Exhibitors at the 2016 Rapid+TCT conference. Image courtesy of SME.

The term “disruption” usually carries a negative connotation, except when it pertains to additive manufacturing, a process that layers material to form a three-dimensional object. Also known as 3D printing, the ever-expanding and evolving area has pushed various industries to come up with new ways of thinking, designing and producing.

“Additive manufacturing is a disruptive technology in a lot of ways,” says Debbie Holton, vice president of events and industry strategy for SME, a Michigan-based organization that promotes new approaches to manufacturing. “There are a lot of really great applications where you’re creating design features you can’t create otherwise.”

That disruption will be on full display when SME presents the RAPID + TCT trade conference at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

From May 8-11, more than 350 exhibitors and 250 speakers will converge at RAPID + TCT, considered the world’s largest event dedicated to showcasing the latest in additive manufacturing technology and tools. Holton expects that around 4,000-5,000 manufacturing professionals will attend.

“Not everybody thinks of Pittsburgh as a tech hub, but there are a lot of really exciting developments happening in the region,” says Holton. “It’s a great place for the event to take advantage of that.”

The observation sums up Pittsburgh’s role as an emerging additive manufacturing leader able attract top companies and talent. One featured speaker, Philippe Cochet, will cover next generation manufacturing practices at General Electric, the industrial giant that invested $39 million in building an additive manufacturing facility outside the city in Findlay Township.

To help attendees understand the scope of Pittsburgh’s additive manufacturing scene, attendees will tour area facilities for the metal materials companies Arconic and ExOne. The speaker lineup includes local tech figures like Mickey McManus, a research fellow at Autodesk and chairman and principal at MAYA, a Pittsburgh-based design consultancy and tech research lab. McManus will kick off the conference with a keynote on how digital manufacturing is changing and transforming the way we design, make and use things.

The conference will also cover advancements made in the medical and biomedical fields thanks to additive manufacturing. The focus is especially relevant in Pittsburgh, where scientists and researchers at UPMC have used 3D printing in a number of applications, from creating models that allow them to better study breast cancer to making customized, life-saving splints for patients.

It will also highlight how advanced manufacturing can work outside of factory settings with displays and activities geared toward makers, educators and artists. The itinerary includes a hands-on program where local students will build and test launch a rocket built with 3D printing. There will also be a fashion show featuring 3D printed pieces created by top designers.

Holton says the 2017  Rapid + TCT will especially serve as a testament to the strides made in additive manufacturing in the 25 years since the conference was first launched, back when additive manufacturing was known as rapid prototyping and only a few hundred people attended the event.

“Now that the technology is maturing, there are more tools available, the cost of some of it is coming down and it’s getting into the hands of the people,” says Holton. “Things are really growing fast.”

Amanda Waltz

Amanda Waltz is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared locally in numerous publications. She writes for The Film Stage and is the founder and editor of Steel Cinema, a blog dedicated to covering Pittsburgh film culture. She currently lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and oversized house cat.