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Formnext 2021 review: AM is resilient and ready for any challenge

Part 1: additive mass production (AMP) with polymers

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AM is used to dealing with challenges. The global COVID pandemic, a dramatic crisis that crippled and destroyed entire businesses (not to speak of the terrible human toll) has been dealt with by the AM community just like any other challenge. This terrible disease is not going to let up easily and the world will likely have to deal with its effects through the next decade, but in this Formnext 2021 review we can show how AM has proven it is capable of offering a resilient solution to dealing with the pandemic rather than be a victim of its effects. In spite of a rising fourth wave of virus infection in Germany and many parts of Europe, the organizers and the over 600 exhibitors at Formnext 2021 put on a show of resilience, strength, and a generally positive outlook on the future [read all the news from this edition here]

At the same time, the digital and virtual spaces will continue to have a relevant role. Formnext has always provided the global stage for some of the most high-profile launches, with many new and disruptive products debuting on the show floor. That was largely not the case this year, with many high-profile news announcements made digitally, before and during the show. Instead, the show floor became a place to do real business and see (and touch) real 3D printing and 3D printed products in person. The best part of 3D printing is that it’s digital but also very much physical. Eliminating the physical, in-person element to focus 100% on the digital aspects is counter-productive and impossible.

A resilient polymer AM production trend

In the current global situation, in-person presence at a show should be considered something of a privilege and that’s how the AM industry – or fAMily, as Formnext organizers have come to call it – lived this edition. The show was necessarily scaled-down compared to the peak 2019 edition, with fewer exhibitors (600 compared to over 750) and smaller booths occupying two and a half halls instead of four. For many Asian and North American companies, such as Desktop Metal or Carbon, participating directly in this edition was impossible (they did so through local distributors). Others, like SLM Solutions, chose not to participate and others, like Solvay and GE, did so with a  significantly scaled-down presence. Just holding the show can be considered a great success [here you can read some numbers], giving both exhibitors and participants the opportunity to meet in person again after over two years. Most exhibiting companies also reported that, while the number of interactions was significantly lower, the quality of those interactions was higher.

So how did two years of pandemic shape the AM industry?

We left off in 2019 with ideas of grandeur: millions of parts to be produced by thousands of machines. That largely remains the long-term vision for most companies involved in AM and steps continue to be taken in that direction, especially on the polymer side of things. The pandemic helped many see the benefits of AM for supply chain resiliency while it also put a bigger emphasis on production flexibility. The result is that, as AM gears up for serial production, demand is also growing for localized, on-demand small batch production.

PBF for additive mass production (AMP)

This means that as more companies look to adopt AM, the next million part applications are still slow to emerge in an additive mass production (AMP) market now led by HP, the first company to actively target this broad area of application. Guayente Sanmartin, Global Head of HP’s Multi Jet Fusion business, confirmed that the polymer business is looking to build on its manufacturing experience to introduce more wide-reaching applications such as the deal with L’Oreal announced during Formnext. “Our objective for next year—Ms. Sanmartin told 3dpbm during our exclusive meeting at Formnext—is to continue growing. We have been growing at more than 30% and our machines have now produced over 100 million parts. We will continue to focus on key verticals such as healthcare, industrial, mobility, and consumer products. Ms. Sanmartin also said that the 5200 systems will remain the core machines at the center of this strategy and that they will “continue to grow with the customers, with HP continuously working on further improving quality and repeatability”. The third element of HP’s strategy focuses on post-processing and workflow capabilities (more on that later).

Stratasys and voxeljet are the most credible competitors following in HP’s footsteps in the polymer PBF production segment, with their HSS and SAF technologies. However, the tables have now turned. In late 2016, when HP officially entered the polymer PBF AM market, the company paid over a 10-year delay to the conventional polymer 3D printing market leaders. Now HP has a five-year advantage, over those same competitors, in the field of production 3D printing. Voxeljet can leverage the unique proposition of a massive build platform, the largest in the segment, on the newest VX1000 system. This is now being used in partnership with Covestro to develop more optimized workflows. Stratasys can leverage a consolidated global network, the experience of industry legends such as FDM inventor Scott Crump (who took the time to speak with us at the Stratasys booth), and a newly re-organized structure led by Yoav Zeif.

Massifying SLS

Most innovation in the SLS segment is now coming from the newest entry market players, with current market leaders EOS and 3D Systems focusing primarily on consolidating their businesses. The underlying concepts here are that higher throughput production can be achieved by optimizing the workflow. That’s what 3D Systems is doing with the new SLS 380 with 3D Sprint, DuraForm materials and post-processing solutions from AMT. The workflow also includes a new Material Quality Control system, the MQC 600, which ensures that printers are equipped with the best ratio of fresh to recycled powder, delivering material to as many as four printers at once, increasing overall production automation.

