Know Your Würth: CEO AJ Strandquist on How Würth Additive Can Change 3D Printing

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AJ Strandquist is a different kind of additive manufacturing (AM) CEO. He’d be far more at home walking around a shop floor than he would be sitting in the boardroom of a VC office. Having risen up through Würth Industry’s core fastener and assembly business for nearly a decade, Strandquist became a founder and the CEO of Würth Additive Group (WAG) when the company got off the ground in 2021. Although Würth Industry does many other things as well, the Germany-based parent company got its start in fasteners and is the world leader in that field.

Naturally, then, Strandquist views AM through the lens of managing what many would consider the least exciting area of global supply chains. This directly led to a product that has been years in the making, which Strandquist and company just launched, Digital Inventory Services (DIS):

“As a supplier of parts — and this is the crux of why we started all this — we understand that, when you have a line down, it doesn’t matter if you were making a thousand-dollar part, a fifteen-dollar part, or a part that costs ten cents,” Strandquist said. “That line going down has the potential to make the supplier’s customers stop production, too, because otherwise, they’d have to deviate from their bill of materials, deviating from their design, and, at that point, they become liable.

“AM shouldn’t necessarily be the number one production method. But if manufacturers design with it in mind, they can come up with this hybrid system that takes advantage of all forms of manufacturing. And that’s what seems logical to me, but it has to be a long-term plan: it has to start either at development or at least when the end-product is sold. I’m a big fan of the idea that, when the government goes for their next contract for a vehicle, for instance, they should say in their spec for the bid, ‘It needs to have digital replacements for as many components as possible.’”

Along those lines, Strandquist seems to see the appropriate role for AM in production, at this point in time, as a sort of physical insurance policy. DIS is the product that Strandquist believes can help AM realize that promise.

It’s a promise that’s simultaneously boring and bold. And, as a division within a conglomerate that has a foothold in over 80 countries, WAG is one of the rare companies with a network that can truly deliver on such a promise. This is especially the case given fasteners’ universal applicability. They may be dull as dirt, but they’re also in everything:

“What makes us a unique fit is two things,” began Strandquist. “One is fasteners, which make up a huge percentage of the components in a bill of materials, but only five percent or something of a manufacturer’s total spend, on average. It’s completely disproportional to the significance of the final end-product, because if the gradient of the pitch of a thread on a screw is wrong when we deliver it, and the part breaks, we get sued. Think of all the detail that goes into making sure that the right screw goes into the right box and is of the mandatory quality.

“That just makes Würth really, really good at herding cats: we put parts into caskets, into tricycles, into cars. They all flow through our system, and we’ve got to track them differently, and I need to have the items tagged to specific customers, and every single one has to meet the quality requirements for the particular application. It’s just routine for us to work with big companies whose attitude is, here’s how I do business, here’s what I need, either you give it to me or you don’t get our business.

In addition to the fact that virtually every other industry needs fasteners in large quantities and widely varying types, the level of data complexity involved in successful fastener distribution is why WAG may just be the perfect vessel for a digital inventory platform:

“That ties directly into the second advantage WAG has, which is documentation. What makes our product unique is how meticulous we are about the most mundane details. We’re a conservative southwestern German industrial conglomerate that makes our sales off of fasteners and our value-adds, which means we’re extremely good at the details.

“That’s why when customers hit us with every possible question about AM parts, we have the ability to simply look at it as a new product category. There are new nuances. There are new hierarchies to build, but it’s all just about delivering parts and keeping track of those deliveries. You mix that expertise with the ability to ship these parts all over with the world with a particular material—we can do it, because Würth is a major industrial distributor in all of the countries you’re targeting. That combination makes me confident in saying WAG can turn the lights on for a given enterprise’s additive program, on a global scale, better than anybody.”

Documentation is not just some side topic. Last year, Harold Sears, formerly of Ford Motors, told me that certification of aftermarket spares is one of the main issues that needs to be addressed in order for 3D printed car parts to be more widely embraced by the auto repair industry. (Strandquist also participates in the 3D Printing in Auto Repair Task Force headed up by Sears.)

With that in mind, the data visibility capacity Strandquist is arguing for means DIS could be at the forefront of combining AM and smart manufacturing principles on a large scale. Looked at from that perspective, the timeliness of what WAG is trying to do is precisely what makes the release so compelling. Thus, while Strandquist knows that there may be more dramatic ways to make the business case for a product launch, he’s equally sure that the topic’s surface-level dryness doesn’t diminish its criticality:

“It’s not very exciting to say that DIS is largely about lawsuit mitigation and licensing control,” the CEO acknowledged, “but most of my career has surrounded problems arising and people saying, if you don’t fix it, then it’s your problem. And there’s no way around it. If a part’s a part to the customer, no matter what process is used to manufacture it, then the same liability and responsibility for quality assurance with a printed part falls on the supplier. The customer may not care how the part is made, but suppliers still need to document everything that went into that part at every step along the way. That will never change.”

One word can sum up what he’d like to be different about the AM industry: commodification. Strandquist wants printed components to be like any other commodity, meaning printers have to be as standard as any other commodity, as well. DIS can help OEMs achieve that degree of standardization by leveling the ground between the companies that sell and operate printers, and the customers who just want to buy parts. Of course, that will necessitate that the mindsets of both sellers and buyers shift in a similar direction:

“There’s so much amazing stuff in the AM industry, but I remember one of the first conversations I had with a big printer OEM. I told them, man, ‘I want to back up freight trucks at your factory and pick up skids and skids at a time.’ Their response was essentially, ‘Well, that’s not really our business yet. We don’t want to be a commodity.’

“My response is just, ‘Well, why not?’ Everyone talks about wanting to be a mature industry. In the world of machine tools, though, that means being a commodity. I think the mentality that opposes that has kept the industry small. Why wouldn’t you want to make everything interchangeable? The reason is basically because you’re trying to pull people into your ecosystem, and I get that. But if your ecosystem is a terrarium, you can’t also expect to succeed out in the wild.

“That’s why I think the industry would be much healthier with defined compartmentalization — this company makes machines, that company makes materials, if you distribute parts, then distribute parts. Maybe AM is magical! I don’t have a crystal ball. Maybe AM is the unicorn where every company that succeeds can succeed entirely on its own. But the most likely outcome is that it follows historical precedent, and there’s going to be a few big players with a lot of B-leaguers that are always nipping at their heels. Along with the cadre of consumable suppliers all with unique value propositions to go into those various machines.” 

OEMs in the AM industry would have to be willing to get on the same page for that to happen, and that’s not an easy ask. The growth of a platform like DIS, however, could do much to accelerate the process, and the industry would be far better off for it. It’s time for AM to learn how to survive in the wild. WAG is here with a survival guide.

Images courtesy of Würth Additive Group

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