Interview: Satori CEO Chengxi Wang on inspiring creativity with upcoming 3D printer launch

Chengxi Wang is sat working from her kitchen, with a lamb in the oven, on what has become a normal day during the COVID-19 pandemic. She glances up and over the screen of her laptop to check the lamb’s progress and there’s a flash of inspiration relating to Satori’s latest product development, set to be launched later this month.

As founder and CEO of the London-based 3D printing company, Wang is on a mission to encourage users of 3D printing to embrace creativity, making the lightbulb much more frequent. The introduction of the VL2800 high-precision, big-volume 3D printer, she says, is pivotal to that ambition.  

“When we become adults, we deny ourselves by saying, ‘this is not possible or not practical,’ the limitation is our thoughts. With accessibility to this tool, it will allow people to go back to their roots of creativity, like when we’re kids,” Wang tells TCT. “That’s what we would like to empower.”

A passion for creativity has been a part of Wang’s personality since she was a child, growing up in a single-parent household, in the Western part of China, in an area where the average income was around £3,000 a year. Because of this, it is unlikely that Wang would rank second in a national opera singing competition, that she would get a scholarship from St John’s University in New York, that she would complete an MBA programme at Oxford University, and that she would then set up her own businesses and occupy positions like CEO. But she has.

Sitting in her London home, Wang says that, as a child, it was unthinkable to her that she could one day move away from China to study abroad, let alone everything that has followed, because the ‘infrastructure wasn’t there for me.’ But she was brought up to think positively, to work hard, and years on has reaped the rewards.

“My mum told me that everything’s possible,” she says. “It’s a very positive mindset that if you challenge the limits, you will see how much life is waiting for you. I went to a high school in the bigger city near my hometown where I had my first experience of exchange teachers from the US. She’s a maths teacher from Arizona and she just gave me so much experience of what education could be like outside China.”

A scholarship opened the door for Wang to study finance and investment in New York. After university, her first job was working for the United Nations as an advisor for missions in Liberia when the country had its Ebola crisis around 2015. She then stepped into the private sector, accepting a role as a management trainee at a financial services firm, before founding an investment firm called Emergent that focused on social impact rather than financial return.

After a while, a few things became clear to Wang. First, though having a positive social impact on the world was rewarding, working in finance didn’t satisfy her creative nature. And second, still in her early 20s, she recognised her management skills still needed developing. Hence, she studied at Oxford University for a year, earning a master’s degree in Business Administration.

On the back of her MBA, Wang would finally step foot into the 3D printing industry in 2019, where she has been ever since. She spent a year as the CEO of MyMiniFactory, a 3D printable file sharing platform that connected Wang to a passionate ecosystem of hobbyists and professional designers. Wang values this community, but believed a move was necessary to ‘push this industry forward.’

“It’s not enough to stay at the hobbyist level, even if those hobbyists are looking for a machine that can level up their game to be more professional,” she says. “Professional machines can be very expensive. Some are only accessible by those big companies. It is undeniably good quality, but how much can other people utilise it is really questionable. By founding Satori, I want it to be a destination.”

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The company’s first machine, the ST1600 designed for the dental sector, was launched last year, but Wang has always recognised that to ‘create the freedom for people to create’, a bigger volume than the 192 x 120 x 120 mm that the ST1600 boasts was going to be required.

Later this month, Satori will introduce the VL2800 Masked Stereolithography (MSLA) 3D printing system, using Kickstarter as a pre-order platform with limited time offers. The VL2800 3D printer is being targeted at industrial designers for the engineering of prototypes, artists for the printing of large, detailed figurines, and businesses wanting to scale up their production operations with print farms. It is equipped with a 278 x 156 x 300 mm build volume, as well as a closed-loop, self-monitoring z-axis motor. The z-axis motor allows Satori to guarantee consistent layer heights, while a 6k mono screen ensures a 51-micron pixel size. These features all come together to ‘solve the dilemma of wanting to print something big, but if you do the quality would be compromised.’

Satori is introducing these 3D printing capabilities to allow users to print products, such as bike helmets and bike seats, in one piece, with the 6k mono screen enables light to pass through more efficiently which helps to speed up the printing process. There are plans to develop post-processing machinery to support the curing and washing of parts, while the company intends to adopt an open materials strategy.

Though yet to finalise the pricing of the machine, the company says it will be more affordable for designers than similar-sized resin-based 3D printers on the market.

“I really want people who don’t have a big budget to be able to improve their professionalism in 3D printing with this machine,” Wang says.

As part of this mission, Satori has teamed up with Chinese 3D printer manufacturer Elegoo – who provide low-cost LCD and FDM machines to hobbyists and students – to build a new manufacturing centre with Satori engineers on-site for the VL2800. In launching their Saturn LCD machine last year, the company not only sold 2,000 units in under three minutes but were also able to meet the demand. This, plus a previous visit to the company’s factory, persuaded Wang to collaborate with Elegoo to deliver its second machine to market.

“[With] Kickstarter, I understand that a lot of projects fail because they don’t have an experienced manufacturing capacity,” she says, “so, it’s very important for me to find a partner that is aligned with the vision to bring high-quality machines that are more accessible.”

In doing so, Satori will compete with the likes of Formlabs and EnvisionTEC, companies that have been in the industry for 10-20 years and whose small-format resin-based machines are recognisable in a range of vertical markets. It is perhaps noteworthy that the VL2800 printer doesn’t mirror the amber colour scheme of their products, nor the red of its partner Elegoo’s machines.

This brings us back to Wang sitting in her kitchen, casting a watchful eye on her roast lamb, and noticing she’s really fond of the black and white colour scheme of her oven. She sent a picture, there and then, to her team, and soon after they began to explore whether a black cover on a resin-based 3D printer could work. Typically, a red or orange cover is used because they eliminate UV light more efficiently, but Satori has tested the black covering and found there’s no significant harm done to the parts with a darker colour scheme. It isn’t the only flash of inspiration Wang has had from within her home. After using a non-stick frying pan one evening, Wang now wants to explore whether that technology could be applied to the build platform of Satori’s machines to make part removal that much easier.

This is par for the course for Wang. Her ideas don’t always come to her while working in a lab, sitting in an office or reading a textbook. It is much more down to ingenuity and inspiration. And it’s exactly what she wants to encourage with the launch of VL2800 later this month.

“I really want to empower innovators to bring out the best of their creativity,” Wang finishes. “It might sound like a corporate vision, but it’s something that I hold dear to my heart. I was a very creative person and it’s a shame that I didn’t pursue [music] as a career, but I always want to bring a creative component back to myself. For that reason, I resonate more with people who are pursuing this creative journey. I find it’s really tough because you have to balance your freedom and creativity but there is a realistic thing you have to consider: the financial support and the tool you are using. If it’s not user friendly [or affordable], then that creates problems, then it will interrupt your creative flow.”

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