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3D Printing Sector Matures, but Doubts Linger as to Domestic Uptake

Despite the increasing sophistication of the hardware and the wider range of materials available, exhibitors at this year's TCT Show in Birmingham, remained divided as to whether there would, indeed, soon be a 3D Printer in every home.

Photo: Print head: A 3D skull rendered by McCor Technologies.
Print head: A 3D skull rendered by McCor Technologies.
Photo: Print head: A 3D skull rendered by McCor Technologies.
Print head: A 3D skull rendered by McCor Technologies.

Is there anything that can't be produced with a 3D printer? The answer, according to many of the exhibitors and speakers at this year's TCT Show + Personalize is "No". Or, at least, "probably not". Despite this ubiquitous optimism, there were still some that struck a note of caution. Perhaps surprisingly, one such dissenting voice came courtesy of Dr Hans J Langer, Chief Executive of EOS, the Munich-based specialist in "additive manufacturing" – the more formal term for 3D printing.

Addressing delegates as part of his keynote speech, Langer said: "Many people have inflated expectations as to what these technologies can deliver – and they do not always distinguish between consumer and industrial 3D printing."

A common feeling among exhibitors, though, was that the time was right for new entrants to make a mark in the sector. One such aspirant business was Norge – three young Italian entrepreneurs who had brought their Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) Printer to the UK in search of investment and orders.

Their product certainly created a stir around the show, seemingly competing with the major brands at a fraction of the price. The company's Norge Ice9 system, for instance, is a low-budget laser-sintering printer (a form of 3D printing) that utilises nylon/polyamide powder as a base manufacturing element. Alessandro Facchini, a co-founder of the business, said: "Many people are interested. They have been very surprised that we can provide SLS Technology for £19,900, around a tenth of the price offered by our competitors."

By contrast, 3D Systems, the California-based 3D printer manufacturers, has been around a little longer. The company took centre stage at the event, with a three-piece band playing 3D-printed instruments. The American giant bills itself as 'Manufacturing the Future' and was keen to live up to its own hype.

According to Rozenn Sellin, Marketing Manager of the French division of its 3D Personal & Professional Printer interests, the company's business is now structured to grow within every sector of the market – materials, systems and manufacturing. Currently, it offers a range of printers priced from US$1,000 to US$950,000, with distribution in place across the world.

With regard to the company's current plans, Sellin said: "We are looking closely at new materials. We believe new materials will open up even more markets for 3D printing."

The view on the showfloor, however, was that 3D Systems was very much on the acquisitions trail, looking to create an alliance with a big brand software company in order to bring affordable products to the home market.

Overall, the topic of "Should every home have one?" or indeed "Will every home have one?" evoked a mixed response at the event. Among the cynics was Sheffield's Ame Group, rapid prototyping specialists who work with a number of leading consumer brands.

Tim Wragg, the company's Business Manager, maintains that little has really changed over the past 15 years, other than the choice of materials. He said: "People are living in cloud cuckoo land if they think that every home will have a 3D Printer. It's not going to happen."

A very different view came courtesy of Roger Soep, Principal of Q5 Solutions, a West of Scotland 3D printer manufacturer. He said: "There is no limit to what can be produced. Materials will define how the market grows. It won't be long before every home will have a 3D printer, with consumers buying files online to produce broken parts and various small items, such as jewellery."

Q5 Solutions was represented on the Print It 3D stand, a dedicated area highlighting the latest prototypes created using new materials. Some of these – notably those using gypsum – are staggering, with one such demonstration recreating designs for Clarkes running shoes.

Explaining the application, Soep said: "These full-coloured and finished prototypes were created in hours rather than days. This greatly speeds up the market research process and reduces the time taken to bring new products to market."

Firmly in the every-home-should-have-one camp is MakerBot, a New York-based company that is the consumer/desk top arm of Stratasys. Jonathon Calvert, a member of Makerbot's Technical Support Team, was keen to highlight its desktop range, a line designed to be affordable to a younger generation of creatives, both at home and at school.

The company's new Replicator Mini is said to offer one-touch 3D printing for £999. Its new fifth generation Replicator, a model specifically targeted at young product designers is priced at £1,999. The company's products are widely available in the US and can be purchased online via its global distribution network, including Hong Kong's 3D Forge.

Overall, many were impressed by the range of products on show at this year's event. Peter Elliot, a director of Warwickshire-based HK Laser Services, said: "I think this is the biggest collection of 3D printing and Additive Manufacturing ever gathered under one roof."

Despite the clear support for the event, Elliot believes that the sector still labours under something of an image problem. He said: "It's unfortunate that many people see 3D printing as technology that enables a gun to be made, rather than as a way of making prosthetic legs in war-torn Africa."

