Cathy Lewis – “With a Focus on the Customer and Real Application Requirements, This Industry Has a Fantastic Future”

Cathy Lewis, long-time 3D print executive

Cathy Lewis, long-time 3D print executive

This article originates from Women In 3D Printing and is part of our effort to support the use of 3D printing technology by women. The article is re-published with permission. [Note: this is the second time we've published an interview with Ms. Lewis. Our previous interview took place way back in 2008, when she ran Desktop Factory. You can read it here and here.]

Cathy Lewis was the Chief Marketing Officer for 3D Systems from 2009 to mid 2016. Before that, she used to be the CEO for Desktop Factory from 2006 to 2009, placing her as one of the pioneer in the 3D Printing industry as we know it today. I believe we can even say that more than a pioneer, her role as C.M.O at 3D Systems placed her as one of the most influential person in the industry over the last 10 years.

Nora Toure: Cathy, could you let us know about your background and what brought you into 3D printing in the first place?

Cathy Lewis: My introduction to 3D printing 10 years ago was quite fortuitous as I had no idea what it was at the time.  I had spent over two decades in sales and marketing of traditional printers and copiers, had just left my last position and very much wanted to return to Southern California with a new career direction. A former colleague recommended me for a position at a start-up that was working on a low cost 3D printer. After just one conversation with an engineer it was clear that I should pursue the opportunity with Desktop Factory immediately … and learn about 3D printing along the way. It turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life.

Nora Toure: Was the democratization of 3D Printing always a goal of yours?

Cathy Lewis: Once I understood the power of 3D printing – I believed that access to the technology was paramount. This was the purpose behind Desktop Factory – to create affordable and capable 3D printers for a much broader segment of the market.   I have personally experienced how 3D technologies can positively impact designers, engineers and students, not to mention change entire industries for the better, like healthcare, as an example.  

Nora Toure: What do you think of the industry today?

Cathy Lewis: This is a very challenging but also exciting time for 3D printing and related technologies. We have seen the founding companies struggle somewhat as they have faced rapid growth and unprecedented pricing and technology disruption. Add to that what I will call a book-end phenomena as larger, well funded enterprises and start-ups alike begin to enter the space.  Customers are in an enviable position as they weigh the choice of technologies offered or becoming available versus the incredible value of the experience and technology portfolio’s the incumbents have accumulated.  

Nora Toure: How would you like to see it evolve?

Cathy Lewis: There is a great deal at stake for this next decade in 3D printing so “evolve’ is the key word.  I believe the established players have a tremendous amount of experience that has to be taken into consideration. The larger new entrants have organization, stability and knowledge of the enterprise which is important. The start-ups may offer break-through technologies as only time will tell. That said, there is no single technology or company that can solve all of the application opportunities that exist. I am hopeful that the early adopters and companies like 3D Systems will continue to collaborate and push the envelope in industries such as healthcare to the next level; we have seen 3D technology improve patient outcomes but so much more is still possible. I would also like to see partnerships evolve to best serve the customer segments with the greatest potential for end-use manufacturing – disrupting a company’s supply chain is a significant undertaking that requires a multi-disciplinary approach. With a focus on the customer and real application requirements this industry has a fantastic future.

Nora Toure: Do you have any (fun or not) story about your career to share with us?

Cathy Lewis: Probably the most fun and unusual career experience was when I applied for the CEO position at Desktop Factory. I interviewed with the key investor executives, presented my background and capabilities and felt by the end of the meeting that the job was mine. However,  I got a call the next day with a special request – the hiring managers wanted me to “win over” the existing team who did not believe they needed an outsider as a CEO. While I was surprised with the approach I saw it as an opportunity. So I collected as much information as I could about the company and the proposed product and put together an investment presentation. The team were all impressive technologists  but no one seemed to have marketing background so they all sat in on my presentation along with a few of the hiring executives. It was definitely not perfect BUT I garnered their respect  and at the end asked them to invest in the company and me. I got the order – and have maintained those relationships to this day.

Nora Toure: What was the most impressive or impactful use of 3D printing you’ve seen so far?

Cathy Lewis: This is a difficult question as the range of uses for 3D printing is so broad – however, I believe that healthcare is extremely compelling. The most impactful for me was the reconstruction of a young man’s lower face.  His name is Blessing and an explosive in his village in Africa detonated and blew off much of his jaw. The locals were able to keep him alive but he had to hide away and could barely eat or speak given the trauma to his face. A non-profit brought Blessing to the US for surgery, which was planned and supported by 3D Systems, and during which he received a new jaw made from his leg bone and new teeth. A few months ago Blessing attended the grand opening of 3D Systems Healthcare facility in Denver and he got a chance to meet one of his hero’s – Chuck Hull! It was an amazing experience – particularly as Blessing is now studying engineering. Honestly, we were all in tears!

Nora Toure: As a woman entrepreneur, what was/ is your biggest challenge? Any challenge specific to the 3D printing industry?

Cathy Lewis: Unfortunately, high tech overall and 3D printing in particular, continues to struggle with attracting and maintaining a balanced workforce. 3D Systems is doing some good work now with internal development, local outreach and informal mentor relationships. Foundations that work with  children are helping, like FIRST, to attract young girls to the technology early enough that they will seek out careers in the space.  I am also impressed with some of the work that Intel is doing to attract girls to tech fields.  This balanced workforce is important as we need diverse, creative talent to deliver on the best of what 3D promises.

Nora Toure: What makes the 3D printing industry particularly interesting for you as a business person?

Cathy Lewis: I find 3D very interesting as it solves real business problems. There are still so many people who do not realize that almost every product they own gets to them through the magic of 3D printing, 3D visualization, concept modeling or manufacturing. Even the movies we consume – from animation to prop’s – are courtesy of 3DP. And, after 30 years we have just scratched the surface in my opinion.

Nora Toure: As a woman?

Cathy Lewis: The breadth of solutions that 3D enables is compelling to me as a woman. I can apply my artistic talents, better leverage the freedom of design and be creative with fewer boundaries.  I can help deliver better patient outcomes in the high growth healthcare segment and begin to educate physicians and others on the almost unlimited potential to be found there.  Plus, as an industry that has become almost an overnight success, there is still a great deal of work to educate, inform and tell the real stories behind 3D technology.   

Nora Toure: In your opinion, how could we encourage more women to become involved with 3D Printing?

Cathy Lewis: I believe that groups like yours go a long way to encourage women to think about our industry which was the main reason I was so excited to participate through this blog. The IDSA can be an important contributor as design is an essential component to 3DP. We also need to look to the many women who have made recognizable contributions – people like Ping Fu from Geomagic / 3D Systems and Lisa Crump of Stratasys  … build on and amplify their success. When combined with the early attraction possible through educational programs we can begin to make meaningful strides with the inclusion of women.  Thank you so much for inviting me to comment – it is a real privilege!

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Thank you for reading and for sharing!

Via Women in 3D Printing

Nora Toure

California-based Nora Toure is the woman behind “Women in 3D Printing”, a group dedicated to promoting and showcasing the use of 3D printing for women. She’s also a Sales Manager at 3D print -on-demand service Sculpteo.