Just a short drive south of Charlotte, in Rock Hill, S.C., is the headquarters of a global company whose technology could change everything—from the way things are manufactured, to how things are designed and prototyped, to ultimately who and what is being produced. It will touch every individual in terms of what they can individually produce, how they will undergo surgery, even what they eat.
The light-filled lobby of 3D Systems (NYSE: DDD) could be the lobby of any large company, except for the display of objects. To the left is a fancifully intricate guitar, a teapot, a woman’s shoe and beautifully detailed dollhouse furniture. To the right is a delicate scoliosis brace, a helicopter part and farther back, a car engine block casting pattern. All of the items were created on a 3D Systems’ 3D printer.
Assembling the Technology
3D Systems pioneered 3D printing under the leadership of Chuck Hull, the inventor and patent-holder of the first stereolithography (SLA) 3D printer in 1983. Hull went on to cofound 3D Systems in Valencia, Calif., in 1986.
Hull’s 3D printer enabled engineers for the first time to instantly create functional parts from digital designs, substantially reducing the time it took to prototype parts, which until then had been done using costly and lengthy traditional manufacturing methods. This greatly accelerated product development and compressed time to market.
The first adopters of the technology were America’s carmakers, who saw this capability as a chance to speed up their innovation cycle and reclaim a competitive edge against the rise of cheaper and nimbler foreign imports.
But, despite their obvious usefulness, early 3D printers were complex and costly and therefore limited to deep-pocketed corporations, such as Detroit’s automakers, with the financial and human resources to take advantage of the technology.
However, advances in 3D printing and its associated materials and software have pushed prices sharply lower and improved the quality and usability of 3D printers. This, in turn, has opened up new possibilities across a broad range of industries, including transportation, health care and consumer products. At the same time, thanks to expanding capabilities of 3D printers, companies have begun to use 3D printers to directly manufacture end-use parts.
In 2003, Avi Reichental was appointed president and CEO of 3D Systems. Prior to joining 3D Systems, Reichental served for more than 22 years in various senior executive positions with Sealed Air Corporation. Both Reichental and Hull are listed among the top 20 most influential people in rapid technologies by TCT Magazine. Hull remains an active member of 3D Systems’ board and serves as the company’s CTO.
In 2007, 3D Systems relocated its headquarters to Rock Hill, S.C., in an effort to support an ambitious growth strategy. Over the past few years, the company has implemented a series of well-executed organic and acquisitive growth programs. These investments have helped 3D Systems consolidate key 3D printing technology building blocks, create a one-stop-shop covering the entire content-to-print supply chain, and gain valuable first mover advantage in key areas like health care and direct metal printing.
What differentiates 3D Systems from others, Reichental says, is its ability to address a broad range of design-to-manufacturing applications. In fact, today, 3D Systems is the only company to commercially provide 3D printers in all seven print engines and offer over 120 functional print materials that are complemented by powerful on-demand print services and software specifically tailored for users in each of its verticals.
Traded on the New York Stock Exchange (DDD), 3D Systems today employs over 2,000 worldwide, with more than 300 located in Rock Hill. It has operations throughout the U.S., Europe and the Asia-Pacific region. It is a global leader providing comprehensive 3D design-to-manufacturing solutions including 3D printers, print materials and cloud-sourced custom parts with a $4 billion market cap.
With the goal of pioneering 3D printing for everyone, the company is forward-thinking and future-focused. And with its strong advanced manufacturing customer base, it truly embodies its slogan, “Manufacturing the Future.”
A Disruptive Technology
3D printing is considered a “disruptive” technology in as much as it has the potential to revolutionize manufacturing and even effect societal change. According to Reichental, surprisingly, some of that change may make our future more like our past.
At its heart, 3D printing makes things. It’s an additive manufacturing process that creates three dimensional objects by building them, layer by thin, successive layer out of a variety of materials—over one hundred now and still counting—but usually from plastics, nylon and even metal.
