Stratasys Takes 3D Printing Focus Down to the Voxel, “Speaking the Language” of Each Application
Stratasys has long held a leadership position in 3D printing; the company is one of the most established in the industry and has been leading the market in sales. With great power, as we know, comes great responsibility, and Stratasys is well aware of what it means to lead the pack. At the recent formnext in Frankfurt, Stratasys was focused on delivering its message: “The power of additive. Applied.” As the industry continues to mature, a running theme throughout the busy, industrial-focused formnext, applications are coming further into focus for leading companies. I caught up with Stratasys throughout the week in Frankfurt to learn more about their newest introductions and for updates on their business strategy, hearing right from the executives leading the charge at a company press conference and following up with an interview for a deeper look.
Andy Middleton, President EMEA, who also opened last year’s formnext press conference, began the 2017 discussion with a look into this year’s strategies for the company as a vendor before turning to the anticipated technology announcements.
“The past 20 years have been guided by the mass production belief of one-size-fits-all, and this is not really relevant anymore. Our customers are looking for more customized solutions, with more relevance for them,” Middleton told us. “Earlier this year, we discussed specifics for interior aircraft solutions. With individualization in aircraft, the volume of business going from conventional to additive manufacturing will be a big part of that.”
He pointed to aircraft as a $13.5 billion market that is already seeing inroads from 3D printing. Stratasys technologies adopted include the Fortus 900mc 3D printer, which has been used for on-craft applications such as accessories in first class lavoratories. Next, Middleton turned to some of the company’s newer product introductions and noted that they were on-site in Frankfurt.
Among these were:
- Contininuous Build 3D Demonstrator — first debuted at this year’s RAPID event, this was the system‘s first showing in Europe
- VeroFlex for eyewear prototyping, where there is a $20 million market potential
- J700 Dental Clear Aligners Solution, offering a $100 million market opportunity
- F123 Rapid Prototyping Workgroups Solution, introduced in February
This last, Middleton said, is “the most successful product Stratasys has ever done,” reinforcing his assertion during a conversation we had recently at TCT Show regarding the company’s products and performance.
“It’s not an easy task being the largest vendor in an industry which is booming, which is growing every day,” Middleton continued.
“It’s not all about hardware, this is not the most difficult part. Of course we need the 3D printers to support applications, but also materials science, to produce materials that are aerospace certified, that are certified for use in the body or in the mouth. This is what Stratasys has embarked on, and we place a great deal of importance on our partnerships.”
He touched on several of the partners Stratasys has been working with over the last year, including Siemens, SIMULIA, SOLIDWORKS, PTC Creo, and SAP, as well as announcing a new partnership with e-Xstream engineering.
“We’re thrilled to have achieved so much in the last 12 months. The proof is in the pudding, as we are working with customers like Apple and Ford,” he said.
“It’s been 10 years, almost to the day, that I joined the 3D printing world. Back then, we had two materials: a bad one — and a really bad one. The future is driven by materials.”
In looking at this robust, materials-driven future for realizable applications, Product Manager Tomer Gallimidi was next to come to the mic with the day’s introductions. In addition to the e-Xstream partnership, Stratasys introduced the incredibly promising GrabCAD Voxel Print software to enhance the potential of their multi-material J750 3D printer.
“We are inviting users to go beneath the surface,” Gallimidi said. “With control of material properties and distribution comes an impact on the form of the model: its form, geometry, and function.”
To discuss the impact of volumetric modeling allowed through the precise software, he introduced several users: Dr. Alan Brunton of Fraunhofer IGD, Dr. Daniel Richards of Lancaster University, and Martin Dunn of Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD). The three users presented the ways their respective institutions have found to implement the software into their design workflow, creating full-color, deeply accurate models. Among those shown were a replica of an Egyptian artifact, an anatomical model, an intricate table featuring precise internal design, and a genuinely-looks-good-enough-to-eat apple; several designs from LAIKA Studios were also on display, having been used in the creation of Kubo and the Two Strings. Additional use cases from these institutions include SUTD’s work on biomimicry and soft robotics, Lancaster’s work on vibration dampening, and Fraunhofer’s work with Cuttlefish, recently made available to J750 users.
