What a difference a year makes. Not that long ago, (really, as recently as last year) the RAPID show was typically held in a big-city hotel ballroom. Not this year.
This year’s RAPID show is being held at the David L Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh, very near where the Youngstown, Ohio NAMII offices are. And this year’s show has at least double the number of attendees of last year’s show.
Many of these newer attendees are investors—who, having read all of the media coverage, are checking out the opportunities (and reality) for themselves. Other attendees include educators (college and high school) and toy manufacturers, as well as experienced engineers.
This year’s show is probably the most well attended show in RAPID history, which celebrates its 20th year. The keynotes are packed to standing room only.
Some quick observations from this first day of the show: forget about the term 3D printing. I think, very soon, the official term of this technology, Additive Manufacturing (AM), will re-emerge as the name of this industry. I heard it everywhere today. All keynote speeches. Exhibitors. Everyone was talking about using this technology in manufacturing applications, not printing applications.
Listening to today’s speakers, it would seem that manufacturing is about to experience a Renaissance, thanks to AM. Brett B. Lambert, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manufacturing and Industrial Base Policy, Department of Defense; Michael F. Molnar, Chief Manufacturing Officer, National Institute of Standards and Technology; and Ed Morris, Director, NAMII all spoke about how AM technology is going to both bring manufacturing back to the U.S., but also be linked to manufacturing and production processes, and how, as Ed Morris phrased it—it will lead to Big M manufacturing. Big M manufacturing will include conception, design, production, test, and all other activities that go into the manufacture of parts.
Morris went on to say that AM is a game changer. And it does change the rules; it changes the rules of design, of how engineers can design, of how items can be made. For those who have spent 20+ years with this technology, that’s not a new message. It’s been the same message that has been trying to get out into the mainstream for 20+ years.
This time, however, it might be different. There is a convergence happening. Today, we have better additive manufacturing machines, machines that make end use parts, not prototypes. Several metal additive-manufacturing developers stressed that point during my visits to their booths, particularly ExOne and Arcam.
Metal materials have come a long way. Noted David Burns, President and COO of ExOne, you can’t expect customers to buy proprietary materials to suit a machine and manufacture parts. Materials must be able to be sourced by multiple suppliers, or users, like Catepillar, will not purchase this equipment. Burns fully expects that ExOne machines will be used in production. CNC machining and injection molding will still be your fastest producers of parts, but AM is about to deliver on the need for producing multiple parts fast.
And I heard the need to go direct to manufacture again in my conversation with Dr. Jim Sears, Sr. Manufacturing Engineer at GE. He is not interested in prototyping. He is focused on direct manufacture. Then test the part and change as needed. But form and fit are not high on the list of reasons for using this technology. Function is key. Designing and then manufacturing end use parts that cannot be made any other way, that reduce weight, that reduce rough material waste, and that can be built without assembly—those are the needs AM fulfills.
Today’s conversations told me that when additive manufacturing machines can produce end-use products, that is when more engineers will work with them.