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3D Printing the Unprintable: An Interview with Elementum 3D CEO Jacob Nuechterlein

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We recently had the opportunity to interview Jacob Nuechterlein, CEO of Elementum 3D, about the company’s development of high-performance powders for 3D printing. A former researcher and graduate of the Colorado School of Mines, Nuechterlein founded Elementum to innovate in the field of additive manufacturing (AM). The company employs its proprietary reactive AM (RAM) process, which involves adding micron-sized ceramic particles to metal alloys. This unique method enhances various material properties, including durability, corrosion resistance, fatigue strength, and overall strength.

Elementum 3D has experienced significant growth, now boasting a team of over 50 employees and having secured over $12 million in funding from sources such as the National Science Foundation, AM Ventures, and others. Starting with aluminum, the company has expanded its material offerings to include copper, nickel alloys, steels, tantalum, and tungsten. These advanced materials have found applications across diverse sectors, including Formula 1, defense, and space.

Nuechterlein highlighted that Elementum 3D’s triumph in the 2017 Formnext Startup Challenge was a pivotal moment for the company. The journey to this achievement was extensive, beginning in 2014 when he first embarked on developing his specialized powders. A significant milestone was reached in 2015 when these powders were successfully run on an EOS M290, setting the stage for the company’s subsequent growth and success.

“With RAM, we are marrying reaction synthesis with new materials. We change the feedstock with reactant materials reacting in situ. The reaction itself is between two nano-ceramic particles; these nucleants create a refined grain structure in the material. In the final part, these nanoparticle reinforcements improve mechanical properties such as fatigue and strength in parts. Our Inconel 625 RAM2, for example, doubles the strength. Ultimately, we want to print the unprintable, and now we have a lot of flexibility in different alloy systems.”

Starting Elementum 3D was an immensely challenging endeavor. Imagine the daunting task of gaining access to EIGA or other powder manufacturing equipment to integrate exotic materials. Additionally, convincing someone to use their expensive machine with an untested, novel powder is a significant hurdle. Beyond this, the company had to instill confidence in potential users, persuading them to not only try but also standardize on their product. At first glance, this business concept might seem straightforward, but the reality is far from it. The remarkable success achieved by Jacob and his team is all the more impressive considering their target market. Clients who demand the highest performance powders are also typically the most exacting and quality-conscious, often showing resistance to change.

“We got started with investor support and grew it thanks to investor support, but we also were bootstrapping based on sales,” Nuechterlein said. “We did raise money, but not a massive amount. We needed patient investors, for whom it wasn’t just about the money, investors that were excited about the possibilities, the impact on the world. For us, that often means individual investors rather than VCs; most of our cap table is individual investors. Raising a ton of money takes you time. With a big raise, you also have to grow quickly to justify the valuation. And with a massive raise, you’re running against the clock all the time. Instead, we can build off of revenue.”

Securing the right investors, particularly those who are patient, is crucial for a startup’s long-term success. Many startups often find themselves in a frantic quest for funding, but it’s vital to seek the right kind of investment, not just any available funds. This approach is more sustainable in the long run, even though immediate financial needs sometimes dictate otherwise. Jacob’s perspective on not raising excessive funds is also noteworthy. Overblown expectations and time constraints can lead to suboptimal, short-sighted decision-making.

Beyond investment, attracting the right customers is another critical aspect for a company like Elementum. Understanding how Elementum identifies and engages with suitable clients is as important as their strategy for securing appropriate investment.

“Who is willing to pay for us? One of our largest customers in F1 has been using us for three years on the race tracks,” Jacob said. “But the majority of our business is in aerospace, space, defense, and high-end electronics. We’re seeing movement in mining and other industries, where they’re growing and beginning to investigate AM. It’s driven by how hard their industry is on equipment and their desire not to replace it frequently. Here, they’re looking at components, vehicles, and repair. They have similar needs to those in the oil and gas industries. We’re also expecting a surge in demand from the EV industry with copper. I’m really excited about chemical manufacturing equipment and pharma. Manufacturing tooling for plastic injection molding, and silicon wafer applications, are also growing. We’re seeing needs for metals that withstand harsh chemicals and fluids. There are a lot of markets expanding pretty heavily and we’ve seen large deals over the past few months, particularly in defense. We are growing substantially and will expand our volume.”

Nuechterlein also notes that Elementum 3D is experiencing growth driven by ongoing interest in reshoring and enhancing supply chain resilience. Moreover, the company is attracting customers who are creating products that cannot be manufactured through any other methods. Jacob’s ultimate goal is for Elementum to become a vital component in an engineer’s toolbox, expanding the possibilities of what can be crafted. The potential of these advancements to contribute to the creation of lighter, more efficient, and durable structures is something I find particularly promising. Such innovations could play a significant role in shaping our future, improving performance across various fields.

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