Following our recent interview with Stratasys CEO David Reis, I now turned to Phil Reeves, managing director of the highly respected 3D printing and research consultancy firm Econolyst to get his views on the new merge of Stratasys and Objet. Here’s the full interview below:
Sam Green: Can you tell us a bit about yourself, and your experience with the 3D Printing industry?
Phil Reeves: I’m the managing director of Econolyst Ltd, a global Additive Manufacturing & 3D Printing consultancy & research firm working across Europe, North America, the Middle East, Far East & Africa.
I’ve worked in the field of Additive Manufacturing for nearly 20-years after gaining a PhD in the subject from Nottingham University in the mid 1990’s. Since then, I have worked in a number of AM related roles including R&D, business development and corporate strategy, before establishing Econolyst in 2003.
Econolyst acts as an advisor on Additive Manufacturing & 3D Printing to a number of government agencies around the world such as the UK Technology Strategy Board, DSTL & BSI and we’ve recently supported the UK Ministry of Defense in developing its 2030 vision for the deployment of 3D printing & Additive Manufacturing into combat and security situations.
SG: Why, in your opinion is the future of 3D Printing looking bright?
PR: For many years 3D printing was the preserve of only the largest companies, with the deep pockets needed to invest in the enabling 3D CAD software needed to drive what was a very expensive technology. But times have changed. Professional 3D CAD packages are now within the reach not only with larger size companies but of even the smallest companies, inventors, students, hobbyists and makers. Coupled with this is an ever expanding source of 3D data, from medical CT and MRI scanning, to intraoral dental scanning, from computer games and on-line 3D file sharing websites, to cloud based applications that enable consumers to engage in the product design process using devices such as mobile phones and tablets. In short we have seen a massive explosion in 3D printable content, which has driven demand for ever more affordable, cost effective 3D printing solutions, that are faster, more accurate and produce more resilient parts than ever before.
In parallel 3D printing has jumped from being solely a tool used in product development to one used across the supply chain and in almost all walks of life. We are seeing ever more adventurous applications from end-use consumer products made using 3D printing, through to tools used by dentists and surgeons to assist in medical procedures. This is all coupled with an explosion in media interest that has captured the imagination of people previously untouched by this technology. I think we are approaching a real tipping point, where we will see 3D printing technology applications accelerate on a global basis.
SG: How does the merger of Objet and Stratasys fit into the general industry picture?
PR: The Objet Stratasys merger is really great news for both existing technology users and for those people approaching 3D printing for the first time. It is never easy to find the most appropriate technology solution. There is now a vast array of Additive Layer Manufacturing technologies available to users and the selection process can be daunting. If users want to make polymeric (plastic) parts then they first have to decide between thermosetting materials or thermoplastic materials, as each has its own strengths and weaknesses.
Objet have for many years produced best-in-class 3D printing technology using thermosetting photopolymers that are printed at a very high resolution. Equally, Stratasys have offered a best-in-class solution for extruding real engineering thermoplastics such as ABS & Polycarbonate, along with specialist polymers such as Ultem and PPSF.
Users then need to look at the scale, application and location of the appropriate technology solution they need. Do they need a small desktop solution for a lone design engineer to make form and fit prototypes, or a shop floor production solution for making large scale functional prototypes or multiple batches of production parts?
The merger will definitely help this decision making process, as the new company has everything from the desktop Mojo and uPrint, to the Objet line including the unique Connex multi-material systems, and then the Fortus line on the more manufacturing side. In short, the new company has a comprehensive, yet simple to understand, portfolio of machines & materials that cover a huge cross section of the polymeric market place for 3D printing.
SG: What would you say are the complementary strengths of the two companies that make them a good fit?
PR: On paper, the Objet and Stratasys machines and materials are highly complementary and cover a huge range of applications, industries and budgets.
As a combined company, the new Stratasys will have the largest install base, market capitalization and annual sales revenue of any 3D printing /Additive Manufacturing vendor. However, what makes these statistics really impressive is that they are the result of just two core technology competences, namely ink-jetting from Objet and material extrusion from Stratasys. By combining these ‘deep’ levels of expertise in photopolymer jetting with thermoplastic extrusion I expect we will see accelerated developments in R&D activity and the sharing of best practice, innovations and experiences. That has to be good for the customer and the industry as a whole.
The combined footprint of the new company will also be extensive with direct and in-direct sales channels and servicing in almost every corner of the world. This expanded resource will ensure that both potential new customers and existing customers have access to local hand-on technical support and applications knowledge covering a wide range of machines and materials. Hopefully, we will also see the right technologies being sold into the right applications, which will only serve to drive technology usage higher. Again, this has to be good for both the customer and Stratasys.
SG: What’s your favorite product from each company and why?
PR: I never cease to me amazed by the whole Connex multi-material concept and the ability to produce Objet Digital Materials. I really think this is an exciting concept, as it offers us the potential to produce totally new materials with specific or tuned properties. Of course it also could allow us to print in color one day. We recently saw a glimpse of this from Neri Oxman’s at her exhibition of ‘special’ Connex parts at the Pompidou in Paris with the Multiversités Créatives exhibition. Very intriguing!
I am also really impressed with the productivity, capability and robust design of the Fortus systems from Stratasys, particularly the Fortus900. We recently undertook a study for a luxury car manufacturer to make interior door panels using Additive Manufacturing. We assessed a range of additive technologies including different polymeric powder bed and extrusion systems. The Fortus900 was consistently the most cost effective solution per part when we considered productivity, machine and material cost and waste. Given that it was also the only machine that could build the parts in one piece, it also eliminated the need for post-production part assembly, which further reduced the overall manufacturing cost.
SG: What would you like to see emerge from the joint company within the next year or two?
PR: I would love to see some technology ‘mash-up’. Photopolymers and thermoplastics combined, maybe jetting of thermoplastics or extrusion of photo curable loaded composites. Also, we shouldn’t forget Solidscape, which is also part of the combined company. Imagine what would happen if you took the print speed and productivity of an Objet machine and mashed-it-up with the proven casting wax materials used by Solidscape. I could imagine a whole new line of production investment casting wax printers aimed at the industrial casting community.
Then there is the really low-end, the consumer market. This is a space that both Stratasys and Objet have stayed away from. But with such a strong R&D team, manufacturing capacity, combined procurement and logistics function and sales channels, along with such an extensive install base of happy customers, surely that can’t be beyond reach.
In the longer terms, I am sure that increased functionally will play a role in both technologies, through the inclusion of conductive or biological materials. If we look at all the work going on in university labs around the world to develop biological scaffold systems or embedded electronics, almost all are using either material extrusion or ink-jetting, two technologies in which the new Stratasys are unquestionably experts and market leaders.
SG: Phil, as always, thank you for your time and expertise!
PR: My pleasure.