The State of Metal Additive Manufacturing
Ian Wright posted on February 25, 2019 |

The EOS vision of the factory of the future. (Video courtesy of EOS.)

Although the metal additive manufacturing (AM) industry is relatively new—especially compared to more traditional manufacturing technologies, such as machining—it’s already seeing a number of big shake-ups. The most recent was the acquisition of Stratasys metal AM spinout, Vulcan Labs, by EOS. The move saw EOS expand its footprint in Texas and Vulcan Labs’ former CEO David Leigh transition to COO of EOS North America.

Engineering.com had the opportunity to sit down with Leigh and EOS North America President, Glynn Fletcher, to discuss the recent announcement and the state of metal AM today.


Can we start with a bit of background on you both?

Glynn Fletcher, President of EOS North America. (Image courtesy of EOS.)

Glynn Fletcher, President of EOS North America. (Image courtesy of EOS.)

GF: So, I am, let’s say, a machine tool veteran. I’ve been in the industry for almost 35 years, originally Cincinnati Milacron in the UK for 12 years, then 18 years with GF Machining Solutions. As you’ve probably detected, I’m not originally from Chicago, which is where I live now. I moved here in 2002 to work for GF Machining Solutions where I was the President of their Americas operation, and I joined EOS almost exactly four years ago.


DL: I just recently joined EOS by way of acquisition with Vulcan Labs but I'll start at the beginning. I started at UT Austin in mechanical engineering when 3D printing—laser sintering—was being developed there in the late ‘80s. I went to work for DTM Corporation which commercialized the first laser sintering system back in the early ‘90s. I worked with them for several years, started a service bureau that became Harvest Technologies, did that for roughly 20 years, which was acquired by Stratasys in 2014 to become part of Stratasys Direct Manufacturing where they combined one other acquisition which would have been Solid Concepts. I transitioned from the service bureau to a kind of emerging technologies R&D, which spun off as Vulcan Labs.


What can you tell us about the acquisition in terms of how long it’s been in the works and what it means for EOS and Vulcan Labs?

GF: The acquisition formally has been in the works for around about six months, but EOS and Stratasys Direct and David Leigh have had very long relationship that stretches back over many years, so it wasn't a question of getting to know the group. David and his team have been known very well to EOS for a very long time.

So, when it came to our attention that there may be the opportunity to acquire the team as an ensemble it was too good an opportunity to miss, because we believe very vehemently that the difference between success and failure in this relatively new additive space is based on the amount of talent that you have in your organization and how well you leverage it. There is an enormous amount of experience and expertise on the Vulcan team, and they're very local to our facility in Pflugerville, Texas.

We have around 75,000 square feet of tech center office space, warehouse space, etc., and the Vulcan team is really only about 50 miles away in Belton, Texas. It was a perfect fit.


David Leigh, COO of EOS North America. (Image courtesy of EOS.)

David Leigh, COO of EOS North America. (Image courtesy of EOS.)

DL: I was one of the angel investors and co founders of Integra, which was acquired by EOS, and they were located in the Pflugerville area. Then I was an angel investor in Advanced Laser Materials, which is in Temple, which is also part of the EOS North America family. So, a lot of the team that we work with here in Pflugerville and Temple have been colleagues of mine with different hats, different business cards, so we've worked very closely together.

As you can imagine, Stratasys Direct is a large service bureau and powder bed fusion is a huge part of what they do, and so we've been a key customer for ALM, Advanced Laser Materials and Integra and EOS North America for some years. We've all kind of been going in the same general direction, we've just now joined tracks instead of parallel paths.


I’m getting the impression that this is more about talent than technology. Is that right?

GF: It's a combination of both. The prevailing decision was made based upon the acquisition of the talent, but there is also some interesting technology that is associated with that. This is work that has been completed or is in the process of being developed through the Vulcan Labs team over the course of the last couple of years, and there are certainly opportunities to apply that technology in the EOS environment.


We’ve been seeing a lot of acquisitions in the metal AM market lately. Do you think consolidation is going to be an ongoing trend?

GF: I think it's inevitable with any industry where there is an accelerated degree of integration. It was the same in the CNC machine tool industry: smaller organizations get absorbed into larger organizations. I think it's just the inevitable process of maturity. That's a long way of saying yes, but believe that that is the case.

The Vulcan Labs Team. (Image courtesy of EOS.)
The Vulcan Labs Team. (Image courtesy of EOS.)

DL: I would concur; look at what Microsoft or Google or anybody else does. As we become more mature, the fish get a little bit bigger, and there's going to be a lot more innovation down the food chain, so there's going to be a lot of people that start in a garage who don’t grow to a public company or a large multinational company. They have some secret sauce, it's going to be acquired and usually that's a win for the innovator and the larger company because they can innovate so much quicker outside the controlled boardrooms that dominate the world marketplace.

I think that the great thing we have in combining these is that we're kind of getting the best of worlds. [Texas is] a fairly small, intimate region for us, while EOS North America allows us both to have the innovation of smaller teams but also tied to a larger, global infrastructure.

 

There’s been a tendency in polymer AM toward an open-source approach in materials, machine parameters, etc. Are you seeing similar trends in metal AM?

