Recent events show the need for agility to meet market demands. Dr. Joe DeSimone, executive chairman of Carbon, discussed the unique levels of agility offered by additive manufacturing.
Here are highlights from the interview.
MPF: Will the recent focus on the additive industry’s abilities to address supply chain gaps last or be a temporary development?
Well, I think when you talk about supply chain, you’re mostly talking about manufacturing, at least that’s what I think about. To the extent that additive technology is able to bridge the gap between prototyping and manufacturing, then yes, immensely, because it really shows that when you have the agility in a supply chain that our 3D printing technology has, then you are able to make pivots and adjust things dynamically. This comes into play whether you’re dealing with something like COVID-19, an earthquake, or a storm, or even geopolitical issues. I think it actually is going to be increasingly obvious that having agility and dynamism in your supply chain will allow companies to be much more successful in the future.
For example, the COVID pandemic hit Lombardy, Italy really hard and that was one of the main factories for the Coronavirus testing swabs. So here’s a supply chain disruption that hit a global and a choke point. From ground zero, we had to design a new device. The nasopharyngeal swabs were first developed in the 1920s shortly after the Spanish flu, but have only seen incremental changes since then.
It took about 20 days to design and engineer a new swab. Fifty days after that, we completed more than 400 patient clinical assessments at Stanford University with two different designs. One design showed potentially lower false negative rates, especially for low viral loading. And so it was really a pretty stimulating and inspiring time.
MPF: In the particular area of additive manufacturing that your company focuses on, what developments can we expect to see in the near term? What kind of things are you exploring, both in hardware, software, and even in materials?
In the markets that we serve, one is consumer, foam replacement has just taken off. And the lead for us obviously was Adidas, and then the Riddell liner for football helmets. And I think this whole field of additive manufacturing, digital manufacturing is going to be defined by killer apps. Coming on the heels of those, we’ve got parts in vehicles, such as Ford, where we’re the first company to have production parts on new vehicles sold out of Detroit. And that set the stage for amazing materials that opened up applications, such as in electrical connectors. And now, with the new RPU 130, a really tough ductile material, again, it opens up further application in the automotive spaces.
You’re going to see continued applications there, including consumer electronics. Once a part goes commercial and a company needs 3 million a year, or whatever it is, there are 100 printers right there just to service that application. And so that’s what we really do is bring these killer apps, and obviously dental has been a mainstay for us, but what’s really important is new materials that open up and grow that market. And so having the world’s first FDA approved 3D printed dentures, that’s a $14 billion market. When you go from full dentures to the partial removable dentures, then it really opens up some big opportunities. I think every material opens up the total addressable market, but it’s full manufacturing solutions that really allow the volume to take place.
MPF: Is there one killer app, or is this industry going to be affected more by dozens of killer apps?
Thousands of killer apps. 3D printing, as it’s currently practiced, is a pretty modest industry, about an $8 billion marketplace, and that’s hardware, materials, software, and even the parts. Injection molding is a $300-plus billion market place. And a fraction of that is going to be accessible to AM and opens up a huge growth opportunity. But it’s only going to be those technologies that can scale into manufacturing that are going to differentiate. Having printers run 24 hours a day, 6 days a week, an entire fleet of them, you learn a lot about what you offer, and that’s what we’ve been able to do, and that’s what makes this business increasingly resilient as we go through these learning curves.
MPF: How do you see additive manufacturing within the context of digital manufacturing?
I think I look at it in two phases. Our printing process uses digital light synthesis, which is intrinsically digital. It’s a software-controlled chemical reaction to grow parts.
And then you fold on top of that 100% smart hardware. Our printer gets over-the-air software upgrades, which increase its capability, especially as our understanding of our process grows. And the process is intrinsically digital, so that’s allowed us to scale the business digitally, and it’s really the key.
But I think the next phase will be a manufacturing network; we’re in 17 different countries now, the adaptability, as shown by AM’s response to the pandemic is what enables the resiliency and agility in a supply chain to pivot when there’s a supply chain disruption.
And on top of that we will be doing things like helping people manage their inventory. The world’s got billions of dollars tied up in inventory. A lot of that inventory is in polymeric parts. And those parts are sitting in climate-controlled warehouses just aging. Polymeric parts will densify, hydrolyze, and focus color. We often want a fresh part, and so our ability to offer a warehouse in the cloud stems from, at the core, making things digitally.
We got a part’s birth certificate, its born on date, its conditions, which data file, which resin, which printer, which location, but then you can also do post-market surveillance on all the data. And it keeps populating that record all the way to the point where you do recycle. And so we’ve got some big plans to offer resins, and it’s breakthroughs in technology that allow us to have reversible material thermostats so that after the lifecycle of the part, it can be turned back into liquid and reused to different extents. And so that’s where we’re heading.
MPF: What are you hearing from customers as to the challenges they are having in using additive technology during these pandemic conditions?
Well, as we work more home, I think we’re seeing an acceleration of digital, for sure, but those of us that are in the physical world, I worry a little bit about innovation long term for the nation being stifled by not being physically together. I think a lot of innovation is from interactions. Zoom and similar technologies have been great, but I think a lot of people are exhausted from them already. The ability of engaging with people and the innovations that come from that, we never would have had the breakthrough we had for our technology if we weren’t together.
What is interesting is how we work has definitely changed as a society. And I think there’s a lot of the job functions that a lot of people thought well, there’s no way you could do those unless you were in the building.
MPF: Anything we haven’t touched on that you would like to comment on?
Well, I think just to summarize, this supply chain disruption, the pandemic, has shined a bright light on those technologies that are able to scale in the manufacturing. And I think the proof was there before, but it’s really there now with so many great examples, and I think it’s going to be the way of the future.
And then really designing advanced products that you couldn’t get by traditional injection molding, and the speed of product introductions is really going to be continuing to be the drive going forward.