The making of things is part of why Reichental connects 3D printing with our pre-Industrial Revolution heritage, but it’s the ability of 3D printing for mass customization that strikes a chord with Reichental.
“My grandfather was a cobbler,” Reichental says. “Back in the day, he made custom-made shoes. I inherited his love for making, except that it doesn’t exist much anymore. While the Industrial Revolution enabled amazing advancements for mankind, it also atrophied our craftsmanship skills and eradicated hyper local manufacturing, leaving us with cheap, uniform and commoditized goods that churn off assembly lines half a world away.
“Think about the products we consume every day. Almost all of them were designed to be mass-produced so that producers could achieve economies of scale, making them more readily available to a wider number of people. We call that ‘design for manufacturing,’ but in reality, it is ‘design for manufacturing constraints’ because mass-produced goods inevitably compromise performance and personalization for production efficiency, cost and uniformity.
“3D printing is turning this traditional approach to manufacturing on its head. A 3D printer requires no tooling or set-up so there are no economies of scale to be achieved from mass production. Per-part costs are the same whether you are producing a batch of one or one million, and this gives companies the opportunity (and the incentive) to personalize each product to an individual consumer’s needs.
“We are at the dawn of the mass customization era where products you buy—from clothing to consumer electronics to medical devices—will be tailored to your individual specifications.
“If this sounds futuristic, consider this,” continues Reichental. “Currently, Align Technology, the maker of Invisalign clear orthodontic braces, is using 3D printing to produce more than 20 million one-of-a-kind aligners each year. And almost every in-the-ear hearing aid today is 3D printed to perfectly fit each wearer’s ear canal.”
One salient example of mass customization is 3D Systems’ work on a continuous high speed manufacturing system that can print 50 times faster than today’s technology and produce functional full-color multi-material parts for automotive, footwear, toys and consumer electronics companies requiring continuous high speed manufacturing.
Manufacturing the Future
Automobile manufacturers were early adopters of Hull’s technology, discovering that 3D printing substantially compressed their time to market with new cars, giving them a meaningful market advantage.
3D printing remains a mainstay in automobile manufacturing. General Motors (GM) uses several 3D Systems’ technologies in their Rapid Prototype Department, allowing quick iteration of parts with no tooling and permitting engineers and designers to visualize a part or use it for a mock up or small batch production.
GM considers the 3D Systems-powered design and manufacturing as a strategic investment, citing the quality and fidelity of the parts as well as the speed and labor cost savings involved in making them.
Aerospace companies were also early adapters of 3D printing, and rely on the technology today for everything from prototyping to manufacturing end-use parts. The Boeing Company, for example, makes use of 3D Systems’ Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) printers to design, test and manufacture parts for its air vehicle products that include the AH-64D Apache Longbow helicopter.
“If I were to add up all the tooling costs we’ve eliminated, all the parts we’ve made, and all the man-hours we’ve saved by using our SLS system to create prototypes and parts, I could easily say we’ve saved enough to pay for the system—and potentially even a second machine,” says Jerry Clark, manager of the Air Vehicle Configuration Design, Integration and Rapid Development Department of Boeing.
To further assist manufacturers, large and small, 3D Systems offers Quickparts, the company’s on-demand parts service. Quickparts provides quick-turn custom manufacturing parts, offering services throughout the entire development of a product, from rapid prototyping and pre-production, to tooling and production.
And while Quickparts is a natural choice for manufacturing companies like Siemens and Whirlpool, Quickparts’ speedy turnaround and cost-effectiveness appeals to audiences outside of manufacturing as well. Using 3D Systems’ SLS printing technology, Quickparts printed the main helmet bases and structures of the white helmets worn by George Clooney and Sandra Bullock in the Academy Award-winning film “Gravity.”
Quickparts’ ability to manufacture whatever product a company needs anywhere—a movie prop one day, a functional car part the next—illustrates how 3D printing is already changing the face of manufacturing.
