Ultimaker NA Pres John Kawola
John Kawola joined Ultimaker as North American President in April 2016.
Ten years ago, John Kawola remembers the 3D printing industry as a very different place to how it looks today. While still a dynamic field with innovation aplenty, it was dominated by a handful of players. “3D Systems, Stratasys, EOS and EnvisionTEC,” the President of Ultimaker North America lists. Between them, they dominated the 3D printer business, they drove innovation at a rate smaller companies could not keep up with, and they all had a closed materials environment.
Desktop machines and open source platforms were practically non-existent.
A worldwide recession stands as a timely reference point for when the industry began to change. It forced companies to consolidate. Stratasys and Objet merged together. 3D Systems made a large number of acquisitions. At the time, Kawola was CEO of Z Corp – one of those purchased by 3D Systems. He left the company in 2012, just as the economy was recovering. Around the same time, desktop 3D printing companies were starting to make a name for themselves. Back then, Kawola’s attitude towards desktop 3D printing was much different. Perhaps self-serving, because of his position at an industrial 3D printing business, Kawola was cynical of the emerging technology to say the least.
As he maintained a more distant connection with the industry between 2012 and 2016, Kawola acknowledged how useful the machines became, not only as a hobbyist technology, but even as a viable solution for professionals. He also believes the smaller machines were responsible for driving greater public awareness to the industry. This in turn contributed to the initial financial market infatuation with 3D printing between 2012-2013, which brought a huge amount of investment to the industry. But more than that, Kawola credits the huge strides in materials development, which has afforded greater innovation, to the emergence of desktop 3D printing and open source platforms.
Stratasys FDM Nylon 12CF
Earlier this year, Stratasys launched a Nylon material compatible with FDM 3D printing machines.
“For years and years, there was only a handful of companies that had the majority of the 3D printer business,” Kawola recalls. “[With their closed materials environments] those companies developed materials for their platforms. If you were customers of those companies, you bought materials specifically from them. I would say 90% of the materials used on those machines were made by those companies. Of course, their core capabilities are primarily around the machine and the software and not necessarily the materials.”
Fast forward ten years, and there has been a wealth of development in materials for 3D printing. Much of that is down to expert chemical companies. But initially, Kawola recollects, their knocks on the 3D printing door were rebuffed by the group of companies that ruled the roost. For these companies, there was no financial incentive to work with chemical companies. Their closed materials business model was very profitable. The arrival of desktop 3D printers changed that.
“With the evolution of desktop 3D printing five or six years ago, many of the companies had more of an open platform, so we offered materials under our brand that we hoped our customers would buy, but there’s also the ability to use other materials,” explains Kawola. “It opened the door for the large chemical companies and plastics companies to join the 3D printing party.
“Our observation is that it has significantly enhanced the amount of people working on it in the world. That has helped the companies who have had an open platform to pretty quickly offer a huge range of materials. And that innovation continues to happen month over month now a number of the huge chemical companies are involved in this.”
Ultimaker 3 print head
With the influence of chemical specialists, such as Covestro and BASF, 3D printing has made increasing impacts in a greater range of industries. The technology first developed in the 1980s is disrupting the medical, aerospace and construction sectors to name just a few. The open source nature of desktop 3D printing, concurrent with the mass adoption of the technology as a whole in a variety of sectors, has seen the likes of Ultimaker gain custom from large scale manufacturers. Many companies would rather a farm of 12 desktop machines to a single larger-scale industrial machine. Kawola analogised companies preferring a cluster of computers or servers working in parallel to a single supercomputer.
He believes, as the development of materials continues at its current rate, desktop 3D printing will become an increasingly attractive option for manufacturers. For desktop companies, there’s a genuine excitement with this progress. The emergence of carbon-filled materials and metal-powdered materials has only heightened anticipation. Though parts printed with these materials may not yet be qualified, or on the market, Ultimaker is still making plans to leverage these blossoming resources, all in a bid to maximise its presence as a manufacturing solution provider.
“One of the reasons Ultimaker and some of our desktop competitors have been able to migrate to the professional space is the range and variety of materials that we now offer and are available on this platform,” Kawola says. “You go back two years and the only thing people talked about on desktop 3D printers was PLA, and PLA is still great and a lot of people still use it, but now we offer ABS, polycarbonate, Nylon, polypropylene, and a flexible material. That has helped us appeal to a much wider range of professional customers.
Markforged Carbinfibre material
Markforged released a carbon micro-fibre reinforced Onyx 3D printing material in June 2016.
“Having the ability for stronger materials or higher temperature materials has just expanded the capability of the platform. When you want to think about using parts beyond prototyping, for fixtures, or jigs, or tools, for example, in a manufacturing environment, PLA is generally not going to cut it. It’s not going to have the strength and endurance of ABS or polycarbonate – Nylon is turning into a very popular material for our customers – so it’s just opened the window for what people can use on desktop 3D printers.
“That range of materials, along with the fact that machines are more reliable and parts are more accurate and more consistent, I think a combination of all those things has helped open up the market for desktop 3D printers in a professional space.”
Since the President of Ultimaker’s North America division is so forthright in his belief that the expansive development of materials has had a major role in Ultimaker’s recent success, it’d be natural to expect a greater concentration from the Dutch company in this area. And though Ultimaker will stop short of developing materials themselves – its partners will continue to drive that business segment – Kawola does confirm the company’s commitment to supporting the continued innovation. Not only will Ultimaker seek to make its printers compatible with as many materials as possible, but it would also like to take more responsibility in the certifying of materials before their release to market.
The Ultimaker 3 is the Dutch company's latest desktop machine.
“We see our role as one continuing to offer our line of materials that are branded under Ultimaker, but also we’d like to have the ability to certify materials that we don’t sell. I think we’ll choose to carry a bunch of materials, and there will be a certain number of materials that we don’t carry, but we’d like to take a more active role in qualifying and certifying materials so that our customers feel comfortable that yes this [material] has been tested and yes it has been proven to run well on this platform.”
Last week marked Kawola’s one year anniversary at Ultimaker. It’s a position his former self, a sceptic and nonbeliever of desktop 3D printing, did not imagine he’d be in, and proud to be in at that. But even in just a half-hour-long conversation it was clear that those feelings have long subsided. Kawola has been converted. And he cites desktop 3D printing’s willingness to commit to open source platform rather than the typical closed environment of yesteryear as, not only the reason for his change of attitude, but also as a major factor in the growth of desktop 3D printing, and maybe even the wider industry as a whole.