Interview with Abe Reichental, CEO of 3D Systems, on the future of 3D printing

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Johnny Ryan: Where do you see the future of the industry (in terms of growth, application, and impact over the next 5, 10 and 15 years)?

Abe Reichental: We are quite bullish on the marketplace potential for 3D printing, 3D content, 3D parts and the associated services. As the original founder,
starting with Stereolithography 25 years ago as of 2011, we have a responsibility to push the technology envelope in partnership with our customers and partners, who have been and continue to be the true pioneers of rapid prototyping, additive manufacturing and 3D printing. It is the applications we have created and enabled with our customers that have established our leadership in the market.  Today we have over 400 patents and 6 print engine technologies, years of expertise and myriad materials that can be brought to bear on any application challenge or opportunity.

We also continue to aggressively pursue and invest in the future through both organic and acquisitive growth – we have made a total of 11 acquisitions over a 14 month period; 8 parts service bureaus, 1 service provider and 2 technology companies. Each of these organizations was acquired from cash on hand and stock and has been fully integrated into our company within the first quarter of the purchase. We have stated publicly that we will continue to pursue this key growth strategy in 2011 to include opportunistic acquisitions in additional geographies. We see several major area’s of growth. The highest potential is personal
3D printing – for the hobbyist and consumer as this is an untapped market. We also expect much broader adoption across the professional 3D printer space; both the business user and in education. For production 3D printing we see a great deal of potential in the adoption of end use manufacturing.

For instance, today we print and deliver parts and assemblies that are installed directly into fighter jets, helicopters and many other vehicles and products.  These parts leverage the complete freedom of design inherent in 3D printing which offers dramatic time and cost savings. As an example air ducts, baffles, etc. are usually complex assemblies of several parts. We can redesign them into a single part, eliminate expensive tooling, reduce inventory and supply chain
considerations and print parts that are much lighter in weight, as durable but at a lower cost and on demand.

We have over a decade of experience in this production arena and believe that there are a number of exciting applications that will come on line in the near future.   Ultimately, there is a compelling opportunity to reinvent traditional manufacturing through a number of our core technologies and deliver ‘just in time’, ‘on-demand’ real parts, assemblies and products.

This past year we enjoyed strong growth in our healthcare business which is another opportunity for significant expansion in the future. Our customers have worked with us to literally redesign the manufacturing of Hearing Aids using digital scans of the ear canal. Our technology has revolutionized orthodontics and enabled custom implants and surgical guides. This ability to customize devices and appliances for dental and medical applications represent almost unlimited potential in the future. And within the academic environment there is research being conducted on many other medical applications that will utilize 3D printing in amazing ways; printing organs, bone matter, etc. Finally, we believe that like so many other industries the broad adoption of 3D printing will be driven by the availability of 3D content.  We have all experienced the changes in the way music and written content is being developed and shared today. The current software required to create, manage and print 3D parts and objects is expensive, but more important, it is complex and requires special expertise. Even a 3D file scanned by a low cost scanner needs a great deal of editing.

We envision an iTunes equivalent for 3D Content and a variety of web sites to compliment the handful that exist today with forums where 3D files are shared, co-created, enhanced and yes, sometimes printed.  We have already begun to work on this important content strategy – in fact our first 3D mobile app for smart phones is available for download from our websites.

What is your position on the importance of desktop printing – where do you see the balance in the future between desktop and professional 3D printing?

Abe comment

We believe that personal 3D printing is vitally important to the
expansion and adoption of these technologies.  With our focus on
balancing price points with excellent quality we have already seen the
beginnings of strong adoption across our professional 3D printers.
However, these are mostly markets with expert CAD (Computer Aided
Design) users.  We realize that there are a number of other professional
applications that could take advantage of 3D printing if the users had
access to 3D content tools that are affordable and easy to use.

Similarly, we have continued to pursue a very low cost 3D printing
strategy and recently acquired Bits From Bytes, a company in the UK that
offers RAPMAN, a 3D printer kit for about $1,200 and the BfB 3000, a 3D
printer for under $4,000.  This is a very exciting addition for us as we
are now able to connect with a new and different audience – hobbyists,
middle school educators, and other early adopters.  However, once again
these users are comfortable with or willing to invest in learning CAD.

