Expert Interview: Origin CEO Chris Prucha on Why The AM Industry Needs An Open Materials Ecosystem
13 August 2020
Resin 3D printing has leapt forward over the last few years, stepping beyond its rapid prototyping origins to production. In many ways, this progress has been driven by innovative startups developing new approaches to 3D printing with resins.
One such company is Origin. Founded in 2015 by two software engineers, Origin has developed a resin 3D printing platform that combines software-driven control, modular hardware and an open approach to materials. With these three pieces together, the company is changing the very nature of resin-based 3D printing.
To learn more about Origin’s technology and vision, we’ve caught up with the company’s CEO and Co-Founder, Chris Prucha. We discussed the secret sauce of Origin One 3D printer, some of the key applications, the benefits of the open materials ecosystem and the challenges 3D printing needs to overcome on its way towards industrialisation.
Can you tell me a bit about Origin and the technology you have developed?
Based in San Francisco, CA, Origin is pioneering the concept of Open Additive Manufacturing, a new way to build, based on open materials, extensible software, and modular hardware.
Origin One, our company’s manufacturing-grade 3D printer, uses programmable photopolymerization (P3) to precisely control light, heat, and force, among other variables, to produce parts with exceptional accuracy and consistency.
We work with a network of material partners to develop a wide range of commercial-grade materials for its system, resulting in some of the toughest and most resilient materials in additive manufacturing.
How do you position your technology alongside other photopolymerisation-based 3D printing processes?
When looking at photopolymerization or vat polymerization categories, there have been many advances in recent years in the performance of the final parts and types of applications that make sense for the technology. However, there are still many limitations that hold it back from realizing its potential, and that’s what we are focusing on removing.
The majority of industrial 3D printer platforms use a closed model and proprietary materials. This lack of interoperability results in equipment owners needing to own different systems to access the materials they require. OEMs are then not incentivized to advance their portfolio, for fear of cannibalizing their original offering. This leads to a lack of material innovation in the space.
Our approach is to focus our efforts on building the best possible hardware and software that enables material manufacturers to produce the widest range of materials.
Our very first customers were material providers, and we were able to work collaboratively with them to build the features needed to enable advanced materials. We don’t take any margin on materials and are aligned with customers and material providers to push additive applications forward.
On the technology side of things, to enable additive mass manufacturing, we had to build a 3D printer that was able to process advanced materials, some of which require very high heat to print or an inert environment.
In addition, the hardware needed to be consistent, reliable and easy to use. My and my co-founder’s backgrounds are actually in software engineering; he worked at Google X before joining me at Origin, and I was at Apple.
The software that powers Origin One is a big part of our secret sauce. Almost every aspect of the print process is controlled by software. For example, the separation mechanism uses force sensors to optimize the speed and pressure during the transition phase.
This closed-loop feedback system works automatically and enables customers to print extremely small features or geometries with large surface areas like injection molds, something most other photopolymerization technologies struggle with.
This software control over the process is where the “programmable” part of P3 comes from. By controlling light, force, and temperature, customers can use parameters to adjust for accuracy and surface quality. For example, if you’re using a material that tends to shrink, like a silicone, users can adjust the energy dosage or temperature to account for that.
Another example of this is mold geometries, where only certain areas of the part are important from a surface quality perspective. Our print software gives users the ability to go print faster in some areas or use different layer heights across the build.
This is quite similar to CNC machining, where manufacturers can adjust speeds, locations, and tool paths for different geometries, materials, and tolerances.
Can you share a couple of examples of how your technology is being used today?
A very recent example is nasopharyngeal swabs for COVID-19 test kits. Just before San Francisco’s shelter in place order was enacted, we had received a large number of Origin Ones from our contract manufacturer.
We quickly turned our attention to COVID-related applications, including face shields, respirator adapters, and swabs. Working with one of our material partners, Henkel, we were able to identify suitable medical-grade, sterilizable materials for these applications. Even though we had not tested these materials in-house, Henkel developed them on our printers at their facility.
Using the Origin parameters they were using, we could quickly validate their materials for these applications. The nasopharyngeal swabs made the most sense for our technology, as we were able to tightly pack the swabs into our build area and optimize the parameters for the best throughput and highest yields.
Within just a couple of weeks of shelter in place, we were one of the very first 3D printer companies with a clinically validated NP swab. From there, we were able to ramp up production and produce half a million swabs a week, using just 40 Origin One 3D printers.
During the same period, our customers were doing similar work with our technology. Dental customers, including Shanto Dental Lab in Canada, printed PPE face shields by the hundreds for their clients; and service bureau partners printed ventilator splitters for hospitals. One of our industrial customers, Enventys Partners, was able to produce 1,000 CAPR replacement parts in just ten hours using a single Origin One.
Outside of COVID-19 applications, we’ve seen a lot of success in the dental industry, which is arguably one of the largest and most mature industries for 3D printing.