“3D printing is quickly turning conventional manufacturing wisdom on its head, and in particular challenges the notion of economy of scale,” Reichental maintains. “Because 3D printing eliminates the need for expensive tooling, set-ups and change-overs, companies are free to onshore and relocalize their manufacturing closer to their marketplaces.
“This form of distributed/localized manufacturing can substantially reduce freight costs and the associated environmental impacts, and provide the flexibility for unlimited product segmentation to cater to local taste and demand.
“A shoe company selling 3D printed sneakers might market a sneaker line throughout the U.S., but print it with more rugged winter-ready treads in its Oregon production facility and flatter, smoother treads in its Florida facility.
“The relocalization of manufacturing is not just about manufacturing a single line of products close to the consumer, but also about creating local fulfillment centers, where any number of companies or consumers can have products manufactured on demand.
“And parts can be literally teleported (specs shared digitally and manufacture done locally). Anywhere, anytime. And because this is all done on demand, there is no need for inventory!”
But hyperlocalization of manufacturing and on-demand inventory is only part of the 3D printing story. “With a 3D printer, complexity is free,” explains Reichental. “A 3D printer does not care if it makes the most rudimentary geometry or the most complex. There is neither barrier nor penalty for complexity.
“With 3D printing, designers are uninhibited by yesterday’s manufacturing constraints and are free to produce whatever they can dream. That has powerful implications for sectors like aerospace, automotive and health care, where complex design is essential to unlocking better performance and durability.”
The Health Care Digital Thread
If health care is not the first industry that comes to mind when you think of 3D printing, 3D Systems’ medical applications could change that.
“Personalized medical devices are among the most exciting applications today. And they are arguably the most impactful,” says Reichental. “Already, we are able to use CT/CBCT scan data from individual patients to create patient-specific dental restorations and anatomical models, custom surgical guides, implantable devices, exoskeletons, hearing aids, prosthetics, and braces for scoliosis and other applications. And that’s just to name a few.
“Beyond that, we’re also able to use the same patient-specific data to provide surgeons with accurate planning models and virtual training and operating platforms for use in some of the most complex surgeries performed today.”
3D Systems’ Virtual Surgical Planning (VSP) technology allows surgeons to work with 3D Systems’ Medical Modeling experts to create a surgical plan and print 3D study and practice models as well as actual surgical instruments and implantable devices, providing them with tools and guidance to virtually plan and physically practice and perform critical steps of an operation before a patient ever steps into the operating room and while the patient undergoes the actual procedure.
In a recent case, a surgeon successfully used the VSP technology to assist in correcting the undersized jaw of a one-month-old, allowing her to properly breathe. This saved the child from enduring a tracheostomy until the age of six when this surgery is traditionally performed.
“This integrated, personalized approach to health care is what we refer to as ‘the digital thread’,” explains Reichental, “and it is revolutionizing health care as we know it. In 10 years, I believe we will look back on medical procedures that don’t use a 3D digital thread as crude.”
The Democratization of 3D Printing
While many industries have been using 3D printing to strategic advantage for decades, Reichental is a strong champion for democratization of the technology for use by everyone.
“3D printing is an exponential technology,” he says. “It is becoming faster, cheaper and easier to use at an exponential rate. For its first few decades, 3D printing was complex and expensive and, as such, was only available to deep-pocketed corporations.
“But the costs of 3D printing have fallen so much that this technology is finally opening to the consumer for home use. This year, we introduced plug-and-play consumer 3D printers for under $1,000, which are supported by a vibrant ecosystem of design tools and creative communities that allow users to effortlessly create and share content.”
3D Systems’ Cube 3 printer offers dual color printing, touch screen controls and printing direct from your mobile device. Ideal for hobbyists or anyone interested in 3D printing things for use and wear, the Cube is enhanced and supported by 3D Systems’ Cubify.com, an online platform that enables users to share designs, download free designs, order printed products or use Cubify tools and apps to design and create objects on their home 3D printer. Cubify.com also offers a Cloud Printing service that can print and deliver a user’s specific design to their doorstep in days.
