Ceramics Expo Explores the Next Dimension
For additive manufacturing pioneers, 3D's technological and market possibilities are endless.
Just a few years ago, “robot-based 3D printing” would have been something you would encounter only in a work of science fiction. Now it’s a fact of everyday business in the additive manufacturing industry—and one of the areas of focus of the inaugural Ceramics Expo and Conference, which will take place April 28-30 in Cleveland, Ohio (see Exhibitor List and Floor Plan).
One of the conference exhibitors will be Viridis3D, a Woburn, Mass.-based company that does not run its own service bureau. As Will Shambley, the company’s president and CEO, explains, that means it does not print parts as a service to others. “Our biggest ceramics customers over the past couple years have been a pair of bureaus—Figulo Corp. (recently acquired by 3DS) and Eagle Engineered Solutions,” he says. “Figulo served many of the online shops making glazed 3D-printed ceramics for sale to end consumers. Eagle provides a similar service, but the focus is on the investment casting market.
“We anticipate that both of these sectors will continue to grow, both in the U.S. and abroad. I think that supply, demand, and awareness will increase, as new machines enter the market, new materials are released, and the experience of the service providers increase. There’s still a lot of people who haven’t heard of Ponoko, Shapeways or Sculpteo. The word about those entities will continue to spread, especially as product quality improves and lead times drop under two weeks.”
The luxury and biomedical industries are driving growth at 3DCeram, a Limoges, France-based exhibitor that launched its CERAMAKER last year. Both industries have “very high expectations in terms of quality products,” says Richard Gaignon, publication director.
The company helps its customers to use ceramic applications of 3D technology: it provides training and maintains a hotline to optimize use of the CERAMAKER process line. As the market continues to grow rapidly, one of the company’s challenges is how, as a small business, to develop a worldwide customer base.
Another European exhibitor is Vienna, Austria-based Lithoz GmbH. The company is working closely with the powder injection molding industry, which requires complex parts in small quantities. “This is still the major foundation for our success,” says CEO Monika Homa. “We have also started to look into new applications, and two are really promising and very important for Lithoz. Biomedical applications often require patient-specific implants or instruments. Lithoz can provide solutions for resorbable (bone replacement) and non-resorbable implants. The second driver is ceramic cores for casting of turbine blades made of super-alloys in aerospace and industrial gas turbines.” While the company is keeping an eye on other trends, Homa believes these industries will give the company “enough to do” in the next few years.
R&D in 2015
The scope of emerging market opportunities can be seen in each company’s areas of concentration in research and development. Gaignon estimates that 3DCeram invests 20% of its turnover in R&D and believes that “2015 will be interesting.” Although he guards specifics with regard to what the company will release this year, he promises “new materials, new technology, that will be better for the customer, faster, more efficient in terms of productivity and cost. We are already working on ‘clever’ 3D printing ceramic.”
“We are continuously working on the improvement of material, machine, software and process,” says Homa. “We are currently working on machines that have a bigger build envelope, and we will launch a new machine this year. We are also working on new materials and will have a stronger focus on non-oxide materials (such as SiC or Si3N4). We will also provide new material for biomedical applications, a biodegradable photopolymer.”
“Our primary focus over the last two years has been laying the groundwork for a flexible, robot-based 3D printer—which we pre-announced for the metal casting industry last fall,” says Shambley. “We’ve also been working on materials for the metal casting, ceramics, and composites tooling markets. We anticipate releasing a steady stream of new materials, robotics platforms, and development tools this year, and every year following.”
Targeting World Markets
Like many Ceramics Expo exhibitors and attendees, the companies share an interest in strategic partnerships or joint ventures that can strengthen their technologies and market positions. Homa describes Lithoz as open to “any kind of partnerships or joint venture, if it is mutually beneficial.”
Echoing her sentiment, Shambley says Viridis3D will work with “anybody who has a good idea” that is realistic and represents a market opportunity. On the research side, his company has partnered with several universities. “For the commercial side, we tend to prefer someone who has a lot of expertise in their niche, and a good sales channel to go with it,” says Shambley. “The manufacturers out there are still hesitant to really take the plunge on new technology. We find that adoption rates are better if an industry can buy from a channel that they are already comfortable with.”
Commercialization and adoption rates are top of mind for Gaignon, as well. He notes that as “time to market is an essence of success, building a network is a must.” That concern factors into 3DCeram’s existing and prospective partnership decisions.
Why are these companies participating in Ceramics Expo and Conference, and what connections do they hope to make as a result of attending the events? Their motivations and objectives are as diverse as the technologies they are developing.
For Gaignon, the trade show represents an opportunity to make inroads into a key market. “The U.S. is major market for 3D printing,” says Gaignon. “Here, people are 3D oriented, open to new ways of doing business. Hence, this is a huge market with potential for high acceptance: 3DCeram had to attend this fair.”
Homa, too, looks forward to presenting her technologies to attendees from the U.S. as a means of gaining new customers and developing additional alliances. “We have a unique additive manufacturing technology with really good mechanical properties and a very high surface quality, which has not been seen so far,” says Homa. “We want to present our technology to the U.S. market, and we hope to meet new potential customers and partners there.”
For Shambley, one key draw is getting in on the ground floor of what he sees as an essential new industry event. “Ceramics Expo will hopefully become our go-to event for our 3D-printed ceramics marketing, like the AFS Metal Casting Congress is for the foundry market,” he says. “We’re looking for customers, a couple of motivated ceramics sales channel partners, people doing research that could be used in a future product, even future employees. Tradeshow events are still one of the best networking tools out there.”
Running in tandem with Ceramics Expo will be the dual-track conference. Free to attend, its sessions will focus on transportation applications; energy generation, storage and delivery; sustainability in manufacturing; and specialty ceramic and glass manufacturing. Included in 2015 are two sessions on 3D printing—one on additive manufacturing techniques featuring many of the interviewees above, and the second on additive applications.
For more information, visit www.ceramicsexpousa.com.