Last month, attendees from across the additive manufacturing community gathered at Cobo Center in Detroit to hear from experts on the latest insights and innovation within the 3D printing field. Among the varying topics discussed, skeptics about the rise and legitimacy of 3D printing saw their doubts dispelled and learned about practical applications within industrial manufacturing.
The sheer scale of the show was impressive. The exhibit space occupied most of Detroit’s Cobo Hall, home of the North American International Auto Show. The four-day program was stuffed with fascinating talks and programs.
The growing investment in the industry was evidenced by the number and quality of the booths and exhibits. Aside from the entrenched “closed system” players, there were scores of “open source” competitors ranging from start-ups to behemoths such as HP, Kodak and Xerox.
Equipment manufacturer EOS provided a glimpse into the future with a teasing reveal of its developmental LED technology that enables the production of a highly intricate part in just nine seconds. The equipment won’t be commercially available until 2021, but its possibilities and implications strain the imagination.
Open source printers are driving a surge in materials development aimed at industrial applications, with growing options in engineered thermoplastics, metals and ceramics. Booths of the materials suppliers appeared to be some of the most visited, and some of the world’s leading materials manufacturers were present.
The show demonstrated that 3D printing is as much a software business as an equipment and materials play. There were countless booths displaying the latest in design, slicing and topography optimization software, which allows for the creation of parts that could never be made using traditional manufacturing processes.
There appears to be growing interest in “direct pellet extrusion” technology, where parts are made from plastic pellets instead of filament. As 3D printing gains adoption in manufacturing and takes its place next to injection molding as a legitimate production process, it stands to reason there will be growing pressure to reduce material costs, which could drive an acceleration in pellet-to-part printing.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the show was the energy of the 3D printing community. While growing rapidly, 3D printing is a small industry filled with passionate evangelicals about their craft. They socialize and collaborate like a family, zealots about the possibilities of this adolescent technology. They believe they are changing the world. And they are.
Dwight Morgan is executive vice president, corporate development, for M. Holland Co.