Thursday, 3 October 2013

TCT Show 2013

Each year I come away from TCT with different feelings about the industry.

This time around after being bombarded all year with media interest and social media mania, you could be forgiven for thinking that 3D printing was in a state of perpetual revolution. 

In fact TCT carries the same core professional and production machine manufacturers selling pretty much the same line up of technology at it has for the past 5 years. Seeing this was somewhat reassuring, the ground rules still apply, the industry is evolving, public perception is changing.

On my list of objectives for visiting TCT was to take a closer look at the Blueprinter and Mcor Iris machines.

These 2 machines are could not be more different but they both present technologies that can potentially upset the status quo. 

The Blueprinter uses a thermal printhead to fuse plastic powders. This technology is clearly aimed at the entry level (for now) of the SLS part market. Unlike SLS the lower temperature Blueprinter promises full recycling of materials in each build. Unlike SLS it uses a relatively inexpensive thermal printhead instead of a laser and so the cost of the systems is very much lower.

As a ZPrinter user I am attracted to this system as it is powder based and so it has all of the advantages of a self supporting system. The reality is that 3D printing machines are complex beasts and the road from proof of concept to production machine is a long and perilous one. Like SLS the printer heats the chamber to close to melt temperature. As heat is applied via the thermal printhead some energy is used to fuse powder but some heat energy will flow into the printed part and surrounding powder. Compensating for this additional localised heat imbalance on the next pass of the thermal printhead must be a significant challenge to the designers.

The Iris, full colour paper based 3D printer is built on the back of the single colour machine that is well built and probably pretty reliable. 

Adding the colour element may prove a mixed blessing. There is a difference between a single colour sketch model and a colour presentation model. You can get away with a lot of defects in the former while the latter will be seen in a much more critical light.

My hunch with this machine is that it needs some really good post processing development to transform the raw parts. 

If I were to make a criticism of ZCorporation when they developed the ZPrinter range, it would be that they were too willing to let customers do all of the innovating in the post processing realm. Their engineers were content to focus on the machine and the raw parts - they did not look closely enough at the process and the products that came out of their machines.

Well, I guess that is what we have built our businesses on.  Pre and post production to make parts that are better than the next bureau...


Walking out of TCT into the adjoining Sensor & Instrumentation show, we found an array of colour 3D prints on the Infratec stand. These are massively scaled up versions of their micro assemblies - an interesting reverse on the usually massively scaled down buildings and city models that we produce at Lee 3D. These models were apparently 3D printed somewhere in Germany.

3D prints that serve a purpose always seem more interesting than demonstration pieces.

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