An interview with Ultimaker’s new CEO reveals some of their future directions.
Late last year Ultimaker revealed their long-time CEO, Jos Burger, would step aside onto Ultimaker’s Supervisory Board to allow for the new CEO, Jürgen von Hollen, to take over. That change officially took place January 1st of this year.
At the time of the initial announcement, Hollen said:
“Ultimaker has the ability to enable dynamic innovation, flexible manufacturing and delivers great productivity improvements. Together, we want to transform organizations and Ultimaker is in a great position to grow as the leader.”
But where will he lead Ultimaker in the future?
A change of the chief executive always leads to profound change (or should) in any organization. The boards of directors choose a leader whose style and skills match the strategy of the board to take companies forward, and that will certainly be the case here.
Hollen’s background is in automation, particularly robotics, so he’s well grounded in marketing hardware, of which Ultimaker does quite a bit.
It’s hard to know where he will take Ultimaker, but we have now gained some insight through an interview published by Ultimaker on their site (which seems to be a condensed version of a full interview from our friends at TCT). Conveniently, this material was published several weeks after Hollen took over, providing sufficient time for him to investigate the situation and develop some strategies.
I’ve reviewed the (still-)lengthy interview and selected certain portions that are of interest. Let’s take a look:
”Over time, we’ll be going from being a pure product player to much more of a platform, application, and solutions player. That’s going to be one of the key drivers for us. Believing that we’ll have a long-term and sustainable competitive advantage on tech alone? I’ve never seen it.”
This is true: Ultimaker started as simply a 3D printer, and quite a good one, too. While that is indeed their foundation and flagship product type, today’s professional 3D printing market is vastly different than it was ten years ago.
Today operators are primarily interested in succeeding, meaning they want machines that are reliable, can use the materials they want to use, and be able to do that in as easy a fashion as possible.
Hollen understands this, and apparently plans to dramatically expand the Ultimaker ecosystem. It’s already growing and is well past the “machine-only” stage. Today they include software, materials, a marketplace and some automation.
Evidently we’re going to get a lot more of that.
“The next point is the ecosystem for innovation. Taking the concept of the ecosystem, extrapolating it up, and making sure we provide an open, certified community.”
This is an important point. Many professional 3D printer operators using Ultimaker equipment will be innovators. Here Hollen demonstrates that he wants to dissect the innovation process and adapt the Ultimaker ecosystem (hardware, software, process, materials, etc.) to fit easily into that process.
That hasn’t really been done extensively by any other 3D printer vendor I know of, so this could be a significant breakthrough if Ultimaker can figure out how to do it.
“I do think we have to be aware of what’s going on around us. It doesn’t make sense to have your blinders up. So, we know what the competition is doing, and we know where the trends are. And we have to react to some of those things and be proactive in some areas.”
In the past few years there has been intense competition in the desktop 3D printer market. While Ultimaker has spent most of that time building their ecosystem, others have implemented a variety of technical innovations to their equipment.
It sounds like Ultimaker will focus on that area too, so we might expect to see the addition of many new features to their future equipment offerings.
“There are two different types of innovation: invention, which is where we came from, versus a structured process for innovation. As companies move up and mature, they have to migrate to process-driven innovation – that’s just the way it is.”
This statement may sound strange to some, but to me it is an important indicator of company maturity. Technology companies invariably start with the technology, and for that there must be strong technical leadership. This attitude cascades through the company and helps it launch and grow in the initial stages.
However, when companies get to a certain size, there must be more attention given to routine administrative matters and that requires a different attitude and skill set. Sometimes companies fail when they switch over to that mode too deeply. However, it seems that Hollen recognizes this and wants to formalize innovation within a newly restructured Ultimaker. This is quite good news, as it means we can expect Ultimaker to continue to innovate.
“But we need to make sure we leverage the community and ecosystem around us, and make sure we’re not becoming myopic or introverted. Because as the market matures, our customers actually know quite a lot about 3D printers, so we should listen and engage with that.”
Hollen here seems to recognize the heritage of Ultimaker and, like his predecessors, recognizes the value of the community. They are, after all, a key element in Ultimaker’s ecosystem. This again is different from some other companies that basically abandoned their early users as they transformed into different forms.
“I’ve been spending quite a bit of time in the last six weeks developing the purpose and how we’re going to be rolling out our vision and the values. Our whole year, we’re going to be doing activities around culture.”
The changes Hollen describes are profound and will take considerable efforts to complete internal change. Successful transformations always require cultural tweaks, if not outright changes. Hollen apparently will deliver this to the company this year.
“The next job is getting the ecosystem aligned, because I can’t partner with somebody who doesn’t agree with us – we have to have the same values. I’d love for us to be able to say we’ve got the biggest ecosystem and platform for 3D printing, in all its dimensions.”
Again, a strong message: they will only work with others that share their values. By documenting their values they’ll no doubt cause some tweaks in their partners’ cultures, which will eventually wash over much of the 3D print community.
Big steps, indeed!