The additive community continues to impress with how quickly additive vendors meet the needs of healthcare workers and the general public in the development of protection devices. I spoke with Blake Teipel, cofounder and CEO at Essentium, on what the company has been and is doing during this pandemic. Here are some highlights from the interview.
The Texas National Guard called Essentium to help address various shortages in Personal Protection Equipment (PPE). “I’ll probably remember that for a long time,” said Teipel.
As the COVID outbreak was hitting the US and affecting so many communities, the folks in the Texas Military Department were being asked by the governor’s office to increase capacity for manufacturing and procurement to help the State of Texas to care for the communities, including Austin, Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio.
“Because of the lack of cohesive federal leadership, the states are having to kind of fend for themselves and we’re seeing that, unfortunately. But we got a call from the National Guard and then over the last 13 days we built up a manufacturing center inside of our own company,” said Teipel. “We have multiple Essentium High-Speed Extrusion (HSE) 3D printers in production. We started our pilot phase production of community-use face masks just a few days ago now.”
With the help of the city government, building landlords, and tradespeople of Pflugerville, Essentium transformed a 8,300 square foot bay in its building to become a manufacturing center for medical equipment in 36 hours.
So far, Essentium has produced a little over 1,200 face masks.
“We’ve got FDA emergency use authorization for face masks. These masks perform at what I’ve since learned is an ASPN level one certification. We provided an initial order already to the Pflugerville Police Department and we’re following that order up with a larger supply I think today.”
The masks are reusable, and can be used for one or two months. They can be washed with soap and water, then disinfected from any potential viral adhesion to the surface of the mask.
Over the next couple of months Essentium plans to increase capacity more than fivefold to produce those devices.
Essentium launched four materials at the Formnext Trade Show, 2019 in Frankfurt, Germany back in November. Some of them are playing a role in the tooling, which Essentium is producing in addition to face masks. The company is working with a local injection molding company to produce more face masks faster.
One of the materials is HTN CF-25, a carbon composite, high temperature nylon polyfilament blend. It’s suitable for tooling.
“If you think about what 3D printing can do really well, we’re seeing opportunities to fight the virus though a kind of bridge manufacturing like we’re doing now with the masks, but then also serving in an important indirect role to make the tooling that can be used to make the masks at much higher volumes.”
What users need
Essentium has been doing surveys on users for several years. One of the interesting results was that the number of users saying they are using additive manufacturing nearly doubled from 21 to 40% in the 12-month time period between surveys.
The number of respondents also went up from an initial 116 respondents to 162 in the second year. About 83% of the respondents are from North America.
One potential challenge for the additive community showed in the surveys. This challenge is that business finance and procurement departments do not understand the value additive can bring to a business.
“At the end of the day, these departments are really buying capacity,” said Teipel. “But when you buy capacity, you have to buy it in the form of hard assets like capital equipment or you buy it in the form of components like the actual devices that the capacity produces. When you buy an additive manufacturing machine like an industrial 3D printer, you get a machine that is very flexible. Putting the machine’s uses into one of the established swim lanes may not allow the full value to be realized from that purchase. So, we’re trying to educate some of those folks who work in procurement on what the real nature of the opportunity is to provide more agility and flexibility and capacity into their operations.
“It’s how do they contextualize buying a 3D printer when they’re used to buying, for example, a lathe or a mill or some other classic piece. Because our printers, the high-speed extrusion machines that we make, they can function in a classic prototyping sense like most printers do, but really these printers are designed for the factory floor. They’re not designed for the design studio or the prototyping outfits. They’re really designed to go onto the factory floor. So, we have to help folks learn how to build cost models and usage models for industrial 3D printing. And in many cases, they just haven’t had to do that before.”
The survey also highlighted three general challenges for the success of additive manufacturing.
1. The price of the technology. Additive manufacturing classically has been costly to deliver the kind of ROI which manufacturing companies need to see in order to take up a new technology. Businesses need to see additive technology as an industry, not just a manufacturing industry. Businesses need to see lower pricing more commonly so that additive is seen as a technology that can be useful at scale.
2. The price of the materials. Once you buy a piece of capital equipment, the upfront procurement cost is only a portion of the total cost. It should be about 25 to 35% of the total ownership cost of the asset. “But with additive manufacturing, the cost of materials has thrown that out of whack,” noted Teipel. “We need to see the materials costs also come down.”
3. Mindset. The industry needs to continue to help educate and equip users in the manufacturing industry across a variety of disciplines to understand how to purchase and use and operate industrial 3D printers at scale.
A shift in the supply chain
Teipel commented on how COVID-19 is affecting industry.
“We’re just closing down the first quarter. There’s a lot of people, myself included, who were wondering what’s the first quarter going to be like in 2020? The pandemic is hitting communities across the world and obviously job one is to address the public health crisis. But then job number two is to address the looming economic crisis. In the first two months of the year, there was kind of a big pause button I would say that was pressed during January and February.
“People were saying, ‘Well, the coronavirus is coming, but what does it mean? How is it going to impact me? Is it going to impact me at all? Can I afford to invest? Can I afford to expand? Can I afford to grow?’ But now actually in the manufacturing context, what we’re seeing in the month of March and then carrying over now into early signs for April and the near term, we’re seeing manufacturing companies taking a look at the supply chain and the supply base and they’re asking themselves, how can my supply chain be structured to better protect my company from economic risk due to business interruption that that we’re seeing at large scale? So, I would say it’ll be interesting to see what the movement will be in the supply chain structures.
“I think the supply chain structures are going to shift a lot. Once the public health crisis starts to wane, we will see a huge shift in restructuring of global supply chains in many industries, which I think is great for additive manufacturing, but it’s also good at the end of the day for communities that have been upended because of supply chain shortfalls. So, I hope that that’s at least one positive thing that’ll come down the road after the coronavirus wanes to some degree.”
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