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RAPID + TCT 2024: a 3D Printing Industry Oasis in the Heart of an Urban Wasteland

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Los Angeles, the worst city on Earth, is a bold choice for the location of an additive manufacturing (AM) industry event. RAPID + TCT 2024 was sited inside the LA Convention Center, a surprisingly pleasant respite from the Joker-esque scenario looming outdoors.

“It’s like the end of the world out there!” one aghast industry professional told me, which is the impression I always had during the brief era in which I resided in the City of Angels. Yet, while few attendees seemed particularly pleased to be in LA, everyone I spoke to was as happy as ever to be at RAPID.

RAPID is Always RAPID

This is only my third time at RAPID, but, since the first two conferences I attended were in the Midwest (where I now live), I generally associate the show with the Rust Belt. Nevertheless, this year’s edition felt exactly like the first two RAPID’s I’d been to: big, busy, loud, and exuberant.

Despite the fact that many AM professionals seem prone to sad-sackery these days, it’s hard not to feel good about the industry when you’re at RAPID. It would be easy to chalk that up to marketing BS, and I’m sure to some extent it is.

But it’s also because, when you observe representatives of more or less the whole industry congregated in one room, everyone perched proudly aside their respective wares, you can’t avoid seeing AM’s potential with fresh eyes. The unique sentiment that RAPID is always able to evoke is that it’s not so far-fetched to think that a better future is within reach.

Image courtesy of RAPID + TCT

What’s New? Depends on Who You Ask

One thing I overheard from a couple of attendees was that there didn’t really seem to be anything “new” this time around. On the surface, in terms of aggressively novel machine launches and the like, that was largely the case. However, in-depth discussions with presenters easily dispelled that initial perception. There’s just more nuance involved in what can be considered new in AM these days, reflective of an industry that is gradually moving into manufacturing’s mainstream.

Above all, the newness can be found in the applications. That should be welcome information to anyone who’s concerned for the industry’s future, since applications are the key to unlocking revenue growth.

This doesn’t even necessarily mean the applications themselves are new. What’s new, rather, is the breadth of their appeal to industrial adoptees, which is an especially encouraging sign. Within the overall production workflow, manufacturing enterprises are starting to figure out what AM’s most fitting role is, and running with it.

Markforged is an excellent example in this context, with the company tightening up its message lately to hone in on its ecosystem’s viability for smoothing out pain points in the assembly line:

“It’s all about the factory floor,” Doug Kenik, Markforged’s software development manager, told me. “You put our systems on the factory floor, and you can get jigs, fixtures, and tooling wherever you need it, whenever you need it, all over the world.” Kenik continued by emphasizing the company’s Digital Source platform, launched last fall, noting, “Digital inventories are perfectly suited for solving tooling problems, and there’s millions of dollars worth of those problems that we can work with customers to address.”

Ross Adams, Markforged’s business development manager for metal binder jetting (MBJ), pointed out the company’s maturation in terms of delivering end-use parts, as well. After having done the North American launch for the PX100 MBJ system at last year’s RAPID + TCT, Markforged had General Motors (GM) parts on display this year, printed by one of the company’s strategic partners, service bureau Azoth 3D:

“Along with GM’s first metal additive safety critical component, there’s about 47 other components printed for GM on the PX100,” Adams said. “Azoth is able to do it at scale, and every part gets a serial number that gives full traceability into the powder lot. Taking on a new printer has a snowball effect, and it’s going down the hill now. GM has a process that allows them to develop these things, and to empower their engineers to explore new concepts, so it’s been proven to them that we can take this technology very far.”

Violetta Nespolo, chief marketing officer (CMO) for Italy’s Caracol — maker of a robotic arm pellet extrusion system called the Heron — also alerted me to the increasing interest in the North American market for the newest processes the AM industry has to offer.

Image courtesy of Caracol AM, via LinkedIn

“We’re seeing much more excitement in the US for large format applications lately, especially for renewable energy,” Nespolo said. She pointed out that while the workings of robotic arms may be foreign to many companies whose competencies lie in more traditional AM techniques, that is certainly not the case for most large-scale manufacturing enterprises, meaning that in many cases, robotic arm systems might be less of a technical leap than self-contained printers for new adoptees.

Plenty of Launches

As usual, too, there were many new releases announced at RAPID + TCT 2024. The most notable launches reinforce the same idea of building ecosystems around precise customer needs: Eindhoven’s Additive Industries, for instance, announced the MetalFab 300 Flex, which enables users to change the build envelope within the same machine.

