The question I got asked the most during Formnext 2023 was about the new and disruptive technologies I’ve seen on the show floor. That’s why we go to Formnext: to see the newest and coolest technologies first. Startups go to Formnext to show off their achievements and launch their products. But it’s a double-sided question. If a technology is new and it just hit the market, it will take a couple of years before it becomes commercially relevant. It may take many years before it becomes industrially relevant on a global scale. Most new AM technologies may not even make it to that stage. Unless you have the massive strength of global groups like HP, Ricoh or Nikon (although the jury is still out on this one), taking a new technology to market and developing a market around it (or even just developing existing technologies to make them more efficient) is a gigantic challenge. Even these companies are having their share of difficulties in turning their AM divisions into profitable businesses. The time has come to stop inventing new technologies and focus on more ways of using the ones we have.
“One printer at a time” no longer works
In fairness, all the AM industry pioneers and current leaders, 3D Systems, Stratasys and EOS, started building their AM businesses one printer at a time. They built their companies as hardware and technology-centric with the goal of exploring applications as the opportunities presented themselves. But that was 30+ years ago and it took them that long to hit their current yearly revenue levels (of around half a billion USD, a little more, a little less). And the opportunities were clearly identifiable: prototypes and tools.
Today growth at both Stratasys and 3D Systems is lagging for different reasons. 3D Systems is undergoing yet another reorganization (as someone cleverly said, “Reorganizations at 3D Systems are periodic, like Christmas and Formenxt”) while Stratasys is having a hard time making the transition from being the leader of prototyping and tooling to being just another player in end-use part production.
By keeping its business model relatively simple (metal and polymer PBF hardware, metal and polymer powders) EOS is the only one among the traditional market leaders that now seems ready to face the challenges of automation and higher productivity (in part via the ongoing collaborations with Siemens). Its new EOS M 300-4 1kW (with four 1kW lasers) is a perfect example of making existing technology better suited for industrial use. The same, this time around, goes for Renishaw with the new TEMPUS technology, that reduces print time by up to 50% on the RenAM 500Q Ultra. Both were highlights of Formenxt 2023 in our book.
Growing one printer at a time like 3D System or Stratasys did in the 1980s can no longer happen today. If a technology is to survive it needs to hit the ground running and get up to scale in a relatively short time. Some have done it. Velo3D, for example, grew into a major global player now rivaling SLM Solutions and EOS for metal AM hardware market dominance in just a few years.
Others, like Desktop Metal and Formlabs, have the potential to do it but need to first get their internal structures organized and ready to handle new growth cycles. Markforged also rose to the top of composites and bound metal AM but then hit a wall and slowed down. In fairness, all of these companies excel at creating case studies. Now it’s time for them to work harder on getting them out there, by collaborating with those who truly understand their efforts. Meanwhile, other companies are also starting to mature, especially in certain highly specific areas such as large-format 3D printing (LFAM), micro 3D printing, ceramics and electronics, as we will see further down.
For example, in the LFAM segment, Airtech is single-handedly building the LFAM market around its materials by working with companies such as Caracol, CMS, and Ai Build (among others). The family-owned US-based company continues to expand its offer of the industry’s most high-quality pellet products (and now filaments too) by adding its very first recycled grade, the T-100GF resin for LFAM technologies. At the same time, Caracol and CMS keep introducing increasingly reliable hardware products (such as Caracol’s massive new extruders, for example). Caracol even organized a panel with both its partners and competitors during Formnext to discuss how the LFAM segment can grow cooperatively.
This is a clear example of a market segment driven by applications since Airtech itself is an LFAM service provider as well as a material supplier. What we need now is for the industry to focus on new applications and, instead of bringing a new technology to Formnext every year, companies need to bring and show dozens of new uses for their existing technologies.
What’s stopping AM applications?
In all our market studies there is an apparent discrepancy between the number of 3D printers that companies tell us they sell every year and the number of 3D printers that we know are operational at various AM service and end-user facilities. Besides the obvious fact that we can’t possibly know the model and location of every printer installed in the market, the discrepancy is very significant and it’s due to most 3D printers being sold, installed and used for secret projects or projects covered by NDA. Almost the entirety of the important applications of 3D printing – and we agree with Velo3D’s CEO Benny Buller’s assessment that Formula 1 parts, while very cool, are not in this category – are kept secret and/or covered by NDA.
The content marketing manager from the distributed manufacturing startup Mayku published an ironic post on the company’s top application case studies with four blank images saying “NDA”. That’s the reality of 3D printing as most companies described it to us. End-users do not want to talk about what they use 3D printing for. This is especially true for production applications since it’s where they know they can build a competitive advantage (and have likely invested a lot into being a first mover).
End-users have nothing to gain from publicizing their use of AM and AM companies do not have enough leverage to pressure them into doing so. We try to do our part, with our VM Focus eBook series but it’s never easy and we would need a lot more support from AM companies in this effort. We understand that, once an AM company gets a case study approved, they want to hold it close to them (on their own websites) but instead, they need to work with media such as VoxelMatters to more actively promote it.
