3D Systems CEO Jeff Graves talks to TCT Head of Content Laura Griffiths about materials science, the company’s new application-focused strategy, eliminating distractions, and how digital will play a key role in the transformation of manufacturing.
TCT: What was it that appealed to you about the company and the additive manufacturing industry as a whole?
JG: Well, it’s certainly a very exciting industry that I’ve followed for a long time. My attraction to the company was actually multi fold. One of them is I was educated in material science. That’s where I got all my all of my degrees and it dominated the first half of my career really developing new metal systems like titanium alloys and the processing of those materials. So, I’ve got a deep foundation in materials science, which I dearly love. I rose up through the ranks in engineering companies like General Electric, where I expanded responsibilities and operations and then finally running businesses. This is my fourth company as CEO. My desire has always been to lead not only an engineering rich company, and one that drives value from that, but one that was heavily involved in materials science. And you really can’t get any better than the additive manufacturing industry. 3D systems specifically, I was very attracted to the history and culture of the company. As you know, we were the founder of the industry through Chuck Hull’s innovation and there’s a very deep culture here of innovation and leadership and in transformative type operations, which we bring to bear now for the for the betterment of both healthcare and industrial applications.
TCT: 3D Systems is one of the most established names in AM with a history charting back to the invention of SLA. Coming in, where do you think 3D Systems’ strengths lie in this increasingly competitive marketplace?
JG: We’ve got a great technical foundation in all three of the core technologies that are vital to additive and that’s hardware, software and materials science. So, we have deep roots in all three legs of the stool, if you will, that are required for success and we have a heritage of focusing on key applications and converting those to additive. So that’s basically our business model going forward, we’re going to be very application focused, in specific, high growth markets that really benefit from additive manufacturing. And we will grow from our roots, our core of hardware, software and materials, which I would argue we have the strongest suite of those of any company in this industry. We’re going through a process now of basically eliminating all other distractions. So, everything else that the company had gotten involved with related to subtractive manufacturing and other elements that are non-core, we are de-emphasising or divesting and we’re reinvesting in those three legs of the stool: hardware, software and materials with a very strong application focus.
TCT: Can you talk a little about your journey with additive manufacturing – do you remember when you were first made aware of it or recognised AM’s potential? Were any of your previous companies using AM?
JG: I left I left school with my PhD in ’87 and my PhD thesis was actually on titanium powder metallurgy. So I remember the early days of actually consolidating powders into net shapes and right away there was the innovations associated with laser processing and building lasers that were powerful enough to sinter powder together into shapes. My experience started with metals and net shaped metal processing through a variety of applications. So I’m very familiar with how the technology has evolved over time. In my last company, MTS systems, I had the fun privilege of developing testing equipment for additive products. So as you know, some additive products are very thin walled or very specialised designs that are very difficult to test to make sure they’re going to perform as intended from the designer standpoint. So, I’ve been exposed to additive in all of its phases throughout my career, and pretty intensely, in my last company.
TCT: You’ve previously stated that you believe “digital manufacturing will play a key role in the transformation of manufacturing” – can you talk about what you mean by that and what it might look like for today’s manufacturers?
JG: It’s very interesting how COVID has changed things, I would have answered that question with fewer facets to it before COVID. I would have said that additive is an absolute breakthrough technology to allow designers to design higher performing parts with very little cost impact to doing that in the past and this goes back to the roots of additive manufacturing. Before additive, the more complex the part, generally, the more expensive the part because you had to machine it and work it into shape and there were shapes that just weren’t possible to manufacture. Additive changed that entire paradigm. So, you can now make very complex parts, the part cost is relatively insensitive to the complexity of the part itself. That’s a new design paradigm. And I would tell you, those paradigms change fairly slowly in industry broadly. So, we’ve needed a new generation of designers to grow up with additive to really adopt it.
What COVID has done now is superimposed on that, from a supply chain standpoint, an incredible need for flexibility. If you think about the evolution of COVID, and it, you know, at first shut China down largely, and then progressed through Europe, and the United States, supply chains were highly distributed. So, it caused every company in the world to look at their supply chain and say, ‘I can’t tolerate this, I have to have more flexibility in my supply chain.’ Even if there are short term cost implications, I need emergency capacity, I need flexibility to make different parts. So additive, I believe, will play a key role there to reconfiguring supply chains, and with an eye toward bringing added flexibility. And as companies move to do that, I think then the designers in those organisations will say, ‘Wow, now that my supply chain guys have brought this capability to the company, what else can I do with it?’ So I think you’ll see an ever faster adoption now of additive manufacturing. I believe we’re really as an industry coming into a new era of more rapid adoption of the technology as we go forward.
TCT: Has it helped to change perceptions around additive as a manufacturing technology?
JG: I think absolutely, it’s going to change the outlook of supply chain leaders. And as then they bring that flexibility into their supply chain. Their design engineers are going to say, what can I do with this technology now that it’s in house, and […] I really believe you’re going to see an explosion in the designing of components to be made by additive manufacturing, because it’s not only driven now by design engineers. […] Now, that supply chain leaders are going to be bringing an additive, I think you’re going to see design engineers jump all over the technology, and really pull it much more quickly and that’ll be good for all of the companies involved in this industry.
TCT: With your experience in other manufacturing and technology industries, what challenges do you think AM still faces in establishing itself as a mainstream production technology?
JG: There’s still a range of them. I think the technology is still evolving, we still have to make more productive hardware, more flexible hardware, a broader range of materials. I will tell you, the challenge in material science; we’ve spent a lot of money and time on developing plastics, if you will, polymer systems that can be turned into useful products through additive manufacturing. And that’s often a rate limiting step, having a range of materials that are useful for that. So that the technology needs to continue to evolve and then on the receiving end, designers continue to need to learn how to use additive manufacturing. It’s only been around since the late ’80s. And while to some folks that sounds like an eternity, remember that metal bending and cutting and casting, those have been around for hundreds and hundreds of years and generations of designers grew up learning how to design parts with those paradigms. That’s why I really embrace the young generation now coming out of school who have have grown up with the tools that can really make the best use of additive manufacturing. That’s the generation that’s going to change the future for us.
TCT: Can you talk about your overall vision for the future of 3D Systems – are there any big changes or focuses we can expect to see coming over the next few months?
JG: You will hear from us, breakthroughs and new applications that are that are going to be, we believe, big consumers of additive technologies in general. We’re going to be a leader in pioneering those applications with our customers and demonstrating them and then we’re determined to have market leading hardware, software and materials to then support them as they ramp their volumes and see the future benefits from the technology. So we will be leaders in talking about those applications and in the underlying technologies that go into them. I think we will stay heavily involved obviously in both polymers and metals, from a hardware, materials and software standpoint. Our customers, frankly, they don’t need to be material experts. They don’t need to decide when something should be made from a polymer versus a metal from a processing standpoint, that’s our job, and so we’ll stay intimately engaged in all of those technologies, so we can be best positioned to meet their design needs, and they can focus on the design of the product.
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