GF: All of our work today on both the metal and polymer side is focused on the development of value chain solutions, which are often industry buzzwords today—digital threads, Industry 4.0—but we’re taking them very seriously because we’re convinced that moving additive from rapid prototyping into full scale production means integrating it into the entire manufacturing process. So, we have to be able to compare favorably with all those traditional manufacturing technologies that are now fairly sophisticated in their digital approach.

The Factory of the Future. (Image courtesy of EOS.)
The Factory of the Future. (Image courtesy of EOS.)
That's where our development is more, let's say, directed these days to the integration of the additive manufacturing process rather than the technological development of the process. It's not that we're not developing technologically, but we have come to realize that the technology is only one component. If the technology is not a comfortable fit into the mainstream shop or factory floor, then it isn't going to be adopted at the rate that we believe it deserves to be.

That's one part of it. The other part of it is—and I think this is very important because it ties into the decision to acquire the Vulcan Labs team—is that, if you are in mainstream production, your customers are relying on your equipment to produce parts that go into aircraft engines or motor vehicles or spacecraft or whatever. So, there is a different imperative compared to rapid prototyping and as a consequence of that, you need to provide your customers with a different support structure, which includes security.


DL: The ecosystem is what's really going to drive the adaption of the technology. You look at PCs back in the '70s and '80s, a lot of people had them for hobbies and there were programmers and stuff, but it was typically not really democratized until we really got the internet and connected things and you could actually start doing consumer purchases, you could visit with people online, it made a social element. So, we've seen that with computers and we're starting to see that with 3D printing: as long as it stays as a distinctly isolated tool that goes into a shop, it will be used in that way.

That’s why one of our focuses is building that ecosystem—the teams and people that we’ve brought on are good practitioners of the technology and they understand the applications. We have the Additive Minds group that’s focused on helping the customer with their application. If we can put a pilot in the seat of a plane, that’s a lot better.

If you look at what Steve Jobs did for Apple, he intuitively knew how customers needed to use the technology, and that’s what we’re trying to do here in North America. We need to be in front of the applications, instead of behind them.


How does the additional EOS coverage in Texas align with your customers’ needs? Are you pursuing any particular industries in the region?

GL: David, you’re the Texas expert. You answer that.


DL: [Laughs] Yeah, I was born and raised here. I think the simple answer is that this is where the talent is. If you look at Austin, DTM—the first laser sintering company—started here and spun off other things. Solid Concepts was located in Valencia, but they opened an office in Austin primarily because of the talent. We started Harvest Technologies in Belton, which is right outside Austin, so now Stratasys Direct has offices in Austin and Belton. Concept Laser has an office up in Grapevine, which is in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. You’ve got Farsoon Technologies, which is a Chinese manufacturer, but Dr. Xu Xiaoshu who founded it was at DTM and now he’s in Round Rock, so Farsoon is local, too. Arconic, which was acquired by Alcoa, is another service bureau in Austin. And, obviously, EOS is in Austin.

EOS in Pflugerville. (Image courtesy of EOS.)
EOS in Pflugerville. (Image courtesy of EOS.)
If you look at the other, smaller firms in the area, I think a large part of it is that ecosystem that we were talking about on the hardware side, but there's also the human component. There's a reason a lot of financial institutions and people are headquartered in New York. There's a reason a lot of the IT development world is in Silicon Valley. You have the infrastructure for the education as well as jobs for first and second tier, and we’re seeing that in additive.

Austin is also central to the U.S., which means it has an airport that is direct flight to a lot of the major cities now in the U.S. and several directs abroad. There's a direct to London, a direct to Frankfurt. We’re also close to three major research universities that are globally recognized: Rice University in Houston, Texas A&M in College Station and the University of Texas here in Austin.

Again, there are a lot of factors at play here, but I think if we decided to try to build the same ecosystem in Orlando, Florida because that’s where we wanted to be, it would be tough because you don’t have any of those things in play, but that infrastructure is pretty solid here in Texas.


It sounds like Austin is a major hub for additive manufacturing.

DL: Right now, in North America, I would say it’s developed as the hub. I think the focus early on was Detroit—a lot of people had offices in Detroit—but as we’ve seen manufacturing is shifting to more of a virtual manufacturing instead of traditional, big factory plants. There’s a dispersion and so you see pseudo-manufacturing hubs in the Boston area, in Silicon Valley area—look at Tesla: they’re not manufactured in Detroit. Along with that dispersion comes coalescing in other tech hubs, and Austin is one of the primaries in additive.


Is there anything else you think our readers would be interested to learn about the acquisition?

GF: Just for emphasis: this acquisition is a further demonstration of our commitment to creating the infrastructure and building the ecosystem that will allow additive manufacturing to migrate from the traditional prototyping environment to production. In terms of the Gartner Hype Cycle, we’re climbing the Slope of Enlightenment to reach full-scale adoption in the real-world, mainstream production environment.


DL: We're looking at bringing the talent and the different perspective of different regions. So, I think this is one step towards a continued investment in this area, but also a maturing of EOS as a company and additive manufacturing as a whole because ultimately you need to have your designers and your manufacturing close to where the people are. The automotive industry doesn't always just build it in one place and ship it over the world; they have custom cars. There's a Chevy version for the US, and there's one for Europe; same for Mercedes and anyone else. It's exciting to see that EOS wanted to step out and do this, and we're excited to see where it's going to take us.


For more information on EOS, take a look Inside the Ongoing Industrialization of Metal Additive Manufacturing.

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