What We Saw at RAPID+TCT 3D Printing Con

3D Printing & Imaging Digital Fabrication Maker News
A large auditorium with thousands of chairs is occupied by many people. A stage is at the front with screens with the conference logo.

The annual RAPID+TCT conference (named after the two media organizations that run it) bills itself as North America’s largest additive manufacturing and industrial 3D printing event. This year it was at the Los Angeles Convention Center on June 25-27, just an LA Metro ride away for us. It was a large event, with about 400 booths according to the organizers. Hard numbers of attendees will not be available for a while, but attendance appeared to be in the few thousands. Joan felt transported back to her aerospace engineer roots with the overwhelming male and often suit-wearing attendees. At least there was no line for the ladies’ room.

Makers in Industryland

Our goals were to see what might trickle down to the maker level, to see how companies with a maker start are reaching up into the industrial sphere, and to explore what market niches still remain. One theme throughout the keynotes was a surprisingly frank assessment of how few factory floors have included some sort of additive technology (a fraction of a percent). There was vigorous discussion about why. 

Some felt the industry is too fragmented, with every company trying to provide a solution for all manufacturing rather than specializing in one application field (say, medical versus aerospace). This means that machines try to meet standards that are the accumulation of all requirements, making it hard to throw out and optimize for just one. Others noted that in traditional manufacturing, it is rare for any one machine to make a part from raw feedstock to a part out the door, but the additive world has pretty much set that as the bar. Some felt that companies had been grown and capitalized to get bigger than their markets would support, and that consolidation was inevitable. We were hoping to hear the words “open source standards” but that might be a challenging left turn for most of the big guys at this point. 

There were dissenters to this gloom, to be sure, who felt they were growing responsibly and in a well-defined niche. There were also companies born in the maker universe who are reaching up into the gap to populate the smaller customers who can benefit from single to triple digit numbers of printers. 

In that spirit, Prusa Research released its latest entry into the professional market, the Prusa Pro HT90 deltabot, developed by subsidiary Trilab. 

A deltabot 3D printer that says Prusa Pro along the top.

CEO Vojtech Tambor is shown here holding the hot end. It advertises nozzle and chamber temperatures compatible with materials like PEI or PEKK-CF. These printers will let people who learned how to print with a Prusa continue with familiar interfaces up into the next level.

A man wearing a Prusa t-shirt is looking at a 3D printer hot end assembly.

Ultimaker, Formlabs, Dremel, Flashforge, Bambu, and other maker stalwarts were also in attendance. Some combination of multicolor printing, speed, and larger print volume were the typical updates. 

Exotic Materials

Speaking of materials, one of the bigger maker takeaways is that sophisticated materials like PEI, PEKK and PEEK, various Shore hardness TPUs, and a wide variety of composite-infused filaments were on display in 1 kg spools. It appears that not all are available at retail in the US at the moment, but something to watch for in future. 

Manufacturer 3DXTech’s display included exotics like ESD-PEEK. 

Many spools of 3D printer filament are on shelves, with various 3D printed parts made from the filaments arrayed in front of the spools.

There were also colorful displays of more decorative filaments, like this one from Elegoo. 

A very colorful display of 3D printed samples is in front of a sign that says Elegoo.

The bottom line of all this is that there is beginning to be an ecosystem of consumer-to-professional printers that will allow the small shop to create more sophisticated parts, with printers that can handle high temperatures and challenging filaments.

If however you want to create metal or ceramic parts but want to stick with your run-of-the-mill consumer printer, The Virtual Foundry were showing off cool parts made of their print-and-sinter materials. (We profiled working with their metal-filled filament in Make: Volume 86 and ceramics in Volume 88). Austin Triggs and Bradley Woods showed off habitat models made with lunar dust simulant, as well as a Roman colosseum model made out of copper. 

Two men in Virtual Foundry t-shirts are holding fist-sized objects that look like small domes for habitats on other planets. They are in a convention hall and their booth with many models is behind them.
A pair of hands holds a copper model of the Roman Colosseum. Other models and photos of models are in the background.

If you want to go a different direction and move to printing with pellets, there are options like the Piocreat G5 Ultra, shown in a booth shared with Creality.

A 3D printer that has a small hopper where the spool of filament would normally be is on a pedestal. Many small cups in front hold pellet materials. A sign on the pedestal says “Pellet 3D Printer” and Piocreat.

Or if you just have to print really, really big things, there were many solutions at the show for you, like this one from BigRep that seems to nearly qualify as a tiny house. 

A very cubical 3D printer, almost large enough for an adult to stand up in, is just beginning to print something. Its corners are bright orange.

There is still room for maker-mindset problem solving, too. Luke Ashley founded Luke’s Laboratory in Green Bay, Wisconsin to help people with all the barriers to using 3D printers on a small scale (upgrading, fixing, printing challenging parts) and developed his own printer model as well. He has found a real need for easing people’s first steps with 3D printing, or just doing some of it for them if it is too much for someone to climb the learning curve themselves. 

A man is smiling broadly next to a refrigerator-sized 3D printer cabinet. A sign behind him advertises Luke’s Laboratory with QR codes for his website.

There were hundreds of other innovations we could talk about (arguably too many for the market to support, as we said at the beginning of this post). But maybe we makers can climb up into the gap between the hobbyist and the industrialist and find ways to help companies adopt 3D printing for their bottom line, sustainability, and more. Meanwhile, we makers can look forward to new materials, innovative simulation and design software and other creations that are still too expensive now, but hopefully will come down into our range in times to come.

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Joan Horvath and Rich Cameron

cofounders of Nonscriptum LLC (nonscriptum.com) and the authors of many maker books, most recently Make: Geometry. Twitter: @JoanHorvath, @whosawhatsis

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