So You’re Going to a 3D Printing Conference

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TCT Show 2016

Tomorrow, September 22nd, is the autumnal equinox, officially beginning the season that we all know and love not only for pumpkin spice everything (everything) but also for an abundance of industry conferences, tradeshows, seminars, and other gatherings of like-minded individuals. In the 3D printing world, that means we’ll soon be hit not only with announcements of new hardware, software, materials, and partnerships, but the opportunity to see, hear, and learn about them first-hand in an upcoming onslaught of events. Meeting those behind the news in person is a massive benefit to these events, and networking/relationship-building is of course a mainstay.

In the next two weeks, I will be among the thousands expected to attend two highly-anticipated European events: TCT Show in Birmingham and IN(3D)USTRY in Barcelona. These two shows, with announcements already rolling in and eagerness setting in for attendees and exhibitors, are kicking off the busy 2017 fall conference season — are you ready for it?

So you’re going to a 3D printing conference


Great! You’re going to a show. Your registration is in, your bags are packed, your hotel is booked, and your ride share apps are up to date. That’s it, right, you’re good to go? Maybe not quite yet.

Attending a 3D printing conference requires careful preparation, whether going as a curious first-time visitor, intrigued student, experienced scientist, enthusiastic entrepreneur, expert speaker, intrepid journalist, grizzled industry veteran, or habitual lanyard-collector. The days will be long, the energy high, the coffee (and, later, wine) flowing, the voices loud, and the lights bright.

During the spring conference season, I personally averaged about 18-hour days, running from 6am to midnight; of course, those are journalist hours as the end of each day was dedicated to writing content to publish as real-time as possible from events and start on interviews while conversations were fresh. For non-journalists, hours may vary. Exhibitors are often first on-site and last to leave, working with setup, teardown, and full days settled in booths talking nonstop to visitors. Depending on reasons for attendance, visitors may be at a conference center for a few hours or for the duration of multi-day conferences. Whether measured in hours or days, going in with a plan is an important tactic.

As we get ready for the next series of shows, I’ve gathered some advice, drawn from my own experiences, that might help in attending conferences.

Before the conference

  • formnext 2016, with a busy and large exhibit hall

    Make a plan. Look at the agenda, slot out times for speakers/sessions/tracks of greatest interest; figure out your must-sees first and fill in around that. For the most part, agendas, floorplans, and exhibitor lists will be available online ahead of an event and allow for relatively at-a-glance planning. My go-to in event planning is a spreadsheet; why I wasn’t enthusiastic about Excel as a youth is beyond me now, as my planning spreadsheet is invaluable as I prepare for large events. I use Google Docs so I can quickly pull it up on my phone on-site.

  • Reach out to companies ahead of time, especially if there are any specific individuals you’d like to talk to. Going booth to booth can lead to great impromptu meetings, and exhibitors are obviously well-prepared for this, but for any personal attention it can be very helpful to have a time set up in advance.
  • Visit booths that catch your eye out of the blue. Yes, make appointments, but don’t ignore the exhibitors not in your itinerary. TCT Show has more than 200 exhibitors lined up for 2017; while I’ve made a good deal of interview appointments already, it’s nowhere near 200 of them, and I’m looking forward to any opportunities I can take to walk the floor and see what catches my eye. Some of the humblest booths have led to some of the most interesting conversations I’ve had at events over the last few years.
  • Follow social media; Twitter and LinkedIn are brilliant for connecting with others who will be there and can help take online connections into face-to-face meetings. Be sure to find and use the official hashtags on Twitter to best keep up to date on that platform. Start before the show, and follow as it happens.
  • Be sure you have everything you’ll need and know where it is. My bag may look like a heavy disaster zone, but I know exactly where to reach blindly to find my business cards, those I’ve collected, my extra phone battery/charging cord/outlet adaptor, at least seven pens, my notebook(s), and breath mints. Pack ahead of time, know that you’ll have what you need.