That’s why we particularly appreciate companies like Velo3D and Oerlikon, who go to great lengths to get giant customers such as Airbus and Avio to openly discuss their applications. Oerlikon used last year’s Paris Air Show to highlight the collaboration with Airbus on satellite production parts and continues to build on it. Velo3D will present the latest Avio collaboration in our upcoming Webinar on December 6th (register here now, by the way, if you have not yet done so). There are other companies that lead great production applications cases, however, in most cases, they simply don’t have the marketing strength to communicate them adequately. Conflux is a perfect example and its latest production application case study should have been communicated beyond sending yet another press release. In this effort, they need to be supported by the companies involved in the project: AMCM (the company whose system the part is going in) and EOS (the company whose system the part was made on). These are major highlights from Formnext 2023, even if they are not based on “disruptive new technologies”.
Another event that we learned about that is easily listed among the top news from the show is that MIT is going to open a giant additive manufacturing facility to explore the full AM workflow. Many companies and universities have done so but, under the guidance of Professor Hart, Professor and Department Head, MIT MechE, and Haden Quinlan, Senior Program Manager, MIT APT – both of whom we had the pleasure of meeting and chatting with during Formnext – this is likely to jumpstart a large number of production applications by leveraging the Boston area AM network. In many cases, MIT will have the leverage power to pressure the companies benefiting from their research into making some of the applications public.
The third area that we think is limiting AM applications is that companies still don’t trust AM. It’s borderline ridiculous, considering the amount of digital data that has been collected on the few applications that have been studied in depth within aerospace, energy and motorsports. Even so, most large OEMs have stringent QA requirements that are based on established manufacturing processes and they are not eager to change them.
As FIT CEO Carl Fruth said in our recent Metal AM eBook interview, they need to be forced to do so by using AM to introduce applications that cannot be made in any other way other than AM. In the meantime, however, it is also necessary to be able to show that parts meet QA criteria rapidly and cost-effectively. That’s why we have been partnering with a company like Theta Technologies to help bring their nonlinear acoustics technology to the market. Their goal is to partner with companies and validate their AM applications for production. For its role in accelerating production runs, the RD1-TT was a highlight of the show.
Before we go on to the next section, we also need to make a quick note about two key aspects of AM that we tend to overlook: software and post-processing. In a physical industry such as additive manufacturing, software is hard to highlight. Top it off, the AM software landscape is so complex that it requires extensive and highly specific coverage. A software that stood out at Formnext 2023 for the number of clearly identifiable applications it was used for is nTop, with several impressive parts printed by Oerlikon, Ricoh, Puntozero and even Autodesk (by integrating it with Fusion 360). In terms of post-processing, companies like Elnik Systems (for sintering furnaces), Quintus (for HIP), Solukon (for powder removal) and AM Solutions (for a bit of everything), stand out but, in this case as well, the entire segment requires specific in-depth coverage that we cannot provide here.
Growing vs. maturing
Recently Janne Kyttanen “trolled” me on LinkedIn pointing out that there is a difference between an industry that is growing and one that is maturing. AM is always growing but it is still far from maturing. In other words, all growth is based on new companies (and investments) coming in rather than existing companies and products getting bigger. However, within this landscape, there are segments that are maturing or at least growing into relevant commercial opportunities.
One is represented by Chinese companies. BLT, HBD, UnionTech, Eplus3D, Farsoon, Shining and Kings3D (not to mention Bambu Lab in the low-cost segment). Many of them are booming in the domestic market and rapidly expanding to Western markets. The irony is that AM was initially envisioned as a technology to bring manufacturing back to Europe and North America from Asia (and China in particular). It’s a bit like Middle Eastern oil-rich countries leading the market for renewables. You can argue, as Velo3D’s CEO Benny Buller did in our interview, that most Western companies will never trust Chinese-made systems for truly critical applications (that represent the bulk of high-value AM applications today). However, there are a lot of non-critical applications that Chinese-made systems are suited for. And while the West may resist, all of the African, many of the Asia Pacific and South American markets are likely to embrace Chinese-made systems which, incidentally, are now larger and more powerful than most Western-made machines.
Then there are the low-cost desktop systems, which generate sales of multiple millions of units every year. In just a few years Bambu Lab went from nothing to nearly one million units sold yearly. It did so by eroding market share from other Chinese companies, like Creality or Anycubic, but this does show that entering an AM market strongly from the very start is possible.
Companies like Creality were not able to evolve their offer fast enough. On the other hand, a company like Raise3D, which initially entered the market by offering low-cost alternatives a decade ago, today represents one of the most trusted and reliable options for industrial-level systems. As CEO Edward Feng explained, Raise3D offers technologies in the most optimized and accessible way possible. After bound metal filaments and composites, the company’s new DLP solution, priced at just around $5,000 was among the highlights of this year’s show.
