1 of 6
2 of 6
3 of 6
Frank Herzog, Concept Laser Managing Director.
4 of 6
Head of Sales & Marketing at Concept Laser, Oliver Edelmann.
5 of 6
Example of metal additive manufacturing for aerospace.
6 of 6
Example of metal additive manufacturing for jewellery.
Innovation, innovation, innovation; CEO Frank Herzog's summary of how Concept Laser has maintained its lead in the metal additive manufacturing marketplace.
Now is a critical time for this maturing technology. Over the course of two decades of development industry 'founding fathers' have carved themselves niches in the supply chains of major early-adopting sectors. However, the continued rise in popularity of additive manufacturing presents challenges, as new rivals enter the fold and the continuing arms race for developing the most advanced additive manufacturing technology heats up.
Established in 2000 and growing its business within the 50-year-old Hofmann Innovation Group in Lichtenfels, Germany, Concept Laser believes it can maintain its lead in this increasingly competitive market.
Separating the men from the boys
Head of Sales and Marketing Oliver Edelmann explained there is more to being successful in metal additive manufacturing than just being a metal additive manufacturing business. He expects a "significant number" of new machines arriving on the scene in the coming years, but believes Concept Laser's reputation gives it the edge.
"It's not just additive manufacturing. It's quality assurance, monitoring and data storage, and we've learnt a lot working with our customers. This will really separate the men from the boys in the next few years."
Edelmann continued: "Even if a massive company decided to buy a company that specialises in metal additive manufacturing, I think the learning curve to become a trusted supplier to key sectors like aviation is a difficult process. I think it's underestimated by a number of players who are now marching into the market."
This year Concept Laser opened a 600 sq m research and development facility where engineers are hard at work on the latest materials, laser technology, optics and software.
Edelmann stated: "We listen to our customers' demands and try to establish close relationships for our target industries ... and on the product development side we try to involve customers early on to listen to their visions."
Implementing customer demands into Concept Laser's own product development led directly to the creation of the Mlab cusing machine for the dental industry, while the X line 1000R was a co-development project between Concept Laser, Mercedes and other business partners.
Herzog noted: "There aren't so many companies offering this kind of high quality technology on the market at the moment. That will change in the future - we have to maintain our lead.
"The Hofmann Group is a family-owned company and Concept Laser is an independent part of it. At the Hofmann Group, we are 600 people and in the last year we had a turnover of more than €100 million (£82 million, $138 million). Concept Laser is really the think tank and focuses on development and marketing. The Concept side of our business is about 80 people but if we add together all the people who work for this technology within the group it would be 130 people. In that respect, we are really the biggest metal 3D printing company in the world."
Herzog and Edelmann are content with Concept Laser's progress and are reaping the benefits of the recent additive manufacturing boom.
"We already have orders for 2015 and at the moment we are experiencing growth of 30-35 per cent per year. From 2010 to 2014 we've observed really drastic growth," said Herzog.
But is it a case of what comes up must come down? Edelmann and Herzog do not necessarily believe this is so, suggesting the 3D printing 'hype bubble' theory does not necessarily apply to industrial additive manufacturing.
"I can confirm that I see the bubble in the consumer side but not in the industrial environment," Herzog admitted.
Concept Laser's growth is coming from the usual places - jewellery, mould-making, automotive, aviation - and the company singled out production applications as its main driver.
Edelmann explained: "The beauty of the process we have in metals as opposed to plastics is the end-use materials, these have the same mechanical properties as the materials manufacturers currently use so it's not new territory for them. "
Expansion, expansion, expansion
Concept Laser is growing and the company has invested time and money in establishing a successful Students Office, where talented youngsters are handed real tasks to support the Concept team. The vast majority of these students join Concept Laser proper as engineers, making the recruitment of new talent an easy process. Herzog explained hiring skilled graduates can be a problem for businesses, but because additive manufacturing is considered "sexy", that in itself is a motivation for people to work at Concept Laser, giving the business the pick of the crop.
The company is also casting its net wider to the west and east. Edelmann revealed Concept Laser has set in motion plans to establish offices in Texas and outside of Shanghai in China, but with this enthusiasm for expansion, is an Initial Public Offering on the horizon?
Herzog said: "I think at the moment, even though we face big growth in our business, we are able to finance everything from the company group. At the end of the day we must be open to it if, for example, growth becomes so big we need additional capital. Nobody knows the future but the current situation is that we can finance our efforts within the company.
"Never say never," Edelmann added. "I mean we have a lot of people scratching at our doors, but at the moment we are comfortable and can keep the steering wheel in our own hands rather than the hands of investors. It's a big advantage being private, as you can have a long-term mentality. We are fine being financed privately and really can create long-term thinking for the technology."