Expert Interview: LEO Lane’s VP Business, Lee-Bath Nelson, on the Importance of Digital Supply Chains and Inventory
28 April 2020
Featured: LEO Lane’s Co-Founders: Moshe Molcho – CEO, Tessa Blokland – Industrial Design Expert, and Lee-Bath Nelson – VP Business. Image credit: Beau Jackson.
3D printing is one of the key technologies driving the shift towards distributed, digital manufacturing. The ability to produce parts from digital files opens up new and exciting opportunities, including virtual inventories and on-demand, localised production.
This shift, however, also raises concerns around security and IP protection. Digital files hold important 3D printing data, which means unauthorised access to that data can have serious implications for businesses, posing a threat to the integrity of a company’s intellectual property.
Fortunately, the industry is responding to this challenge by developing solutions to ensure secure additive manufacturing (AM) across each stage of the workflow. One such company is LEO Lane.
The Israeli company has developed a cloud-based security solution that allows IP owners to control the way in which 3D print designs are produced.
To learn more about the software, this week we’re in conversation with LEO Lane Co-Founder and VP Business, Lee-Bath Nelson. In the interview, we also discuss the benefits of digital inventory, the role of 3D printing in dealing with global crises, as well as key applications to look out for.
Can you tell us a bit about LEO Lane and the company’s mission?
LEO Lane provides Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) solutions to large corporations, allowing them to ensure consistency, repeatability, protection, as well as secured knowledge sharing within and outside of their corporation.
In addition, we provide IP security, which means ensuring that intellectual property is secure, and quantity control is maintained.
Our main focus is consistency control – making sure that every single time an item is produced, it is produced in the same way.
That’s very important both for quality and for repeatability which is a must for any manufacturing technology, but especially for companies that must comply with any form of internal or external certification.
Why was the company founded?
To give you a little background, I was a partner in venture capital funds for many years. The first fund that I was a partner in invested in Objet Geometries, which we know today as Stratasys.
So I’ve been following the AM ecosystem for 20 years now. Initially, it was like a wonder, especially the jetting technology that Objet had developed.
But at the time, 20 years ago, the technology was only suitable for prototyping. There were a lot of challenges around physics and chemistry, not just with Objet, but across the entire industry.
Of course, over the years, the technology improved. And then slowly, and very quietly, the industry started to use 3D printing to produce end-use products.
However, the move to end part production brought with it a set of problems – or requirements, or challenges, or opportunities, depending on how you look at it – which don’t exist in prototyping.
For example, in prototyping, it doesn’t matter if a prototype doesn’t exactly meet the final requirements. I could ask you to imagine that the part is a little bit smoother, or that the colour is a little bit different, and so on.
But that isn’t good enough for end-part production. The process has to be repeatable, it has to be consistent, and it has to produce an identical part every single time.
Also, in end-part production, you’re essentially dealing with digital inventory, which means that you have to protect your digital assets. If somebody steals a part from your physical inventory, while that isn’t a good thing, in that case, you lose the economic value of that one part.
But if somebody steals your digital blueprint, they can produce infinite copies of that part, making the economic damage much higher and also much more difficult to assess.
So you have to ensure repeatability and consistency, protect your intellectual property and enforce quantity control, so that a person cannot take your digital asset and produce as many items as they feel like and never buy from you again. In order to move to a more commercial world, you have to solve these issues.
This was the reason for founding LEO Lane. I looked at the AM world and saw that something was missing. If we want AM to be a manufacturing or production technology, we have to have the tools to make that step.
How does LEO Lane’s software help companies guarantee repeatability?
We enable manufacturers to enforce exactly how, where and in what volume their parts are produced in.
Requirements vary significantly from industry to industry. Take 3D-printed jewellery as an example. Here, the designer will probably only care about the technology and the material. The jewellery won’t have any kind of stress requirements, maybe just the finish and the wear and tear.
In comparison, a manufacturer producing end-use parts will have a lot more requirements.
Imagine, for example, if a fuel nozzle for an aircraft was produced in the wrong material. It would look correct, and it would fit where it needs to fit, but some of its characteristics would be incorrect.
I’m sure that manufacturers have robust quality assurance measures in place, but not every part can be checked in that way to make sure that it’s completely compliant.
This is where LEO Lane comes in. Our solution effectively allows manufacturers to specify exactly how they want their parts to be produced.
So the jewellery designer might say: “I care about SLS nylon.” But an end part owner might say, “I care about the machine, I want a particular model of a machine, or even “I want particular settings on that machine,” and they can specify that as well.
So long as the machine can accept those specifications from its software or from us through its software, we can enforce it.
The concept of digital inventory is a big talking point, in terms of the digital transformation AM brings. Could you explain the benefits of digital inventory?
The great thing about digital inventory is that it eliminates the need for a large physical one, which can be costly to maintain. It also removes a lot of other costs like logistics, rebalancing and obsolescence.
It is also far easier to keep a virtual inventory up to date. So, if a company introduces a new jig, for example, it will be impossible for a worker to use the old version by mistake, because the digital or virtual inventory is kept up to date all the time. So you get lower supply chain costs across the board and you definitely get a superior part.
Finally, you get a very efficient supply chain that can be distributed. So you don’t need to have all of the logistics behind bringing things from one place to another.
We know that in several industries, this is a deciding factor when choosing to move into AM. A digital inventory takes the need for rebalancing and deciding what to send where out of the equation.
Production is demand-driven, and more localised, which means that if borders are closed it doesn’t matter because digital files don’t need to be physically moved from one place to another. That’s crucial when you are dealing with issues such as Brexit or the COVID-19 pandemic.
