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3D Printing’s Place in History

February 12, 2017

Filed under: 3D printing,additive manufacturing,future — Terry Wohlers @ 06:39

Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in or around 1440. Since then, humans have experienced many life-changing technical advances such as electricity, medicine, radio, and the telephone. Henry Ford was credited with popularizing the automobile in the early 1900s. Later came air travel and the semiconductor, which led to computers, robotics, and the Internet.

A subject that I have pondered for some time is whether 3D printing will be viewed as a major technical advancement, similar to these other developments. We may not know for decades into the future, but many agree that it’s certainly headed in that direction.

Forecasting the Future

January 28, 2017

Filed under: 3D printing,additive manufacturing,future — Terry Wohlers @ 16:14

Looking ahead is tricky business. Many try, but most can’t do it well. Predicting what might occur in a year from now is one thing, but looking further out, such as years or longer, is difficult. Megatrends author John Naisbitt said, “The most reliable way to forecast the future is to understand the present.” That’s where we put the majority of our energy. We feel that if a company truly understands where things are today, they have a chance at creating a view of the future.

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With history and data points, one can extend trend lines to gain a sense for where something is headed. We have collected and analyzed hard data for more than 20 years for the Wohlers Report, and place a lot of weight on extending trend lines. This, alone, is not enough. We also need to do our best at understanding the present state of 3D printing and additive manufacturing. We adjust our views of the future based on a number of factors, including new developments such as GE’s recent investment of about $1.4 billion in additive manufacturing.

The bottom line: do not make business decisions based entirely on forecasts. Factor in views and opinions from people with a lot of experience and history in the subject of interest. It is easy for someone to make a forecast, even the inexperienced, but it’s incredibly difficult to do it accurately. Most people that read these forecasts do not look back to see if they were accurate, which is a mistake.

Snow

January 14, 2017

Filed under: life — Terry Wohlers @ 07:31

The Rocky Mountains of Colorado have received a staggering amount of snow over the past few weeks. In fact, it’s on pace for its best January snowfall in 100 years. What’s more, it could turn out to be the best month ever. With the snowpack currently at 150% for this time of year, the rivers, lakes, and reservoirs will be at their brim when it melts.

Copper Mountain, our favorite ski resort, yesterday reported 107 cm (42 inches) in the previous seven days. The upper mountain depth is 200 cm (79 inches). Wolf Creek, a ski resort near Pagosa Springs, Colorado, has a mid-mountain depth of a whopping 262 cm (103 inches). Ski resorts and mountain towns are running out of places to put all of the snow.

snowfall

All of the snow comes with consequences. A friend that made a day trip to Vail Mountain this week spent more time driving than skiing. In all, they were in the car nearly nine hours, when the roundtrip should not take more than about five hours.

Some of the same storms brought 51 cm (20 inches) of much needed rain to northern California, ending a horrible five-year drought. The Heavenly Ski Area near Lake Tahoe has received an unthinkable 366 cm (12 feet) of snow.

Overall, recent weeks have been kind to western regions of the U.S. The snow and rain have caused flooding, avalanches, road closures, and other problems, but that goes with the territory. We can only hope for a steady amount of moisture in the coming months.

Best Products of 2016

January 1, 2017

Filed under: review — Terry Wohlers @ 17:24

At this time nearly every year, I like to highlight some of the best products of the year. The following are those that stand out and deserve special recognition.

Jeep Grand Cherokee – We purchased the 2016 75th Anniversary Edition in May, which includes some special features, such as bronze wheels and trim. I like everything associated with this product, and it may be one of the best vehicles we have owned. It now has fewer than 6,435 km (4,000 miles) on it, so it’s probably too soon to draw a final conclusion. The safety features, adaptive cruise control, eight-speed transmission, and overall drivability and comfort make it a great product.

jeep

Logitech HD Pro Webcam C920 – I paid $63 for this excellent device. It rests nicely at the top of my monitor and shoots high-quality 1080p video for saving or use with Skype or other types of broadcasts.

CamelBak Rogue Hydration Pack – This is my first CamelBak product and I like it a lot. I bought it for mountain biking and it’s perfect for half-day trips. It’s a good value at $44.

Black+Decker LST300 Trimmer/Edger – For $63, this battery-powered product is excellent for edging your lawn along the driveway and sidewalk.

Graco Secure Coverage Digital Baby Monitor – If you want to know whether your child or grandchild is awake, it’s a bargain at just $35.

With the exception of the Jeep Grand Cherokee, we purchased all of these products from Amazon. The company’s Prime service is excellent.

Best wishes to you for a great 2017. Happy New Year!

