Expert Interview: Ultimaker President John Kawola on the Future of 3D Printing
16 October 2018
Since its inception in 2011, Ultimaker has risen to become one of the most recognisable names in desktop 3D printing. The company, founded on the premise of making 3D printing accessible to all, offers a range of open-source desktop 3D printers as well as materials and software. And 2018 has been a pretty busy year for the desktop 3D printer manufacturer: in April alone, Ultimaker unveiled its new S5 machine and announced its alliance with some of the world’s biggest material companies.
We spoke with John Kawola, President of Ultimaker North America, to learn more about Ultimaker’s move towards the enterprise sector, the growing role of desktop 3D printing for manufacturing and his thoughts on the future of 3D printing.
How did you first get involved in additive manufacturing?
I’ve been involved in additive manufacturing for a long time — I was part of a company called Z Corporation, which was started about 20 years ago, for a number of years. That company was acquired about six years ago. I joined Ultimaker in 2016.
Having been involved in the industry for such a long time, I often think about 3D printing as having gone through three different waves: the first being the 90s, which was all about big, expensive equipment. The 2000s can be seen as the next wave, where machine prices came down to the tens of thousands of dollars.
The last 10 years can be characterised as an expansion into lots of different areas, from low-cost 3D printers to metals to large companies getting involved.
Ultimaker was founded around the time of the consumer hype surrounding 3D printing, with lots of desktop players entering the market. Now that the bubble has burst, where did Ultimaker succeed where others didn’t?
Ultimaker never really bought into the whole consumer hype that happened between 2012 and 2013.
The company started, like a lot of start-ups in desktop, with a few guys building kits. But most of our focus early on was on the true enthusiasts and hobbyists. We always saw a real difference in the consumer market, where the people who were already pretty hardcore makers or hobbyists would already have the necessary equipment at home. And we thought that was a good market for 3D printing. The general hype extended to thinking that everybody would have a 3D printer – I think that’s turned out not to be true, at least not then and probably still to the present day.
Since then, we’ve continued to evolve the business into something that has become much more enterprise and professional in 2018. So while we still sell to the maker crowd and to education, the vast majority of our business is now selling to big, enterprise companies.
Was it an active decision on your part to move towards the enterprise sector or is that something that just happened?
A little bit of both. One important factor behind this transition is that the technology has continued to improve. Going back three or four years, desktop 3D printers, including Ultimaker, were probably not quite good enough for most enterprises. They weren’t robust enough, reliable enough, or consistent enough and the range of materials that you could use was limited.
Over time, there have been a number of developments: the printers have become better, the software has improved and there is a much broader range of materials. In some ways, these developments started to filter into the industrial environment, with big companies starting to gain traction using the technology.
Once we saw that these 3D printers really could be viable in the industrial environment, we decided to go all in and really capitalise on this.
What role do you see desktop systems having in the industrial space? Is it an either/or choice between desktop and bigger, industrial machines?
Again, it’s probably a little of both. Certainly, when it comes to design and prototyping, Ultimaker is starting to compete with and, perhaps, cannibalise some of the business that was previously served by more expensive 3D printers — we’re talking in the range of $50,000 to $100,000. That’s because the desktop printers are now much less expensive, safe and easy to use. So the idea of having 3D printers on every engineer’s desk or, say, ten to twenty printers for a room of a hundred engineers — that idea has become more real now.
More and more engineers are using desktop printers for their everyday prototyping needs, compared to what they had been doing before. Before, if a company used 3D printers, these would be located in a room, somewhat centralised, with one person in charge of that room. In that context, desktop printing is really starting to replace some of the industrial applications. That’s why a lot of the industrial players are deciding not focus on prototyping anymore — everyone is focusing on production and manufacturing.
In other areas like producing tools, fixtures and in some cases short-run production, we’re starting to see desktop printers become an alternative to more expensive industrial printers. On the FDM side, where Ultimaker plays, we’ll be an alternative to what has historically been Stratasys. For resin printers, you see Formlabs offering their printers for dental, which was historically only served by 3D Systems and EnvisionTec.
So now we’re seeing a situation where desktop printers, which were not good enough for a lot of these applications a few years ago, are increasingly used for these same applications.
Do you see that trend progressing further in terms of desktop 3D printers getting better and being used for even more applications?
Certainly, and I think there are two sides to how things are improving. The first is simply continued improvement in the ease of use and workflow, from the data right all the way to the finished part. That will only continue to get better and better.
The second is part quality in terms of material properties, accuracy, surface finish and so on. On both of those vectors, desktop 3D printing is improving pretty quickly.
A key factor behind this is that there’s a certain element of the industry that is open for outside material development and use — other segments of the market are closed, with some companies choosing to have their own proprietary materials. Ultimaker has chosen to be open, which means we’re gaining the benefits of some of the largest plastics companies in the world now developing materials for 3D printing. This development in materials has definitely helped the pace of improvement over the last year or two and I think it will continue to do so.
Ultimaker has recently announced collaborations with several chemical companies. What was the strategic reasoning behind this, and how do you see this developing in future?
So, imagine you’re a big automotive manufacturer, toy manufacturer or a big business equipment manufacturer. You use plastic, which means you’re literally buying tens or hundreds of millions of dollars worth of plastic every year. There’s a desire by a lot of these end users to match their production materials with their prototyping materials. These customers have then said to their material suppliers, “Hey, we buy this grade of ABS or this grade of polycarbonate from you; it’d be great if you could make filament, but similar.” I think that’s one reason why the plastics manufacturers have moved into this space.
