Trade Show

A Review: Frankfurt for Formnext


Guest post from Rachel Park, an influential voice in the 3D printing industry, about her visit to the formnext 2015 trade show in Frankfurt.

Note: This opinion piece originally appeared on the RPES Blog. Text has been reprinted with the author’s permission.

For a short while early in 2015 many in the 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing sector believed that the annual tradition of heading to Messe Frankfurt just before Christmas had ended. After last year’s 20th edition of Euromold in Frankfurt at the end of November, its organizers, Demat, announced a change of dates and venue; this year hosting the event in Dusseldorf in October. But then Mesago, in partnership with TCT Events, announced they intended to keep the Frankfurt tradition alive and plug the gap on everyone’s calendar with “formnext powered by TCT.” This event took place over four days this week, a little earlier than usual to accommodate the Thanksgiving holidays in the US, among other things.

Even knowing I was going to the inaugural edition of formnext, I have to confess as I prepared for the trip to Germany, I was still kind of expecting a re-branded Euromold — along with the vast scale and the sometimes overwhelming hustle and bustle that entailed. And I was not alone it seems, at least two people that I know of arrived at formnext in Hall 3.1 of Messe Frankfurt after a detour via Hall 8/11 (Euromold’s old home). But this was not Euromold, indeed, I am reliably informed, Euromold is not Euromold anymore — there’s gossip there, but I’m not at liberty to divulge. However, while Demat and close partners reported success back in October, the general consensus seems to be that it did not live up to its reputation as a huge global manufacturing show garnered from its hey day in Frankfurt. And while I personally would deem formnext as achieving success, particularly for a 1st edition, similarly I would not currently categorise it as a global show. The scale of the event was impressive, this courtesy of some heavy investment from some of the main exhibitors, and together they almost filled hall 3.1 of the Messe Frankfurt. The vast stands of some of the big AM companies were certainly reminiscent of Euromold, although I suspect at least one or two of them were still getting a ROI on stand investment. That said, the brand new Stratasys stand was the biggest stand I have seen at any show, ever, to be frank! And SLM Solutions went large with a brand new aerospace theme too.

I think what struck me the most was that this was clearly an additive manufacturing industry event — it may not seem like it but I chose those words carefully. The dominant (if not singular) focus was on industrial developments and applications of additive tech for the manufacturing sector. Once again drawing parallels with Euromold this was a whole different ball game, as Euromold’s origins were firmly rooted in tooling and moulding, which subsequently successfully evolved a huge additive manufacturing and 3D printing following. The tooling and moulding was visibly missing from formnext. It might be a tad unfair to keep harking back to Euromold and drawing comparisons between the two but when the orgainsers very intentionally moved to capitalize on the hole that Euromold left in Frankfurt, it cannot be unexpected.

The overall impression that formnext 2015 left me with was a very well organized show of moderate scale that was well received by exhibitors and visitors alike. The exceptions here were a few international visitors (US and Australia) that had been expecting the old Euromold. These people were of the opinion that they could garner the value that formnext offered much closer to home, one of them telling me: “this is just a regional additive show, with big stands.”

Being a touchy/feely type of person, I have to say that the “feel” of the show was brilliant — the buzz was tangible and there was a great deal of positivity and engagement. Companies and individuals all contributed to this and I was delighted to be part of it for two out of the four days — I literally don’t think I stopped talking and listening the whole time I was there, with the exception of about five hours sleep. And in this regard there is much to report.

As I mentioned above, at formnext there was a heavy emphasis on industrialization — in terms of the position of the show, the new offerings from exhibitors and the interest of visitors. I believe this is actually reflecting the shift across the whole sector this year but formnext crystallized this and provided visitors with a clear view of the direction that additive technology is taking for the manufacturing process chain. Thus it should come as no surprise that metal processes were dominant on the show floor, and the German OEMs were there in force — EOS, Concept Laser, Realizer and SLM Solutions occupied great swathes of the floor, together with newcomer Trumpf and alongside Additive Industries from the Netherlands, Renishaw from the UK and Arcam from Sweden.

