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3-D Printing Steals the Show: Notes from IMTS 2014

Sept. 10, 2014
The hardcore industrial crowd at this hardcore industrial tradeshow isn't here to kick the tires and check out 3-D printed doodads. They want to see production potential.

Just two days into IMTS 2014 and the attendance numbers have already shattered 2012's full-week total.

Tuesday closed out with an official count of 106,250 attendees, just shy of 6,000 people more than the last IMTS tally.

You could feel that population in every hall, in every aisle and in every booth of the event. IMTS is jammed full, the aisles are choked and the exhibitors are facing a constant, intense barrage of questions and conversations from an eager, massive crowd.

All of the aisle traffic the creates – however frustrating – has made my job here a lot easier.

I'm at IMTS to find the latest trends in manufacturing technologies – to see what users are interesting in checking out and what buyers are laying down capital to bring home.

With this many people crammed together, those trends are easy to spot – just look for the traffic jams.

On Tuesday, the biggest aisle blocks were caused by one thing: 3-D printing.

The crowd lines up to catch a glimpse of DMG Mori's new hybrid machine, the Lasertec 65 3D.

In 2012, additive manufacturing was still stuck in the Emerging Technologies Center. It was an interesting technology, one that seemed to offer some potential in the industrial world, but it was still too new to throw in with the machine tools that rule the show.

But this year, 3-D printing has climbed out of Emerging Tech and firmly onto the radar of attendees.

There are nearly 20 booths here devoted to additive, running the material gamut from industrial plastics to large-scale metals. There are even a few big-time players showing off the latest in hybrid additive / subtractive machines, which are especially cool for this crowd.

Regardless of the material set, though, every booth was packed with attendees well into the aisles. They snarled traffic to a stop on every side with over-packed conference-goers literally standing on tip-toe just to get a glimpse.

The attendees that made it into the booths weren't there just to check out the pretty toys, however. They came in as they would any machine tool or grinding booth: armed with questions about tolerances and capabilities, ROIs and output potential.

No one is looking at these things like cool toys anymore. They're looking for industrial tools ready to go to work in the factory.

"Additive manufacturing is on fire," said Tom Charron, vice president of product marketing at 3D Systems. "The whole space is growing like crazy and there is so much interest all the way from the little consumer stuff that everybody knows about, all the way up to metals."

3D Systems – one of the original polymer 3-D printers, has recently made the jump into metals with its ProX 200 pirect metal printer. That, he said, has pulled in a new kind of crowd to the booth. Attendees are coming in looking for ways to these printers to work. They don't want to know what cool things they can make with a Cube, they want to know what processes they can augment with production-ready, industrial-scale printing.

"We have moved into the realm of production," he said. "These guys know it."

Dave Burns, COO and president of ExOne, has watched this trend unfold in his industrial printing booth with a great deal of satisfaction.

"I think the adaptation phase of traditional manufacturing to ultimately employ 3-D printing is a long and rigorous process, as it should be," he said. "People are risking millions and millions of dollars of traditionally installed equipment. If you decide to displace that, you have to be sure that the companies themselves that provide the technology are going to be there, that the equipment itself it robust enough and dependable enough in production that it is going to serve you for many years. That is a big decision."

But it's one, he is finding, that the crowd here is ready to take.

"We're seeing the first large scale adoption of 3-D printing on the industrial floor. I think it portends well," he said. "We're making the amazing practical."

Check out the full range of 3-D printers at IMTS 2014.

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