Expert Interview: Parts on Demand Founder, Neil van Es, on Taking 3D Printing to Production
This interview was first featured in AMFG’s State of the Industry Survey 2019: AM Service Providers. To download the 36-page report, click here.
Founded in 2014 and based in the Netherlands, Parts on Demand is a 3D printing service bureau that specialises in series production, tooling, moulds and the production of machine parts. Automotive and automation applications, as well as machine building, currently account for between 80 and 90% of the company’s business.
We spoke with Neil van Es, Founder of Parts on Demand, to discuss the company’s decision to specialise in end-part production, the technological developments to watch out for and the particularities of the Dutch manufacturing market.
Taking 3D printing to production
“As a business, we’re very focused on 3D printing for production,” says Neil. “There are a lot of 3D printing companies that have their roots in model making and prototyping and have stayed in this space. Parts On Demand, on the other hand, is focused on end-part production. We strive to create better and more efficient products by leveraging the complexity of 3D printing for the parts we produce.
“Some of the parts we 3D print include components for production lines, tooling for the automotive industry and bridge manufacturing.”
Neil shares the common view that the additive manufacturing industry is steadily moving towards production applications, shedding its reputation as being solely a prototyping technology. “I think we’re definitely past the consumer 3D printing hype that took place a few years ago,” he says.
“We’re now gradually getting to the point where 3D printing is being adopted as a production technology rather than just a means of prototyping.”
However, this transition requires a shift in attitudes, as well as the need to educate the market on the possibilities and limitations of the technology — a key challenge faced by many service bureaus.
“While we’re seeing more production applications with 3D printing, this transition requires a lot of education — creating trust and showing what’s actually possible with 3D printing if you use it in the right way,” says Neil.
“The main challenge lies in educating customers and engineers on how to make proper use of the freedom in complexity you have with 3D printing. As a business, we have to be able to demonstrate to customers how 3D printing can help them create better, smarter and more efficient products.”
This also includes highlighting the benefits that can be gained with 3D printing. “A lot of the manufacturing today is driven by technology like 3D printing. Production series are getting larger, so product development needs to be quicker if companies are to create more value,” says Neil.
“Product life cycles must, and are, getting shorter and shorter. We now have some customers making dynamic products which are, in essence, evolving with each production run.
“All of this is made possible thanks to 3D printing. If you receive feedback from clients and ask your engineering and product development teams to translate this feedback into a revision of your product, there’s no longer the need to wait months and years before a relaunch — you can simply relaunch the product in the next batch you produce. This is an example of how 3D printing is enabling dynamic product development, rather than the static approach to production we’ve become accustomed to over the years.”
The shift towards production also makes process repeatability and quality control more important than ever, although this remains a challenge for many companies.
“The majority of service bureaus have their roots in prototyping. They may be really good at manufacturing a single part or a prototype but struggle with consistency and quality,” says Neil. “That’s something that will need to be addressed for the market to evolve and grow, and to make 3D printing a more stable production technology.”
Metal 3D printing is another area that requires further development. “I think the metal AM market in the Netherlands is sluggish because there aren’t that many companies that can make proper use of metal 3D printing. 3D printing metals is much more expensive than polymer 3D printing, so we’ve been a bit cautious to adopt it. At Parts on Demand, we mainly focus on Selective Laser Sintering just because it’s a good way to efficiently make parts.”
Looking to the future
Challenges aside, there is a lot of excitement within the industry, particularly when it comes to new technologies. For service bureaus and OEMs alike, this offers an exciting opportunity to experiment and test the limits of 3D printing.
“I’m particularly excited about the new LaserProFusion technology announced by EOS,” says Neil. (EOS first announced its new technology for polymer 3D printing in November 2018.)
“If the technology works like the company says it will, I think it could be a real game changer. For us, that would certainly be a technology to look out for and invest in.”
But while much of the focus has been on the 3D printing systems, Neil suggests that greater potential may, in fact, lie in post-processing technologies.
“I think going forward, post-processing automation will become one of the major things to watch out for,” he says. “This is because the real step change will be in the ability to automate post-production. People are focusing a lot on the 3D printing technologies, but that’s not necessarily the reason why improvements in quality or consistency are achieved.
“You have to consider the whole process, and this idea is often neglected. Many people are trying to start a 3D printing business without understanding that it’s not just 3D printing by itself. The whole process needs to be considered in order to achieve something of value.”
For Neil, it’s important for service bureaus to fully understand the market they’re operating in.
“If you look at the Netherlands, there are a lot of machine manufacturers and companies implementing automation, either in food or agriculture or packaging,” says Neil. “The Netherlands is really a market where a lot of production lines are being created. So a lot of what we do as a service bureau is tied to these sectors.
“In contrast, if you look at Germany, there are several large service bureaus there, mostly tailored to industries like automotive and industrial goods. So for us, it’s really important to understand our target markets in order to better serve our clients.”
To learn more about Parts on Demand, visit: https://partsondemand.eu/en