Ellis was attending the event as part of the team on the ReaLizer stand, a German company specialising in selective laser melting. This is a process that facilitates the metal laser printing of products in sectors that require a high degree of accuracy, notably dentistry and watch-making.

Photo: Low-budget 3D-printing from Norge.
Low-budget 3D-printing from Norge.
Photo: Low-budget 3D-printing from Norge.
Low-budget 3D-printing from Norge.
Photo: Contact-free scanning by Physical Digital.
Contact-free scanning by Physical Digital.
Photo: Contact-free scanning by Physical Digital.
Contact-free scanning by Physical Digital.

ReaLizer's SLM-50 desk top, a unit highlighted at the Show, works with cobalt-chrome and gold alloys to render products suitable for the dentistry market. Boasting typically impressive German high-tech styling, complete with a Leica viewing module, it comes with a price tag to match – Euros140,000 to 400,000.

As well as featuring a 3D printer for every purpose, the TCT Show was home to an array of ancillary equipment. Among the scanners on show, two different types seemed to predominate, with Faro and Non-contact 3D products typifying the divide.

Both products are suitable for 3D inspections, CAD comparison, Dimensional Analysis and Reverse Engineering, but tackle the challenge in quite different ways. Faro's 'FaroArm' is guided by an operator, with the portable arm being linked to a touch-screen computer. Capable of recording information in a contact or non-contact situation, its use is somewhat akin to holding hands with a robotic arm.

In terms of non-contact 3D scanning, Surrey-based Physical Digital operates a mobile bureau service offering GOM ATOS and TRITOP optical measurement systems (both recognised industry standards). Explaining its approach, Daniel Lainchburuy, a Senior Applications Engineer, described how the company uses it scanning service to reverse engineer a gas turbine blade.

He said: "The process, combined with the appropriate additive manufacturing, re-creates a part, removing the need to buy a replacement. It is also replicating it as it was actually built, rather than what was initially designed."

Amid all the new applications and new materials being highlighted, it was perhaps surprising see that most traditional of printing mediums – paper – making something of a return. Mcor Technologies, a California-based 3D printer manufacturer was confident that A4 paper still has considerable potential.

Citing one of the advantages of its system, Deirdre MacCormack, the company's Chief Marketing Officer, said: "Our products can go straight in the recycle bin after use – that's cradle-to-grave sustainability."

One of the other major benefits of Mcor Technologies' SDL paper-based printing is also the supposed quality of its finished products. In truth, the full-colour quality achieved on the paper surface was evident in the colourful samples it had on show. The company, though, was keen to emphasise that it was not just about looks.

According to MacCormack, the company's Matrix 300+ printer produces a product that is tough and durable – and nothing like paper. Indeed, the finished output resembles more of a dense, acrylic-based material.

According to one Mcor representative, he has even made replacement parts for home use via the printer, including replacing handles for his water hose housing. He said: "Paper, as a 3D printing material, has a lot of advantages, including cost. Paper is also readily available for use in every home."

Among the companies from further afield making their presence felt at the event was Stratasys, an Israeli company. Following its merger with Objet 2012 and its acquisition of MakerBot in 2013, it is now the biggest player in the 3D printing world.

The company was attending the show to launch its latest 3D printer – the Object 500 Conex3. This large build area printer allows for three different materials to be used in the printing of any product, with the optional settings available including full colour usage, rigidity, transparency and the incorporation of rubber.

According to the company, its triple-jetting technology was unique in the market and could create new opportunities and improved flexibility when it comes to producing multi-material components.

China, too, was well represented at the show, with Shining 3D from Zhejiang apparently leading the field in 3D printing across the mainland, while also looking to move into the broader international markets. As well as Shining, three companies from Shenzhen were also showcasing their products at the event: Esun (filament producers), HLH Prototypes (a traditional full-services prototype manufacturer), and Weistek (consumer 3D printing).

Weistek is focussing on the low-budget, creative/product design end of the market with its IdeaWerk desktop mini 3D filament printer. This is clearly an entry-level product to watch out for.

The overall take home from the Show is that the market is clearly set to grow in every country. In terms of the consumer market, uptake here will be dependent upon the licensing of downloadable files, probably from a major software company. The more esoteric markets, such as the medical sector, are clearly on the up, with new materials – notably joint-replacing collagen – continuing to provide fresh opportunities. Additive Manufacturing (AM) is also set to become more sophisticated, with new materials and design systems likely to see AM emerge as a realistic alternative to traditional manufacturing.

Photo: The Stratasys stand: Never short of visitors.
The Stratasys stand: Never short of visitors.
Photo: The Stratasys stand: Never short of visitors.
The Stratasys stand: Never short of visitors.

The TCT Show took place from 30 September to 2 October 2014 at the NEC in Birmingham.

David Wilkinson, Special Correspondent, Birmingham

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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