Similarly, 3D Systems’ EXT 800 Titan Pellet was designed to fit the build size that the user-base demands. It’s not groundbreaking in the typical sense, insofar as it’s essentially the same pellet extrusion process found in the other machines in the EXT Titan Pellet line, simply made more compact and at a lower initial investment.

But that’s also why it’s one of my favorite new machine releases that’s been rolled out in the last few years: the business case for it makes perfect sense. Again, as I mentioned with Markforged, the machine has broad applicability for jigs, fixtures, and tooling, illustrating where the most ROI on new machines is likely to be coming from in the next few years.

Image courtesy of 3D Systems, via LinkedIn

The EXT 800 was also running the whole time, printing a number of iterations of a shockingly comfortable chair. The machine’s versatility and relatively inexpensive entry-point should give 3D Systems a compelling edge in the increasingly popular pellet extrusion market.

Meanwhile, although the launch technically didn’t happen at RAPID, SPEE3D is deploying the same strategy of bringing its core technology to new build-volumes with the TitanSPEE3D. Notably, CEO Byron Kennedy told me that the decision to manufacture the TitanSPEE3D at the company’s first US-based facility, in Durham, New Hampshire, is a response to the excessively long, often unpredictable, and increasingly expensive shipping process entailed in getting machines from Australia to US customers.

Across the board, companies in the AM industry are building their forward-looking strategies by responding directly to what their users want and need.

This is just as true concerning companies providing solutions for the smallest parts as it is for those serving customers that make the largest ones. Boston Micro Fabrication (BMF) had the newly-released  microArch D1025 Dual Resolution 3D-Printer on display, which allows customers “to choose between 10µm or 25µm resolutions or to switch between these resolutions layer by layer”.

Of course, the new machines are only as useful as is supported by parallel advances in materials science:

“Increasingly, a lot of the applications are driven by materials,” John Kawola, the CEO of BMF told me. “Our ability to print Alumina ceramic delivers a resolution and detail and accuracy that you probably can’t get on another ceramic platform. Another material, from BASF, is a composite-filled material that’s being used for molding inserts.”

Kawola also showed me a BMF part used for the chip-testing process and explained why the company could make an indispensable contribution to the way manufacturing happens for that area of the semiconductor industry: “There are 2000 holes in these chip-testing sockets, which are currently machined — very difficult, and very expensive. So, increasingly, we’re creating fixtures and tools for chip packaging. Machining those holes might seem simple, but when you go that small and you want to try to have a tolerance on that hole of plus or minus 10 microns, it gets pricey. Any application like this, then, is what we excel at.”

Image courtesy of BMF, via LinkedIn

More than Just Printers

Thus, sticking with that same topic of materials, the overarching theme — meeting customers where they’re at — popped up in all the areas of the industry outside of printers, as well. Metal powders supplier 6K Additive announced a host of partnerships with several companies from around the world, expanding its network in the UK and Ireland, India, Türkiye, and Israel, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia.

“To create the same localized, circular economy supply chain everywhere else that we’re creating in the US is obviously going to take time,” said Nick Pflugh, 6K Additive’s Chief Commercial Officer (CCO). “The first step, then, is to work on local relationships, which is what we’re doing with these distribution partnerships. That way, when we do actually make the decision on establishing a local manufacturing footprint, we’re not starting from scratch.”

“And there’s another aspect that might get overlooked or taken for granted,” added Bruce Bradshaw, the company’s Chief Marketing Officer (CMO). “Selling powders is one thing, but if we have to go to each one of those individual companies to try to get their usable powder back, it’s very difficult. So having a central point of contact in each region consolidates that process and simply makes it easier for us to get it back here to the US in the short-term, until we actually have those locations set up abroad.”

Pflugh and Bradshaw both highlighted the growing interest in refractory metals, illustrating how the space industry boom isn’t just a US and China phenomenon. It also suggests how that same boom may easily catalyze growing adoption outside of the space industry:

“It’s largely space,” said Pflugh, “but we’re starting to see some other areas that are starting to consider refractories, like the semiconductor industry, and even automotive. Historically, that has been difficult because of the expense of refractory. But since additive gives manufacturers the ability to use exactly the material they need, it suddenly opens the doors to all these other industries that otherwise couldn’t consider materials that require such high temperatures. Everyone’s still in the process of figuring this out, but the leading companies we talk to — at least from an R&D perspective — these are the conversations they’re having.”

