Highlights from the FormNext 3D printing conference in Germany.
The 3D printing market has grown by as much as 30% year-over-year and is now set to triple revenue over the next few years. In fact, by 2020, the industry is expected to grow to USD $21 billion, and 90% of 3D printing users see this as one of their major competitive advantages.
No wonder over 20,000 people flooded the Frankfurt conference showroom at this year’s FormNext conference held November 13 to 16, featuring the latest cutting-edge applications of additive technologies and innovative manufacturing solutions. As the Business Manager at Fabbaloo, a Winnipeg-based daily online publication focusing on the 3D print and additive manufacturing industries, I attended the event to see first-hand what the industry has in store for 2018.
FormNext didn’t disappoint. The hustle and bustle included the largest additive manufacturing vendors like Stratasys, XJet and Additive Industries, all of which made major announcements to their products, solutions, partnerships or product lineups. And with 470 exhibitors on this year’s exhibitor floor, the new tech on display was quite overwhelming.
But within the masses, there were also smaller companies using the world stage to announce their product and fight for some traction in a rapidly evolving space.
The surprising little company with big expertise
One company captured our interest with their completely new method of developing 3D printers for the purpose of reproducing large objects. Few companies we encounter stand out from the hundreds of other 3D printers, so when you find one with a unique competitive advantage, you know they have something special.
Based out of Berlin, Germany, 3BOTS only ventured into 3D printing in 2016, yet they bring extensive experience in hardware and software design. The business is actually an offshoot of their 2D printing company (aka photocopies) that has been in business for over 30 years.
So what exactly was so surprising?
3BOTS showcased their new printer called KONG3D, and it includes a feature I’ve never seen before throughout 10 years of covering 3D printing.
Built with mechanical components that provide advanced designs, KONG3D solves a problem related to printing large objects with ‘overhangs.’ An overhang is part of a 3D model without any support below it. These are generally parts that protrude out at over 45 degrees, and they can be tricky parts to print. Think of it like a roof overhang — the part that extends past the outside wall.
To explain how KONG3D makes such a big difference, let's first look at the traditional 3D printing process with overhangs and why they can cause major printing errors.
3D printing with support structures
In 3D printing, the overhang is the part of the printed objected that isn’t lying flat on the print bed (where the print starts). In the picture below, an obvious overhang is the upper section of the letter ‘T’ since it extends out from the middle section at 90 degrees. In this case, it is printed with support structures, which ensure the overhangs stay in place with no errors.
The rule of thumb is that when there are overhangs of less than 45 degrees, no support structures are needed. This is why in the image above, you see the ‘H’ and ‘T’ with additional material, but the ‘Y’ can be printed without support structures.
Overhang printing issues
Since large objects can take up to 20 hours to print, any errors in the process, say at the 10-hour mark, can be catastrophic.
If support structures aren’t used, the 3D printing can fail and create undesired effects, as is the case with the letter ‘T’ on the left of the picture below.
Another common issue is the ‘spaghetti wad,’ which is when the overhang layer doesn’t stick to the support or print bed. This can create dramatic lifting during the printing process, and the filament can create a mess of printing material. Obviously, in the case of this image below, the result is a completely failed print.
How 3D printing with KONG3D is different
The new KONG3D printing system demonstrated by 3BOTS allows objects with large overhangs to be printed without additional support structures. And without support material, the object can be printed without compromising on quality and accuracy.
In traditional 3D printing, the process can be quite time-consuming. After the print is completed, the support structures are peeled off and discarded. Sometimes peeling off the support structures is complicated and requires needle-nosed pliers to limit the damage to the object surrounding the support material. Sanding or smoothing the surface after removal of the support is also very difficult, and adds to the steps required to deliver a completed object.
Since KONG3D eliminates all those steps, it results in major time and material savings for the manufacturer.
How does KONG3D work?
Imagine a robot arm moving around a part to be 3D printed. The printing could be much more accurate and eliminate the challenges of overhangs.
KONG3D achieves a similar result, but instead of moving the print arm, it tilts the printing bed — the platform that the prints are built on. This revolutionizes printing of complex objects since it can tilt the Y-axis and always bring overhangs back to verticals. No additional support material needs to be added.
Their printer also includes safeguards to ensure the print jobs run smoothly including continuous monitoring of the print head position, exact Z-height, filament supply and filament flow. This continuous monitoring provides the ability to observe and, if necessary, proactively take corrective measures such as pausing the print, refilling the material and continuing to print where it left off.
It can also proactively move into a maintenance mode and then resume a paused print exactly in the last position. Features like this are crucial with larger print jobs that can take several hours.
Why should the business world take notice?
These features are exceptional in the 3D printing and additive manufacturing industry, but there are also real-world benefits that companies can gain.
Businesses using 3D printing will now have the ability to complete complex 3D print designs in-house. With other 3D printers, a print engineer or designer may opt to use a more conservative design in order to reduce failures.
Not having to settle for simple designs, companies can start producing 3D prints with higher detail and complexity. The options are endless, and this most certainly adds to the competitive advantage of those already in the 3D printing game.
Gallery: Highlights from FormNext
Exhibition floor at FormNext.
GE Additive announces their first BETA machine developed as part of its Project A.T.L.A.S program
3D printed metal objects.
3D printed metal parts.
Getting 3D scanned by Digital Metal.
Digital Metal printed figures.
3D printing metal objects.
Markforged booth on the exhibition floor.