Formnext 2022, Day One: Dawn of a New Error in 3D Printing

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Formnext and Frankfurt: they’re a bit like Christmas. The good comes with the bad.

The Bad

It’s cold, grey, and you never really get what you want. This year, powder companies who don´t understand additive are the colorful socks that well intentioned children give. The comfy slippers that will be buried deep in closets are all the software startups that couldn’t attend because they have no revenue at all—inviting at first glance but destined to be forgotten. Expectant hope, discarded. The scented candles of this year are all of the large format printers chasing too few clients. That’s not vanilla you smell; it’s a mixture of ABS-GF and strategic replication.

I can only trudge in Frankfurt. I don’t walk here. I feel like I’m a coal miner headed deep underground. Rather than miles of earth above me, I am entombed in the cosseted hell that is Frankfurt. Is it me or is everything here the same beige as all the computers pre-2000? Or is the grey color you find in thunderclouds? It feels like some expressionist tried to paint bureaucracy as an emotion. There’s nothing exactly wrong with Frankfurt. There’s nothing exactly right about it either. It’s kind of like being in purgatory, only with more travelators. Here’s the worlds worst steak place. Over there is pasta that you could make better at home.

The Good

Despite my feelings about Frankfurt, it truly is fantastic to be here. It’s super nice to hug everyone and say “hi.” I met so many people that I haven’t seen in a year and several that I hadn’t seen in years. Some are much fitter now and look much happier to boot. Some are doing well. All are excited.

Formnex is my favorite time of the year, not Christmas. While I only have a few relatives, there are so many of you in the 3D printing industry. It’s five days of hugs and that’s just great. And I’ve learned so much today. About the setters in binder jet that some call furniture. About ceramics, granulate, PEEK, PVDF, GRCop 42, triangles, files and so much more. I can learn faster here than anywhere else.

The Burrow

There’s also something terribly Kafkaesque about this place. The long snaking paths towards the Torhaus, Rebstock, and Festhalle. It’s a bit medieval sounding. I feel like a badger wandering aimlessly through a labyrinthine burrow. A Festung which is formidable, vast, and secure, but still so vulnerable in my own mind. Deep in my burrow, I can hear a sound and I’m terrified by it like Kafka´s secretive animal:

.”T]he most beautiful thing about my burrow is the stillness. Of course, that is deceptive. At any moment it may be shattered and then all will be over. For the time being, however, the silence is with me.”

I’ve been coming here a long time—about 14 years from back when it was Euromold. All of this time, we’ve been creatures in a burrow: isolated from the markets, the world, economics. It was just “us, the small island;” “us, the growing ecosystem;” “us, the pioneers;” “us, the money raisers;” “us, the industrializers;” “us, the heroes”. It was always just us, together in a burrow completely separated in the world.

In the beginning, economics didn’t matter. Then, everyone threw money at us by buying machines when it didn’t make sense. Then VCs threw money at us. Then, the public markets. We’ve been in a decade-long fever dream, a collective isolation-powered hallucination. But, now, like a burrow pierced by sound, we’re becoming aware.

At Formnext 2022, the talk was not about amazing new products or deals. People were talking about consolidation, inflation, orders evaporating, tightening of belts. There’s this thing called “the market” and it has found us. There’s a phenomenon called “economics” and another called “the business cycle” and they have found us, too. We’re talking about geopolitics and the world that has pierced our bubble. All of a sudden, we’ve gotten a wake up call and become cognizant of the fact that we are businesses, just like other businesses. The 3D printing halo is gone. We’re all going to have to fend for ourselves now.

So, the number one trend at the event is that we’re feeling the cold wind of the market, the banks, investors and the world’s attention. At the same time, our hope and future success seem not isolated but intertwined with a complex planet. Geopolitics in hypersonics, firms separating and backing up their supply chains, people doing more at home are going to be driving our industry. Oil and gas companies are buying a lot of 3D printers, software, and materials. So, we’ll feel the swings in the price of oil from now on, too. A separation of China and the rest of the world is occurring. A larger group is moving away from the Asian nation because of a sense of mistrust around its intentions and future relationships. Geopolitics, the implosion of globalization, and the economy are now what are driving us.

The Takeaways

Aside from this, there are a number of major trends that we can see this year.

1. Large- and Medium-format Extrusion on the Rise

There is a profusion of medium-format 3D printers. There are lots and lots of large-scale machines, as well. There are so many robot arms about that it feels like a car factory in here. Granulate extrusion systems for tooling are being launched more and more. We’re also seeing printers with build volumes of ten meters or more. Gantry systems and robot arm systems are increasing. As a consequence, Kuka, Yasakawa, Fanuc, Staubli, and the other robot makers will look at our market more intensely.

Also, there are far too many companies right now to sustain growth for firms in medium- and large-format extrusion. There are startups who will find it terribly difficult to differentiate themselves in this market. Capabilities and performance are all very close, while the segment is huge. There is a lot of potential in large format 3D printing for boat hulls and other parts, aerospace tooling, composites parts and molds, construction molds, room dividers, and outdoor advertising to name a few. However, it will be hard to make headway in this market and sell to those customers, especially given that this 3D printing segment is so crowded right now.

2. WAAM/DED Metal 3D Printing Is Growing Very Quickly

We’re also seeing a lot of companies with DED, WAAM, or other metal printing technologies that are near net shape and suitable for large inexpensive components. In addition to established players, there are many startups and established firms from other industries trying their luck in additive. No wonder, then, that the “DED and Large-Format Additive Manufacturing Markets: 2021-2030” report from SmarTech Analysis projects that this sector will be worth $739 million by 2026.

3. There Are a lot of Suppliers to the 3D Printing Market

From spool makers to firms manufacturing oxygen sensors, drip cameras, and powder packaging, we’re seeing a lot of companies show up that supply us with specialized kit. These will also find it hard to extract money from a market that may be smaller than they had hoped.

I’ll update you on more trends tomorrow. All in all, the additive manufacturing industry is still growing up, but, now, without the luxury of people splurging on hope and futures that never were.

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