Three months into his new role, standing on his company’s booth at the biggest additive manufacturing trade show on his patch, Jamie Howard, Ultimaker’s Americas President, recalls his first 3D printing experience.
“I was Chief Product Officer for a company called Kymeta, and I used 3D printing technology to do rapid prototyping. That’s where I became familiar with the power of 3D printing. We had to do really fast design iterations and it was expensive to take it out to a third party to make these designs. These were metal materials, flat panel, 1 centimetre satellite antennas that produced a holographic beam that [uses] software to maintain connectivity to the satellite. It cost tens of thousands of dollars to make a prototype. 3D printing really reduced the time and cost of being able to do that.”
Howard passed through Kymeta, a company with financial backing from Bill Gates and focused on developing satellite technology for mobile connectivity, between 2013 and 2015. Around 12 months ago he wound up at Ultimaker, joining the company to head up its business development activity throughout the Americas, with a particular focus on global 1000 companies. Ultimaker’s business development department engages with customers to identify and develop applications for its 3D printing technology. Per Howard’s successful integration into the team, linking the company with a number of ‘top’ companies, he was selected to step into the departing John Kawola’s shoes.
“The biggest opportunity that I saw – that I wanted to be part of – was the digital transformation of manufacturing, and I was brought to Ultimaker to be part of that journey because I really believe in the vision of accelerating the world transition to local, distributed, digital manufacturing,” Howard said.
Though Howard has seen first-hand the proficiencies of 3D printing as a prototyping tool, he didn’t quite grasp its potential to be applied to production applications until he stepped through the doors of Ultimaker’s Cambridge, MA offices. He attained his business development role at a time when Ultimaker had only just launched its largest machine yet, the S5, and announced a materials programme that today has more than 80 partners. Jabil had also become the latest high-profile manufacturer to produce tooling components on the company’s platforms, following in the footsteps of Volkswagen Autoeuropa a year earlier.
And like clockwork, Howard exhibited at his first RAPID + TCT, as Ultimaker showcased some of the results of Heineken’s application of its 3D printing technology for tooling components. The company, like everyone, has been prototyping with 3D printing for years, and setting up a 3D printing lab, Packaging Manager, Juan Padilla Gonzáles has been looking to further increase efficiency along the production line.
The Seville brewery in which Juan works, and from which this latest case study emanates, produces up to 500 million litres of beer per year, distributing brands such as Heineken, Amstel, and Desperados throughout Spain and beyond. He and his team were looking to integrate 3D printing into its production processes while maintaining yield, perhaps even improving yield, along with cost and time. They prioritised safety first, printing latches for every machine in the brewery that would prevent them from being turned on accidentally – bright red was the colour of choice to heighten visibility. Tooling applications printed in Tough PLA were next. One example includes a stopper tool, which has the ability to loosen and tighten the columns of guiding wheels that apply bottle labels. This was printed within the hour and reduced costs by 70%. Another tooling example was a part that helped guide bottles along the production line. The original design of this component was so rigid it would often crack bottles – with 3D printing, smooth surfaces were implemented into the design to reduce disruptions along the line, increase the yield, and reducing the time to replace it by around 70%. Heineken has also taken advantage of the Ultimaker S5’s ability to print in Nylon and TPU materials, the latter’s flexibility making it ideal for bumper and protective parts, and is also optimising designs to reduce the amount of metal used and save on weight.
“The flexibility of an open platform [allowed Heineken] to rapidly discover that [they] can also use the printer to do something different than we might have originally thought,” Howard said. “Heineken is a good case study for the use of FDM. They moved from prototyping to developing safety tools to jigs, fixtures and tools on the production line and the replacement of parts that failed on the production line. The adoption is fascinating.”
It’s the migration path a myriad of manufacturing companies are on around the world. Ultimaker is one of them. Founded in 2011, the size of the machine and quality of the materials they could process added up only to a competent rapid prototyping tool. Enhancing the machine’s size and capabilities and linking up with a range of materials partners took the hardware into tooling applications. And the continuation of that process points towards end-use products.
Howard says there’s use cases in that third application area to come from Ultimaker, and it’s just as well because his visions see Ultimaker being the connective tissue between manufacturing design facilities and a variety of end points as part of a distributed network, where files are transferred instead of parts shipped, and products are manufactured local to the end user.
“When you have an open platform, you can distribute those resources in a way that’s pretty similar so that the printer becomes part of the network, the software might be at a control point where the design expertise presides, and then you have the materials information that is optimised in the settings of Cura, for example, and those recipes are created by the materials companies so if that information is integrated into the software and you have a library of stl files and G codes that can get distributed over a company’s private network or through the cloud to the end point which is the printer, it looks very much like a distributed network to me,” Howard articulated.
Howard landed his first senior position within a company back in the mid-90s and progressing into the new millennium has worked to ignite digital transformation, first in the broadband and communications industries, and now in the manufacturing one. He’s not alone in his visions of additive manufacturing’s role going forward. A number of companies are working to set the foundations of distributed networks, and plenty more have entertained the idea.
Howard believes artificial intelligence (AI) is the key to unlock the door, enabling files to be transferred securely, and manufacturers to work more flexibly. In fact, his specific purpose at Ultimaker is to ‘see what has not yet been realised,’ and that includes whether it is best for his company to introduce AI capabilities independently, whether to co-develop a platform or whether to license from another firm. All are open possibilities, according to Howard, who emphasised the strategic approaches in place.
Approaches that have been designed to enhance what Ultimaker brings to market, and in turn what is possible for the users of its technology, among them some of the biggest manufacturers in the world with their own desires around distributed manufacturing. The digital transformation of this market was the biggest opportunity that Howard wanted to be part of.
“I’ve been a part of manufacturing as a C-level executive and I’ve used 3D printing technologies in some of my roles before,” Howard assessed. “I saw how 3D printing could really be a transformational technology, and I’ve been involved in digital transformation and industry. This seems like a natural fit to me.”