Another segment that has matured significantly (even if it still needs to grow a lot) is ceramics additive manufacturing. These are some of the most advanced technologies and materials around and they offer incredible opportunities. VoxelMatters has been following Ceramic Additive Manufacturing for several years and our reports offer unique insights into this segment of AM. At Formnext, several ceramic AM companies stood out for the maturity of their technologies, with Lithoz and 3DCeram leading a pack of many interesting new players. Concr3de and D3, offering binder jetting and material jetting technologies were among the ones that impressed the most (it would take too long to explain why but reach out to learn more). WZR, a leading ceramic AM material developer provides materials and know-how for both while other service providers such as Steinbach (using multiple Lithoz systems) and Creatz3D (using 3DCeram systems) showed that production is at hand in the technical ceramics AM segment.
Don’t get us wrong. Polymer and Metal AM are far larger segments of AM (to put it into context, Metal AM is worth about $3 billion and Polymer AM is worth about $5 billion, whereas all ceramic AM is worth about $300 million, yearly). Both Polymer AM and Metal AM have their own virtuous example of companies targeting and promoting production applications.
Said of the efforts made by Siemens Digital Industries in the industrialization of both polymer and metal AM, strongly driven by years of efforts from the company’s VP of AM Karsten Heuser, among the companies that stand out the most are OECHSLER and Prototek, with both entities leveraging Carbon DLS technology primarily. In this case, as well, material manufacturers play a major role in enabling production applications. Giants such as Arkema and Evonik, or highly targeted companies such as CRP Technology, with its latest TPU material introduced at Formnext 2023, have been making significant efforts and remain instrumental in enabling the transition toward production.
High-potential technologies to develop further
So what remains to be done? The truth is that we already have access to plenty of technologies that can deliver viable production applications. “All” we need to do is develop their markets. And there are many different ways to go about it. Take WAAM and wire-based L-DED for example. Today there are experienced companies that are taking giant steps towards industrialization: some, like MX3D and WAAM3D (and Meltio and Gefertech, etc.), were at Formnext. Others like RAMLAB are working on amazing projects such as the DEEP submarine station (we met with DEEP’s Sam Tiller to learn more about it – this was a definitive highlight of the show). Others are just entering the market, launching their new system at Formnext like ValCUN.
But the WAAM and metal wire 3D printing segment needs someone like Airtech in the polymer LFAM segment: a material manufacturer that can create a network of solution providers and generate powerful synergies to build the WAAM market. Unfortunately, at this time, metal wire companies (apart from a few exceptions) remain far from fully understanding and embracing the additive manufacturing market. Perhaps Carpenter Technology, as the metal AM materials market leader, will be able to take up that role in the future.
A company that intends to do that for metal PBF (and specifically for steel PBF), is ArcelorMittal. For those few who are not familiar with it, ArcelorMittal is the second largest steel material supplier in the world, generating $80 billion in yearly revenues (nearly 8 times the entire AM industry). Steel is a material that registers incredibly high yearly consumption and ArcelorMittal alone produced 88 million metric tonnes per year in 2022. According to our latest Metal AM market report, for steel AM to grow to represent just a tenth of a percent (0.1%) of yearly steel consumption by 2032, demand would have to grow at an impossible over 100% CAGR. This is not going to happen but what is going to happen is that steel usage in AM will grow very significantly. By entering the market, ArcelorMittal Powders intends to further accelerate this process, developing and optimizing workflows and materials in order to significantly accelerate productivity. Last but not least, the company intends to hugely expand production capabilities (read atomization) in order to cater to this new demand. Needless to say, this is a major highlight we learned about at Formenxt after meeting with the company’s CEO Colin Hautz and his team.
Looking further into the future, there is a new generation of hybrid additive/molding technologies that are emerging to exploit the potential of both processes. Giving credit where credit is due, Janne Kyttanen was the first to envision this business model a few years ago. Today companies like Foundry Lab (with casting) and SiOCAST (with silicon molds), along with the more traditional voxeljet and ExOne (with 3D printed sand casting, read the article in our latest eBook), are doing exactly that, delivering the possibility of producing millions of digitally customized parts with complex geometries.
Others, like Tritone, for example, are implementing in-process molding to deliver production metal parts. While the company does have to work very hard to get its technology off the ground and build a global market, Tritone could emerge as one of a few truly disruptive companies with real commercial potential. Its production run for an extruder component was among the highlights seen on the Formext 2023 show floor. Another similar company, in polymer AM, is Evolve. Its unique, ultrafast STEP process, could really revolutionize polymer AM part production. The quality of its parts, now also available in nylon 11, remains one of the show highlights, but only if Evolve will be able to “step” out of startup mode and work to actively push its market development efforts beyond adoption by a couple of key AM service providers.
The same goes for Axtra3D (SLA/DLP hybrid), Inkbit (AI-driven material jetting), 3D MicroPrint (micro-resolution L-PBF), Chromatic 3D Materials (real polyurethane 3D printing), Nano Dimension (electronic material jetting), ChemCubed (electronics electronjet 3D printing) and all the other companies that can offer unique truly mind-boggling manufacturing capabilities and technologies.
And since we are at it, let’s kick back to the good old days of just letting ourselves be swept away by a technology’s future potential with Xolo‘s XUBE volumetric 3D printer. One day, in space, everything will be printed volumetrically. Until then, we need to focus on real applications.