We are committed to democratizing 3D printing for both the non-expert
professional user and the hobbyist / consumer market over time. This
means that we will need to play a major role in collaborating,
developing and delivering 3D content tools that enable the average
person to capture, create, share and print their 3D files. As mentioned
earlier, this effort is already underway and we recently released our
first mobile app available on our websites.

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+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++Do you have a sense of why other major printer/consumer and enterprise
computing businesses have not entered the 3D printer market at this
point?  Cathy comment

As with most major breakthrough technologies companies conduct their due
diligence and assess the market potential prior to investing in a
rigorous research and development effort.  Many R& D efforts do not come
to fruition for a number of reasons; degree of difficulty, larger
adjacent opportunities, other demands of the business, etc. We know
through public records that a few of these companies have considered 3D
printing technologies over the years but few have taken the next step.

Also, 25 years ago Stereolithography was expensive and required a major
investment from us as the manufacturer and from our early adopters. The
global brands that committed to the technology pioneered the early
applications and experienced a profound impact on their business.  They
were reluctant to disclose their rapid prototyping / 3D printing
applications as they saw them as a sustainable, competitive advantage.
The very success of the technologies inhibited the awareness which
essentially slowed investment on the behalf of other companies.

Only in the last 4-5 years has the general population begun to learn
about and express their interest in 3D printing. As we prepare to mark
our 25th anniversary we are seeing a more interest now from potential
competitors from the 2D printing space and from a number of start-up’s
as well. HP finally entered 3D printing through an OEM arrangement
announced about a year ago. We wish them success as they help to raise
the awareness across the market.

What are the outer limits for the technology over the next decade and a
half? – for example, do you see a time in the future when integrated
chip fabrication at nm level will be possible as part of a printed
object? I am particularly interested in the role of smart objects and
devices and the timeframe in which these could be produced by home/on
demand 3d printing.  Cathy comment

At 3D systems we would be hard pressed to place any limits on future 3D
printing technology. We have experienced the very first rapid
prototyping applications and then watched as RP evolved to on-demand
manufacturing. We built a complex medical model used in a dramatic
surgery several years ago when doctors successfully separated conjoined
twins, we have revolutionized entire industries and we’ve been able to
deliver part quality historically the purview of million dollar systems,
through office based 3D printers at a fraction of the cost.

That said there are a number of important considerations. Additive
manufacturing or the 3D printing of ever more complex and complete
products is definitely possible. We make use of more than one material
at a time in many of our systems today and we continue to invest in
material science along with the technologies that will extend  our
applications window. The minimum boundary conditions to be considered
include price, performance, operability, environmental impacts,
application demand and the total overall costs versus traditional
approaches.

Future medical applications are extremely interesting to us.  We have a
designer today who delivers customized prosthetics to amputees.  Imagine
not only a form and fit that is personalized but also the ability to
capture personality through materials and special treatments like
leather and metal. We know that this is just the tip of the iceberg
given our past history and taking note if a growing number of patent
applications in the healthcare field.

Abe comment

Relative to personal 3 D printers and printing in the home – there is
tremendous opportunity for applications that exist today as well as
those we haven’t even thought of yet. We can not stress enough that
affordable and easy to use 3D content tools are critical – the ability
to simply download a file, modify it as a custom gift or educational toy
and hit print is what will capture the imagination and increase usage.
Marketplaces where content is shared, bought and sold and printed will
be essential.  We also believe that a retail model – ala the Apple Store
– where people can go and pick up their prints will be an important
enabler to growth. Finally, along with unique materials and full color,
other important considerations include consumer protection as well as
copy write and infringement laws.

What are the primary hurdles that 3D printing faces technologically at
the present time? Abe comment

The greatest market hurdle facing 3D printing today is a lack of
awareness.

We believe that the most important technology hurdle is the lack of
compelling, affordable 3D content tools. Even when considering the use
of these technologies in the classroom, there are limited tools and
curriculum today to easily enable adoption. This is particularly
unfortunate when you consider the potential to teach not only STEM but
geography, cooking, etc., using these amazing machines.

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