So for the next couple of days I’m going to be attending the RAPID 2015 conference in Long Beach, California, taking place at the Long Beach Convention Center. Since this is a pretty cool event to attend, I figured I’d document my experience as best I can. The RAPID Conference is put on by SME and focuses on Additive Manufacturing(AM) technologies. That is, 3D printing and related technologies. 3D printing/AM is a rapidly expanding field and this conference aims to pull a lot of that information together at the professional level.
So the first thing I can say about this conference is that I was unprepared for the scope of it. I spend a lot of my time dealing with the “lower end” of 3D printing. Roughly described as machines under $5000, Printrbots, Makerbots, RepRaps and the like. I’ve always known that there were professional grade machines ranging from the multiple hundred thousand to the millions of dollars, but there is a difference from knowing such machines exist and seeing them discussed and their specifications listed. My first inkling was my difficulty reserving a hotel room for the conference. A lot of the conference hotels were booked and I had to call multiple times to land a reservation. I was a little late to the party it seems.
Anyway, on to Day 1, Monday. One of the items on my agenda is to take the SME Additive Manufacturing Certificate Exam, which takes place on Thursday. The RAPID folks were nice enough to put on a review course for the exam Monday morning. The course was scheduled for 5 hours roughly, and while it got heavy at times, it served as an excellent overview for the professional discussion of Additive Manufacturing. I think it’s fair to say at this point I know a fair bit about 3D printing. The thing I really appreciated about this session was that it introduced a lot of the “standard” terms when it comes to AM. Lots of jargon and acronyms. Now that may seem like semantics to some, but that can really be an important element in a technical environment. You have to be able to speak the language. I had a lot of internal “Oh, that’s what you call that.”
I have standard in quotes because a lot of things in the AM field are still changing. There’s a race by everyone to differentiate(and brand) their technology. You have examples of similar(or the same) technology being called different names depending on what company is producing the machine. Fused Deposition Modeling(FDM) and Fused Filament Fabrication(FFF) is a good example of this. I can go more detail on that at another time. All of that to say, I really appreciate the effort to create some baseline standard descriptions for the processes. Also, as I would find out later in the day, this workshop gave me knowledge base to better understand some of the later presenters I saw. When that jargon starts flying around, It’s good to know what’s what.
After the Certificate Workshop Ended, I hung around for a bit and then went to the RAPID Kick off session. The beginning was the normal stuff: Thank you for coming, short overview of the conference, award presentation and announcements. There are two parts that I really want to highlight. however. First was the “What’s New: 3D Printing Roundup”, presented by Todd Grimm, president of TA Grimm & Associates, an AM consulting firm as best I could tell.
His presentation was incredible. It really drove home the fact that is nigh-impossible to keep up with everything that is going on with 3D printing/additive manufacturing. There are so many companies in the market right now, exploring all sorts of technologies. It seems that there is a big push on metal fabrication. From my own experience presenting 3D printing technology to people, that is the most common question/comment I get. When/What can be done with metal? A lot of people are making strides in that area, either by direct metal processes, printing the metal directly to a part, or indirect processes using AM/3DP tech to create molds/sandcasts/supporting objects to facilitate molding, casting, etc…
The second part I want to highlight would be the Panel Discussion on Enabling Growth of Thermoplastic Additive Manufacturing, which was immediately after the What’s New presentation. So what the panel discussion essentially covered(because the title may be confusing) was the challenges and potential solutions to 3D printing parts at volume. So large amounts of 3D printed parts. One of the challenges of 3D printing/additive manufacturing is that it is difficult to print parts time effective in large amounts. With other manufacturing processes, generally the more you make of something the faster and cheaper per unit it is to produce. With 3DP/AM this is generally not the case. If it takes you an hour to make one, it’s going to take 2 hours to make 2, 4 hours to make four, and so on.
Now, these times are generally okay for prototyping, which is generally what I describe 3D printing as being useful for. However, there is a continued push to integrate AM technology into production use, which introduces other challenges. Challenges such as material cost, time to production, and repeatability. At first, I thought I would duck out of the panel once it got started, but I found myself really getting into the discussion of the challenges/roadblocks they brought up to the maturation of the field. Some put up by the manufacturers themselves.
One facet I found especially compelling was the fact that a lot of 3DP companies essentially function as sole source suppliers for their machines. That is, if you have a Stratasys machine, you need to buy your filament from Stratasys. This is something that I hadn’t really given that much thought, until one of the panelists made an intriguing comment. If you have a HAAS CNC machine, wouldn’t it be weird if you had to buy your raw material from them as well? I’d think that was crazy. The understanding that I walked away with was that there are many aspects of the current standard operating procedures that are stifling innovation. That’s a funny thought because there is so much innovation in the AM realm right now. I personally am going to be looking forward to a point where the material manufacturers will “give in” and open up that aspect of the industry, if it comes.
The last piece for Monday was the networking reception, put on by Materialise. The reception was pretty nice, food was good. It made me realize a couple things though. One, it has been awhile since I’ve been around this many engineers. In a lot of my work environments as of late, I am “the” engineer, and have to deal with all of the rights and responsibilities of that position. It’s nice to be able to talk shop with individuals that work in the same arena you do. I was going back and forth on some the finer points of CAD design and AM mold making concerns with another engineer. Good stuff.
The second realization, is that I am one of a very small amount of black people here. I think I counted five. Now I’m not trying to make a larger statement here(at least I don’t think I am). It can make things a little difficult at times, however, such as at a networking reception. Now I’ve been at technical conferences before, and it can be a little intimidating. It’s hard enough to walk up to a complete stranger and introduce yourself in general. One of the things I always worry about in situations like this is how I’m perceived. I don’t want to seem like “this” or “that” type of person. And hopefully the person I’m talking to doesn’t have any preconceived notions of me. Also, I want to make sure that I come across as a competent professional. I bring this up because sterotypically people are supposed to be intimidated by me, but in most cases it’s the other way around. I’m absolutely terrified! You want to be able to minimize potential misunderstanding, but at the same time I have to be the one to step up and talk to people. And engineers aren’t the most social bunch… Oh well comes with the territory, I suppose.
So that wraps up day one of the RAPID conference. We’ll see what Tuesday brings. I’m looking forward to hitting the exhibit floor and seeing some good tech. I’m specifically curious if anyone is doing anything with glass. No pictures on the floor, so unfortunately I won’t be able to provide that. I also need to start prepping for that exam. Until next time.