others on the metrology front, but the company was also exhibiting the RenAM 500M system, which has been gaining a great deal of attention. I caught up with Stuart Jackson, who was two weeks into his new Business Development role at Renishaw, after leaving EOS where he’d been for 14 years at the beginning of the summer. It was a big change, but one that I believe will be mutually beneficial. We chatted at length about the AM industry, mostly the metals part of it, and the shift toward production applications—a notable theme this year and also crystallized by IMTS 2016.

The proposed GE acquisition of SLM Solutions and Arcam was also a recurring theme of conversations at IMTS. Stuart was upbeat about it, as was Stefan Ritt, long-time sales and marketing director at SLM. He did reinforce how early in the process things are, though. It is certainly not a done deal for GE yet. For the record, he thinks it probably will be, but highlighted how many news outlets did not report on the actual information that GE released last week, but rather on assumptions based on that information.

Inside the Vader Mk1 3D printer.

Inside the Vader Mk1 3D printer.

I also discussed this subject with Andre Wegner from Authentise, which released new software earlier in the week. He had mixed feelings about the acquisition bid, particularly with regard to users of the EBM process and whether it would remain a commercial technology or become an internal tool for GE. It’s always insightful talking with Wegner, who is based between Africa and Silicon Valley and has a perspective that is always valuable beyond measure. One of the really insightful topics that we moved on to had to do with the “metals vs. plastics” thing that is happening in the 3D printing space. When talking about production, we both agreed that most people make the immediate assumption that it is only about metal additive manufacturing. For some time, this has niggled me (on and off, you understand). That said, the 3D Systems vision is fighting this myth, stressing that plastic production with 3D printing will be huge.

Stratasys' Infinite Build 3D demonstrator at IMTS.

Stratasys’ Infinite Build 3D demonstrator at IMTS.

One company that has long been pushing this message is the other leader in the field —Stratasys. With its Fortus machines and ULTEM materials, Stratasys has been able to demonstrate proof of plastic 3D printing production for years. Moreover, at IMTS, I got to see the two new industrial demonstrator concepts up close for the first time. Both the Robotic Composite 3D Demonstrator and the Infinite Build 3D Demonstrator take Stratasys’ intent in this regard to the next level. I knew they were going to be big, but seeing them in real life really brought home Stratasys’ commitment to manufacturing. Talking with Joe Hiemenez, the key for Stratasys has always been applications, with which I concur, and the raft of user stories from Stratasys is increasing week on week.

Carbon's stand at IMTS.

Carbon’s stand at IMTS.

Another company that is focusing on 3D printing plastic production is Carbon. It was great to catch up with Dana McCallum, who gave me a heads-up on its latest investment and growth news, which is not insignificant. Further investment of more than $80 million from customers speaks volumes about how customers—and potential customers—are reacting to the capabilities of the Continuous Liquid Interface Production (CLIP) process and Carbon’s materials portfolio.

Further reporting on issues not included in this article can be found here on Fabbaloo.