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Is Additive Ready to Fuel the Smart Factory?

Sept. 30, 2020
One year after assuming the leadership role at EOS, CEO Marie Langer discusses the additive industry's smart future.

When Dr. Hans Langer founded EOS in 1989, it was with a pioneering spirit and sheer determination to shake up how manufacturers worldwide would approach the often-frustrating prototyping process. In the 30 years since, the company has celebrated numerous firsts including becoming the world’s first provider of stereolithography and laser sintering systems.

When his daughter, Marie Langer, accepted the challenge and commitment to become CEO of EOS almost exactly one year ago, she continued to carry forth a similar passion, armed with a straight vision forward.

Langer’s vision is that EOS stays at the cutting edge of industrial 3D printing technology and that the company makes a sustainable contribution towards solving the huge challenges facing the industry today. Beyond driving economic growth, she wants EOS technology to provide positive environmental and social benefits. “We are leaders in this space, making industrial 3d printing mainstream, and sustainable,” she says. “It's not only about sustainability at its core, but also connecting it with the smart factory. Our technology is crucial to enabling smart factories to work in the future by pushing distributed production much further.”

However, unlike her father, Marie comes from a psychology background rather than a pure technology focus. Understandably, her skillset affords her an understanding of human behavior enabling her to approach the leadership role from a more strategic angle.

Still, having grown up with the technology, Langer is no stranger to the mystic surrounding additive manufacturing. “Additive has a lot of rumors, frustration and of course a lot of magic. To really grow additive and realize its potential starts with working on the industrialization of this technology,” she says. “Of course, that means having sustainability in processes, solid connections on the digital level and the constantly working to improve usability of additive systems.”

The pandemic modified state of industry

Like any maturing technology, 3D printing has enjoyed the benefits of having a lot of early adopters, and innovators who really wanted to understand how the technology could work. This led to significant usage within rapid prototyping as well as establishing a necessary foothold within academia and R&D centers. Of course, moving that momentum to mainstream production environments requires a different level of engineering and, quite frankly, user education.

“When Covid-19 entered the global stage, it brought attention to the whole topic of flexible production and dynamic supply chains,” she says. “And as global supply chains collapsed, c-level leaders and companies realized the need to prepare for a world with more localized production as well, not either/or, but as well.”

At least initially, EOS saw more interest in its technology, primarily in polymer, because it enabled companies to produce critical PPE parts to address the immediate medical demands. “The pandemic helped many manufacturers realize the technology’s potential in a very intense way,” she says. “I was excited we could provide technology that could help in a very dire situation.”

Covid-19 also opened the door for more collaboration within the industry. “It always helps to have a common enemy – making it much easier to open up and collaborate,” she says. “You start to discuss more and to try to understand how as a group you can be more influential. I'm a strong believer in collaboration and co-creation.”

Of course, additive manufacturing has not been immune to the downsides of the pandemic. After all, the global economy is down significantly, which translates to a noticeable dip in capital investments. “Many investment decisions are in limbo just because no one knows what the new normal will be. Our technology can be a solution for this kind of environment,” she says. “If people learn the technology, they can be better prepared for the next crisis by enabling companies switch to more localized production.”

Enabling the smart factory

Perhaps the greatest opportunity for additive comes when looking at the technology’s potential role within the smart factories of tomorrow, especially considering the trend of mass customization as well as a strengthened reliance on data and digital technologies. “We see the potential to be a core platform provider, from a manufacturing point of view, and really position ourselves at the center of the modern factory,” she says. “We are moving from being additive pioneers to digital manufacturing champions. It is a true mindset shift.”

As part of building the digital value chain, EOS has invested heavily in connectivity in recent years. Langer also see business models shifting to pay-per-use and remote service offerings making it much easier to operate in this space.

Of course, as business models shift and manufacturers gain a better understanding of how smart manufacturing can work, the transition will also face significant hurdles when it comes to using data. “Not everyone will want to share data,” she says. “However, collecting all this data and aggregating it with machine learning and AI to make sure that we build on existing capabilities. Data will also help us offer much better products to our customers including software upgrades to improve production efficiency.”

Elephant in the room

The biggest challenge facing EOS is same one facing the entire industry. Simply put: How does additive reach that next level? Manufacturers are very focused on cost improvements. And, often the cost per part metric is the entry point in convincing companies to invest in additive technology. Unfortunately, as long as additive struggles to reach an attractive cost per part, providing production-based manufacturers with a competitive advantage will remain a challenge.

This is an important metric for the mainstream user, and Langer sees the it as an opportunity to continue pushing additive capability. “It's really ensuring that this technology is making a step forward and becoming a mainstream production process,” she says. “That is the biggest challenge additive has to master. Our goal is to be the company that masters it first.”

Leading the way

As Langer guides EOS into the smart future, she firmly believes in embracing a distributed leadership style, ultimately empowering experts to move the technology forward. As part of a distributed leadership style, she also believes in teamwork with clear responsibilities and accountability. “It is about empowering and really helping employees grow,” she says. "What I have learned over the last year is that I am able to process, quite fast because I love and embrace change. Being a leader requires communicating carefully, thoughtfully and with transparency."

Even in a distributed leadership environment, people still want to look to one person for direction – and Langer is okay with being that person. “I want everyone to be involved, while still providing clarity from the top. Even if everyone wants to sit on the leadership team, very few people have the guts to take a position to drive the company forward,” she says. “You have to be tough with decisions, while still showing empathy and even vulnerability." Success is about finding the right mixture of those qualities.

About the Author

Peter Fretty | Technology Editor

As a highly experienced journalist, Peter Fretty regularly covers advances in manufacturing, information technology, and software. He has written thousands of feature articles, cover stories, and white papers for an assortment of trade journals, business publications, and consumer magazines.

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