The AM industry is special. Where else could we get away with writing articles, usually technical ones, peppered with our Spotify playlist titles? So here we go again with a TBGA spin to close out 2021.
As we began the year and tried to put 2020 as far as possible in the rearview mirror, the AM community began to emerge from its home office, possibly with fuzzy slippers but with a perfect Zoom coif. New questions emerged. Is it too soon to gather? Should we? Will we go back to pre-COVID conditions? Could we say “Bye, bye, bye” to quarantining?
The emergence from our cocoons started with AMUG in May with a smaller but highly energized crowd. It then continued its momentum at RAPID in September (albeit without our international colleagues), and then exploded recently at Formnext with half the crowd but double the enthusiasm. There was no doubt the industry was thrilled to be reunited but we wondered as we looked towards 2022, would this enthusiasm continue with the day-to-day reality of living in this ongoing pandemic world? Had our attitudes changed about travel? What was the main motivation to being together in person: networking, technical content, or touch and feel new equipment? What about the number of conferences – Too many? Too few?
We developed the TBGA In-Person Event Survey with two hypotheses in mind:
- How do you make the most of an in-person event?
- Have our thoughts on technical information evolved after being online for almost 2 years?
As is consistent with our technical endeavors at TBGA, we took a data-driven approach and were able to confirm some assumptions, but new questions arose. You could say the survey response brought us back to our “dance hall days” with “things that make you go hmmm….”
We’re Meant to be Together
The data stands with Shakira, who rightly said “Whenever Wherever we’re meant to be together.” Over 70% of respondents said they have returned to in-person events [Figure 1]. Respondents were from a wide variety of industries, but all were connected to additive manufacturing in some way. The majority came from the machine world, with post-processing, materials, and software coming in just behind. The reasons for not returning might be more interesting to delve into at some point as it comprises a significant section of the AM population, where their company has restricted travel or citing personal safety.
Consolidation of Conference Activity
The data showed two emerging populations when we began asking about how they make customer connections and where they preferred to get technical information. Trade shows are the best for the person-to-person exchanges [Figure 2] and you simply cannot replace the ability to touch the machines, hold some parts, and ask questions that just don’t seem to work in an online chat or e-mail exchange.
Bruno Mars would have us “Leave the door open” but the industry has adopted new ways to deliver and digest technical exchanges. Respondents prefer to focus on technical conferences, journal articles, and webinars [Figure 3]. Looking down the list, it’s interesting to note that less than 1/3 of the respondents attend Trade Shows to look for technical information. This piece of information seems to support the theory that technical data is better served in a focused environment, not co-mingled with the “show” associated with trade show activity.
Another important theme that emerged from the data is that most people attend less than 5 events per year, suggesting that there are too many AM shows. Independently, the survey authors did a separate assessment on the volume of additive manufacturing trades shows and found that there are more than 30 AM industry trade shows and technical conferences just in North America/Europe over the course of a year. Event promoters are essentially competing to become one of the 4 or 5 preferred conferences, thereby only having less than 10% of the opportunity. Just as we are seeing consolidation commercially, the current saturation of AM conferences is not sustainable. More than 60% indicated there were either too many and/or that the conferences don’t differentiate enough from each other.
Virtual Versus In-Person
Just as the Buggles sang how “Video killed the radio star”, it appears that the technical community would say Zoom disrupted our waiting for a conference to hear about the next great technical achievement. When the world went online over the course of the last almost 2 years, our data shows that some aspects, like technical exchanges, could still occur and in fact, became the preferred media. Rest assured, the overwhelming response was to get back together as in “Reunited, and it feels so good”. Almost 60% suggested in-person events are worth it. A solid 30% however, indicated they would trade going to an event for online technical content. There are definitely two populations that have different needs and can be satisfied differently.
Finally, it was no surprise that the most valued trade shows were the usual players, Formnext, RAPID & AMUG, but there were also a significant number of write-ins, indicating that more trade shows are entering the already over-saturated playing field in 2022.
Things That Make You Go Hmmm…
As the Alan Parsons Project asked, “Where do we go from here”, we ask, what are the takeaways from this? The industry wants and needs in-person trade shows. They provide value in making connections and building relationships, which ultimately benefits everyone in further taking the additive manufacturing industry to maturity. But do we really need so many or would Dua Lipa have us believe “We’re good”? Is there a case to be made for consolidation? With over 30 AM-specific trade shows and technical conferences per year, budgets and time constraints will dictate this.
Consolidation of shows is inevitable. We see a future where the industry moves to one major trade show, supplemented with smaller, regional technical exchanges. A vast majority of technical content will move to online platforms, enabling a more engaged and specialized audience with plenty of opportunities to digest complex ideas.
The Weeknd would advise you to “Save your tears” for another day. Like anything in life, adversity breeds character, and absence makes the heart grow fonder. When we do get together, make the most of it. Reduced travel might mean your Delta Diamond status is in jeopardy, but there will be less CO2 emissions and more nights spent at home with family. In addition, the budget for travel can be redirected to the product. It is daunting to think about, but the world has changed and our industry has changed with it. The effects of the pandemic are likely to go on for many years to come. As we deal with a tremendous amount of uncertainty but as Jack Johnson would say, we’re “Better Together” and we should embrace when we get together and make the most of it.
Can you see it too? Want to share your opinion? We’re keeping the survey open until 31 Dec 2021: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/NBV6YWS
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