TCT and additive manufacturing

Last week I dropped by the TCT show at the NEC, outside Birmingham, UK. TCT remains the main show covering 3D printing in Britain and as such gives us a useful snapshot of the UK market.

The UK’s Manuacturing Technology Centre took part in the show.

As a very rough generalisation, based on the aims of the vendors I spoke with, it appears to me that some users are looking at using additive manufacturing for serial production but that the UK is not as advanced as other markets, notably Germany, so that most vendors are still trying to push additive manufacturing for prototyping.

Most vendors agreed with this assessment though Philip Oris of SLM pointed out that there is a fair amount of end use medical and dental parts, such as hip replacement joints and dental plates in both Britain and Ireland.

It appears that the market for production machines is beginning to open up. Up to now the more expensive machines, such as high volume metal printers, have mostly been sold direct by the manufacturers, who have been able establish relationships with the larger customers. But now we are seeing some of those companies setting up distribution networks. I’ve already covered XJet’s arrangement with Carfulan, but it’s worth noting that Additive Industries is now working with another British distributor, Laser Lines, to sell its MetalFab printers. Additive Industries has already installed some 15-20 of these machines worldwide, with several customers buying multiple machines, such as Sauber, which has three. Bart Leferink, Additive Industries director of global channel sales, says that the company has now reached the stage where it needs someone with deeper knowledge of the different regions to find new customers.

Janet Kar, Chief Operating officer for Link3D.

Another interesting area that we’ve not heard much about is production planning. Janet Kar, COO of Link3D, says: “A lot of organisations have many different software systems in place and this leads to a lack of connectivity and data transference within their own facility as well as the service bureaux they are working with.”

Link3D has developed its own production workflow software with various options including quoting, planning and scheduling. There are different solutions for OEMs and for service bureau. However, Link3D is relying on bespoke integrations, which can be expensive. Kar says that more and more machine manufacturers are beginning to open up their systems but it still seems as if the level of integration between hardware is relatively limited at this stage.

Oris says that SLM is also developing its own production planning software, noting: “This software only becomes viable when you are using 3D printing in serial production.” This is only likely to drive the SLM machines because, as Oris points out, other manufacturers are hardly likely to share their machine APIs with a competitor. This underlines Kar’s point, that customers will end up with different bits of software, which is expensive to maintain and to train people for.

In previous years people have worried that the limited range of materials was holding back widespread adoption of additive manufacturing but this week most people seemed more concerned over the lack of certifications and standards. Most of the existing additive manufacturing standards relate to the production of materials but most industries really need a way to equate existing standards for conventionally manufactured parts to 3D-printed parts, which will have to be certified by the bodies responsible for each industry.

However, Jeremy Drew. Senior applications engineer with MarkForged, says that the need to reproduce legacy parts additively is driving changes in standards, noting: “The benchmarks are starting to shift as industry is starting to accept the benefits of additive manufacturing.”

Jeremy Drew, Senior applications engineer with Markforged, showing how tools made with composite materials are strong enough to punch holes in metal parts.

Indeed, Mark Forged seems to have been particularly successful in the tooling market. The company has developed a range of printers that use composite materials – nylon laced with carbon fibre – that produces strong parts quickly and cost-effectively. Mark Forged also has a metal printer that uses the same Fused Deposition Modelling or FDM principle as its composite machines. This uses a material with metal particles embedded in a wax solution. When the parts are heated the wax melts away and the metal particles cluster together to form a reasonably dense metal part. This means the parts shrink by roughly 20 percent but the company’s Eiger software adapts the files to take this into account.

It’s also worth mentioning the work of the National Centre for Additive Manufacturing, or NCAM, based in and which is part of the Manufacturing Technology Centre, itself part of the British government’s efforts to help British companies understand and adopt new technologies. Stuart Watt, a research engineer for the MTC, says: “We are set up to be a base of information.” The centre will work with people looking to develop particular solutions and there’s a certain equipment available plus NCAM works collaboratively with other companies, such as Renishaw, which is also a member. There’s an obvious focus on working with British manufacturers but Watt says that NCAM also works with other vendors such as EOS and Stratasys.

In conclusion, the TCT show continues to represent the broad spectrum of UK involvement with 3D printing, from the hobbyist end right through to industrial manufacturing, and including all the elements of this industry from materials and metrology to software and finishing, which is no mean feat given the scale of everything that 3D printing encompasses.






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