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Stepping into the future – one layer at the time

Innovation & Sustainability

21 May 2019

3D printing has grown by leaps and bounds over the past decade. The technology enables the manufacture of objects, customised and to order, without the need to set up an entire production line. Ultimaker foresees that it will gradually revolutionise our current production and distribution processes.

“You might call it entrepreneurial confidence,” says Siert Wijnia, CTO and co-founder of Ultimaker, an NPM Capital portfolio company. “But the system of mass production in low-wage countries and global distribution is certain to change down the line. 3D printing is an absolute game changer, and we’re seeing many companies now venturing into this territory.”

Ultimaker’s 3D printers are already purchased by numerous businesses that regard 3D printing as a complementary technology that can be valuable at specific stages of the design and production process. Wijnia: “For a long time, the prevailing belief was that 3D printing would wipe out entire production processes, but it doesn’t quite work that way. If you look at a product’s lifecycle, you’ll find that 3D printing has the most added value at the early stages of the process – the visual and functional prototypes, if you will – and in the final phase, when the production stage of the product has essentially been completed but there is still a demand for spare parts. Several of our customers have begun using the technology for small quantities of functional parts. And although 3D application is still relatively rare in mass production processes, it’s really only a matter of time.”

Turnaround time: 2 days
Wijnia would appear to be right, judging by the latest trends in 3D metal printing. Companies operating in this sector, including EOS and Desktop Metal, are rapidly developing new – albeit still very expensive – 3D metal printers that operate many times faster than printers from previous generations. Industry powerhouse GE has for some time been using 3D printing technology to print complex metal engine parts for the aviation industry on a large scale, and is currently developing a printer that can also produce larger parts in mass quantities. Equally interesting: researchers at the California-based Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory announced last year that they had developed a 3D printing method for the manufacture of stainless steel parts that are twice as strong as traditionally manufactured parts.

3D printing of plastics is also edging its way into the manufacturing industry – although not in the form of products and product parts, but rather for the production of assembly tools. Wijnia: “Car manufacturer Volkswagen is using our printers, for example, to print a plastic protective cover that shields the rims of the vehicle during the process of turning the wheel screws. That’s something that used to be produced on a small scale. Turnaround time was 10 weeks, and it was expensive to boot. Now, it will set you back just a few euros in materials, and you receive your product within two days.”

“3D printing of plastics is also edging its way into the manufacturing industry”

Industrial companies use up to 80,000 different types of plastics, each with their own specific applications. Wijnia: “That’s a major challenge for us. Our machines use poly wire, but we could never keep tens of thousands of different spools of filament in stock. We solved this problem by developing a separate software tool for the various plastics manufacturers that enables them to adjust their printer settings in such a way as to make their own equipment perfectly compatible with our machines. This means they can provide better services to their end customers and open more and new applications.”

Blood, sweat and tears
As Wijnia explains, creating these types of solutions calls for genuine innovation. “Coming up with a good idea isn’t that hard, but marketing a solution that has real value takes blood, sweat and tears – and sometimes innovation beyond the actual idea alone. It’s really a dynamic process – innovation is never about offering some grand, ready-made solution with a big ribbon tied around it. Customers have a specific purpose, and there’s more than one way to achieve that purpose. So you need to work out the best way to get there together.”

Parallel to developing increasingly versatile and faster printers, Ultimaker is working on promoting the adoption of 3D printer technology. “We’re always looking for new cases that bring out the value of 3D printing,” he says. “Customers may have got past that initial hurdle, but they still want you to show them that the numbers add up. Our job is to develop alternatives to existing technologies that are competitive in terms of price and quality. We achieve that by putting as much of our knowhow into our printers as possible, so that customers can use them without any problem. Sure, it’s fun to play around in a lab and see what sticks, but it won’t really have any value to us unless a workable solution is developed and the technology is included in the workflow.”

Read the full article in Capital Magazine #11
Also read ‘Ultimaker S5 3D printer wins prestigious international iF Design Award 2019’