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From Defense to Deep Space: RAPID + TCT 2023 Charts the Future of AM

From May 2 to 4, 2023, America's largest and most influential additive manufacturing (AM) event returned to Chicago. A long-standing hub for manufacturing, the Windy City was a natural home for RAPID + TCT 2023, which attracted 9,500 attendees from 34 countries.

The RAPID +TCT community has become the major catalyst for additive manufacturing to accelerate modern technology adoption and inspire and educate the North American manufacturing workforce. This year, show producers SME and the U.K.’s RAPID News Group took it to next level by connecting the most prestigious, experienced and innovative professionals in the AM business. 

Advancements highlighted during RAPID + TCT helped to unlock the full promise of AM as an engine of commerce, progress and human potential. Over three days, guests enjoyed keynotes, thought leadership panels and more than 160 conference sessions, along with countless opportunities to network and see the latest AM solutions in action.

Day one of RAPID + TCT began at the main stage with a welcome from Robert "Bob" Willig, Executive Director and CEO of SME. Surveying the audience, Willig emphasized the broad range of attendees who find value in the event — from beginners to professionals and buyers to sellers. "Together we believe in technology's power and humanity's innovation to advance our society and meet many of our biggest challenges,” said Willig. “We design new ways to understand and solve problems, and our solutions advance the next wave of inspiration. Working together as a cohesive and thriving community, we elevate the art of the possible.”

Adaptive Systems

On that note, Willig introduced the event's first keynote speaker, Kevin Czinger, CEO of Divergent Technologies Inc. Czinger’s presentation dove into the company's groundbreaking Divergent Adaptive Production System (DAPS™), a complete digital system designed to replace traditional vehicle manufacturing.

Part of the motivation for this work, Czinger said, was to create a more resilient and sustainable manufacturing model. Having grown up in Cleveland, Ohio, Czinger had witnessed the decline of the U.S. industrial ecosystem firsthand. An adaptive approach, he argued, could pave the way for what he called "permanent manufacturing footprints…systems that adapt, products that adapt and a local community that can adapt with them."

Conference delegates then had the opportunity to attend in-depth sessions across eight tracks — aerospace, automotive, consumer goods, defense, ecosystem, healthcare, research and development (R&D) and wider industrial.

Later, in "Regulatory Considerations for Hospital-Based 3D Printing," panelists took to the stage to discuss the shifting regulatory landscape for hospitals utilizing AM. As the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers new regulations, six healthcare experts weighed in on how medical practitioners could embrace innovation while ensuring a consistent level of safety and effectiveness in each hospital.

Game Changers

When attendees weren't in a conference session or watching a presentation on the Main Stage, there was plenty to see. Extending over 400,000 square feet of show floor space, 400 exhibitors showcased the latest AM products, technology and applications. Guests competed for the top spot at a 3D-printed ring toss station from Polymaker and took turns dunking an "airless" foam basketball — a collaboration between Wilson, EOS, General Lattice and DyeMansion — at the EOS booth.

Elsewhere, Thermwood Corporation showed off the LSAM additive printer 510 by printing chairs made from chemically upcycled, post-consumer plastics.

While many exhibitors were returning to RAPID + TCT after years of participating, there were plenty of fresh faces to meet — and new developments to celebrate. 26% of exhibitors were there for the first time. In addition, several companies took the opportunity to share exciting new initiatives.

In a press conference on May 2, the engineering design software company nTop announced the latest version of their flagship product, nTop 4. They also took the opportunity to unveil their new visual identity — created, of course, using their own software. Later that day, DMG MORI previewed the LASERTEC 30 SLM US. The powder bed fusion printer offers enhanced control over cost per part and will be developed, manufactured and assembled in their location in Davis, California.