Two big themes dominated — automation of the additive processes as part of end-to-end manufacturing solutions (the so-called “factory of the future”) and new standalone metal machines.

Both EOS and Trumpf introduced new metal additive manufacturing platforms at formext. EOS’ M100 is a product of its partnership with Cooksongold on the M080 for precious metals. This is a similar set-up but for the EOS range of metal materials and slightly bigger. Trumpf’s new technology is a new proprietary metal powder process offering from this traditional machine manufacturer. Two different sized machines were being exhibited — the smaller of the two is commercially available immediately, which makes a nice change, and the larger, more complex version will be available middle of next year.

Concept Laser and Additive Industries both revealed new concepts for “the factory of the future.” Despite sounding like a cliché the concepts themselves were both very impressive, if similar and showcased how modularity and automation can maximize the potential of additive technologies as part of an effective, efficient and economic production line. Along similar lines, but not as comprehensive, Renishaw, SLM Solutions and EOS were demonstrating new in process software for quality management. Renishaw in particular seems to be on to something here, according to the feedback I’ve heard from 3rd parties.

A final point on “traditional” additive metals though, the US metal OEMs were notable, to me at least, by their absence — nothing from ExOne, Sciaky or Optomec was visible at formnext.

However, there was a significant presence from the big traditional printing/imaging companies all entering the 3D realm imminently. The biggest splash by far came from Ricoh, which introduced its new industrial laser sintering machine. It was exhibited on the show floor and it was running. Furthermore, there are beta machines heading out the door and it will be commercially available mid-2016. This approach contrasted starkly with HP, which had a small stand at formnext with a corresponding number of personnel handing out a white paper on the company’s Multi-Jet Fusion technology. The plan, I was told, is still to launch at the end of 2016 but no further details or insight. Personnel from Canon were also present, but not on a stand. The Canon R&D in Japan is notoriously secretive and nothing (NOTHING!!) will be revealed until the proper time. After attending Canon Expo in Paris last month I already knew this, but God loves a tryer, and I do keep trying …. On Canon though, I had an interesting chat with a 3D Systems insider. Without actually saying it, they implied I was certainly on the right track with my suspicions about a Canon acquisition. I may or may not have been heard trying to subdue a squeal! 3D Systems did have a presence at formnext, very understated by their usual standards. That said, we all know the company is in a state of flux, but my source tells me that it really is in hand. I pressed for more … “IT. IS. IN. HAND. You’ll see.” Patience is a virtue, but not one I’m blessed with.

As I expressed to my 3D Systems friend, the most frustrating thing about them, as I see it, is that the company has all the right component parts, they are just very badly put together and don’t work properly, with too much superficial marketing. No comment, just a wry smile that referred me back to the above. I did get to see a very interesting metal part mind you — again, showing real potential but no evidence of execution in the market place — yet!

And then to the formnext giant — Stratasys’ stand was “mahoosive” dwarfing every other stand on the show floor. Obviously an intended tactic, but it kind of worked, and despite its size it was constantly full of people. At the heart of the stand serious business meetings were numerous, while on the fringes, where all of the tech demos were staged, Stratasys personnel were introducing newcomers to the full Stratasys ecosystem. Upstairs the high level executives were conducting high level meetings, at least some of them with investors I noted. They were all there — David Reis (CEO), Elan Jaglom (Chairman) and Scott Crump (Founder). I attended David Reis’ keynote presentation at the formnext conference ahead of a one-to-one interview. The presentation went well enough, its message key to the company’s industrial strategy but lacked somewhat in its delivery. But when I got him alone, that all changed. He was animated, gracious and open during our chat. Indeed, as I mentioned on Twitter, I came away believing it was one of the most honest interviews I had had with a CEO in my whole career. We talked shareholders, MakerBot, corporate strategy and the future and he held his hands up to mistakes and some slow responses to market conditions — some corporate, some his personally with plans to rectify them. What I didn’t know as I spoke with him and found out about 10 minutes after I departed, was the raft of redundancies that had been implemented across Stratasys hours before — globally and top to bottom. My source, who doesn’t want to be named, understandably, did not receive one of the brown envelopes but was visibly shaken and has yet to work out the repercussions for their role. I went to seek out a couple of other trusted Stratasys sources to get their take on it, but I backed off in the end because they were all still processing the news themselves and were obviously quite distressed behind the rehearsed, still professional smiles. It was not good, particularly when all I could offer was hugs and an anonymous voice IF they wanted to talk at a later date.