The most credible alternative to the high-end SLS systems from EOS and 3D Systems is coming from Sinterit, the company that has established itself as the global leader in benchtop SLS and has now begun to expand towards SLS production with the NILS 3D printer. Sinterit’s newest Lisa X promises the fastest, industrial-level 3D printing in a compact package. Another rising player in this arena is Nexa3D, although the company led by Avi Reichental is usually associated with its high-speed photopolymerization technology. Nexa3D’s newest SLS system, the QLS 350 has been built for maximum speed and throughput. With part density set to 20 percent, the printer can process eight liters of material per hour thanks to four 100W CO2 lasers.

Other operators working to massify SLS included Wematter, Sintratec and even low-cost SLA segment leader Formlabs. Its Fuse1 system, slowly emerging, confirms that this low-cost SLS segment is not easy to build but does show great potential to achieve mass adoption.

Photopolymerization in transition

With millions of adidas midsoles and thousands of sports products now in production, the high-speed photopolymerization production segment also has a clear leader: Carbon. This carries certain significant implications for both the industry and Formnext. One is that this solid leadership allowed the Carbon team to avoid the long and complicated trip from Silicon Valley to Frankfurt and rely on local key partner Oechsler to present some of the latest key innovations. These included, incidentally, an increased focus on software and the digital side of things.

Avi Reichental and Sarah Goerke showed us the new XiP desktop system for fast photopolymerization.

Some of the most credible competitors in this segment include Stratasys, Luxcreo and Nexa3D, with EnvisionTEC (the inventors of this technology) now very much absorbed by transitioning into becoming part of the Desktop Metal group (also not present directly at this edition). After Carbon, Nexa3D has been building up the largest installed base of high-speed photopolymerization systems for production, although the company’s biggest launch at Formenxt was the XiP desktop system, which fits into a market segment (around $10,000 to $15,000 MSRP) until now covered only by EnvisionTEC. The XiP features a Smart Resin Cartridge and Toolless Vat System to enable touch-free material loading and intelligent polymer levels in the vat.

The Origin One is Stratasys’ means to compete in the photopolymerization production segment.

After acquiring Origin in 2021, Stratasys became the third-largest player in this market as well. Here the company is following in Carbon’s footsteps (literally) working with shoe manufacturer ECCO on designing, prototyping them and also manufacturing limited runs of shoes. This is achieved thanks to the rapid production of 3D printed molds and lasts made from custom resin materials from Henkel’s Loctite portfolio. Chinese-American company LuxCreo is also targeting footwear a key application. So is another Chinese company, Kings 3D, however it is doing so with standard large format SLA systems used for footwear tooling and prototyping, now available in Europe through German distributor Omnitec 3D (we will hear more about this).

360° new technology

While not as many as previous editions, some entirely new polymer AM technologies made their debut at Formnext 2021. Probably the most interesting new product of the entire show was presented by the startup Axtra 3D. Founder and CEO Gianni Zitelli, the former co-founder of the company that became Nexa3D and a serial inventor in AM (he also created Sisma’s EVERES line of DLP 3D printers), developed the new HPS Light Engine to overcome the limits of SLA, DLP and LCD technologies. It does this by successfully combining laser stereolithography with LCD or DLP processes, resulting in high-speed production of high-resolution parts with smooth surfaces. The light engine is offered as part of the LUMIA 3D printer, the first machine powered by HPS technology, but it can also be implemented into any other DLP, SLA or LCD 3D printer, including high-speed photopolymerization ones.

Serial parts manufactured on Cubicure’s Cerion system.

An entirely new approach to photopolymerization AM was presented by Austrian startup Cubicure. The new Cerion 3D printer leverages and further evolves the company’s hot lithography process, offering a radical departure from familiar concepts such as resin baths or material vats. It does so by introducing a new printing technology, featuring a mobile printing head and a revolving resin carrier film. Cubicure also developed a range of durable materials for this system.

Yet another new approach to polymer AMP was presented by dp Polar. Leveraging Xaar’s printheads and ALTANA materials, the new AMpolar i1 3D printer implements a material jetting photopolymerization single-pass printing process to deliver industrial-scale production with build volumes of up to 240 liters across its innovative continuously rotating print platform, with a build area of just under one square meter.

Two of two kinds

Some technologies don’t quite fit in larger families. For example, there is only one Massivit. The company’s technology is a unique form of photopolymerization hybridized with a large format extrusion process, which means it is fast, reliable, accurate and massive. Until recently Massivit targeted visual marketing and other non-functional large models (such as full-size car prototypes). That remains the core business however recently the company began introducing more functional materials and for end-use and especially tooling applications, on the new Massivit 5000 and Massivit 10000 systems.

The startup Chromatic offered an interesting and unique process to see in person. Its unique polyurethane extrusion capabilities enable the ultra-affordable production of very large, flexible parts, including massive dense parts. No other company produces these types of 3D printed parts in polyurethane, one of the world’s most used materials, for mass segments such as clothing and railroad transportation. It’s worth taking a closer look (in the photos below)

Mass composites and LFAM

Another area of polymer AM production that saw great growth in adoption over the past two years is large format additive manufacturing, either via large CNC or robotic systems. This type of AM production is almost entirely done with chopped fiber polymer composites today. And while talking about large format composites production we also have to highlight the latest system from Anisoprint, the Prom IS 500, now finally ready for market. This is now the largest continuous fiber 3D printer on the market, integrating industry-level components and made Bosch Rexroth’s MTX, a tried-and-proven CNC system, along with the ability to print using multiple fibers and multiple matrix materials.

xOur Formnext 2021 review confirms AM is resilient and ready for any challenge, here we look at additive mass production (AMP) with polymers
Anisoprint’s IS 500 will offer unrivaled capabilities in the continuous fiber extrusion segment.

