By  David Burns, Principal and Founder of Global Business Advisory Services

If you want to take a temperature check on an industry, one of the best places to find it is at a live event. In the case of additive manufacturing and its increasing use for industrial applications, the technology’s latest and most anticipated developments were on display at RAPID + TCT 2017.

RAPID + TCT is a 3D printing and additive manufacturing event, which this year took place in Pittsburgh. This is fitting, as some are calling Pittsburgh the “Silicon Valley of 3D printing” because of the technology’s growing presence in the region. To give you an idea of the show’s growth, this was the second time RAPID took place at the Pittsburgh Convention Center. In 2013, its first time there, about half of the convention center was utilized for exhibits. In 2017, the exhibition floor space was doubled, fully filling the 70,000-SF convention center floor. I was there with about 6,000 of my best friends, checking out 329 exhibitors and a number of educational and technical presentations. Unlike some 3D printing shows, RAPID has transitioned to a predominately industrial focus. It has also become the venue of choice for additive manufacturing announcements and product introductions. Here were a few of the highlights.

Coming-out party for Desktop Metal
Desktop Metal has developed two different systems for metal 3D printing: the Studio System, for rapid prototyping, and the Production System, for mass production. The Burlington, Mass.-based company set out to solve a primary complaint that many have about metal 3D printing: It’s too expensive for rapid prototyping, and too slow and costly for mass production. 

The Studio System is for engineering teams, billed as a lower cost, easier-to-use solution for rapid prototyping. The Production System uses a single pass jetting process to print metal parts more quickly than laser-based systems, with cost per part that is competitive with traditional manufacturing processes. 

Desktop Metal had previously made headlines by raising nearly $100 million in investment funds, including from Google and GE. The Studio System is due to begin shipping in September, with the Production System coming to market in 2018. Interestingly (and simultaneously), Stratasys and Desktop announced an extension of their strategic partnership. Stratasys, a world leader in polymer printing, and Desktop will be working together in distribution, with Stratasys resellers also representing Desktop Metal. Stratasys CEO Ilan Levin said in a press release that their customers are “seeking additional ways to incorporate metal into their essential design and manufacturing processes.”

Tradition meets new technology
One traditional machine tool company had a standalone booth at RAPID, showing a hybrid machine that combines both additive and subtractive capability. This is in line with the growing presence of hybrid machines at last year’s IMTS and other industry trade shows. Subsequently, there will likely be more traditional companies showing their equipment at 3D printing shows, and of course more 3D printing technologies coming to metalworking shows.

A distributor also had a standalone booth that showed integration of many technologies, including additive manufacturing equipment. Additionally, it was the first public showing for Arcam and Concept Laser since their acquisitions by GE Additive. With GE recently opening its Center for Additive Technology Advancement near Pittsburgh, this could be another hint that the “Steel City” is becoming more like “Additive Manufacturing City.”

Inroads for industrial use
On the show floor itself, I talked to numerous show attendees who had teams at RAPID to evaluate the technology and especially seek out emerging companies that could make a difference in their manufacturing operations. The message that I consistently heard was that the 3D printing technologies are maturing – there are more materials qualified, more stable and predictable equipment performance, decreasing costs of operations and much better interfaces to adjacent processes (software, scanning, inspection, heat treatment).

It is clear that 3D printing remains a dynamic frontier in the world of industrial manufacturing. With more growth in materials and processes, and more companies looking for ways to leverage this dynamic technology, you can count on this market to continue its rapid expansion for years to come.