3D Systems has a long history in the 3D printing/additive manufacturing (3DP/AM), beginning when Chuck Hull developed stereolithography technology. Throughout the years, the company has expanded and adjusted its mission as the 3DP/AM industry has evolved. With the recent appointment in May of Dr. Jeffrey Graves as the new president and CEO, the company will be positioned for its next phase of growth.
Prior to joining 3D Systems. He served as CEO, president, and director of MTS Systems Corporation, a global supplier of test simulation and measurement systems. Prior to that, he served as president and CEO of C&D Technologies, Inc. He has also held leadership roles with KEMET corporation as chief operating officer and CEO, and a number of leadership and technical roles with GE, Rockwell Automation and Howmet Corporation. He currently serves on the Board of Directors of FARO Technologies and Hexcel Corporation.
Dr. Graves holds a bachelor’s degree in metallurgical engineering from Purdue University. He also holds a master’s degree and PhD in metallurgical engineering from the University in Wisconsin.
We recently interviewed Jeff on his plans for the company.
Q: Now that you have joined 3D Systems, tell me a little bit about what your vision is for the company, and given your materials background, does this vision involve anything along the lines of materials developments?
Graves: Thanks, Leslie. Great question. You know, I had extensive discussions with the board of directors before being asked to join the company as CEO, and it evolved to very similar questions about where do you think the company can go given the history of the company and the industry in general and where it’s at right now. My feedback to them before joining, and then since joining, has been reinforced, that I believe both the industry and the company are extremely well-positioned for the future. From an industry standpoint, the emergence of additive manufacturing has gone through a real evolution, from prototyping to extensions of the prototyping, but now into real applications, ranging from healthcare to a variety of industrial applications. So, it’s really been widely adopted, but at a fairly small level, given its potential.
I think you’ve seen the explosion in interest and then the decline as people realize the time it would take. And now we’re on what I believe is a smooth and increasing growth path for the future as an industry. When you look at 3D Systems, your question about the vision for the company. I love the heritage of this company. Our founder, Chuck Hall, was the inventor of 3D manufacturing, and his approach (and he’s still our chief technology officer today and more active than ever), was to have a very sharp application focus and use that focus to drive the development of hardware, software, and materials, all brought together for additive manufacturing to turn computer-generated objects into solid objects for a variety of applications.
That was the heritage of the company, it’s what Chuck invented and where it was founded on, and what I told our board and what I continue to talk to our employees about which resonates well is that is our future. That’s what we need for the future. It’s an industry that requires bringing together those three elements:
–Hardware, which involves a variety of engineering disciplines to do it well.
–Software, designed to make the equipment run well, and the interface and the manufacturing process.
–And materials science, because the materials you use are vital to the end application and have to be uniquely tailored oftentimes for additive manufacturing.
It’s the combination of those sciences and engineering functions that allow you to really recreate the manufacturing workflow, yielding a tremendously expanded range of component designs and flexibility in the supply chain.
So our focus going forward, my vision for the company, and it’s one that resonates back to the roots of this organization, is we’re going to be leaders in enabling additive manufacturing, to bring companies along, our customers along in adopting additive, and embracing it for adding value to their customers through their products.
We will focus on applications, specifically in high growth, high-value markets, that will combine those three technology elements to provide solutions. I think we can be leaders in the industry at that, and broadly, I think this industry will be very successful doing much the same. So that’s the vision for the company. We are, as rapidly as we can, organizing ourselves around that. We’ve gone through a reorganization around healthcare and industrial market verticals, and we are divesting non-core assets, things that are not related to that mission and purpose, and we’re really doubling down on the core business. We’re very excited about the point we are in time.
With the tragedy of the COVID virus around the world, one of the things it’s caused our customers to do is reconsider their supply chain strategy. So not only do you have the emergence of the technology, but in terms of timing in the world today, you have our customers around the world re-looking at their supply chains and where in the past they may have been driven predominantly by cost and by labor cost, increasingly they’re driven around flexibility, availability of supply. I think you’ll see a nice tailwind in the industry broadly, and hopefully our company will be leading that as our customers reconsider their supply chain needs and embrace the design attributes of 3D manufacturing.
Q: Given the pandemic and how it’s thrust a spotlight onto additive manufacturing and brought new attention to it, there’s still the issue of relatively slow adoption, at least that’s what a number of people claim. Do you see that as an issue, the slow adoption, and if so, are there specific areas that the industry needs to focus on in order to improve that position?