The company also introduced a line of Sense 3D physical photography devices priced under $500 that can digitally capture objects and quickly turn them into 3D printable files.
To further democratize the technology, 3D Systems is actively involved in advancing digital literacy in grades K-12 S.T.E.A.M. education with its First Robotics, Level Up Village and M.21 Lab education programs available to schools, libraries and museums.
“Kids just get it, instinctively and instantly,” says Reichental. “They are at home with tech and immediately understand how to bridge the virtual with the actual using our 3D scanning devices to digitize their environment. Then they begin to create, customize and bring their ideas to life.
“The sooner kids are exposed to this digital literacy, the faster they master tomorrow’s competitive skills.
“But not every kid wants to learn CAD, nor should they have to, so we are developing intuitive, gamified apps that make creating content fun and coloring-book simple.”
To further its goal of ease of use and enhance the design experience, this year the company debuted the Touch haptic 3D stylus, which gives instant force feedback that mimics physical sculpting and transforms 3D modeling to a simple, easy sculpting experience for users.
Other new 3D Systems’ product offerings include the Ekocycle Cube 3D printer which uses recycled post consumer plastic such as from discarded plastic water or soda bottles and the ProX400, a direct-metal printer for large scale industrial manufacturing use, unveiled at EuroMold 2014 last month.
Although not yet commercially available, 3D Systems also debuted a 3D printer that can print in sugar or chocolate at the Consumer Electronic Show 2014. Think wedding-cake toppers or personalized candies—the uses of this technology are only limited by the imagination.
Competitive Marketplace Fuels Innovation
While ever-expanding applications continue to grow the 3D printing market, it remains a highly competitive industry. Stratasys Ltd. is a large player and Hewlett Packard just announced they will enter the 3D printing field. Reichental comments that he finds HP’s announcement “enormously validating to us.”
In the meantime, new products and innovation continue to fuel growth and revenue for 3D Systems. The company expects annual revenue for 2014 to be in the range of $680 million to $720 million, and the company’s continuing affinity for acquisitions is expected to better its share of the 3D printing market, especially in key areas of health care and aerospace.
And while it expands its global network, 3D Systems is also renewing its commitment to the Charlotte region with the lease of a 200,000-square-foot manufacturing and distribution center near its existing headquarters in Rock Hill.
“When we decided to move our global headquarters from California in 2007, the Charlotte region was the obvious destination for a high-tech, high-growth business like ours,” attests Reichental. “While selecting a vibrant, pro-business destination was a major part of that decision, we were equally looking for a community in which entrepreneurial thinking thrives.
“With a long list of business success stories, a talented labor market and world class infrastructure, the Charlotte region had all the right ingredients for us to develop and scale our business. The city’s location—balanced between Asia and Europe—also made it much easier to manage our expanding global operations in real time.
“Since our arrival, we have enjoyed a terrific and constructive relationship with the South Carolina Department of Commerce. Our collaboration has already resulted in the creation of hundreds of jobs and is built on the shared belief that building a center of excellence in advanced manufacturing can bring strong benefits to this region.
“For more than 30 years, our success at 3D Systems has come down to the effectiveness of our technology,” Reichental continues. “We invented 3D printing, advanced it and continue to lead the democratization of access to this transformative technology for the benefit of manufacturers, health care providers, consumers and educators.
“From the home, to the school, to the office, to the kitchen, this technology is going to change everything; from how we design, to how we make, how we learn, how we live, how we eat, how we stay healthy, how we share. Everything.”
3D printing’s potential to revolutionize our lives is quickly becoming apparent, and 3D Systems is poised to be a major force helping shape the new order of things.
Forbes has ranked 3D Systems No. 13 among the Most Innovative Growth Companies with a market capital less than $10 billion, and just recently No. 43 among America’s Best Small Companies in 2014.