Bradshaw confirmed that 6K Additive’s activities can be viewed as something of a bellwether for the US AM industry, as a whole: “There’s still plenty of headroom for us to grow and plenty of applications and new customers for us to find. But based on the customers we’re talking to, and the applications they’re talking about, I definitely think we’ve got our finger on the pulse regarding where the growth is. I don’t know how many of our customers have recently told us oh we’re adding six new machines, we’re adding a dozen new machines. I’ve heard that a lot this week. So I think what’s actually happening on the ground is very different from the discussion about AM in a Wall Street context.”

Image courtesy of 6K Additive, via LinkedIn

Other positive signs for demand growth in metal powders were provided by HP, who announced the establishment of an MBJ services network as well as a US-based applications center, and Desktop Metal, who were quite enthusiastically presenting their recently announced PureSinter Furnace. While post-processing might not be what gets everyone’s juices flowing, I think Desktop has every reason to be excited about the launch.

Yet once more, we see a company tailoring a new product release to what users are demanding, and in this case, Desktop has come up with a solution that hits multiple key notes while appealing to the broadest possible market. Outdoing existing sintering furnaces on cost and performance and optimal for metal AM, metal injection molding (MIM), and press and sinter manufacturing, the PureSinter has equal potential to reach existing Desktop customers, service bureaus, and even competing printer OEMs.

Finally, beyond the physical side of the industry, the virtual side is also demonstrating the same close attention to the details when it comes to applications. Nano Dimension showed off its FLIGHT HUB software offering that was released earlier this year, a platform designed to be integrated into electronic design automation (EDA) programs, including those made by EDA powerhouses like Siemens and Ansys. The idea is that users can easily choose from a catalog of different printed circuit board (PCB) designs for additively manufactured electronics (AME), and then utilize the parametric capabilities to achieve different performance objectives.

Valentin Storz, Nano Dimension’s GM for Europe, Middle East, and Africa (EMEA), persuasively explained to me the approach the company is taking toward trying to capture even a small percentage of the enormous R&D market for semiconductor packaging design. The semiconductor industry in the US alone spends around $60 billion a year in R&D, with a significant chunk of that amount going towards design.

This is one area where it is already clear, the extent to which AI is poised to play an enormous role in AM in the very near future. Another area goes beyond AM altogether: 3D scanning.

Chris Strong from Rapid Scan 3D, a California-based reseller of Artec 3D scanners, educated me on how NVIDIA GPUs have contributed to the last decade’s hyper-accelerated evolution in 3D printing technology. Strong explained how every AM company could benefit from greater familiarity with the reverse engineering capabilities unlocked by scanners like the Artec Leo.

Additionally, every AM user’s experience can be enhanced by the greater design freedom enabled by latest-generation improvements in 3D scanning. Strong mentioned applications from cochlear implants for children, to crime scene investigation (CSI), to artifact conservation, all of which he’s directly seen improved by 3D scanning in recent years.

Image courtesy of Artec 3D and Hawk Ridge Systems

Tristan Butler, product manager for 3D scanning from Hawk Ridge Systems, walked me through a tutorial on how to use the Artec Leo. I was a bit uncomfortable holding such an expensive piece of equipment, but anyone who uses one for even a minute will immediately see why users report such an easy learning curve with the Artec platform.

A Fitting Home for AM

For all my grumbling about RAPID + TCT being in LA — and I did quite a bit of grumbling about it — the location nonetheless still made quite a bit of sense, especially given the theme of applicability. LA might be a postindustrial nightmare, but that’s exactly the type of environment that needs advanced manufacturing.

And, of course, substantial amounts of manufacturing happen in Southern California, in all of the highest-value industries that AM companies are trying to reach. So the lesson is that you can’t stay in your comfort zone: you have to be able to make wherever you are your new comfort zone.

The best-case scenario for AM is that it can do that for supply chains on a global scale, and along those lines, the bulk of the evidence suggests that companies not only recognize that, but are executing on it and are in a better position to succeed than they’ve ever been because of it. Many things about LA may capture everything that’s wrong with America right now, but on the other hand, many other things portray how there’s so much justification to still be hopeful in spite of that.

Turbulent macroeconomic conditions affect some areas of the economy disproportionately, just like they affect some areas of the planet’s geography disproportionately. AM and LA have both been scorched by that turbulence as much as any other things I can think of thus far in the 2020s, and yet both are resilient.

So, perhaps LA wasn’t such an unusual choice, after all. That said, I’m happy to be headed to Detroit in 2025.

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