To indicate the precision that GrabCAD Voxel Print allows design, we were shown a tiny LEGO piece and asked to estimate how many voxels made up the brick. The piece, smaller than 1 x 1 x 1 cm (though admittedly I didn’t measure), is made up of about eight million voxels. Adjusting the design of any of those, on demand, allows for incredible control, and many manufacturers are highlighting voxel-level capabilities as a goal in highly accurate 3D printing.
For more detail on Stratasys’ approach to voxel-level capabilities and a deeper look into strategies, I later sat down with Andreas Langfeld, VP of Sales.
“It’s interesting to see the growth of this show; it’s similar to vendor growth,” he said in opening. “We still see by unit sales that we are the leader, but it’s getting hard. We look where our unique advantages are, and try to focus there. If all goes well, we’ll print about 800 parts during the show [on the Continuous Build 3D Demonstrator] for visitors to take home; I don’t think anyone else is building so many here.”
We looked to the on-site Continuous Build Demonstrator, which was indeed humming with activity throughout the week in Frankfurt. Its European debut seemed to be well received, an observation Langfeld confirmed.
“This provides an outlook into the future, where hardware can go with the right software. You can produce spare parts on-site, which is nicely illustrating where we are going,” he told me.
“It’s an easy story to deliver; people understand what we are showing. It all comes down to the right software.”
With this segue, we turned to the Voxel Print announcement, discussing what “the right software” can enable in additive manufacturing. This, of course, goes hand-in-hand with one of the key points Middleton had raised: materials science. Enabling control of the material qualities through software is only possible when all components are working together, with hardware working with material as directed by software, all in concert.
“Customers can influence their end products even more, which is perceived as valuable. It’s great for research and is a great in-field resource to expand,” Langfeld noted.
“In the end, it’s the materials that really make the difference; a printer is only an output device. If you don’t have the right materials, you can’t have the applications.”
The coming together of all these parts of the workflow “touches the entire value chain concept,” which Stratasys is keen to underscore. Langfeld noted that end-use applications are enabled by materials, and advanced by prototypes that allow for functional testing. Looking to demanding verticals like aerospace allows for an understanding of the options that will be necessary throughout a variety of application areas. Customers and suppliers alike, Langfeld noted, “need options to be able to deliver more.”
“Customers want one solution to do it all — that’s not where we are, but we do have many solutions to offer as a single platform. We have a very targeted approach. VeroFlex, for example, is applicable in other markets [than eyewear], but the more specific we are in a pitch, the clearer the message comes out. We are speaking the language of hte customer, and one-size-fits-all is over,” he told me.
“The best experience I’ve had with this is in healthcare. If you don’t speak their language, you’re out. We now have experts — they know this language and all the names — and this is important for the customer to be understood. There is not so much difference vertical to vertical; in terms of design, everyone wants to replicate the final design. If you do a surgical model for surgical planning, you need to understand the language, understand the real needs. A surgeon wants the model, they do not necessarily want the printer that makes the model.”
Working closely with partners and customers continues to be a key strategic element to many 3D printing companies’ business plan, and Stratasys is honing in on this level of deep, clear comprehension across a variety of offerings. In the case of VeroFlex, for one, understanding the need for functional prototypes that look exactly like the final product allowed for Stratasys to develop a materials strategy providing these qualities, directly helping eyewear manufacturers’ possible time to market.
Stratasys understands, of course, that they are not the only supplier working on these issues. Competition is mounting, and the shape of the industry is changing as more participants enter, other suppliers merge, and still others exit the business; technologies are increasing, and those more established are seeing advances come from all corners. Strategies for maintaining top-dog status have to shift along with the times, and Stratasys is looking to keep itself set apart in the market.
“We have some unique things here; going into specific applications, we see more competition, but broader solutions are more unique. You see a Fortus versus a printer dedicated to carbon fiber. Being perceived as a medical or aerospace supplier is a huge benefit, having a portfolio to offer,” Langfeld said.
As Stratasys continues to develop its strategies and hone its technologies, focus is remaining on key areas for advancement. We can expect to hear more about materials science, software enhancements, and surely some interesting developments with the company’s growing partner network as 2017 comes to a close and 3D printing continues to grow as a business opportunity.
Discuss Stratasys’ strategies and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com or share your thoughts in the Facebook comments below.[Photos: Sarah Goehrke]
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