The most massive composite polymer productions are now coming from machine tool industry leaders. Here no one can rival the Camozzi Group (Ingersoll Machine Tools) and its Masterprint platform in terms of size and capabilities. However many other players are now entering the market (mainly from Italy, Formnext 2021 guest country), including CMS and Berton. They are squaring off with startups that have been focusing specifically on this segment from the beginning, including CEAD and Caracol, which are now reaping the benefits of their pioneering development work. In this vibrant and unique AM industry segment, where the enormous size of the parts produced requires massive quantities of advanced materials, innovative materials companies such as Airtech are emerging as key suppliers.

Our Formnext 2021 review confirms AM is resilient and ready for any challenge, here we look at additive mass production (AMP) with polymers
Companies like Airtech have been quick to capitalize on the growing demand of materials coming from LFAM technologies.

Advancing polymers for extrusion

With the new F770, Stratasys plans to address the broader adoption market by offering a high-level machine, priced under $100,000, designed for prototyping, jigs and fixtures, and tooling applications requiring standard thermoplastics. Stratasys remains the undisputed leader in industrial extrusion 3D printing but competition is getting tougher, as this segment of AM moves to leverage its unique strengths: versatility and the ability to proficiently work with the most advanced thermoplastics for metal replacement, from ULTEM to PEKK and PEEK. While Stratasys does offer a range of ULTEM materials, others are developing advanced capabilities in processing PEEK and PEEK composites.

Our Formnext 2021 review confirms AM is resilient and ready for any challenge, here we look at additive mass production (AMP) with polymers
Having an industry legend (Scott Crump, inventor of FDM technology) in your corner can help when you are facing off tough competition.

Among the many companies targeting industrial extrusion of advanced thermoplastics, no one has made more progress than Roboze. The Italian company has established a strong presence in the US and is actively targeting the Energy segment, which is becoming one of the largest adopters of AM for production, by offering unparalleled capabilities in producing large PEEK and PEEK composite parts. The new Argo 1000 system, on display at Formnext with several large components, can produce parts up to one cubic meter in size in PEEK, Carbon PEEK and ULTEM AM9085F.

Our Formnext 2021 review confirms AM is resilient and ready for any challenge, here we look at additive mass production (AMP) with polymers

Great advancements have also been made by AIM3D. After several years operating practically in “stealth mode”, with information on the company’s machines barely available, AIM3D emerged at Formnext with the new ExAM 510, offering the unique ability to work with advanced thermoplastics such as PEEK, PEI, PSU, PPS (and composites) inside a larger build chamber and using the material in the much more cost-effective granular (pellet) form.

Our Formnext 2021 review confirms AM is resilient and ready for any challenge, here we look at additive mass production (AMP) with polymers

The workflow will go on

Many of the production systems mentioned in this article need to work with advanced post-processing equipment in order to scale and deliver mass-produced parts. This is an area of 3D printing that is always difficult to quantify and would need more dedicated coverage. From our advantage point, it seems clear that the Rosler Group, with its AM Solutions division and deals with several additional parties (such as PostProcess Solutions), is the market leader in both polymers and metals, with its systems now also integrated into standard HP MJF production workflows.

Our Formnext 2021 review confirms AM is resilient and ready for any challenge, here we look at additive mass production (AMP) with polymers
The AM Solutions post-processing station for HP MJF technology and workflow.

At the same time, there are highly specialized operators that emerged with highly specific polymer AM post-processing systems. The most visible at Formenxt were DyeMansion and AMT, with Dutch company AM Flow also emerging as a key provider of factory automation and part recognition systems specifically developed for AM production. The quality of the parts after they emerge from these post-processing systems  — especially from thermoplastic PBF processes — now easily rivals traditional manufacturing on a growing number and range of parts, from eyewear and sportswear all the way to some very trendy and popular facemasks…

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Davide Sher

Since 2002, Davide has built up extensive experience as a technology journalist, market analyst and consultant for the additive manufacturing industry. Born in Milan, Italy, he spent 12 years in the United States, where he completed his studies at SUNY USB. As a journalist covering the tech and videogame industry for over 10 years, he began covering the AM industry in 2013, first as an international journalist and subsequently as a market analyst, focusing on the additive manufacturing industry and relative vertical markets. In 2016 he co-founded London-based VoxelMatters. Today the company publishes the leading news and insights websites VoxelMatters.com and Replicatore.it, as well as VoxelMatters Directory, the largest global directory of companies in the additive manufacturing industry.

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