Interview: NAGASE Facilitates AM Adoption with EMPOWR3D 3D Printing Brand

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The additive manufacturing (AM) market is entering a new phase in which large companies from outside of the segment have entered and begun consolidating. In reality, this trend has been occurring over the past decade, but there are a number of elements that reflect a change in how events are unfolding. Among them is the increased participation in large Japanese conglomerates in the 3D printing sector.

Nikon is, of course, the first to come to mind, since the photography giant purchased metal AM systems maker SLM Solutions. However, another notable entry is NAGASE Group (8012:TYO), which has steadily been expanding its AM portfolio since it first launched its Infinite Material Solutions filament line of both build materials and water-soluble support materials in 2018.

In September of last year, one of NAGASE’s U.S. subsidiaries, Interfacial Consultants LLCannounced its acquisition of M. Holland Company’s 3D Printing group, indicating a serious effort to broaden the firm’s role in the engineering and services space. To learn more, we spoke to Jill Ferguson, the Executive Director of Technology Commercialization at Interfacial, and Jeremy Smith, Senior Manager at NAGASE’s Corporate Innovation Office.

NAGASE and Interfacial

A 190-year-old conglomerate with diverse interests spanning chemicals to electronics, NAGASE is the largest chemical distributor in Asia, the fifth largest in the world, and a leading specialty chemical supplier in Japan. With an annual global turnover of around $8 billion and a workforce of approximately 7,000 employees, NAGASE’s expansive reach provides Interfacial with unparalleled resources and insights into the 3D printing sector.

“We’re situated in a really nice place, intersecting everyone from end usersto printer manufacturers and formulators to raw material manufacturers” Smith said.

Founded in Wisconsin by Jeffrey Cernohous, a former 3M employee, Interfacial originally launched as Interfacial Solutions (IFS) in 2003. Initially incubated by Phillips Plastics Corporation, the entity evolved to play a crucial role in co-developing materials for Stratasys, leading to its acquisition by Stratasys in 2014. Following this, Cernohous created Interfacial Consultants before it began working with NAGASE in 2017.

“We end up becoming a critical raw material supplier to many companies in the photopolymer additive manufacturing space—you know, groundbreaking new materials or just staple formulations where we’re a key partner in their manufacturing,” Smith continued. “That got us access into the whole industry, which allowed us to meet this company, Interfacial Consultants, in 2017.”

Together, NAGASE and Interfacial developed a joint venture dubbed Infinite Material Solutions, which focused on developing build and support materials leveraging tap water-soluble technologies for fused deposition modeling (FDM). These unique materials paved the way for new possibilities in printing high-temperature materials like PEEK and ULTEM. The collaboration culminated in NAGASE’s purchase of Interfacial in 2020.

EMPOWR3D

In 2022, Interfacial aimed to demystify 3D printing for end-users. Via a new brand, EMPOWR3D, the company offers a suite of services that ranged from customer education and seminars to hands-on training with over 50 different AM systems. The EMPOWR3D lab includes everything from small Bambu Lab systems to massive Titan Robotics systems, with pellet printing, filament printing, and CNC capabilities. The list of equipment is quite unique, with some niche machines like the Tumaker BIGfoot Dual and Arburg Freeformers alongside a Sinterit Lisa PRO and Sintratec system. Unlike traditional vendors focused on selling their equipment, EMPOWR3D’s agnostic approach towards material systems allows for unbiased recommendations, fostering a deeper understanding and application of 3D printing technologies.

EMPOWR3D is led by Jill Ferguson, who also supports Interfacial’s engineered substrates facility and specialty materials division, which make compounds for AM, filament products, and materials for other industries. Prior to her current position, Ferguson spent seven years at Stratasys, where she led FDM R&D materials development.

“My role has a strong focus in additive, but it’s not the only thing I do and I love to facilitate some of that cross-pollination with customers that aren’t working in additive to help bring them online, show them what’s possible and to help them solve some problems,” Ferguson said. “The learning curve sometimes for additive is steep and, if a company has invested in an additive program and is not quite seeing the gains or returns that they hoped, they come to us. We love to bring folks on site and help them learn and grow alongside our team.”

In addition to workforce training, EMPOWR3D makes custom materials, as well as tunes them and pairs materials and systems to obtain high-quality print settings. The firm additionally performs some printing services to demonstrate to customers what’s possible with 3D printing. Design engineers on staff can aid customers in complete product development, from napkin sketch to 3D printed part. For key clients, including additive OEMs or large corporations that want to outsource a significant portion of their additive programs to Interfacial, EMPOWR3D will perform long-term development projects. When customers fully fund the materials development work, it is their IP, including print conditions.

EMPOWR3D’s success lies in its comprehensive innovation cycle, which includes services like materials development, feedstock creation, and part printing. This cycle accelerates the development process, allowing customers to leapfrog from concept to market-ready solutions at unprecedented speeds. The initiative’s ability to undertake projects from napkin sketches to fully realized 3D printed parts exemplifies Interfacial’s commitment to pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in additive manufacturing.

“One major customer came to us to help them de-risk a new program. We were able to do two full cycles of product development for them before they were even able to get the approvals from corporate to bring the raw materials in house,” Ferguson said. “We took their program from level zero to level eight, gave them the printer feedstock, printing parameters, and test data and they were just able to take it that last 20% to get that product launched.”

Growing in the Market

Since its 2022 inception, EMPOWR3D has successfully completed over 200 3D printing projects. As Interfacial continues to grow and evolve, its focus remains on fostering the adoption of AM through innovation, education, and collaboration. Situated in the American Midwest, the firm is ideally located to serve the automotive and medical sectors there, but Interfacial has customers around the country and around the world. Meanwhile, NAGASE is working to expanding its reach, including establishing a similar EMPOWR3D-style program in Japan.

“I was just visiting a Japanese customer last week. They are buying a very expensive 3D printing machine. It’s a major investment, especially in Japan where AM has not yet been widely adopted.  I believe AM will continue to grow in Japan and throughout Asia,” Smith said. “So, we’re establishing an operation similar to EMPOWR3D in Japan to assist customers in these situations.”

Customer success operations are not completely rare in 3D printing, but truly agnostic partners are. In most cases, those same businesses aiding clients in product development, training, and AM adoption are typically associated with the machine manufacturers themselves, with the end goal being to sell a machine. With Interfacial and NAGASE, however, there was the distinct impression that this was not the case. It may be this collaborative, machine-independent approach that will allow the company to succeed to further the adoption of AM where others have fallen short.

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