Formnext for Dummies

When and how will 3D printing begin to appeal to the masses?

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Prior to, and after, Formnext, I found myself frequently explaining to friends, family, and others, why exactly I was going to Frankfurt “for 3D printing”. While the AM industry and expert AM adopters have become accustomed to the show highlighting the latest and greatest products, and making plans for the year to come, the rest of the world, which is probably about 99.999999% of people, have no idea what Formnext is (and probably only a few million people know what 3D printing even is).

This should not come as a surprise. Formnext is a trade show and it is not meant to be known by industry outsiders. Even the biggest trade shows in the world – Sonar for Techno Music, Salone del Mobile for Design, Paris and Farnborough for aerospace, the various auto shows, and consumer product shows for eyewear, footwear or fashion mainly appeal to their sector’s insiders and only reach the broader public of consumers through specifically targeted events. The hope is that Formnext will eventually become too big to ignore and be able to have this kind of appeal to the masses as well as AM industry operators.

That may happen in the future. For the time being, though, considering that so many people outside the AM industry still do not understand the concept of 3D printing – it makes sense that the idea of a four-day fair, with hundreds of 3D printing companies from all around the world, focusing on the different developments and applications of the technology, may be a little confusing. So, in this short bit of writing, I will try to break down and simplify what Formnext is, what it’s like to experience it in person, and touch on some of the most interesting parts and technology that I saw at the fair.

Even more so than the industry it represents, Formnext is a very young show. It originally launched in 2015 – replacing Euromold, a fair for mold making, tooling, design, and application development – after additive manufacturing (AM) became a large enough part of the fair to justify the transition. Since then, it has been growing at incredible rates – as much as 100% year on year in some editions – both in terms of exhibitors and visitors. The Pandemic dramatically slowed its growth in 2020 and 2021 but now the show is back to pre-pandemic levels.

Messe Frankfurt, the organizer of the event, describes Formnext as “the leading industry platform for additive manufacturing and industrial 3D Printing, and is the international meeting point for the next generation of intelligent industrial production”. The brand Formnext has been expanding around the world with collaborations underway in Japan and China (this last one was just canceled due to COVID concerns) and is now set on developing a show specifically for the US market.

This year, Formnext counted 802 exhibitors and providers (58% of which were international), 29,581 visitors (51% of which were international), 111 panels, sessions, and events, and 51,148m² of exhibition space.

Some of the most advanced technologies seen on the show floor came from companies specializing in ceramic 3D printing, such as 3DCeram and Lithoz, large format additive manufacturing (LFAM), such as Caracol and CEAD, micro 3D printing, such Boston Micro Fabrication (BMF), super-fast fused filament fabrication (FFF) 3D printing (the technology often viewed from the outside as the one that ‘prints the little Star Wars figures’ and yet is by far the most versatile even at the industrial level), such as Raise3D, and wire arc additive manufacturing (WAAM), such as Meltio and, my personal favorite, MX3D – thanks to their artistic direction, and openness to collaboration. There were just a few in a list that includes many multinational companies as the overall market leaders, from Stratasys and 3D Systems to Carbon and HP, to Nikon and GE.

As we have described it in the past, Formnext is the “Everything Show”. This concept should appeal to all types of end-users, including consumers. For now, it remains a niche but its potential is quite clear once you see it in person. When walking down any given aisle at Messe Frankfurt, one would see companies from seemingly all industries – from entertainment, furnishing, and tooling, to medical, aerospace, art, and infrastructure. One may see a company specializing in mass-production resin printing to their right, another company 3D printing a giant Bored Ape Yacht Club NFT to their left, and only a few steps forward, a 3D printed rocket engine, and then, a photorealistic 3D printed apple. Not to mention multiple companies specializing in the software needed for this technology to function, such as AiBuild and Hexagon.

One of the niche technologies that impresses me ever since our visit to CooksOnGold in Birmingham, UK, earlier this year, is that which enables the printing of precious and semi-precious metals, such as gold, as seen in the image from Progold’s stand, above. The fact that we are able to print with these materials is seemingly ironic, especially when viewed from outside the industry, as most people still tend to perceive 3D printing as something limited to cheap plastics. Instead, 3D printing has been used to print the most precious and valuable of materials, for well over a decade. The trend is finally picking up, as another company that operates in this segment, Progold, confirmed.

Not only is 3D printing technology not limited to cheap plastics, but it looks as though almost anything can be 3D printed nowadays. One key segment, in fact, is plastics, only advanced engineering and composite fiber-reinforced plastics. Other material segments range from sand, metal, and glass (the Glassomer materials printed by Lithoz), to chocolate, cement, medicines, and even biological matter.

I was also particularly interested in Formlab’s 3D printed apple (pictured above). Although these applications are far less impactful, compared to the medical, construction, and aerospace applications, it is still impressive that a machine is able to fabricate something so hyperrealistic. These sorts of prints are obviously well-suited to the entertainment industry, which is also a rapid adopter of 3D printing technology – as was made clear by the frequency of stands exhibiting such prints.

I am aware that art currently contributes very little to the industry, in terms of revenue generated by the application, in comparison to, for example, tooling, but it is hard to ignore the opportunities that this technology is bringing to the world of art, especially when used in conjunction with the generative/parametric design software that Hexagon, for example, offers to users of the technology.

The ability to set parameters and then use software to fill in the gaps is something I feel is often overshadowed by the physicality of the machines, but this software is seriously incredible. This software is more often used to make parts functional, rather than beautiful, but looking at AMCM’s fully algorithmically designed Aerospike rocket engine, which was designed using Hexagon’s software, and printed using EOS’ metal 3D printing technology, it is clear to see that the lines between functional design and art are becoming increasingly blurred.

This intersection between art and engineering, enabled by 3D printing (now extending all the way to biotechnology) represents an access point into the world of additive manufacturing. It may not be necessary for the industry to appeal to persons outside its main adoption targets in order to continue growing. But it sure would not hurt.

The next Formnext is expected to take place, once again, in Frankfurt, Germany, from 7 – 10 November 2023.

See you there.

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Edward Wakefield

Edward is a freelance writer and additive manufacturing enthusiast looking to make AM more accessible and understandable.

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