3D Systems – Healthcare

December 16, 2016

Filed under: 3D printing,additive manufacturing — Terry Wohlers @ 17:21

I visited 3D Systems’ new healthcare facility in Denver, Colorado for the first time on Monday. The company invited a number of people from the media and investment community to see the facility and get an update on the company’s strategy. Vyomesh “VJ” Joshi, the relatively new CEO at 3D Systems, led much of the discussion, along with other senior managers. We toured the facility and got our hands on some of the medical simulation tools for endoscopic surgery, colonoscopies, and other procedures. The facility employs about 140 people, many of whom process data from medical scanners, such as CT and MRI, and prepare it for 3D printing.

VJ said the company’s new strategy is to focus on vertical markets, such as healthcare, aerospace, automotive, and others. The Denver healthcare site is, by far, the most developed of the verticals and serves as a great example. Andy Christensen, former owner and president of Medical Modeling, deserves much of the credit. 3D Systems acquired the company in April 2014. Andy and his management team were very much a part of the design of the new facility, which opened in March 2016. Christensen was employed by 3D Systems until March 2015 when he left the company. 3D Systems’ management said that it has planned 75,000 surgical cases, although most of them were done by Medical Modeling before it was acquired.

hearts

In my view, the healthcare facility is the “crown jewel” of the company’s verticals. Christensen knew what he was doing when growing Medical Modeling from 2000 to 2014. Likewise, I believe VJ knows what he’s doing in building on this success and using it as an example for other vertical markets. The focus is on specific application solutions for industrial sectors, rather than on the company’s products and services. This shift in focus, coupled with other adjustments VJ is making, is refreshing. He explained that if some of the 50 or so companies and businesses acquired from August 2009 to April 2015 fall by the wayside, that’s okay. The company “may” sell one or more of them, but that’s not the emphasis at this time.

3D Systems is beginning to “feel” like a different company, even though VJ arrived only about eight months ago. Given what he did in his 32 years at HP, I’m optimistic that he will get the company on track. He is an engineer and strong manager and has the respect of former colleagues. His focus on verticals is a good move, and its healthcare business is a great example of how the company could develop in other markets.

30 Years Later

December 4, 2016

Filed under: 3D printing,additive manufacturing,CAD/CAM/CAE,event,life — Terry Wohlers @ 11:02

It does not seem possible, but it’s true: Wohlers Associates has been in business for three decades. I started the company in November 1986 after working at Colorado State University for five years. I was young at the time—not even 30—but it “felt” like the right thing to do. I was inspired by Dr. Joel Orr, a brilliant individual and extremely successful consultant, author, and speaker. I told myself that if I could do even a small fraction of what he does, it would be incredibly interesting and challenging. I don’t know that I’ve even “scratched the surface,” compared to what Joel has achieved, but it has been enormously gratifying, and I’ve been lucky to work with great people and organizations over the years.

The original focus of Wohlers Associates was on CAD tools and their application. I was presented with the opportunity of being the instructor of the first semester credit course on CAD at CSU in 1983. CAD experience and know-how were hard to find back then, so I was approached by three publishers to write a textbook. I accepted the offer from McGraw-Hill in 1985. The work experience and textbook provided a foundation for offering CAD instruction and consulting to local companies, such as HP, Kodak, Waterpik, and Woodward. I also accepted writing assignments from technical journals, which did not pay a lot, but they helped to introduce our startup company to the world. I learned from Joel that if you want to meet people with similar interests, speak at industry events, so I began to participate in technical conference programs.

30-years

Less than a year after starting the company, I came across a short but interesting article in a newsletter published by Joel. It was about a start-up company named 3D Systems, and it discussed a new process called stereolithography. I was fascinated by the concept and envisioned how powerful it could become in combination with CAD solid modeling tools, which were rolling out at around that time. Aries Concept Station was the first to support stereolithography. Dave Albert, a person that Joel and I know, was commissioned to create the CAD interface and file format for 3D Systems. It was called “STL” and it’s still being used extensively today. I don’t know whether Joel knows it, but I credit him for introducing me to additive manufacturing and 3D printing, a class of technology in which our company has spent most of its energy. I’m excited to go to work every day because of the almost endless opportunities that this technology presents.

I have many stories from the journey that began 30 years ago, but I will save most of them for another time. I do want to say that without my wife, Diane, the company would not exist. She has provided mountains of loving support and encouragement over the years. Also, she has graciously tolerated my crazy travel and work schedule. Without her, our accounting system would be a mess. I also give my sincerest gratitude to Joel Orr. Without his inspiration and encouragement, it’s safe to say that Wohlers Associates would not have been launched. Thanks also to countless others around the world for contributing and supporting our company over the past 30 years.