In-Situ, in Space

Day two of the event began with a keynote from Omar Mireles, Ph.D., of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. Dr. Mireles recounted the evolution of AM, reminiscing about his experiments using additive tools to build prototypes as a student. At the time, the pieces broke so frequently that he couldn't imagine the technology going anywhere. Now, he told the crowd, he works almost exclusively with AM.

Dr. Mireles gave an overview of NASA's early work in AM and looked ahead at how the technology will fuel the agency's most ambitious projects, including Lunar and Martian exploration. The success of long-duration space travel, he explained, will hinge on in-space manufacturing capabilities that enable in-situ resource allocation. "It's one thing to visit," he remarked. "It's another thing to stay and have a permanent presence."

The topic was also the subject of a session from George Kyriakou, Ph.D., COO of BotFactory, Inc. In his presentation, "In-Space Additive Manufacturing of Electronics," Dr. Kyriakou expanded on some of the challenges of producing parts in space, from extreme temperature fluctuations to the effect of microgravity on materials.

Large-Format Solutions

Later that day, the main stage played host to a highly-anticipated thought leadership panel. In "A Disruption of the Industrial Base; Large-Scale Metal Additive Manufacturing," seven experts from the defense sector discussed the potential of metal AM to bolster supply chain resilience and readiness. Major General Darren L. Werner, the keynote panelist, opened the session. Additive technology, he told the audience, "has turned new concepts into real possibilities."

The session focused on the Jointless Hull Project, a U.S. Army initiative to develop a hull-scale manufacturing tool to produce one-piece hulls, enhancing vehicle performance and increasing combat survivability. In particular, the project aims to reduce the impact of underbody blasts, the cause of approximately 73% of all vehicle losses since the Vietnam War.

The largest machine produced by the project, which boasts a build volume of almost 30 x 20 x 12 feet, had just been installed at the Rock Island Arsenal-Joint Manufacturing and Technology Center (RIA-JMTC).

"No longer are AM designs limited to small parts or prototypes," Werner said. However, he noted later, "the testing community needs to come together to develop standards for AM."

Emerging Talent

Along with bringing together seasoned AM leaders, RAPID + TCT 2023 served as a launchpad for the next generation of additive trailblazers. At the Bright Minds Student Summit, 300 high-school-aged students heard directly from keynote speakers, enjoyed tech demonstrations and participated in gamified experiences, including a scavenger hunt on the show floor.

For the first time, the event also featured the AM Pitchfest Competition, where entrepreneurs, start-ups and academic spin-offs could pitch their offerings to a panel of expert judges. In total, 33 entrants vied for a place in the competition, and 10 were selected to give five-minute presentations in the Tech Hub on the show floor.

The results were announced as part of the SME AM Industry Awards on the morning of May 4. The top spot went to ColorForge for their tailored, on-demand cosmetics, with LightSpeed Concepts Inc. tapped as runners-up.

The Power of Partnership

Despite the diversity of verticals, perspectives, processes and materials represented at RAPID + TCT 2023, common themes emerged. One was the need for better certification, education and standardization within the field.

This sentiment was echoed in the event's final keynote. Moderated by Willig, the panel examined opportunities and challenges facing the AM sector. Unlocking the full spectrum of additive technologies will take collaboration at every level of the industry, Willig acknowledged. But, panelists agreed, strategic partnerships can help manufacturers evolve faster.

Other highlights of the last day included a panel from the AM Coalition on the possible consequences of congressional negotiations over the debt ceiling and how professionals in the AM space can better advocate for resources.

An annual milestone for those in the sector, RAPID + TCT is itself a testament to the importance of coalitions. Together, the AM community has the power to solve problems and accelerate innovation — a recurring takeaway from conversations held throughout the three days.

In the words of keynote panelist Chris Ciuca, vice president of programs at SAE International, "It comes back to collaboration. That is the step we have to take across industry, across government and across academia."

Did you miss a session or keynote at RAPID + TCT 2023? Registered attendees can stream recorded keynotes, panels and conference presentations using the SME Events Mobile App.