In our limitless zeal for 3-D printing, we always seem to focus on the newest and coolest technologies – slick machines churning out slick new colors, 3-D pens and body scanners, all of the awesome new gadgets and toys that seem to come out every week.
Even beyond the cool factor, there's a good reason to watch that field: these are brand new markets, unexplored and untested. There is no way to know how big they will get, or, on the other end, if their bubble will pop.
That makes for a good show. But it's not the main attraction.
The real excitement in the 3-D printing industry is down on the factory floor; it's industrial-grade printers blasting out pieces, molds and parts designed to bolster and support the hardcore manufacturing world, not usurp it.
These machines aren't inventing new markets, they're not as slick or cool maybe, but they are powerful, robust and (in its original meaning) awesome new tools for the manufacturing world – a well explored, thoroughly tested market that has already proved its ability to change the world.
One of the biggest players in this field is Friedberg, Germany-based, Voxeljet.
Though newly public and with its first office just recently opened in the U.S., Voxeljet has been building sand and plastic printers since 1999, and already has a strong hold in the European auto and aerospace industries.
Under founder and chief, Ingo Ederer, Voxeljet has built itself up from mold making to an industrial and commercial 3-D printing powerhouse, producing parts and models for BMW, Daimler, James Bond and artists around the world.
The following is an exclusive one-on-one with Ederer in which he explains the role of large-scale, industrial 3-D printing now and through the next decade.
Q: What role do you think 3-D printing plays in the greater manufacturing industry today?
A: I'm absolutely convinced that 3-D printing has already achieved a very nice place in the manufacturing industry and will change manufacturing in the future.
We are involved in industrial 3-D printing, that means our customers are looking for a solution to make parts in shorter time and hopefully also cheaper than with existing methods. They also can use do things they never could do with conventional manufacturing technologies.
When these three things combine, it leads them to design newer, better products, which in some cases we can't even conceive of yet but will come up in the future.
I'm convinced that in certain areas we will have big change. It's not that everything will be 3-D printed. Of course not. It will be a solution for special pieces, special designs. Certainly for complex parts, maybe also smaller pieces.
Q: The industrial printing industry seems to be getting very nichey. We have EOS making airplane parts, Alstom making hips and joints, ExOne making molds, and so on. What is your contribution to that? What is it you're known for in the industry?
A: If you see the name Voxeljet, you should be aware that Voxeljet is providing large-scale machines with the highest throughput in the industry with highest productivity. Voxeljet is always dealing with a process, a powder binder process or what is known as the MIT 3-D printing process. I think these are the basic terms.
If you see Voxeljet in here, it's mostly productivity and industrial grade applications.
Going Out of the Box
Q: Large-scale printing seems to be your real advantages. Most other printers are stuck to a build box, which forces them to get clever about how many pieces they can fit in, how they align the angles, geometries and so on. What exactly does out-of-the-box printing let you do that the others can't?
A: Well, it's a couple of things. First, you have to understand that, despite the fact that the printer is pretty big, resolution and accuracy is just the same as small printers.
Beyond that, it does offer two major advantages: one, we can print really large items, which nobody else can. Big molds, big sculptures, big houses for instance. They can really make use of the big volume for very large parts.
On the other side, it's also possible to print multiples.
The interesting point is, as this scale, the machine itself becomes speedier, relative to the volume. It means the volume per a certain time increases with the size. For the moment, it means the speediest machines in volume terms is the largest machines we provide.
This opens up the space for us for larger manufacturing scale. It means you can produce hundreds of items at once.
It means also, on the other side, the cost per item goes down. And this is the main goal. We provide the customer the short lead-time, which is typical for manufacturing, from design to the part in a very short period. But on the other side, we also provide a major cost advantage. If you look at the competitive landscape, the cost per item, with the technology we probably provide one of the lowest.
Q: From both a technological and market perspective, 3-D printing in general has overcome a lot of obstacles these past few years. What barriers do you see standing in the way now? What are the next challenges you have to face?
A: For each market you have to have a different material set. I think materials, for the moment, are the main drivers. If the material set is right and the quality and the accuracy are okay with the customer, then the next thing that comes up is productivity and connected with productivity is cost.
So what I can say is, the kind of material sets we have, which are sand and plastic, they serve the markets quite well. The sand is suitable for making sand molds. This is the perfect material for them, it's exactly what they normally use in foundries. It means we can take that requirement off.
The next thing is the quality level. The quality we provide is better in some respects sometimes than what they get from standard tooling.
And then in the end we come to productivity, which means price per item. There, I think, we serve the market quite well for the foundry businesses.
However, I think the trends go to higher productivity to serve more of the larger runs and to speak about kind of serious manufacturing.
With the plastics, I think again the main application here is the foundry business, which acts as a pattern for investment casting applications. The material is perfectly suited for these applications. The resolution, accuracy and so on, the technical terms are okay.
Other materials, which we are having in the R&D pipeline, we can qualify the same way. We are talking about ceramics, we are also acting on cement mixtures. We have a research project running for a paper based material. Many materials are possible, the trick is to find out what is the market requiring for us, what is the market expecting. And then we can hopefully combine that material together with the productivity we provide with the platform and then bring out a perfect market for these addressed markets.
Predicting the Future
Q: That's fun. What else do you think is coming for the industry?
A: I can talk about the markets we address: Industrial markets. When we see the industrial markets, I can see in 10 years' time in some specific areas 3-D printing becoming a commodity. It becomes a machine that a manufacturer needs to have. Otherwise he is not seen as serious.
I'm pretty sure that the modern foundries, the competitive foundries, they need to have a bunch of printers to provide more small volume manufacturing on this technology.
We will see probably similar things in other manufacturing areas.
Aerospace is already an area where we have low volume manufacturing relatively complex pieces. I think this is a perfect area where we have a lot of 3-D printing working for them. Same applies to medical applications. Medical, the volumes are relatively low. In some respects we are talking about individual patient items, so there is a specific need for 3-D printing.
We will also see in the automotive industry a lot of 3-D printing for the prototypes, but also for the tools and pattern making for them. In some respect maybe we will see some low volume cars made with 3-D printed parts.
In 10 years' time, we'll probably see big volumes. Big volumes to me means 100,000 off a year. It is, for the moment not feasible that we see a lot of 3-D printing in these volumes. But for the moment, I think we see enough space and enough appetite below and there are a lot of interesting things to come.