The Whirlwind of AM in The Windy City

By John Barnes and Spencer Wright

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Hi! It’s Spencer and John, teaming up for our take on IMTS.

IMTS is huge.

Like Texas huge. Big crowds. Big Halls. Big gear. Bigger this year with the newer additive manufacturing equipment with its own dedicated area.

In amongst the small villages of milling machines and robots we found ourselves amongst the family of AM people. The usual suspects were all there, but some new faces were in the crowd too.

Velo3D

Probably the most remarkable new entrant to additive this year was Velo3D with their Sapphire printer. The capabilities (and sample prints) they advertise are very impressive, and in their public launch a few weeks ago Velo disclosed that they had three machines already operating at customer sites. It is a new approach and a new control system and the company lacks a track record, but we’re optimistic based on the pedigree of the team and their history with both AM and other highly automated and precise processes. Regardless, they’re offering a system with the productivity of an Arcam machine (i.e. stackable and nest-able) but with a laser (better details and surface finish). They also say that they can analyze, predict, and then print parts that are true to spec via a fully automated & software driven process - an aggressive claim, and one that the other metal AM system makers haven’t yet tried to match.


Of course, Velo3D is offering more than just that: Among other things they also advertise automated build changeover, something that the rest of the industry is starting to get serious about as well.

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3D Systems + GF

3D Systems has had laser metal printing since 2013, when they acquired Phenix Systems. A year later they bought Layerwise, and shortly thereafter released their DMP 320 - a machine that truly put them in competition with the most established laser metal printers. At IMTS this year, they went bigger - releasing the DMP Factory 500, a fully modular system with removable print modules, a 500 mm cube build volume, and three lasers to improve build speed.

To do this, they’ve teamed up with GF Machining Solutions, who bring some slick integrations downstream to the post-processing steps that additively manufactured parts inevitably need. But while the joint venture is bullish on post processing automation, they’re much more circumspect about the kind of build simulation & in-process control that Velo3D is targeting. 

When asked point blank about what they thought of Velo3D, one of the 3D Systems reps replied that they didn't think that build analysis & optimization was a good candidate for software automation, and that it's still easier and more reliable to train a good build prep engineer who will intuitively understand how to orient, support, and set scan parameters for an arbitrary part. This is a fundamental split in metal AM today, where it is indeed still the norm to trust in an experienced engineer to tune build setups to get first time successful prints. It’ll certainly be interesting to track whether 3D Systems’ more conservative approach or Velo3D’s more aggressive one will prevail.

HP gets metal

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Whether it’s binder jetting, material jetting or extruded + sintered, we know this active field of getting metal parts into the masses is taking shape (pun intended). Between Markforged, Desktop Metal, XJet and others, metal binder jet printing has been a serious topic since about 2015. But last week it saw a significant shake-up as HP announced their own entrant, the HP Metal Jet. Time will tell how their technical solution competes against the legacy and only production supplier (ExOne), newer upstarts (Digital Metal), and hopeful entrants (Desktop Metal) and their respective metal binder jetting options. With pilot programs in the hopper with perennial metal injection mold master Parmatech and GKN Powder Metallurgy it’s an impressive start. Oh, and then there’s that supplier agreement with Volkswagen - it’s clear that HP means business here.

Design for AM

With AM’s capabilities constantly changing, there’s constant tension on design engineering software: Do you go broad, or deep?

In extremely demanding applications, depth is king - and there were countless parts on display that could only have been designed with hundreds of engineering hours in a flexible modeling environment. The part that best exemplified this was one that Conflux Technology gave peeks of at the EOS booth - a heat exchanger about the size of a grapefruit. Clearly designed from the ground up for metal AM, it clearly pushed their M290’s capabilities right up to the limit. On the TBGA AM Maturity Model, it might rank a Level 4 part, and you can expect that any design iteration you make will be expensive.

On the other end of the spectrum, nTopology (which one of us works at) displayed a heat exchanger with a cylindrical triply periodic minimal surface structure that would be nearly impossible to design with a depth-first approach. Here, the strategy is to generalize the problem to the point where it’ll fit a broad range of parts with a solution that’s somewhere between sufficient and fantastic - and in the meantime, reduce design iteration cost as low as possible. This can really only be done with a fully featured piece of design software, which inevitably will be used in a number of different settings and industries - making the upfront investment larger, but potentially driving performance gains in a more comprehensive way.

AM in context

Perhaps the best part of IMTS, though, is seeing the AM equipment in the context of the broader industry. In much of the tech media, additive and subtractive are seen in binary terms - but at IMTS the distinction is totally fluid. Alongside the highlights we mentioned above are all varieties of forming, grinding, automation, and inspection equipment - each of which can be seen as the center of an interesting industry if you look at it right. AM is growing - and, slowly but surely, it’s maturing. It’s refreshing to think of it not as competing for attention with the other technologies but working alongside them to create meaningful long term value.


...plus, the big machining centers are cool ;)

-Spencer & John


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Spencer Wright leads integrations and partnerships at nTopology, which makes a suite of CAD tools specifically tuned for industrial additive manufacturing. He’s also proprietor and editor-in-chief at theprepared.org, which covers the the world of manufacturing, engineering, and logistics in a weekly newsletter and somewhat-less-than-weekly podcast.

John Barnes is the Managing Director of The Barnes Group Advisors, the largest independent additive manufacturing engineering consultancy and CEO of The Barnes Group Training, the largest independent global AM training company.  He is also an Adjunct Professor at Carnegie Mellon University and RMIT University.