Other notable conversations over the two days with exhibitors were with Prodways, a truly innovative company that is still flying somewhat under the radar, even considering the serious moves the company is making. Some lovely people there too. Materialise is another company that brings a family feel with its personnel even despite its continuously swelling ranks. At formnext the company announced version 20 of its Magics software as well as the certification for flight ready parts.

Off the show floor it was lovely to catch up with lots of different friends from across the industry. Florian Horsch and Chris Volker kept me smiling through the sleep deprived fog – love those guys and excited to hear about Chris’ new adventure with VoxelWorld focused on high level designs for life-style products via additive manufacturing. Other favourites such as Andy Allshorn and Kerry Hogarth ensured I ate properly (something I’m not good at when away from home, and not even then!) and both have brilliant projects ongoing. Andy, as ever, is much in demand with his consultancy and servicing business, which does not surprise me in the slightest. What he doesn’t know about the internal workings of SLA machines and how to get the most out of them is not worth knowing!

I also got wind of some really interesting applications in Sweden, courtesy of an Envisiontec reseller. Hopefully going to get a more detailed low-down on these, NDAs permitting.

AMUG representatives were also at formnext in numbers, it was really lovely to meet Elizabeth Goode in person, finally, after many years of correspondence via numerous channels. And, I had an important chat with Paul Bates who was there for AMUG and as a representative of UL. The safety and training issues around AM, particularly as the production applications ramp up was very timely.

Two other stand-out conversations were with Phil DeSimone and Dana McCallum from Carbon3D, although Dana is also aligned with the AMUG committee. These guys continue to impress me and their understated, down to earth, sincere yet friendly approach serves them extremely well, particularly considering what they are bringing to market. I am reliably informed that beta tests with the M1 platform and, more specifically the range of 16 (to date) thermoplastic materials, is progressing well, with commercial launch of the M1 still slated for Q1 in 2016 — no delays, which is nice. The company has grown significantly in the months since its launch earlier this year with 106 personnel now on the books and working hard towards the same goal in California.

It was just a year since I first had my mind blown by the Carbon3D process, and I doubted it would be topped. Silly me! Will I ever learn? And this year Frankfurt served up another mind blowing moment. I have to be really careful how I go about this. Essentially I was trusted with who, what, how and when but much of it is still well below anyone’s radar and has to stay that way for a few more months.

But, I got to see, by way of a video, a new metal jetting process — this is not conceptual research, this is a working process and I saw more than half a dozen parts. OMGoodness people, mark my words, this could be a deal breaker. It’s working at the nano scale and the process is called NPJ — Nano Particle Jetting. My source, a long time veteran of this industry with a very impressive pedigree, claims this is at least 10 years ahead of the research being conducted at Nottingham University in the same area. After seeing the work at Nottingham in collaboration with OCE, I knew this process was feasible, but it’s here much faster than I thought it would be and from an unexpected source.

So, as usual, a visit to Frankfurt has me waffling on for much longer than I intended. It just remains to say congratulations to the formnext organizers, they have built a solid platform on which to build further in years to come and on a more general note as we approach the end of 2015, it seems 2016 has a lot to live up to in the 3D printing land, but somehow I suspect it just might. It’s not all going to be pretty, but I guess growing pains are part of the natural order.

Stay safe people, you know where I am if you want to talk.