Every year in November, a large part of the additive manufacturing (AM) community makes its way to Frankfurt for the FormNext show. For many it is the busiest week of the year and major highlight. This year the community gathered virtually at FormNext Connect which was a very different experience: more convenient in terms of travel but less exciting in many ways. This begs the question: what are the community needs of the AM ecosystem in today’s highly virtual world and how are they addressed. This is our topic this week, as part of our ongoing #AMneeds series.
Meeting new people is a major feature of shows such as FormNext. In 2020 Mesago, the company organizing FormNext, opted for a platform that is similar to a dating app. A visitor or exhibitor can express an interest in another person, a company, or a particular product. If the other person returns the interest they can text each other and/or set up a 15 minute video meeting. Since FormNext only decided to go virtual about 8 weeks before the event kudos to the organizers for getting this platform up and running in time. There were some glitches in it (e.g., the speed dating organized for the week before the event didn’t work for many participants), but the basic premise is interesting. Making connections professionally is similar to making connections of a personal nature – if a dating app style work for the later then why not the former? Still, perhaps with some thought and planning perhaps improved solutions might be created. Ones where we can consider a company or product without getting an immediate “interest” from the booth personnel – a little like lurking in person in the physical booth. In addition, the richness of the categories and interests that can be listed on a platform is very important in finding the solutions you might be interested in, especially since browsing is not really an option.
Expanding your network virtually is another challenge. Many use professional social networks such as LinkedIn or Xing and specifically specialized groups on these networks. However, there is still an #AMneed and professional associations can add networking capabilities to their platforms and bring value to their members. In Israel, for example, Start Up Nation Central has an active and well run Industry 4.0 group that offers some of these features. TCT opened a Discord server for this purpose but at the moment there doesn’t seem to be significant activity there. It is awkward to network virtually, certainly, it also requires being much more proactive and purposeful. Perhaps people experienced with online dating and dating apps will find it more natural that those without that experience but the nice thing is that we can all gain experience on these platforms with a little effort and attention. The bottom line is that simplifying these activities and making them more natural is a current and continuing #AMneed.
Because of the virtual nature of this year’s FormNext event, it was offered for free to everyone. Perhaps because of that there seemed to be more students that could benefit from everything the community can offer. Based on a rough count there were almost 800 students among the over 8000 visitors on the platform. As the future generation of this community, students and academics are important for the longevity and thriving of this industry. In fact, the Women in 3D Printing special session at this year’s FormNext centered around hiring at 3D printing companies, such as Carbon, especially for graduates and interns. The session was an intimate one with a cap of 50 people. This has pros and cons: some people were not able to sign up for the session and participate but on the other hand it was easy to ask questions for a very interactive session.
Speaking of Women in 3D Printing, around the FormNext period new Ambassadors were announced and among them the new Israel Ambassador – our very own Dr Lee-Bath Nelson. Lee-Bath is a veteran of this industry and has always championed women equaity as well as diversity and inclusion in general. She is planning several types of events for the Israeli AM community and we’re looking forward to them (contact her for details). This organization has been very active both in promoting diversity but also in organizing the kind of (physical) events that give access and networking opportunities to its group. Nora Toure founded this organization in 2014 with the aim to share the stories of the women involved in this ecosystem. Since then this wonderful organization has evolved to be so much more: facilitating connections, enabling diversity, and promoting female leaders to the forefront of the stage. Our ecosystem definitely still needs additional help in all these categories but also in promoting diverse groups in our community.
When speaking with people who have attended FormNext Connect about the experience compared to previous years, one of the recurring themes is that digital platforms have a hard time replicating the chance encounter. In a physical event, standing in line for coffee or sitting down to rest your feet for a few minutes can create a chance encounter that can end up being fascinating. Similarly, when you are looking around a booth, you can join an ongoing conversation happening there and benefit from hearing questions and answers you haven’t thought of yet. Generating these kinds of interactions would benefit any online show, regardless of industry. In the AM industry this is especially true because of the fragmented nature of the industry – pockets of knowledge are dispersed and useful. At LEO Lane, we’ve come up with a solution that allows secured sharing of AM expertise but this cannot help with the human experience . Some event platforms such as Remo (extensively used by Link3D) allow you to join a discussion table – if participation is high there is a random element to those but unfortunately most times tables are dedicated to specific vendors and there aren’t really any chance encounters.
We all hope that by next year we will meet again in person in Frankfurt but even then it is reasonable to anticipate that virtual events will be much more pervasive than until 2019. Solutions to many of these #AMneeds will not only help the AM community but the professional community at large as well.