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With Hope of Home Use Fading, 3D Printing Focuses on Business Users

With a gradual, if grudging acceptance, that the long-predicted day when every home would have a 3D printer may never come, the additive manufacturing sector is now refocussing on business users and a wider variety of printable materials.

Photo: The TCT Show: All you need to know about additive manufacturing under one roof.
The TCT Show: All you need to know about additive manufacturing under one roof.
Photo: The TCT Show: All you need to know about additive manufacturing under one roof.
The TCT Show: All you need to know about additive manufacturing under one roof.

Billing itself as the world's leading event for the 3D printing and additive manufacturing sectors, the TCT Show typically provides an informative glimpse of the very latest from these still emerging technologies, with its most recent iteration proving no exception. Taking the headlines this time around was a number of innovative 3D-printing materials, most notably carbon fibre, which allows for the printing of more robust items than was previously possible. Less sturdy, but equally impressive, was the use of full-colour paper 3D printing to produce cheap, photo-realistic models.

Adding his own perspective on 3D printing's image as a technology yet to fulfil its early promise, Todd Grimm, a Director of ARC, a Florida-based 3D-printing service provider, and something of a guru in the world of additive manufacturing, called for an injection of reality to the sector. Taking "Justification in the Age of False Enlightenment" as the theme of his keynote address, he said: "The industry has long over-promised and under-delivered. To rectify this, we need to attack our costs and deal with a number of still prevalent management issues. Only then can we truly get back to business."

Despite his warnings that the sector needed to get its house in order, Grimm remained optimistic about the technology's future prospects. In particular, he welcomed the development of ever-larger additive manufacturing equipment, as well as the possibilities opened up by the capacity to handle an extended range of materials.

The event, however, did seem to mark a farewell to one particular notion that the sector had long nurtured – the idea that, one day, there would be a 3D printer in every home. Indeed there was an overall acceptance – if a little grudging – that the market for in-home 3D printers is small and likely to stay that way, largely limited to hobbyist purchasers willing to spend some US$1,000 on a novelty plaything. In line with this, New York-based Makerbot, once a company that had led the charge to appeal to home users, had this year quietly repositioned itself in order to boost its appeal to the commercial sector.

This view, however, was not so widespread as to see every 3D printer manufacturer forsaking the consumer market. One company clearly keen to buck the trend was Minnesota-based Polaroid, the former instant-photo giant. Taking pride of place among its home-user focussed range this year was the ModelSmart 250S, on offer for about $1,900. According to one industry commentator attending the event, Polaroid is testing the market with these personal-use machines, prior to targeting the more lucrative commercial sector a little further down the line.

Whatever its long-term game plan, Polaroid was not the only company trying to crack the home-user market. Also making sterling efforts in this direction was Zortrax, a Polish company that was this year showcasing its new and larger M300 model.

Highlighting the upgrades incorporated into this latest addition to the company's range, Marketing Director Bartek Cymer said: "Our original M200 unit was funded via Kickstarter and did very well for us. Now, though, we are a joint-stock company with resellers on every continent, and we believe the M300's capacity to produce larger prototypes will open up new markets for us."

As a sign of the M300's capabilities, Zortrax's stand featured a full-sized motorbike that had been built exclusively using 3D printed parts. Citing this as a sign of what we can expect in the future, Cymer believes that the wider use of such technology could see bespoke products created to exactly match the needs of any individual user.

Similarly looking forward to a time when 3D printing has been integrated into mass-market manufacturing, East of England-based PhotoCentric, was debuting its patent-pending high-resolution daylight 3D printing technology at the event. According to David O'Brien, a Technical Engineer with the company, its combination of LCD screens and liquid polymers allows designers and engineers to produce a substantial level of output at a fraction of the cost of the comparable 3D printers available from other manufacturers. The company's PhotoCentric Liquid Crystal HR printer is available from about $2,000.

Meanwhile, Ireland's Mcor was equally keen to promote the ARKe, a system it bills as the world's first desktop full colour, paper-based 3D printer. Solely using paper as a medium, the ARKe has been designed to offer a cost-efficient and eco-friendly solution for educational, manufacturing, architectural and fine-arts use.