Graves: Well, yes. I would say in general COVID has made all logistics difficult in terms of going out and meeting customers and having meetings and discussions around anything and everything. It’s slowed the discussions. But in terms of the overall long-term effect of COVID, we’ve got the underlying growth in new designers coming out of school and working their way up through the design community and our customer base that understand the benefits of additive manufacturing and are slowly changing the culture of the design groups in which they live and work every day. That is a relatively slow process in most businesses. Designers coming out of school, as those new designers get trained and grow up in the organization, they drive changes in the design processes. Those younger folks are familiar with how you adopt additive manufacturing and the benefits it brings. So, I think you’ll see an increasing momentum as those folks rise up through their careers in the years going forward.
COVID, on top of that, while it’s hampered short term conversations, has really caused our customers to reconsider their supply chain logistics. I know it was true for my last company. I think it’s true for all of our customers today. Where in the past you might move the supply of a raw material or a product to a low-cost country for labor considerations, those supply chains get very long and complicated, and with the impact of COVID, it started in China and it was gradually spread around the world, you see the shutdown of supplies of materials and products, the waves across the world, and it hampers it, then it gets a little better, then it gets a little worse. It’s caused everyone to think about assurance of supply, and it’s moved tremendously far up the list of needs. And I think that was highlighted in the media with hospital systems as they ran short of PPE, and if you remember, a lot of the emergency equipment around breathing that they just couldn’t get.
Additive was brought in to fill some of those gaps. And while in the short term, there may have been a cost impact, in the longer term, you weigh the cost benefits, I think you’ll see a lot of that flexibility being embraced to fulfill short term emergency needs in places like hospitals and others. I know we’re having those discussions, and I’m assuming that most in the industry are, in longer-term for critical components supply, I think you’ll see a lot of companies doing that. You’ve got the rising tide of designers embracing additive manufacturing broadly, and you’ve got the short-term effects of COVID, which is going to drive more flexibility in the supply chain, the need for that. I think you’re going to see an acceleration in additive manufacturing moving forward, and the rate of which you could debate about, but I think it’s certainly moving upward and my guess is it’s going to move upward relatively quickly.
Q: Now digital manufacturing is a term that is often used, especially in connection with additive, along with the term of connectivity. So how do you see additive manufacturing’s role within this context?
Graves: Well, in my philosophy, you have to be very focused as a company and understand where your business starts and stops. There’s no doubt that all modern manufacturing is turning to digital means. Whether it’s measuring an image, converting it into an object through any form, and then measuring the quality of the object and then using it, all of those are being changed with digital technology. The important thing with additive manufacturing is to understand where your business starts and stops. One of the very first things we did is we set out to say, “What are we focused on and what are we not?” The upstream of us, which is not our expertise, is in measuring an image or creating it on a computer. There are companies and software companies, hardware companies that are really, really good at that. So that provides the input signal to our business and our industry.
We’re going to be good at starting at that point, turning those computer-generated images or digitally created images into objects. Objects that create value for our customers, whether it’s in healthcare or selective parts of the industrial space, and when those objects are finished, they’ll be incorporated often into a larger system configuration, and that moves beyond our business. Our business will be very specific to turning a digital object into a solid object, and defining the workflow of that, and then transitioning that knowledge to our customer base. And I really think that’s the role additive will have. The larger ecosystem will be embraced by many companies that are good at that, and individually, there are companies good at different pieces of the technology that we will partner with in getting there.
Q: You mentioned your focus is going to be primarily on medical and industrial automation. What segments of the vast 3D Systems business are you going to be moving away from?
Graves: Well, we have invested years ago in some software companies that were really highly focused on subtractive technology, if you will, machining operations, things like this. We’ve been invested in companies and businesses and product lines that tried to just turn images into products very quickly, overnight. Those really aren’t our businesses. That’s really not what we’re good at. What we’re distinctively good at, and I believe you have to be focused, what we are distinctively good at is taking an application where a customer comes in with an idea, a product design that they believe can be distinctively made with additive manufacturing. We make that a reality. We combine hardware, software, and materials to take that application and make it a reality. And then if the customer likes that outcome, we define the workflow to manufacture it. And we can scale that to some extent and make hundreds or even thousands of parts for them for a period of time. And then we transition that knowledge to the customer base.
And in doing so, they hopefully buy our hardware, software, materials to scale the process further in their own organization, in their own ecosystem. So those are the areas we focus on. Things that are outside the scope, for example subtractive technologies, machining, metal bending, things like this, we are no longer interested in and where we own some of those assets, we are divesting them. Software that does not apply to additive manufacturing, which may be a lovely business in and of itself, is not going to be our business. We will divest that if we own it today, and we will reallocate those resources into our core additive business, be it plastics related or metal related with a sharp application focus. So that’s where we’re headed.
