It's easy to get distracted at RAPID. Particularly this year.
This iteration of SME's annual additive manufacturing conference, which took place this week in Detroit, was a smarm of activity, bloated to near record levels and choked with 3-D printing users, enthusiasts and vendors, all touting new technologies, new applications and new innovations across the industry.
The showroom floor and its massive showcase of these technologies was an absolute flood of rep-rap start-ups churning out bright plastic prototypes and big-time metal printers promising slick, final part production. Robocop was there, along with life-sized Avatar character prints and a whole display of printed costume pieces from Legacy Effects.
It was a massive, glitzy show filled the brim with amazing, glitzy things all vying for attention.
But despite all of that – despite all of the 3-D printed cars and Hollywood effects, despite the giant, weird art objects and oddly fashioned show models – the one thing that seemed to generate the biggest crowd and the most attention all week was what really appeared to be a totally normal CNC machine tucked into the back corner of the show.
But of course it wasn't really quite so normal.
Released just this year, MC Machinery Systems' LUMEX Avance-25 is the first-to-market machine to combine 3-D printing with high speed milling in the same build chamber.
Watching the machine run is mesmerizing. It switches as effortlessly between additive laser heads and machine tools as you would expect from any modern CNC, lasering up new layers of titanium from the powder bed, then grinding them into perfection, layer by perfect layer. The end products came out shined, polished and tooled to perfect specs. Some manufacturing geeks lost whole days of the show staring inside, watching the magic unfold.
There's a good reason this tool caused such a stir. The release of the LUMEX has made MC Machinery and its parent company, Mitsubishi, the star of a whole new industry that is just dripping with promise: Hybrid manufacturing.
3-D Printing the Whole Product Lifecycle
In the shadows of the GM towers, in Detroit's Cobo Center, the real theme of this year's RAPID conference was manufacturing – the real, hardcore manufacturing that built this city once and is trying hard to build again.
As such, the usual dichotomy between rapid prototyping and the still distant hope of high volume final part production that usually rules these gatherings – and the 3-D printing industry itself – seemed somehow inadequate.
Attendees wanted something more. Something real. Something that can change the way things are made today. Something these hybrid manufacturing folks were happy to provide.
"For 3-D printing to be a viable option in manufacturing, it must be applicable across the entire product lifecycle, not just prototypes or end-use parts," explained Ken Vartanian, vice president of marketing for Albuquerque-based metal printer, Optomec.
Manufacturing, he argues, is too conservative for full disruption, too protective of its daily bottom line to suddenly abandon known process, procedures and standards to adopt full-on additive techniques overnight.
"It's scary for them," he said. "It's scary to begin a new process that has the potential to shut down your factory if it fails."
Rather, he says, what they want is something that fits into those current systems. Something that combines the power and promise of 3-D printing with the real, hardcore manufacturing that keeps them alive: a hybrid system of subtractive and additive techniques.
This is a field Optomec already knows well.
Optomec & Hybrid Manufacturing
While MC Machinery is making its move and competitors like Mori Seiki rush their hybrid machines to market soon after, Optomec has already been playing in this field for over a decade.
"From the outset, our vision was around printing a full component in metal," explains David Ramahi, Optomec's president and CEO. "But as we engaged with the market, the one thing we found was a lot of interest in the community for restoring old components, every bit as much as printing new ones."
"In fact," he added, "in their minds, if you could revive an old part, it could actually be cheaper to build a new one from scratch."
So Optomec has spent the last 11 years doing just that: mastering the science of metal-on-metal functional printing in a way that fills the wide lifecycle gap between prototype and finished part.
The company already has an army of machines on the market capable of making repairs to existing pieces or, even cooler, printing components, structures and even electronics directly onto traditionally manufactured pieces.
Their latest tool – the LENS Print Engine – takes the LUMEX approach, but in modular form, adding 3-D printing capabilities to the machine tools customers already have running in their shops – a seriously cool trick.
In the process of all this, Ramahi argued, his company and the rest of the players in the area are creating room for new explosive growth for 3-D printing – one that could finally let it tap into a fairer portion than its current $3.07 billion slice of the greater $10.5 trillion manufacturing market.
"This gives 3-D printing the chance to transition into full manufacturing," he says. "Most of our customers, because they come from a production mindset, what they are interested in is cost, first and foremost. They don't care that it's 3-D printing. They really are concerned with the fact that it either ends up saving money. "
And with these tools – be in the Lumex or Optomec, Mori Seiki or any other player in the field – it looks like they might be able to do just that.