Additionally, if you take the number of parts 3D printed for production in plastic versus the number of parts injection moulded for production, today the percentage is less than 1%. But in the future, this will probably rise to 5% or 10%. I think those plastics companies will want to be a part of making that happen in the coming years.
So a lot of the motivation comes from the customers wanting to see this development and the plastics companies wanting to be involved in 3D printing and be part of a future where 3D printing becomes a greater percentage of overall production. And for an equipment developer and provider like Ultimaker, the fact that we’re open means we can benefit from this dynamic early on.
So materials innovation is an important area for 3D printing.
Yes. At the end of the day, what most people what from a 3D printer — especially if they’re going to start using them for production — is for their prototype to be as close to the real end part as possible. So if the materials can match up and be the same types of chemistry or resins, there’s not only a feel-good factor there, but also an engineering, certification and classification value.
In the past, most 3D printing technologies were limited to just a handful of materials, primarily for prototyping. And for prototyping, most people were happy with just a handful of materials. The biggest companies in that space, like 3D Systems, EOS and Stratasys didn’t have hundreds of material scientists on staff — they had a few and developed materials for their individual platforms. But once you provide an incentive for the larger plastics companies to be involved, they bring all their collective wisdom into the market, which I think helps everyone.
Let’s move from materials to hardware: what was the vision behind Ultimaker’s S5 machine and how does it differ from other machines on the market?
Over the last few years, our product launches have been structured to try to match the penetration of Ultimaker and desktop printers more generally into the more professional industrial market. Going back to 2016, we had only the Ultimaker 2+, which was not connected or automated and had only a single extrusion. At the end of 2016, we came out with the Ultimaker 3 which allowed dual extrusion and was more automated.
The S5, which has been out on the market for a few months now, is the next step in this evolution. The machine is larger, so it serves a larger range of part geometries that people want to do and it’s more robust in being able to handle more aggressive materials like composites that are glass-filled or carbon-filled. It has more automation in terms of the front and screen, as well as certain types of levelling capabilities, making it even easier for the customer to use.
Each step that we’ve taken, going from the Ultimaker 2+ to the Ultimaker 3 and now to the S5, has been intended to further meet the needs of the industrial and enterprise customer.
Are you planning more product launches in the future?
Well, the S5 is still pretty new! We’re spending most of our energy on it this year and next, concentrating on getting it further into the market.
We think about our product roadmap in two tracks. The first is in developing machines that very effectively serve the prototyping and fixtures and tools market. We often call that the carpet floor, meaning that it’s really optimised for workflow and ease of use. And we’ve got a pretty big range of materials now. That’s what Ultimaker 3 and S5 are.
The second leg concentrates more on the industrial market. Now, people are using the Ultimaker 3 and the S5 in industrial environments today — so they’re taking them off the carpet and bringing them on the concrete, so to speak. The machines doing a pretty good job in those applications. However, we do see that if we’re going to be a truly industrial platform, there are improvements we need to do in terms of repeatability, consistency, and an even wider range of materials. So those are the type of developments you’ll see from us in the coming months and years.
What do you see as the core challenges still facing the industry?
There’s still an education gap in terms of how AM can be used, not in only prototyping and design but especially in production. Although people really want to move into production, there’s a bit of education gap because additive is different from subtractive or injection moulding, and this is still evolving over time.
For prototyping, the main thing we believe needs to improve is ease of use. People want to have a 3D printer the same way they have a paper printer: you press a button, your part comes out, you pick it up. Certainly, they want the best part they can get but they may be less critical about the actual material properties, the accuracy, surface finish, and detail. What they want is ease of use, and we think there are still challenges there, from workflow to software.
On the flip side, if you’re really going to use parts for production, for most customers those parts have to be as good in every way as they are currently getting with their traditional manufacturing process. So they need to be just as strong, smooth, accurate and sharp — and they have to be cost-effective.
So there are still a lot of challenges in the industry in being able to move into a wider range of use cases. The big wins in 3D printing so far are things in dental, high-value aerospace and medical, which are all low-volume, one-off, high-value markets. But if 3D printing is going to expand into taking any meaningful share away from injection moulding or other processes, it needs to be competitive. And I think the industry is not quite there for most applications.
How do you see additive manufacturing evolving over the next five years?
What we’re starting to see is companies starting from scratch with an eye toward AM for production. For example, if you think about HP and Carbon, both companies have structured themselves and their technology to be about production, not about prototyping. The industry has always taken the machines, technology and the material range they’ve been using for prototyping and tried to force fit it into production. But more and more you’ll see new technologies that probably don’t make sense for prototyping geared to make sense for production. And I think that’s a great first start.
With materials, whether plastics or metals, as they become more common or are supplied by a wider range of established industrial players, we’ll see that material prices will be a fraction of what they are today. The reality in 3D printing today is that the cost of filament for an FDM machine is very roughly around $50 per pound whereas in production it’s $3 dollars a pound for injection moulding. That’s an order of magnitude off. But over time with more competition, more development and more of an eye toward production, that gap will start to close.
What’s next on the horizon for Ultimaker?
There are two next steps. One is continuing to make the office experience more seamless, from software to printing to post-processing. And, hopefully, to become more standard in the office environment in terms of prototyping.
The second step is developing a line of printers that have a higher level of control, higher level repeatability, a wider range of material. That would be more suitable for a short run production of tools, jigs and fixtures and for some end-use part production.
To learn more about Ultimaker, visit https://ultimaker.com/