Stealth to Success?

By on October 1st, 2018 in Ideas

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 Super stealthy. [Image: Staff Sgt. Cherie A. Thurlby, via  Wired ]
Super stealthy. [Image: Staff Sgt. Cherie A. Thurlby, via Wired ]

Should more companies stay in stealth mode longer?

Reading Rachel Park’s insightful review of this year’s TCT Show, the first I haven’t attended in the last several years, I found myself struck by this point:

“It’s odd to hear myself say this, but I agree with Dave Burns, who during his presentation at TCT, suggested that more companies should stay in stealth mode for longer,” Rachel wrote.

Should they?

In many ways, being upfront about new endeavors and technologies is an appealing prospect: potential investors and customers are fully aware of the work at hand, and early buzz can help drum up further interest. Growth in this industry is, after all, only possible with — well, growth. Analysts, investors, and press all keep close tabs on the latest announcements and introductions, keeping a keen eye always toward the Next Big Thing that will be hitting the market. Announcing intent, bringing influencers into laboratories, and then releasing new technologies can be a winning strategy.

Except when it isn’t.

Let’s look back a few years: “A 3D printer in every house!” “Everything will be 3D printed!” “3D printing will change the way everything is made!”

Except that there isn’t one, everything isn’t, and it hasn’t been.

We’ve had our share, collectively as an industry, of hyped-up disappointments.

To be fair, we also owe a lot to that hype; a wider range of VCs became interested in 3D printing as it splashed across mainstream headlines, more potential users became aware of technologies, we saw almost total adoption within the hearing aid industry. Heck, I owe my career to the hype, as I was hired in to keep up with the news in 2014.

But when we talk about the hype now, it’s more in terms of crushing disappointment and overblown promises of advances that never materialized. For every orthodontic aligner that took shape, there were dozens of far-flung ideas that never came near fruition. Scores of potential backers won’t touch crowdfunding campaigns after high-profile failures in both business strategies and technological lackings.

Over-promising and under-delivering remains a common problem as many marketing departments still get carried away with what’s going to “revolutionize” or “disrupt” workflows.

So why not wait until there’s a product ready to deliver?

Some of the most interesting new additive companies to emerge in the last year or so have come from nowhere. Looking to Evolve Additive Solutions and Velo3D, we can see some immediate benefits of operating in stealth: emerging fully formed with deliverable technology forestalls the will-they-or-won’t-they, replacing it instead with they-already-are.

Evolve showed up this spring with its wholly new STEP process, targeted toward production; mere months later, they’ve gone into alpha placement, added investment, and are gearing up for beta. Velo3D, which we’ve known would emerge with some new metal 3D printing magic, finally lifted the veil of secrecy on their Intelligent Fusion process just six weeks ago. Both teams were very set on maintaining stealth until their carefully selected time arose when they were ready to go public. Speaking with executives for both ahead of these launches gave some look into what it was that had made the approach so important for them.

Evolve CEO Steve Chillscyzn told me the first time we spoke, while I was in my previous position, that working in the lab from 2011 through late 2017 provided the team the ability to truly understand the science and the technology they were creating. When we caught up again to speak about the latest evolutions at Evolve a couple of weeks ago, it was with a forward-looking focus, as he said:

“In the next 18-24 months there will be a lot of activity around commercializing STEP technology.”

Those six years in the lab laid the groundwork for what is now a speedier timeline toward commercialization. Working in private enabled a new technology to be developed and a new system built from the ground up, taking STEP step by step.

A similar story provides velocity to Velo’s Intelligent Fusion. Also built as a new technology, the Sapphire System is unique in its operation, with the groundwork laid behind closed doors. The biggest differentiator here, Director of Business Development Zach Murphree told me at IMTS, is its closed-loop melt pool control, which is typically found in manufacturing machinery but is not yet common in additive manufacturing.

It’s too soon, of course, to say that Evolve or Velo solved a major puzzle through their strategic introductions to market; the former is not yet commercially available, while the latter has been available only since late August.

But maybe they’re on to something.

It’s not just protecting intellectual property and avoiding potential costly litigation in protecting new patents, but stealth operation also offers the protection of failing in private. No business model or brand new technology will get everything right immediately, and the luxury of having the bits that aren’t quite right happen behind closed doors allows for a more curated image of success without the, ah, embarrassment of premature introduction.

We’re taught as kids: “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Perhaps sometimes in business, there’s something to the idea of, “If you can’t say anything tangible, don’t pre-announce plans.”

By Sarah Goehrke

Sarah Goehrke is a Special Correspondent for Fabbaloo, via a partnership with Additive Integrity LLC. Focused on the 3D printing industry since 2014, she strives to bring grounded and on-the-ground insights to the 3D printing industry. Sarah served as Fabbaloo's Managing Editor from 2018-2021 and remains active in the industry through Women in 3D Printing and other work.