It’s the most magical time of year! No, not that one quite yet, whatever retail establishments want you to think. For the additive manufacturing industry, the largest event of the calendar year is nearly upon us as Formnext 2022 is ready to kick off November 15-18 in Frankfurt, Germany. With pandemic restrictions largely lifted and the industry busier than ever, the 2022 edition is sure to be incredible: people, companies, and – above all – announcements.
The trick about 3D printing, as we’ve learned over the years, is to look at announcements with a critical eye. Gartner’s Hype Cycle has made us all students of overblown trends and what they mean en route to new manufacturing realities.
How can we apply these and other lessons to sift through the hype of seemingly never-ending press conferences and fanfare to discover the underlying truths, whether red flag or unicorn opportunity?
Let’s think this through:
Questions to Ask
What should you look for when you see a new product or service announcement? What should you ask when you visit hoppin’ booths?
It’s easy to get carried away by the big promises and thrill value you see in a new announcement. Take a minute to center yourself, breathe through the excitement, and ground yourself in reality. It’s not a mantra, it’s a must. When you’re ready, pose a few questions:
- Any Announcement
- How is this different from what’s already on the market today?
- What is the full, end-to-end pricing structure?
- What does the installation/setup/onboarding experience look like?
- What is the ship date, not the (pre)order date?
- How many beta/early customers have worked with this in real-world conditions?
- New Hardware
- What is the print speed with different types of materials?
- How many materials are available/validated at launch?
- What do you mean by “open materials”, “proprietary materials”, or other phrases indicating compatibility? How open is “open” (or how closed is “closed”)?
- How long is the service plan active and what does it cover? Is there an annual fee?
- New Software
- What file types does your software handle? (Hint: ask about 3MF)
- How can I protect my/my customers’ IP?
- For medical/patient-specific imaging-related software, does the new product adhere to updated DICOM standards encapsulating STL/OBJ files?
- Do I have to connect to the cloud?
- How is the compatibility with other software suites my team uses?
- New Materials
- When you say “ABS-like” (or similar), how does this actually compare with ABS?
- How does this compare to other materials’ print speeds?
- Is this locked to a certain OEM system?
- How do I dispose of waste?
- What safeguards are required for handling?
- New Post-Processing
- What is the installation/pricing structure?
- What types of systems is this compatible with?
- How does post-processing impact part tolerances?
Let’s not focus on the negative… but at the same time, let’s let go of the idea that every piece of marketing is hype-free. What are some phrases that could be red flags?
- Coming soon!
- Okay, but when?
- Viva La Revolution? What are we revolting against?
- Did you invent a new class so it’s the best/only in its class?
- Is there third-party benchmarking to validate this?
- World’s first
- Is it? Is it really?
- 2.0, 4.0, 5.0
- Unless it’s a software update, it probably isn’t really much of a version blank-point-oh.
- What is the value proposition for disrupting an established workflow?
- Unless it’s from an over excited customer’s quote, I don’t want to hear it.
- State-of-the-art / cutting-edge / bleeding-edge
- One should hope, as this is a new introduction.
- It’s manufacturing, it better not be in lingerie. That’s not up to code.
(NOTE these are marketing-speak red flags; some products/services using these popular phrases might well be excellent – but it’s up to you to discern which, since so many will raise these flags.)
Even the tabloids, even TMZ and the National Enquirer, have nuggets of truth. Otherwise, purely-fictional pieces are too easily found out. Journalism professors everywhere will applaud your wearing your investigative cap on this one: what should you look for to discern the kernels of truth in a seemingly-overblown announcement?
- Technical specifications are gold: the more numbers put on a new system, the better.
- Third-party validation
- Did an outside party quantify these claims? Amazing!
- Quotes from individuals, especially customers
- Go to the source (also: did they actually say this, or did they just find out later their name was on it?)
- This also means there are customers: external perspective is invaluable.
- Print speeds, not just comparisons; give me metrics, not unquantifiable 2x/3x/5x/10x/20x/100x claims that don’t actually say anything specific
- Including post-processing into workflow discussion. Print speeds are great but 3D printing is only one part of the many-step additive manufacturing process. What is the actual time to market/productivity?
Translating PR Statements
Essentially, reading a press release is an exercise in discretion – and an opportunity to put on your best deerstalker cap. It’s elementary, my dear Watson: nothing is quite as it seems. Read between the lines to glean the important pieces of information. Unfortunately for company PR writers, that does mean disregarding a lot of the fluff inherent in each new product announcement.
Some of the red flag statements above already indicate the areas to be taken with a grain of salt. Pro tip: very few things will actually be a “world’s first”, even if you hadn’t heard of them yet. Don’t look for the first, look for the best. What are the standout features that make an announcement intriguing to you in the first place?
You’re looking for the fastest 3D printer out there? Remember to look into the full end-to-end workflow. The fastest printer in the west isn’t worth the name if its post-processing more than doubles the work time, creating an inherent bottleneck. What you’re looking for isn’t necessarily “speed” but, rather, “productivity”.
What you should be really reading for is, selfishly, what this announcement might mean to you. A press release has been honed to make a company look good. That’s great, and good on them, but is that relevant to you? Is that what your installation actually needs to succeed? Keep in mind your own needs and read for those.
Sift Through the Hype
It can be overwhelming, but you can sift through the hype and understand what all these announcements mean for you. Additive manufacturing is an undeniably promising industry, and certainly the runup to Formnext will be filled with excitement. Especially coming out of pandemic conditions, it’s easy to get caught up in the glamour and thrill of something new, big booths (and the accompanying booth parties!) – we’re all looking forward to being together again with the best and brightest minds and new and shiniest market entrants. Before you start checking budgets, though, remember to take a breather and sift for the truth in the hype. That truth is compelling enough in this industry!
Want to test yourself? Look through the latest AM News.