We recently had the opportunity sit down and chat with the new President of Ultimaker North America, John Kawola.
Kawola is very well known in the 3D print world, have spent time with several 3D print-related companies, including Voxel8 and Spaceclaim, but he is most noted for his time at Z Corp, where he was CEO from 2008 to 2012.
At that time ZCorp produced the only full color 3D printer in existence, and in our interview we asked him his opinion of the color 3D print markets.
But since Ultimaker’s announcement of Kawola’s installment as President of their North American operations, we’ll start there.
Fabbaloo: Let’s talk about materials. We’ve talked to a lot of companies and it seems there’s patterns emerging. One of them seems to be the need for unusual or exotic materials and it seems that engineers want to print their part in the material they need and that's what they're looking for. So there are machines that can 3D print high temperature materials like PEEK, etc. It appears there's apparently a market for particular materials. They would not buy a printer “unless it could print this specific material”, because that's what they need. How are you guys fitting into that paradigm?
John Kawola: Part of that is a real need, and part of that is just “I want the best thing and I'm only going to buy it if it's the best thing”. There's a fallacy. For example, people talk about flexible materials all the time, saying “It’s great to have flexible materials.” Flexible materials are pretty nice for some applications. I don't know the actual statistic here, but based on experience and knowing this area, it's tiny.
If you took all the material sold in the world for 3D printing, the amount flexible materials has got to be 1%. It’s some small number.
The way we fit in with exotic materials fits with our material strategy. We're still open source in terms of hardware and software. Most increasingly we find our customers, the makers, cared about that, because certain makers wanted to be able to get in there and do things and make your own machine or putting adapters on Android. Do whatever they want.
Increasingly as we move into a more professional market, they just want a machine that works. But we are still open source.
Probably more valuable to customers is that we are open platform for materials. Customers can use whatever filament they want and we honor the warranty. We can't foresee everything, and we can't control everything but as long as the materials don't damage the machine, then you're fine.
We offer a range materials under the Ultimaker brand. We have a few partners, as we're not a filament manufacturer so we have a couple partners and who do private label filament for us. We’re doing PLA, ABS, polycarbonate, nylon and TPU.
We're doing 6 or 7 different materials now, and that's another reason why I think the desktop printers have moved into the professional space. It's because it's not just PLA any more.
People use our materials; we think they're sort of tweaked and optimized to work really well in our printers. We think there's a benefit for doing that. I wouldn't say they're the cheapest but they're competitively-priced and then there's an advantage on the Ultimaker 3.
There's a chip on the Ultimaker 3 spool holder, so if you load an Ultimaker spool, the machine now knows.
Fabbaloo: But you can switch? You can still load any other filament?
John Kawola: You could use whatever you want. What's been increasingly popular lately is a carbon fiber filled nylon material. It opens up the imagination. There are a couple of competitors out there, for example MarkForged, good company, they’ve got the FDM process, but with a strand of carbon fiber filament. That’s really interesting. They’ve got a machine that’s basically chopped carbon fiber and nylon.
We can do that. That material is available. We can do that now.
This might be a little bit of a stretch, but the Desktop Metal process is FDM. There are powdered material filaments out there on the market today. No, we haven't done a lot of work to verify this, but the theory is we could print that, too. But you still have to take the part afterwards and stick it into in a very complex de-bindering and sintering oven. But they have to do that too, though.
That process, that to the extent that I know, the Desktop Metal process is like metal injection mold and so there are metal injection molders all over the world who know how to do the secondary steps. At the front end, how about was doing this on a desktop 3D printer? That’s a bit of stretch for a claim right now, but the theory is that the FDM process has dominated the desktop printing market because it's pretty simple. You can make low-cost machines, and there is a pretty big range of materials available today and more people could imagine.
Patents are expired and so it does open up many possibilities. Our approach in terms of materials is to continue to offer lots of materials under our brand and increasingly try to qualify and certify other materials.
We don't really do that today due to bandwidth, but there's lots of people using other materials and parts are fantastic.
Fabbaloo: When you have a community through which you could do that…
John Kawola: We have over 20,000 people in our forum. It’s one of the things that are different about the desktop market then the historical professional market. It sorta grew up around the makers, maybe because the machines didn’t work that well? So in a weird way they all got together and helped the industry move to a certain place. Our community is probably still our single biggest marketing asset. It’s the community.
Fabbaloo: There are tons of new competitors today that are producing machines similar to yours. Who would you view as your competitors today?