During the event

Just outside of the San Diego Convention Center as seen during Inside 3D Printing in December 2017

  • Follow your schedule; don’t panic when it inevitably changes. From the comfort of my office, my spreadsheet looks like a well-coordinated effort with names, times, places, booth numbers, and stage locations; on-site, it’s more of a really handy guideline.
  • Leave room for eating. This has admittedly been a shortcoming of mine, as I get caught up in the energy and hubbub before realizing seven hours have gone by in which I’ve subsisted entirely on caffeine and hope (and a banana if I’m lucky). Shout-out to those who have texted me from across a show floor to remind me to eat, I’m trying to pay that kindness forward with this reminder. Really, eat. Also drink water, not only coffee.
  • On that note of being a person, check the floorplan; find the bathrooms.
  • Dress professionally, but place priority on comfortable shoes. I am in awe of some of the heels women wear to these events, and kudos to those of sturdy calves; I will be rocking my flats.
  • Have a timepiece other than your phone. Clocks are often surprisingly hard to come by in large halls, and smartphones aren’t really known for unfailing battery life (remember that extra charging equipment). Wear a watch. Make a fashion statement with a pocket watch. Time moves oddly in a conference hall.
  • Chat. Network. Everyone there is there for the same overarching reason you are, which is to learn about and hopefully advance the industry around 3D printing. Long queue for tea? Make the most of it. I’ve met some wonderful people while awaiting the sweet rejuvenation of caffeine. Don’t leave your business cards behind when you kip out for a cigarette or walk over to the Starbucks around the corner.
  • Go outside. While the next big shows coming up are held in large conference halls, many are attached to hotels and it can be surprisingly easy to go three days without ever properly being outside in open air. Take a break, see the sun (or at UK shows the rain, it can be nice, too). It’s amazing what two minutes of vitamin D will do for your day.
  • Evening events hold their own unique appeal; Materialise World Summit 2017

    Take advantage of networking events, happy hours, receptions, and meetups. I skipped out on many of these in early shows I attended, so intent was I on writing up interviews quickly. This was a mistake. Again with some of the best chats being impromptu, attend socially oriented events, talk to the people behind the businesses. Most of them are awesome as individuals in addition to being great professional contacts and resources.

  • Be kind. It shouldn’t take a reminder from a news site to have good manners. But just in case: “please” and “thank you” are not lost arts. Appreciate the time others are willing to share with you. Colleagues and competitors will be present, be glad for them all. This industry will never move forward with only one lead force in any area, be part of the good vibes around co-creation and collaboration we hear so much about. Also as another hopefully unnecessary reminder, be respectful of personal space/boundaries; this is an issue women in particular have faced, and it is not okay when lines are crossed.
  • Don’t steal. Another should-be-no-brainer, but I’ve heard from several companies at shows big and small that parts have walked away from their booths. Events are great for freebies, but only the ones that are given out as such. Don’t be the person who has to be chased down in a car in a search for expensive metal parts; it makes for a great story later, but not for you.

After you leave

  • Gather all the business cards you’ve accumulated in the same place. They’re small, they’re easy to lose, you’ll gather them at different times and may set them in different places, life is mostly digital — there are any number of reasons to lose track of these. You met these people and have their cards for a reason; make a place to keep their information so you can get in touch with useful contacts after the show.
  • Follow up with those new contacts.
  • Chill. Absorb information. Relax. You made it through the show!

Beyond Jabberwocky

Every so often in one of these events, it seems like the far-too-short-lived Better Off Ted got it right with flashy product announcements, as showcased in the brilliant presentation for Project Jabberwocky:

In looking back at presentations and announcements, question Jabberwocky. Think critically and analyze just how many “game-changing” announcements might change up any game at all. While 3D printing has been becoming a much more serious industry, there is still hype in innovation. You might see sequins, colored lighting, and even booth babes at an event; some great technology is housed behind kitschy appearance, while nothing-actually-happened announcements might have the sleekest-seeming presentations.

All that said, if you’re attending a conference, be prepared. Rest up and get ready for an energetic day/s of industry participants.

I look forward to these next events — if you’d like to talk in person at any of these, I’d love to connect via email or Twitter!

Do you have additional tips for shows? Let us know in the comments below or discuss this and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com!

[All photos: Sarah Goehrke]


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