Photo: Mcor’s full-colour, paper-based 3D printer.
Mcor's full-colour, paper-based 3D printer.
Photo: Mcor’s full-colour, paper-based 3D printer.
Mcor's full-colour, paper-based 3D printer.
Photo: Personal 3D printing from Polaroid.
Personal 3D printing from Polaroid.
Photo: Personal 3D printing from Polaroid.
Personal 3D printing from Polaroid.

Asserting that the system can render more than two million measurable colours, Deirdre McCormack, the Company's Chief Marketing Officer, said: "This offer more colours than any other system currently on the market. Using the ARKe, it is now possible to generate true photo-realistic outputs."

In addition to these event veterans, a number of companies – both well-known and not so well-known – were exhibiting at show for the first time, including Carbon, HP and TRUMPF. In the case of California-based Carbon, the company surprised many event attendees by being one of the few exhibitors with a 3D printer-free stand. Despite this omission, however, the company still managed to catch the attention of many.

Explaining why its stand was quite so popular, Ryan Dietrich, the company's Marketing Manager, said: "It's all on account of our revolutionary new process – Continuous Liquid Interface Production or CLIP for short. Basically, it's a photochemical process that makes it possible to produce components with excellent mechanical properties, including resolution and surface finish. No other company can match this technology.

"The real advantage is that small parts can be produced to an engineered standard. The items have surface finish similar to those that have been injection-moulded, but are rendered without any of the layered structure problems typically experienced while using traditional 3D printing".

The prospects for this technology have seen Forbes recently value the company at about $1 billion. This follows its earlier success in attracting $100 million in investment from Google Ventures, as well as a further $10 million from Autodesk, the California-based software giant. With its funding now in place, the company is looking to fully internationalise its distribution.

With its international distribution system in place long ago, HP, the California-headquartered tech giant, made its TCT debut with the Jet Fusion 4200, a processing station said to offer a continuous production facility. Introducing this new system, Sales Manager Albert Moro said: "This is digital production on demand. It is 10 times quicker and half the price of its competitors."

While it currently prints solely in black and on nylon, the company says an upgrade to multi-jet colour printing across a range of materials is already in the pipeline. Available at just under $200,000 per unit, Moro said the Jet Fusion 4200 had been priced to appeal to the small batch market.

In the case of TRUMPF, the Stuttgart-based electronics and machine tools giant, while it may have been new to TCT, it is no stranger to technological innovation. Citing the company's heritage, Sales Director Daniel Lichtenstein said: "Back in 1985, we developed the first compact laser and today we are taking a similarly innovative approach to the 3D market with the launch of our TruPrint laser metal fusion system."

More specifically, TRUMPF had on offer the TruPrint 1000, a compact additive manufacturing machine ideal for producing small metal components. The system is said to deliver machine parts to an industrial standard, a facility that could make it almost indispensable in the automotive sector. Depending on the material output required, it comes priced at between $190,000-200,000.

As with TRUMPF, South West England-based Renishaw is not new to the precision engineering sector. Trading since 1973, the company is the UK's only manufacturer of metal powder printing machines.

Introducing the new RenAM 500M model, Jonathan Porter, the company's Business Development Manager, said: "Through the use of our proprietary technology, this machine allows you to produce any required metal components without leaving the factory floor."

Despite having a similar track record in the metal powder 3D printing sector, Sweden's Arcam was focussing more on its Electron Beam Melting (EBM) system. In particular, it was promoting the technology as a means of creating 3D-printed orthopaedic implants.

Back in 2007, the company launched an outsized printer designed to produce larger structural components for the aerospace industry. Today, its Q10plus and Q20plus models are industry standards in the orthopaedic and aerospace sectors, respectively.

Offering precise details and colourings, rather than the capacity to render larger items, Minnesota-based Stratasys, one of the world's leading manufacturers of 3D printers, had chosen the event to launch its new J750 model. Designed to service the very top end of the prototype manufacturing market, the J750 is said to offer 360,000 colours, while being capable of producing strands of half the thickness of a human hair and incorporating six different materials into a single project.

Photo: Better than the real thing: 3D printed politicians on show.
Better than the real thing: 3D printed politicians on show.
Photo: Better than the real thing: 3D printed politicians on show.
Better than the real thing: 3D printed politicians on show.

The TCT show was held at Birmingham's National Exhibition Centre. In addition to its speaker programme, the show featured 250 exhibitors from 24 countries.

David Wilkinson, Special Correspondent, Birmingham

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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