Today, model resin, which is used to produce orthodontic devices and dental implants, is the highest volume dental material being produced. It’s also one of the most expensive resins – around $400/kg.
When we entered the dental industry, we collaborated with one of our material partners, BASF, to co-develop a material that would have higher accuracy than the existing model resins, at faster print speeds and a very low cost. Today, we provide that material to our dental customers for $35/kg, which has had a huge impact on our dental customers’ budgets.
There is an ongoing debate over whether a proprietary or open ecosystem would best support the AM industry. Origin has clearly embraced the second approach, with your Open Network of Material Partners. What are the benefits of the open materials ecosystem?
Our approach is a little different than other open approaches. Many “closed” systems offer selected third party materials where they don’t have their own solution available, but those materials typically come with a large markup, and the material manufacturer asks for exclusive access to the OEM’s customer base.
Some open systems also produce their own materials, which they support. Those companies allow their customers to use whatever material they want, but the support is generally lacking, which can be frustrating and makes the “closed but supported” model more appealing.
We believe that to further the adoption of additive manufacturing and to grow the industry, partnerships between OEMs, material manufacturers, and customers are key.
Incentives can be aligned, and it’s in each company’s interest to work together, share resources, and drive part cost down.
We allow customers to use any material they choose, and we co-develop materials with our material partners to spur on material innovation within the industry. For example, we launched a flame retardant material with Henkel in November 2019.
The material is solid at room temperature but is printable when heated to 60 degrees Celsius in a controlled environment. By working together, we leveraged each other’s technology and expertise to bring this material to the market.
Another general benefit of an open system, which is particularly relevant in today’s environment, is the ability to second source.
We’ve already seen how component shortages can have detrimental effects on the supply chain. With a closed system, you can’t switch materials if, for example, a base component in your formulation becomes unavailable. Typically, OEM customers don’t know who the manufacturer of the resin is, and there is a lack of supply chain visibility and transparency.
With an open system, customers can validate multiple materials for their applications, and if there is a disruption, they can also work directly with the material manufacturer on a solution.
What do you see as the three key challenges still facing the AM industry?
The first challenge is the material cost. When prototyping, material cost is less of an issue, because typically you are injection molding the part, and 3D printing is more about speed and iterations.
However, when you move into additive manufacturing production, the amortization of the 3D printer makes up a small portion of the BOM cost, and the material cost becomes a large factor.
For additive manufacturing to become a viable option for mass manufacturing the material cost has to come down across the board. For too long, the industry has been stuck in a razor blade business model, with artificially high markups on materials.
The second challenge is the one-size-fits-all approach to end-to-end solutions. This is due, in part, to OEMs in the early days of 3D printing not having many options available for software, post-processing, and materials, so they built their own. That has resulted in manufacturers designing around a process or tool, without much room in which to maneuver.
Contrast that with conventional manufacturing, where there is an entire ecosystem developed around very specific technologies. We are now seeing more companies entering the space, with new post-processing, cleaning, software, and material solutions.
Finally, and somewhat related to the second challenge, is a lack of control over the print process. This is especially true for most polymer 3D printers. Users are given very few options to modify how their parts are made. If a part fails, the user has to redesign or reorientate the part until it works, which leads to fewer experiments and less innovation.
Origin One gives control back to the user. If a part fails, the user can change energy dosages, speeds, delays, and temperature. This also teaches the user about the process and the features, which in turn makes them better manufacturers.
How would you describe the current state of the AM industry, and how do you see it evolving over the next five years?
Obviously, with COVID-19, we’ve seen a dramatic change throughout the world, and it’s too early to predict how supply chains will change in a post-COVID world.
Pre-COVID-19, adoption of additive manufacturing into the supply chain for end-use parts was slow, because high part cost made it difficult to justify.
Now, companies that want to adopt additive manufacturing into their product line will be taking an even closer look at the ROI and the technologies that can prove ROI for them will be more in demand than the solutions that can’t.
The COVID-19 supply chain crisis has also brought renewed attention to 3D printing. In many ways, the industry has proven that it can produce end-use parts at high volumes faster than conventional methods.
When other industries open up fully again, they will need to make up time lost to COVID, and in many cases, their original supply chains will not be ready. This scenario could see 3D printing once again stepping in to get products to market.
What is on the horizon for Origin?
We’re excited to continue shipping our first commercial printer, Origin One, to customers in different industries and countries; getting their feedback, and learning about the different use cases for the technology.
We’re very pleased with the product and the capabilities we are shipping today, and I’m looking forward to what we build on top of it, through software and further material development.
Today, the software just scratches the surface of what’s possible with the hardware. We’re making a continuous effort to make the experience even better for customers and to give them more insight into the process. As we discover new mass additive manufacturing applications with our customers, we fully expect to uncover new insights of our own on how to expand the capabilities of the technology.
To learn more about Origin, visit: www.origin.io