Executive insights @Disruptive: Frank Herzog, President and CEO of Concept Laser

In a new series of guest blog posts, Disruptive is inviting company leaders from across the 3D printing ecosystem to share their thoughts and insights on the industry, their place in it and what drives them. First up is Frank Herzog of Concept Laser ....  “3D printing that has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything.” The above is quoted from a statement made by US President Barack Obama in 2013. It highlights the huge potential of additive manufacturing and suggests that exploiting this potential can result in powerful effects – for new products, new applications and new functional solution approaches. It's a fact that we can testify to at Concept Laser: additive manufacturing is already one of the leading drivers of innovation for new production strategies and is serving as a platform for the development of new product ideas. The pace of innovation in this sector is extremely rapid. The current hype around 3D printing has generated awareness and in turn demand for our products that far exceeds our most ambitious expectations. Experts are projecting market growth of 400% over the next five years. It's an order of magnitude that's impossible for anyone to ignore, including me. Many business decisions will have to be made to meet the expected demand, in terms of both technology as well as in terms of production capacity. This dynamic market growth should translate into annual sales increases of 40 to 50 %. Concept Laser, in fact, experienced growth of 75 % in 2014, which is above the fast-growing market average. In particular, the US aerospace industry clustered around NASA is a key driver of our growth. How does an additive manufacturing strategy change design approaches? In the past, purchasers placed a conventional component on the table and asked what it would cost to have it produced using the laser melting process. This approach, however, fails to exploit the inherent advantages of the process. Today design engineers are adopting a more systematic approach. They define performance parameters and we then develop solutions that take full advantage of what the additive process has to offer. The results are astonishing, and not only visually. These parts can be bionic in structure and successfully integrate additional functionalities. Furthermore, it's often possible to reduce the amount of material required by 20 to 30 % percent using lightweight building. In short, these 3D components perform better, are more sophisticated and offer added value. This year we look back on 15 years of Concept Laser history … As we at Concept Laser started to build our first system 15 years ago (it made its market premiere in 2001) our heads were filled with youthful dreams about all the great things we could produce, as well as a few basic technical problems we needed to sort out. Over these past 15 years, the company has been a pioneer and technology groundbreaker with numerous patents and innovative products. We have made enormous progress in terms of production speeds, assembly space sizes and quality assurance. All of these factors have helped the process transition from a somewhat eccentric method into a true industrial process. As a hidden champion, we aim to maintain effective R&D activities so as to further develop the technology of the 3D process. As a pioneer and groundbreaking innovator, the market expects us to fulfil this role. We currently invest almost 10 % of sales directly into research and development. The conservative and long-term mindset of small and medium-sized businesses offers, in my view, the ideal basis for fully realizing our strengths in the market over the mid and long-term. Why do we need digital production strategies? As we all know, a good deal of skepticism is often encountered on the eve of major changes and especially, paradigm shifts. It's the old defending itself against the new. We now stand on the verge of a new phase of industrialization, often described rather vaguely with the term "Industry 4.0". In effect, relying on our previous industrial methods, we have reached the "end of quantitative growth". Today an oil-based economy that lays claim to unbridled quantitative growth (the "old" system) is fighting against new ideas, such as a biologically-based, resource and environment conscious economy that's based on qualitative growth. The focus is now on sustainability, resource conservation and decentralized production or local manufacturing. Methods that were successful in the past will likely result in failure in the future. Additive manufacturing is just one of the tiles in the mosaic of change and an opportunity for us to explore. Laser melting technology systems are based on digital approaches, ideally throughout the entire process chain. In concrete terms, for us this means: CAD data are generated by scanners; the data are prepared for the build process; software is used for design purposes and finally, the component is constructed using the laser. This means CAD data can be transferred around the world to enable decentralized 3D printing. This changes business models and offers new entrepreneurial opportunities. Industry 4.0 or the Fourth Industrial Revolution The popular, if vague, term "Industry 4.0" essentially refers to the fourth industrial revolution. It hasn't actually occurred yet, rather it is now only being predicted. This could explain why it's so difficult to define and currently tends to produce more confusion than comprehension when mentioned. The technologies behind this revolution are ultimately the internet or digital networks used to control and manage production systems – in short, the digital approach. Dental laboratories already produce work for a whole network of dentists. Aircraft manufacturers will print out spare parts and reconfigure their logistics. Components can be 3D printed on oil platforms or in orbit, on the ISS. This type of manufacturing is not restricted to centralized production sites. Components are produced "on demand" – precisely when they're needed, where they're needed and with extremely rapid turnaround. Batch sizes are currently between 1 to around 100 and every year, their maximum size is increasing. Additive Manufacturing: What are its prospects for the future? The "Gartner Hype Cycle" aims to describe when an innovation will be adopted by the market. Industrial 3D printing is currently entering the "High-growth adoption phase" of the cycle. This means that 20 to 30 % of potential buyers are beginning to use 3D technology. How are production strategies changing now? What does the development of laser melting mean for the future of manufacturing? I think it's best to outline the answers in brief, using some key terms:
  • Additive manufacturing processes will supplement traditional production strategies; key factors in the decision include: costs, time and quality, complexity of the components and integration of functions.
  • Traditional and additive strategies can be combined, just think of hybrid building.
  • In contrast to manufacturing processes based on molds, remodelling or subtractive methods, the efficiency of additive manufacturing processes actually increases as component geometry becomes more complex.
  • This paradigm shift is already complete in certain sectors. The American aerospace industry now practices additive manufacturing for new innovations as standard in light of time and cost considerations.
  • The additive approach will adapt to the new opportunities: the components of the future will perform better; true lightweight building approaches will take hold. It will be possible to produce bionic structural elements. Geometric freedom will spark a wealth of new product ideas.
  • Decentralized manufacturing offers a range of advantages in terms of costs and CO2
  • The batch sizes that can be produced cost-effectively are increasing
  • The entire process chain will be digital. A dentist scans a patient's teeth with an intraoral scanner. This generates raw CAD data that are transformed into dental implants in a dental laboratory.
  • Additive manufacturing is a green technology: it conserves resources, produces less waste and is also energy-efficient.
  • Production-on-demand and larger batch sizes are not a contradiction
  • Production-on-demand is changing logistics concepts and spare part reserves
  • Maintenance tasks and retrofitting can be performed in quick succession, thereby reducing downtime
One final thought: digital products are now entering into competition with analogue products. Whenever the digital 3D product is better and more cost-effective, we begin a new chapter. And I'm convinced that 3D printing will turn out to be a never-ending story.  

About Franz Herzog

Frank Herzog is President and CEO of Concept Laser