With the current uncertainties around the COVID-19 pandemic and other global issues, where do you see 3D printing stepping up and having an impact for industries and supply chains?
The first positive benefit is the localised production that enables distributed digital manufacturing with a virtual inventory.
It means there is no risk of transmitting the virus, as printed parts do not have to be moved from one place to another; they are produced at the point of use.
That has always been a benefit of AM. It’s good for the environment, it’s good for a company’s cost structure and it’s good for the local economy.
AM also enables parts to be printed quickly, within a matter of hours, which is imperative in emergency situations. For example, it was reported that a hospital in Italy was unable to source valves for critical ventilators during the current COVID-19 pandemic due to supply shortage.
3D printing provides a solution. If you can 3D print a part locally, you can get a part. Even if it is not as strong as the original part, it can function until a permanent replacement can be installed, and in an emergency that’s good enough.
In a localised emergency which has nothing to do with the economy, for example, one part of the production line breaks, the entire line is down waiting for that part. And it’s not uncommon for those parts to take weeks to come in. And that’s very, very costly.
So if you can provide a locally produced 3D-printed part in a few hours and then in a few weeks the ‘permanent’ part arrives, your customer will be willing to pay for not having their lines down.
Downtime is estimated to cost the automotive industry $22,000 per minute, per assembly line. Now imagine what would happen if a production line was down for several weeks. The cost in lost production could realistically be tens of millions of dollars.
The third benefit is that 3D printing enables manufacturers to be more innovative and inventive.
The technology has always been good for prototypes, but now we can use it for end-part production. The handless elbow openers for door handles, developed by Materialise, illustrate my point.
They were designed and distributed within a few days and now anybody can produce them locally.
3D printing users can come up with these solutions as they need them. In an emergency, that’s really important.
The situation is grim for everybody at the moment and that’s a given but we need to do the best that we can with it, and I think that AM enables us to do much better.
What would you say are the top three challenges AM faces when it comes to moving into end-part production?
The number one challenge is that AM needs to be a manufacturing technology like all other manufacturing technologies. That means it must be repeatable.
For example, if you have an ERP system from, let’s say SAP, when you order a part, you order it on SAP. Somehow that part order needs to get to your AM workflow. You can’t expect the procurement person to have to use different systems for a part that’s additively manufactured.
While an interim solution can be used in the short term, in the end, it has to be all integrated.
That brings us to the second challenge: lack of integration. All companies in the AM ecosystem have to think holistically. We have to play well with others and ensure our solutions – whether hardware or software – can be easily integrated with each other and into our customers’ systems.
The third challenge is IP protection, which also needs to be addressed when you start using AM for production.
The key to overcoming these issues will be making AM like other manufacturing technologies, in the sense that it’s seamless to the procurement and all other functions in the corporation (other than manufacturing). Neither procurement nor the end-user cares about the manufacturing technology. Ultimately, it’s the end result that matters.
That’s where we need to go: make 3D printing a regular manufacturing technology. It’s about getting parts right and being robust and repeatable.
Is there a trend within AM that you are personally excited about?
Jigs and fixtures. Very few people get excited about this application but I’m very excited about it. And I’ll tell you why.
First, because AM shouldn’t be sexy – manufacturing technologies usually aren’t!
Second, the wonderful thing about jigs and fixtures is that both the owner of the part and the user of the part are the same entity. So it’s a decision that companies can take internally, and they already get all of the benefits we talked about.
If they don’t have to rely on an external supplier for their jigs, they are not dependent on their supply chain and they’re not dependent on their logistics, meaning they can save money and time.
For applications like jigs and fixtures, these benefits are critical because, again, normally they’re used in production or as part of a process. If they break, production stops until a replacement can be found, which can be very costly.
I think that there’s a very good use case here. I also think 3D-printed jigs and fixtures are much more pervasive than figures suggest. I describe it as a gateway application: it’s a very good way to enjoy the benefits of AM in a simpler environment. Then, from there, moving to end-part production is an easier step.
So that’s something that I’m excited about and I think other people should be excited about it as well.
What does 2020 hold for LEO Lane?
The next step isn’t something very discrete. It’s a continuous process. We’ll continue to enable companies to move to secure and repeatable AM production and to producing best of breed items.
This includes ensuring that a company’s expertise (intellectual property) cannot be stolen, but also that it can be shared securely if required.
That’s very important for the AM ecosystem. A lot of what is being achieved is as a result of partnerships. That’s why LEO Lane offers another layer of protection beyond simply ensuring intellectual property cannot be illegally accessed. We also ensure it can be shared securely, enabling companies to use their expertise in a commercial way and to benefit from it.
Is there anything that we haven’t covered that you wanted to touch on?
Looking at the AM industry even 10 years ago, it was all about the hardware and solving hardware and chemistry material problems. The software wasn’t a focus.
That has begun to change. For the past two years, software has been very much in the spotlight at Formnext, which is a reflection of its growing importance in the AM ecosystem. Likewise, integration has also become more of a focus at the event. However, it’s not solved. It has a long way to go yet.
But the fact that we have mindshare is crucial for the ecosystem as a whole.
Is this another sign of the industry maturing?
Yes, absolutely. The industry is maturing. It’s funny to say that about a 30-year old industry, but because of the shift from prototyping to end-part production, it’s not really 30-years old.
Any sign of maturity in this industry is very welcome. Manufacturing techniques by their nature have to be mature and it’s exciting to see the AM industry coming closer to that vision.
To learn more about LEO Lane, visit: https://www.leolane.com/