Each time I meet with Dr Lee-Bath Nelson of LEO Lane I never quite know where our conversation is going to end up. A seasoned high-tech executive, the Co-founder and VP Business of the additive manufacturing (AM) software company is so knowledgeable on the many pockets of AM technology, our annual meetings at various trade events can, and often do, span the challenges of data protection in aerospace to the 3D printed jewellery worn on her wrist. But, even Nelson admits, there is still much to learn and it can often be found by stepping outside of the AM bubble.
“I always say to people that, you know your water bottles? They’re not going to be 3D printed,” Nelson tells TCT at the recent Formnext trade show. “But you know what my 24-year-old daughter said about that? “Why do we need water bottles?” Her way of thinking is, why does it have to stay the way it is? She, for example, has her one bottle of water that she refills. So, are we really going to need so many water bottles if everybody goes around with their own? Probably not. So, it might be that instead of that you have your customised water bottle, it’s comfortable for you to hold and maybe customised to your grasp. Then it’s not so far-fetched.”
It’s one of several anecdotes offered by Nelson around how AM is changing the way we think during a discussion on the latest developments the company is bringing to boost AM quality control, IP protection and virtual inventories.
Founded in Israel in 2014, LEO Lane is a cloud-based software as a service company designed to control the quality and quantity of additive parts. Product or part files can be securely turned into LEO files – or Limited Edition Object – which are controlled down to the minutia of how, where and how many times the object is produced. The objective, contrary to this industry’s penchant for the word “disrupt” is to do just the opposite.
“We want to be seamless,” Nelson explains. “We don’t want to disrupt people, we don’t want to disturb them. We don’t want to make them do things they don’t want to do in a way they don’t. We want them to keep doing what they’re doing and we’ll just help them. We’re here to make it better without disrupting.”
For example, LEO Lane does not hold on to those files, quashing any concerns around IP, crucial for the large-scale industrial companies needing to ensure parts are protected from tampering throughout the supply chain. The same can be said of those smaller scale customers such as designers who need confidence in the tactility of a product which is being manufactured remotely.
“IP Protection doesn’t always have to be about preventing your enemies from taking action or it doesn’t always have to be combative. It could just be, I want it intact,” Nelson says. “It’s protected, it’s preserved and then I can just use it and know that every time it will be the same.”
Using the example of the water bottle inviting different perspectives, you could argue that same thinking has been mirrored in the way LEO Lane has assembled its leadership team. As co-founders you have software engineer and ex VC Nelson, CEO Moshe Molcho with a wealth of experience in enterprise software, and Tessa Blokland, an accomplished editor and educator. Blokland joins our conversation on the Formnext booth and it’s clear to see where her expertise in the design world is lending itself to broaden the horizons of where LEO Lane might be applied.
“You have your design iterations but then you have absolute control, you send or you print it yourself and you know [what] it looks like, what it feels like, the colour, the shininess of the material,” Blokland says of the current design to market workflow. “But when you send it away, and maybe unprotected, then you know for sure that somebody will mess it up.”
Blokland, who has spent 15 years working with design students at the Design Academy Eindhoven, which she summarises as helping students to “get to know the design business but in a way that you earn money” is a self-confessed idealist who was drawn to AM by its sustainability promises. Nelson approached Blokland in 2014 to join the start-up and on the show floor, it’s interesting just to sit and listen to the two interact and debate their different points of view.
“Together we make a great mixture with Lee Bath with her knowledge on the business side, Mosche with his coding experience and me … I’m not a designer but I know the designer and I know how important is for designers to have something in your mind, to make it in the right materials and the right colour and the right shaping,” Blokland said. “LEO Lane was, for me, the solution to keep your intellectual property and to be the owner of your products and to have it distributed worldwide.”
The biggest update LEO Lane is working on right now is around workflow. The goal is to deliver IP protection, consistency and repeatability enforcement throughout the multi-step lifecycle of an AM product from design to distribution. According to Nelson, the software “increases the end results, repeatability, reliability, brand reputation and of course lowers all the risks that stop projects.” LEO Lane works in parallel to the current workflow products on the market so that users can continue with the software they are comfortable with, reinforcing this non-disruptive mantra. To qualify this, Nelson offers the example of 3D printed footwear where the wearer can readily get a scan of their foot to create a midsole that is completely unique to their anatomy and needs. You may think a file such as this, which is really only beneficial to one specific person, wouldn’t be at risk but Nelson cautions that even the slightest change in design could render the product useless.
“It’s not just about that,” Nelson elaborates. “It’s about making it correctly. So even at the first point, if you don’t lock it down, somebody can inadvertently do some kind of tweak to it. It’s not going to be comfortable for you anymore so it’s really important to do this throughout the workflow and make sure that everything is contained and enforced. This is the quality issue. Once you make a product or a spare part or tooling or fixtures, you have certain expectations from this product and you have to withstand these. I think that our expansion into the workflow really allows you to do that.”
Despite the trade show setting, Nelson isn’t too concerned with pushing the latest LEO Lane product. Instead, she would rather talk about other areas of the industry that perhaps don’t get as much attention, like using jigs and fixtures as an entry point into AM and sustainability being viewed as more than just a side project.
“I think [sustainability] has to do with where the industry is,” Nelson says. “Years back. It was, yeah, it’s sustainable but it’s a project. It wasn’t real. Now it’s getting to be real. You have to solve all the commercial problems, like the problem that we solved, before you can take care of sustainability.
“I think that when that gets to the thinking at the level of parts, not at the level of an experiment, not at the level of, okay, we want to be greener so we’ll have a side project … I think that there we’ll find that we are not even imagining yet what AM can do.”
That notion of combined expertise props up a lot during our conversation, particularly as we see evidence of this happening in the wider AM industry between software, materials and hardware vendors. Nelson talks about the power of those big materials companies coming into the mix as a good indicator of growth as those materials companies “have a good finger on the pulse.”
Those collaborations between major material science companies and AM companies also happen to be ripe for this kind of file protection, widening those opportunities for LEO Lane even further.
“[Materials companies] have a lot of experience and market knowledge,” Nelson adds. “They care about markets that are big and can grow. The fact that they’re all coming in here, and this is the ex VC in me speak, that’s a huge thing. That doesn’t happen by chance. That means that things are happening under the surface.”