Earlier this year we sat down for a direct chat with the two top executives at Ultimaker to find out what they’re up to.
We spoke with Ultimaker CTO Siert Wijnia (on the left above) and brand new CEO Jos Burger (on the right) about their roles, the company’s focus and Ultimaker’s secret plans.
Stay tuned for the second part of this interview with the leaders of Ultimaker.
Fabbaloo: <Pointing at Siert> You were the CEO and now you are the CTO, what happened?
Siert Wijnia: I will explain. My background is Engineering, and the company has been growing fast and at a certain moment I think it’s not my purpose to be the CEO. It is great to be CEO, however, if I find people that are really fit within the company and they are better at doing that then I am, it’s better for me to do the engineering again because I am good at that. And I found Jos and he is a great Manager. <smiles broadly>
He is the greatest guy I ever found to do this job. I am serious. I am very happy with that, because it gives me the space to be more in the technical part of 3D printing again which resonates with me - what to do next, where does it go. Instead of worrying about distributors, sales channels, HR things, it’s a different ball park. In growing the company I realized that building a printer is nice, building a company - that's the hard part. So I am very happy to have Jos on board.
Fabbaloo: <Pointing at Jos> But you were the COO for a while?
Jos Burger: Siert is now the CTO. Yes I started about 2 years ago, advising the shareholders and then in a few weeks I had to choose what else to do. In the COO position I had a pretty good understanding of what we were facing and what needs to be done. And the rest is history. We spent a lot of time over the last two years cleaning up the whole production infrastructure, building the international distribution, having product management in place, moving offices, refinancing, you name it we've done it.
Fabbaloo: Every CEO has a slightly different approach to things, what's yours?
Jos Burger: I would say being close to the DNA of the company. It is a fantastic company, it’s a pretty flat organization, people are extremely committed, they believe in the mission of Ultimaker. It's all about building the right teams and enabling them: allowing them to do whatever they need to do but also allowing them to make mistakes. It’s a crazy industry where no one can predict where it is heading to, so sometimes you need to just try things in the marketplace. But some things you can't afford. You need your bookkeeping in place, production in place, be compliant, we have that clearly in place.
Look at the market: It is so dynamic. We are almost forced to give people a certain amount of freedom to know what is going on and to translate that into new products and product requirement. So far I think we are on the right track.
Siert Wijnia: It really helps keeping our feet on the ground. It’s been overhyped, 3D printing, and the shakeout has already begun. There are still many Kickstarters popping up - it’s like doing that right thing at the right moment. It’s not just about “Hey! I designed a printer that can do this”; it’s about bringing that to the right people and they are using it for the right purpose, listening to them telling us what they actually need it for is different then shouting out to the world.
And in that regard, we are very close to our customers, our community, which I think is more relevant than anything else in the company because they tell us what they need it for and what to change in the machine. So instead of throwing new machines to the market, it is like, no, we listen very closely to them, trying to improve what we can do better.
Jos Burger: You are right. If you look at what we need to do to be successful, in the long term, especially about having four building blocks in place.
The first one is the printer, the hardware. That is where it all starts, of course.
The second that is sometimes more important, is the software. That is what is steering the machine. This includes our firmware as well as "Cura”, our management software.
The third element, sometimes underestimated, is the materials: What is going into the machine? We are working with large companies now in order to bring Ultimaker-certified materials to the marketplace. We put a stamp on it. If you use this type of material, with our machine and our software, you can be pretty sure that the outcome will be ok.
The fourth pillar is support and services, especially if you work with medium to large sized companies. They mostly outsource the services part and we need to look up to them because if we don't, we miss quite an important element in the whole proposition towards companies and that is what we do today.
Fabbaloo: One of the things I've noticed is that the Kickstarters and new machines coming out have a lot of bells and whistles. The camera, the WiFi, the self-leveling, a combination of those or even more unique features. But Ultimaker doesn’t have those things yet. Why not, and are they coming?
Jos Burger: They will be coming, but I suppose that’s what they all say! The last year we have been mainly focusing on optimizing the existing printer to they point where people can be extremely confident, that for a single purpose machine, that it does what it needs to do. And that is why we introduced the Ultimaker 2+ with a few enhancements that you can talk about if you want. But we know the market is asking us to include other elements, like networking, WiFi, dual extrusion is one of those that people are talking about.
We are extremely careful about announcing today anything in this space but these are the domains we are working on, and sooner than a lot of people expect, we will be ready to include them in the next version of our machines.
Siert Wijnia: And of course, the making of a machine with some of these features, that is not the hard part. The hard part is to make it all work in the whole flow of everything that is being attached to 3D printing.
It starts with this: people don't know how to make a dual material file that needs to be split in two to create two STL files. We are also involved in the 3MF file definition because all of these aspects need to be addressed in the near future.
It is not about two colours, it is about different properties of material. You want to have property information inside your file type so the whole ecosystem needs to grow to that, so it doesn't make sense to shout out to the world that we have “dual extruders”. It takes everything from A to Z and if you cannot do that, nothing is there. You have to build all the blocks. Not just a printer with two heads on it.
Fabbaloo: You don't want to be champion of the specification sheet. You want to be champion of the workflow?
Jos Burger: Right. Very well said.
Siert Wijnia: The work flow, the user experience. It needs to work for your purpose. It is not about the printer; It is what the people print with it. That needs to work for them.
Jos Burger: Basically a lot of customers have simple requirements. They buy this machine, I have something I need to print, with this specific material, and I want to be sure this comes out of the machine. We help them accomplish this. The openness of the printer allows people to tweak the machine and play around with it in order to get a specific outcome.
Fabbaloo: The whole idea of open source. How important is that and is it driving the company?
Siert Wijnia: Yes, I think openness is part of the DNA of the company. I truly believe in that - a lot of engineers are using our machines but they use them for a purpose we didn't know existed. But if we close it up, they cannot use it for their purpose. If we open it, they can tweak the parameters for their purpose. “If you give me the opportunity to play around with those parameters, I can make it even better for my purpose.”
It helps them to do stuff that they want to do and they also give us feedback about what they use it for, instead of just making things. They are creating solutions for their problems and that is what it is about. It is not about printing things.
Jos Burger: They openness of the printer allowed them to play with the nozzles and change it to something else, and the guy in the Nordics in Europe he made quite a perfect solution. We had a chat with him and now we have integrated it in the new machine. Thanks to the openness of the printer, people can play with it.
Siert Wijnia: That is what we now introduced is the Ultimaker 2+. It has, as a standard, four nozzle sizes included in the printer and today you can buy it through our resellers. We don't want to have waiting times. It is there.
Another thing we changed on the printer is the feeder mechanism. We made it much more reliable and also "thermally decoupled"; as you know it has been giving people trouble. If the motor is getting hot, the filament is getting hot and grinding more easily. There’s a number of small tiny changes in there to make it more reliable.
On the print head itself we just changed the angle of the fans. It seems like a small change, however we did many simulations of that and it gives better air flow and provides a better surface quality of the print.
Yeah, we can make a printer in a couple of weeks, and put it on the table but that is not what it is about. It is about what is behind the technology, the theory behind it - then improve on that. Make it gradually better, more reliable because people are starting to use it for serious small run production. If you are using it for that purpose, you want to have it reliable. The first thing is reliability and the rest is extra.
Jos Burger: We talked to a lot of customers of course because, what do we know? In the last four to five months we have been in an exercise to talk to 29 big customers like Tesla, BMW, Philips and also small design firms, makers and so on and and we asked them.“What is the most important aspect of a 3D Printer?”
They say reliability. “I want to press a button and have stuff come out”.