The world’s largest 3D printer company, Stratasys, is often quick to mention the importance of the ecosystem around its business.
It acquired MakerBot in 2013 (and gained the massive Thingiverse user community) for a value of $US403 million in stock. It also nabbed the online engineering hub GrabCAD (currently boasting over 2,140,000 users) last year for a reported $US100 million. In both cases, the goal of expanding Stratasys’s ecosystem is clear.
The company’s General Manager, Asia Pacific and Japan, Omer Krieger, highlighted his company’s burgeoning global user base and accumulated know-how (both within the company and among its different user verticals) when we spoke to him recently at National Manufacturing Week.
“Stratasys… has more than 120,000 customers that are using either MakerBot, Objet, Stratasys or SolidScape together with a variety of customers in different fields,” he told Manufacturers’ Monthly.
“The needs of a doctor that prints a liver in preparation for surgery and the needs for Volvo to print a jig for production and the needs of Airbus are totally different – all of them use a 3D printer but that’s just a box.”
Anecdotally, Australia’s adoption of 3D printing is often described as slow.
Krieger, who was Vice President of Sales for the region for two years before becoming GM, said it was unfair to compare the Australian market to others in the region – such as South Korea or China – preferring to describe it as ‘unique’.
(Stratasys’s regional manager of Pre-Sales & Applications, Nave Rachman, earlier told Manufacturers’ Monthly that Australia’s mining sector was currently the biggest local buyer of his company’s production machines. This was perhaps one notable quirk within the local market for 3D printing.)
At the same time, Krieger declined to discuss specific businesses that had invested heavily in production systems, but did cite Keech – a manufacturer of castings, mainly for the mining sector – as one example of a user that had seen great benefits.
Last July, Bendigo, Victoria’s Keech Australia unveiled a new Fortus 900 mC, the largest unit sold by Stratasys.
“I think the interesting thing about it is the level of knowledge those companies create around this technology,” said Krieger.
“It’s about what you do with this technology for your specific needs that opens for you totally new opportunities.”
Keech was the winner of the Endeavour Award for Technology Application this year for its use of additive manufacturing. Applications included product development and patternmaking, with the central Victorian company a prime example of clever user of Additive Manufacturing (AM), said Krieger.
“How you take things that were done traditionally with other technologies and you either cut the time to market or cut the costs so significantly that it just creates new opportunities,” he added.
Krieger was also eager to discuss the Ultem 9085 thermoplastic – made by Saudi company Sabic Innovative Plastics – which had recently gained a lot of attention in applications for the Airbus.
Offered as a print feedstock by Stratasys, it is “by far is our most advanced material”, said Krieger. Properties include a high strength/weight ratio and resistance to heat, making it suitable for aerospace and automotive applications.
In May, it was announced that Airbus had built an A350XWB including over 1000 Ultem parts, printed on Fortus 900 machines. The result of two years’ development, it offered greater supply chain flexibility and lighter planes.
Other Ultem components have also made their way into outer space.
The Boeing and Lockheed Martin Joint Venture United Launch Alliance was able to bring more manufacturing in-house and produce better quality, cheaper parts using the thermoplastic for components such as environmental control ducting
“Again, a very relatable geometry – you are able to take 150 parts and modify the design and manufacture only 16,” explained Krieger.
“You can imagine – less parts, less failure. And normally failure in mechanics happens in the joints: When you connect two things, in assembly, not necessarily in a specific part. So if you can reduce the number of parts it definitely increases reliability.”
Although his company regularly brings out new materials, it does not offer anything in the fast-growing market for metal-based systems. (It does, however, print in metals for customers through the North American Solid Concepts bureau service it acquired last year.)
Krieger did not rule out ever doing so, but said, “…we need to make sure we pick the right opportunities to address with our customers and users’ needs.”
This involved remaining close to the needs of its users so it could best deploy its significant R&D spend (currently about 10 per cent of its revenues, which hit $US750.4 million last year.) Acquisitions and other efforts to grow the ever-important ecosystem were important, too.
For the short-term, he invited Australian-based manufacturers to join the company’s network of users.
Stratasys views Australia as a market with a lot of design capability. The loss of heavy industry (such as automotive assembly and the closing of smelters) in recent years is obviously a disappointment, but there is huge opportunity for smaller enterprises with niche products.
“I think that this technology opens a new space that I find extremely exciting – specifically in Australia.”
What his company sells is just a tool. How it’s used and how its potential is tapped is up to users’ creativity.
The concept of AM didn’t even come from the firms that invented 3D printers, said Krieger. These boxes were originally just prototyping aids.
“Again, Airbus is an example – but it could not happen if three years ago if we did not have this discussion about what is the limitation, what is the problem, what are the challenges, and maybe we can fit, maybe we cannot,” he said.
“It’s an open, innovative way of thinking of manufacturing.”