John Kawola: Theoretically it’s all the desktop machines, but it's starting to shake out. There aren't too many players out there, and I don't know the exact numbers, but there aren't too many players out there that are 10 million dollars in revenue. LulzBot is a good company, Zortrax does OK, Prusa at a lower price point, generally. MakerBot is still around but sort of in decline, we think. So there is a handful of desktop FDM machines that are still doing well.
A lot of them have fallen away, just because if you can't build a reasonable business over the course of a few years, you’re probably going to go away.
I would argue Formlabs is more of our competition, even though the technologies are different. Strengths and weaknesses are different, but price points are almost exactly the same.
Fabbaloo: You're both pursuing interesting materials.
John Kawola: A lot of it is the same user. People usually gravitate toward Formlabs if they need better surface finish and detail that I just can’t do, but ours is just getting better and better. They're getting more materials so it's interesting. And increasingly Stratasys is our competition.
Fabbaloo: Do you feel you are edging up towards them?
John Kawola: We absolutely are. It’s happening now. We're in a position where we're trying to sell to the maker and we're trying to sell the schools. And we will absolutely try to sell to Airbus. But I'm pretty sure Stratasys doesn't want Airbus buying MakerBots. They probably want them to buy the more professional Stratasys equipment.
With all the other activity going on, we’re happy to be flying under the radar to a certain degree. What’s our goal? We believe that in the desktop space there will be a couple winners. Not one winner, but a handful, three or four. It’s similar to computers; there were a whole bunch and now there's just a couple.
Fabbaloo: As Stratasys seems to be floating off into the world of manufacturing, maybe they're leaving a space where those vendors can go into?
John Kawola: Maybe. We tend not to just be happy to settling for what somebody else is left behind [laughs], but we see there's real demand at the price points that we sell at, and we see that increasingly for prototyping, when people think about the idea of spending USD$30-40-50,000 for a machine to do prototyping, they go, “huh?”
That's the way it used to be, but now you can do something for much less. As the quality of those desktop machines increases, I think we're very much sneaking up on “FDM Stratasys quality”. You could argue that Formlabs is as good as EnvisionTEC for the lots of things. Carbon is pretty complicated, but at the end of the day it's a resin-based, light-activated system with all the goodness of that process.
Fabbaloo: I’m wondering what you guys might be doing next. I have a suspicion it's not going to be an Ultimaker 4. It's probably going to be something surrounding the workflow of how the machine would be operating in the a professional environment.
John Kawola: We spend a lot of time thinking about that. We think deeper penetration for us is important. We will have “next machines”, we will have an Ultimaker 4, we will have all these things, but software environments are just as important. Same with cloud environments and ease of use. All those things, I think, are equally important.
Fabbaloo: Aside from Ultimaker, what do you think of color 3D printing? Is there really a market for that?
John Kawola: I’ve spent years and years working selling color 3D printing in the past [laughs]. After spending probably 10 years selling color and sending my kids to college on the back of color 3D printing, it's not that big. I think most parts in the world are not multicolor, They are brackets and other things, they’re all one color. So that's one reason.
There are certainly great applications. A lot of the specific applications, whether they are consumer-oriented like figurines, or mapping is interesting.
For industries that are consumer-oriented and have a lot of people in the supply chain, that's where color was a home run. I’ll show a couple of examples: Footwear was a huge home run, because they were people designing your shoes in Boston and Oregon while the factories were in Asia. They really cared about like the 3D model and “is that color we want?” and “is that the look we want?”
The cycle times in the footwear industry are very fast; every 6 months they are coming out with new shoes. That was an industry where it was an absolute home run! ZCorp sold equipment to every single one. All companies had one, making sneakers. Packaging: the look of a bottle, the look of a package, was extremely important.
The business was very fragmented, so you had a firm that was designing the look and feel, you had the glow molding company, who makes it is different, you had Pepsi that's different, so you had all these different entities. It put a real premium on the communication value. If they're all the same room, color 3D printing may be less value to them, but here they were all spread around the world, in different companies. Those were home runs.
And it’s a little bit of a novelty. In the very early days of ZCorp when we came out with their first color machine, the color wasn't great. Reactions were pretty mixed. People would ask “why I can't justify color”, “what's the ROI for color?” Then we had another version came out that was much, much better. It was interesting, as the same people who said there was no ROI for color, said they need that now.
Fabbaloo: Anything to add?
John Kawola: We see there will be winners in the desktop space and we see us as the desktop machines moving into the professional environment. Now it's happening and that was not true two years ago. It's happening at a pace which is pretty quick.
This is part 2 of a 2 part interview. See part 1 here.