Metals at formnext

November 20, 2016

Filed under: 3D printing,additive manufacturing,event — Terry Wohlers @ 16:03

I attended last week’s formnext, powered by TCT, in Frankfurt, Germany. The four-day event, involving an international exhibition and conference, was outstanding, especially given that it was the second year. Most major companies in additive manufacturing and 3D printing were present, and many had very large and impressive exhibits. One could easily make the case that it was the most elaborate and striking display of AM products and services ever.

As with most events, the people in attendance were as important as anything else. Organizations around the world sent their best and most informed employees. This is especially important for visitors wanting to schedule meetings and have discussions about AM and where it is headed. If the schedules of others were anything like mine—and I’m sure many were—they had little spare time through the week because of all that formnext had to offer.

engine-block2

If the event had a theme, it was metal AM. Additive Industries, Arcam, Concept Laser, EOS, ReaLizer, Renishaw, 3D Systems, and SLM Solutions had large displays with machines and parts. Companies relatively new to metal AM that showed their machines were AddUp (a collaboration between Michelin and Fives), Farsoon, OR Laser, Sentrol, and Sisma. Fraunhofer ILT displayed a small and relatively low-cost metal AM machine that may be commercialized at some point.

Some of the mature companies showed automated metal powder removal and handling capabilities and concepts. As their customers ramp up for production quantities, this automation will become important. Absent was the automation of most other downstream operations, such as thermal stress relief (with the exception of Additive Industries), hot isostatic pressing, and the removal of parts from the build plate. Also absent was automating the removal of supports/anchors from the parts, CNC machining, and surface treatment.

Regardless of your interest in AM, formnext had something for everyone and was the place to be last week. One exhibition hall included a large and impressive concentration of technology and know-how. It was completely filled, so Messe Frankfurt and TCT employees are planning to expand into a second hall for the 2017 event, which is set for November 14-17. The four days of conference sessions were also very good and well attended. I only wish I could have attended more of them. Maybe next year.

South Africa

November 6, 2016

Filed under: 3D printing,additive manufacturing,manufacturing,review — Terry Wohlers @ 14:10

I spent last week in Vanderbijlpark, South Africa, at RAPDASA 2016. It was the 17th annual conference and exhibition of the Rapid Product Development Association of South Africa. I’ve been lucky enough to attend all 17 of them. Like fine wine, the event continues to improve with age, and this one was the best, thanks to organizer and host Vaal University of Technology. VUT’s Science and Technology Park, the venue for the event, completes more than 1,000 industrial projects annually with machines and facilities that rival the very best in the world.

On Monday, a few of us visited a company that VUT is working with it. The company produces cast impellers for large industrial compressors. VUT is using Voxeljet additive manufacturing technology to produce sand molds and cores for the impellers. It is not yet into production with the process, but it is expected to cut the cost in half, saving R2 million ($147,000) per casting. What’s more, the delivery will improve dramatically from an excruciating 9-12 months to just one month. The impellers spin at 3,000 rpm and operate in a harsh environment. Company management is ecstatic about what the technology will do for it.

cast-impellers

Much of South Africa’s work began many years ago at the Centre for Rapid Prototyping and Manufacturing (CRPM) at Central University of Technology. Today, CRPM is extremely active, with more than 600 commercial projects annually. The group is running a wide range of industrial machines, including several metal AM systems that are at work building high-end parts used in an array of industries. One area of focus is around medical devices and implants. Earlier this year, CRPM received ISO certification, which shows that the people, processes, and work at CUT are among the best you’ll find anywhere.

A platinum project was launched recently with Lonmin, one of the world’s largest producers of the precious metal. I had the privilege of meeting and having dinner with several managers from the company. The effort is serious, although early in its development. The largest market for platinum, by far, is catalytic converters, followed by jewelry as a distant second. Time will tell whether the company can use AM to create entirely new markets for this special material, but it looks like the people are going into it with a lot of enthusiasm and determination.

What do these and other developments in South Africa have in common? Professor Deon de Beer. He began his work in AM at CUT where he helped launch the CRPM. He then went to VUT to establish the Science and Technology Park, which is mostly focused on AM. He’s now at North-West University, but has continued strong ties with CUT and VUT. His humble and somewhat quiet demeanor will fool you because he’s like a spark plug. He ignites an avalanche of activity wherever he goes and brings out the very best of people that surrounds him. Without Deon and his inspiration, AM progress would be VERY different in the country.

South Africa is home to many Idea 2 Product (I2P) labs, with more than 25 operating worldwide. They consist of facilities full of equipment for hands-on learning of CAD, 3D printing, and other design and manufacturing technology. The I2P labs were also a brainchild of Deon de Beer. With him and a growing number of colleagues and others, South Africa has grown to become a leader in additive manufacturing. The adoption of the technology is not as deep and widespread as it is in the U.S. and parts of Europe, but the work is just as advanced and impressive. I credit de Beer and the formation of RAPDASA (both the association and annual event) for the on-going ideas, programs, strategy, and education that are provided country-wide.

