The 2024 TCT Awards: the Only Way Is up (Baby).

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In the 3D printing industry, many things mark the passing of time: another merger, a new slate of CEOs, and, of course, the TCT Awards. As a wide-eyed research analyst entering the industry during the peak of the additive manufacturing (AM) Hype Cycle, to now attending the show as a seasoned consultant, the TCT awards have consistently served as the truest indicator of the state of our industry. This is largely due to the attendees’ increasing consumption of wine, which seems to correlate with their willingness to give an honest and frank appraisal of the industry, as they see it. This year’s pinot-powered predictions aligned with what many of us are thinking: where do we go from here?

The ceremony itself was, as always, a smart, enjoyable, and collegiate affair, with around 250 attendees enjoying the evening as industry peers. The night was expertly hosted by TV Presenter Dallas Campbell, a familiar face from Bang Goes the Theory, a program that presented the truth behind misleading headlines; a fact that I’m sure put the economic analysts in the room on edge.

As this was a 3D printing event, the obligatory printed tchotchkes were on display including a printed handbag built for looks but possibly not usability, and a dress shirt festooned in what appeared to be a fused deposition modeling nozzle purge. Bleeding edge or not, the surprising success of Stratasys’s TechStyle PolyJet printer makes me think the fashion industry is not one to turn our nose up to anymore.

The panapoly of awards, as per each TCT awards event, hit the big themes of applications, materials, and hardware. In the applications categories, Boeing took the trophy for its satellite components; Airtech Advanced Materials won for a splitter mold interestingly made from recycled components; Arburg took the healthcare spot for a curiously named “Hash Tag Two” printed breast orthosis; and, perhaps stretching the definition of “consumer” to a near snap, the winner of the consumer product application went to Massivit’s printing of a Hot Tub for a Superyacht.

Outside of applications, two awards that reflect the human-aspect of our industry were a reminder that, as with all technology industries, passion and leadership are the deciding factors, with Brigitte De Vet-Veithen winning the Women in 3D Printing award recognising, beyond her appointment as CEO, her extensive work at Materialise to grow the medical device business and expand the access of 3D printing to healthcare providers, and Charlotte Bridgewater who was awarded the Sanjay Mortimer Foundation Rising Star Award.

Materialise CEO Brigitte de Vet-Veithen with Women in 3D Printing Founder Nora Toure.

Whilst most of the conversations throughout the evening focused on, alongside guessing the award winners and who ordered what food, the future of our industry. A lone wolf-whistle at the announcement of the Women in 3D Printing Innovator Award was a stark reminder there is still work that needs to be done. But the prevailing question of what the future of our industry will look like was the main through line in conversation.

In my mind, the three inductees to the TCT Hall of Fame exemplified the truly seismic impact AM made in the previous ten years, and should be the benchmark for our level of expectations for the next ten. Max Lobovsky hadn’t even left MIT University before creating, between him and his friends, what would become Formlabs in 2011. His firm would ultimately be one of the three most prominent players between Ultimaker and Makerbot that would mainstream 3D printing into the public and (like it or not, I’ve participated in Fortune 500 projects that came from execs seeing Makerbots and Formlabs whirling in a makerspace) be keys to the explosive growth of 3D printing in the previous decade.  Andy Christensen and his company Medical Modeling (acquired by 3D Systems in the early 2010s) provided an entirely new solution of patient-specific surgical planning models and tools for surgeons to improve the outcomes of patients, often in need of highly complex surgeries. The term “democratization” is often thrown around in our industry, but Andy’s contribution to the medical industry truly (if not democratized), drastically reduced the costs for surgical training and planning models which, ultimately, has helped save lives.  And Melissa Orme represents both the past and future of aerospace, an industry that has been a long-standing adopter, critical technology stakeholder, and where AM has achieved some remarkable engineering accomplishments, some of which Melissa has led at Boeing as their AM researcher and application specialist.

These three hall-of-famers are a prime cross-section of 3D printings advancement and impact across technology, application, and engineering, and represent well Brigitte’s sentiment which i suspect will be the title of an upcoming Materialise Whitepaper: “Innovation is only meaningful, if it makes an impact.”

But the prevailing opinion at the ceremony, as well as most other AM shows and conferences admittedly, is that innovation and disruption in our space is less and less anchored to 3D printing technology and capability, but how it is deployed and integrated within larger manufacturing and supply chain systems.  As one attendee put it “The future of 3D printing will have nothing to do with 3D printing”, and I agree.

A 3D printed thimble plugging device made by Westinghouse.

Increasingly, we are seeing major leaps in 3D printing being driven by materials development, standards and regulatory establishment, and software as both a driver and integrator of 3D printing hardware as much as a tool for design (this is where we start talking about AI). With this in mind, I suspect next years slate of TCT winners will at least start to reflect this shift, not to diminish this years winners with I think the two most compelling being Westinghouse Electric’s production of nuclear fuel components, and trinckle’s Fixture design solution, which (whilst not novel) is an example of how ease-of-design and subsequent ease-of-use of 3D printing as a tool is innovation in 3D printing without having anything to do with 3D printing.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, where do we go from here?  There is still notable technological innovations happening, with nLight winning the hardware award for their metal powder bed fusion system that utilizes beam shaping (effectively adjustable beam widths to control speed, width, and depth of meltpools during printing), and there is more to achieve in additive technology development, but expect the conversation and focal point of innovation, growth, and possibly even award categories, to be on supply chain integration, digital threads, and AI-driven monitoring and design tools.  Will these be the hot topics at next years ceremony, possibly? Will we all drink a bit too much wine, absolutely.

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