Q: What kind of challenges are you hearing from customers as they use additive manufacturing under these present conditions.
Graves: Well, and your last words are interesting under the present conditions. I would say more generically that if you look at subtractive technologies that involve machining or even casting technology, things like that, those technologies have been around for hundreds of years. And industry around the world has gotten very good at them. They’ve become an ingrained paradigm. It’s easy to design parts that can be manufactured through casting or machining and forging operations, things of that nature. Additive is much newer. Additive has been on the scene since the late 80s, and while that feels like a long time in today’s world, in the industrial world and the evolution of design practices, it’s relatively short. It’s only now really being adopted in the design community, and with that, our customers struggle often to understand, “Can a part be made this way? What are the advantages of it? What freedoms does it bring in terms of design flexibility for the component?”
When you use additive, no longer do you have a strong link between complexity of part and cost of part. That becomes divorced. But that is deeply ingrained in the history of design practices. So, we have to retrain customers and design teams to think more creatively about product design because we can create it for them. And then the whole mechanics of transition from a laboratory or small scale setting, if you would, into their larger scale manufacturing environments, we’ve been working at that for a long time and we’re quite good at it, I would say, about that transition of knowledge to our customers or to third parties that they choose in order to scale the manufacturing process to larger volumes. So we enjoy that, that’s what we do well, and that’s where we’re going to focus on.
Q: Many manufacturers or companies are having their employees work remotely. Are you finding this affecting the efforts of solving customer challenges in helping them work with additive technology and even in developing new solutions to these additive challenges?
Graves: Yes, no doubt. It’s created a lot of complexity in just communication. So before COVID we may have the occasional video meeting, but especially early on, we would have meetings with customers face to face where you jointly look at a design on a computer and you may have done some work on a preliminary basis with some illustrative shapes and designs out of additive, and people can touch and feel things. That has really been encumbered with COVID. What COVID has done obviously is really accelerate the use of video tools. We’re using those daily now, and I believe that’ll have an impact on cost savings and the flexibility people have and talking remotely, like we are today, forever going forward. I think that’s a good thing.
But no doubt COVID has had an impact in how frequently you can really interact with customers. That is lifting, it is getting better. It’s frustrating, but we do see now month by month improvements in our ability to at least travel on a limited basis, meet with customers. So that combined with the better tools for doing virtual meetings has really helped a lot, and I think from here forward you’ll see things improving. But no doubt, it’s been a bit of a headwind over the last six months for us and others.
I am amazed at the progress in using Microsoft Teams or Zoom or whatever tool folks have embraced, the ease of which people are doing now, and the vast acceptance of it is amazing to me. And in the long run that will make the world a smaller place. But there’s nothing like getting together face to face with folks, especially engineer to engineer, to brainstorm and to think freely about how to create more effective parts for providing solutions. It’s a fun discussion and I think of the examples in healthcare where you you’re making a tremendous impact on patient’s lives, whether they’re suffering from cancer or they need other medical implants or assistance, where additive can really step in and help, it brings a clear, immediate benefit to an individual and the environmental benefit of additive manufacturing in terms of net shape production and less energy consumption, less wastage. All of that makes you feel good about what you do every day.
Q: Are there any final thoughts that you would like to mention that I haven’t asked you about?
Graves: I think you’ve given an opportunity to talk very broadly about the company. I’m tremendously excited about being here. I’ve got what I view as a nice body of experience. I am passionate around material science, it’s an integral part of this industry. I love 3D Systems’ background, and we’ve got some very high-quality companies in the space that are, I think, making great progress in educating people on the benefits of additive and getting it more widely accepted every day. I’m excited about the future, I appreciate your interest in talking today. I just look forward and I’m very impatient to see us live into what we can be. And I really look forward to the future. I think it’s going to be an exciting one.
Q: It’ll be interesting to see what comes out as far as materials and software. I know you guys have the hardware part pretty well established, and the software and the materials, I think those are areas that are ripe for exploration for you.
Graves: Oh if we had more time, I’d tell you our software packages that we’ve developed are absolutely fantastic, that allow designers to really envision not only the product, but how it can be made with additive and how you can make it even more efficiently with additive. And then the material science that we’re investing in, Leslie, is truly, in some cases, mind-boggling. Ranging from industrial applications to healthcare and increasingly in the bioprinting area. Absolutely fantastic and I look forward to sharing that with the world increasingly as we go forward.
Q: Thank you for joining with me today, Jeff. I appreciate it very much.
Graves: Well, thank you for your time, Leslie. It’s a pleasure to be here.