GE’s AM Acquisitions

October 23, 2016

Filed under: 3D printing,additive manufacturing — Terry Wohlers @ 06:41

Last month, GE surprised the world when it announced the company’s plan to acquire Arcam of Sweden and SLM Solutions of Germany for $1.4 billion. Both companies offer additive manufacturing systems that produce world-class metal parts for medical, aerospace, and other industries. Arcam also owns a prominent producer of titanium and other metal powders (AP&C of Canada), which supplies materials to many organizations. For more than two decades, some people in the AM industry have speculated whether a large OEM might acquire an AM manufacturer to give it an advantage, rather than relying on relatively small companies to serve its needs. In more than 28 years, no such corporation had made a commitment, until now.

ge-arcam-slm

Why would GE want to buy these two companies? I believe it’s mostly about the company’s need for machines, materials, and capacity. GE stated that it would need in the range of 1,000 industrial-grade machines over the next 10 years. If it relies on the status quo, it may need to get in line and wait. With the recent demand for metal AM, the wait could become lengthy. (Growth of metal AM has averaged 59.2% over the past three years, according to our research for Wohlers Report 2016.) With ownership of machine and material producers, GE can accelerate development and expansion, and it can be first in line to receive what it needs. Also, it can dedicate serious resources to the advancement of process control software and hardware, as well as other features to help ensure system reliability and part quality.

Greg Morris, GE Aviation’s leader of additive technologies, said that the company plans to sell Arcam and SLM machines to others, even to competitors of GE’s many businesses. It’s difficult to know exactly how sales and support of these products will be handled, but I believe it’s safe to assume that GE will receive high priority. Why wouldn’t it? As GE improves its AM technology, to what degree will these enhancements be made available to others? This is a question that may not be answered for some time. Regardless, GE is positioning itself in ways that have not been seen in the past. This is exciting for it and the influence the company will have on the entire AM industry.

Late Breaking News: On Friday, October 21, GE refused to raise its price for SLM Solutions after Elliott Management said it would reject GE’s tender offer. Elliott owns 20% of SLM Solutions and more than 10% of Arcam, according to 3DPrint.com. GE and SLM management are urging shareholders to accept the offer before it expires on Monday, October 24.

Proto Labs

October 8, 2016

Filed under: 3D printing,additive manufacturing,event,manufacturing — Terry Wohlers @ 16:30

Yesterday, Proto Labs celebrated the grand opening of its new 7,154 sq meter (77,000 sq ft) 3D printing facility in Cary, North Carolina, located at the west edge of Raleigh. Proto Labs is best known for quick turn injection molding and CNC machining, with headquarters in Maple Plain, Minnesota. The company entered the 3D printing business when it acquired FineLine Prototyping of North Carolina in April 2014. FineLine, headed by Rob Connelly, had a strong reputation for quality over a period of many years. Whenever I would hear something about FineLine, it was positive.

Connelly told me that the new site is running 48 stereolithography, 10 laser sintering, and 13 metal powder bed fusion machines. With its Germany and Finland sites, Proto Labs is operating 121 industrial 3D printing systems and growing. This represents a tremendous amount of prototyping and manufacturing capacity and is now one of the largest in the world.

proto-labs

Vicki Holt, CEO of Proto Labs since 2014, and Connelly generously gave me a personal tour on Thursday after I arrived into Raleigh. I received a second tour yesterday as part of the grand opening. As expected, I was impressed by the organization and sheer number of machines and jobs running through the facility. The company’s software for scheduling and tracking jobs, produced entirely in-house, is at the core of the operation. Large monitors in many places graphically show new and existing jobs that are making their way through the system. On average, about 275 customer projects are quoted daily for 3D printing. The site’s 150 employees handle everything from customer inquiries to scheduling jobs and shipping. For a premium, customers can obtain parts that are produced and shipped the same day.

Holt explained to me that the company’s “sweet spot” is its very quick turn around. Proto Labs is not competing on cost, but rather on consistently delivering high quality parts in the shortest amount of time possible. As a chemist and veteran in polymers and manufacturing, she knows what it takes to make customers happy. From 1979 to 2013, Holt held various positions at Monsanto, Solutia (a Monsanto spin-off), PPG Industries, Spartech Corp. (owned by PolyOne), and other companies. Holt and Connelly’s attention to detail, and that of their employees, coupled with their strengths in interacting with people, play a big role in attracting and keeping customers. Congrats to Proto Labs for its new and very impressive facility.

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