Exclusive: Ultimaker on 3D printing today and in the future

We talk with John Kawola, president of Ultimaker North America, about the world of 3D printing, Ultimaker’s strategy, and how 3D printing will change over the next two decades.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Video: Exclusive Ultimaker interview: The future of 3D printing

Desktop personal fabrication has exploded over the past few years. It's not just 3D printing, but also desktop CNC systems and laser systems. This opens doors to the idea of custom-printed parts in our homes, reduced inventory and distribution centers, and fascinating new projects coming from everywhere, including school kids and startup entrepreneurs.

In the accompanying video, we talk to John Kawola, President of Ultimaker North America, manufacturer of some of the most respected desktop 3D printers on the market. Join us as we dive deep into the future of 3D printing and the state of desktop 3D printing today.

John Kawola comes from a background of early desktop 3D printers (when they were priced in the tens of thousands of dollars) and robotics. He's based in Boston. He sees his role as globalizing Ultimaker, which was founded in the Netherlands.

The accompanying video contains the full interview with Kawola. Here are some of the highlights of what we learned.

To look to the future, you need to remember the past. Kawola points out that 3D printers have been around since the 1990s, but they cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. In the 2000s, prices dropped to tens of thousands of dollars. In 2010-2011, John says, "Desktop [3D] printers show up for the first time." So, he says, not only has the technology gotten "better, better, and better," the prices have gone down since the machines first hit the market.

In the future, he says, the dream of a 3D printer on every engineer and maker's desk will become more of a reality. They're cost-effective and capable enough to make that practical.

Printing is also moving into manufacturing. Early in 3D printing's evolution, parts weren't good enough and they cost too much. He says. "Both of those barriers are coming down." He sees the next ten years' key trend to be a continuum of individual adoption and functional usability.

The early days of Ultimaker. Ultimaker got started along with many of the first desktop 3D printer companies. It was founded by three makers out of a makerspace in the Netherlands. Kowala says, "They saw an opportunity. They started building kits. People started buying those kits on the internet with their credit cards, and that was the beginning of Ultimaker."

Adoption in production and manufacturing. Kawola told us, "Many auto manufacturers are using next-gen technology like 3D printing to drive efficiency. Volkswagen Autoeuropa is a great example. The company turned to desktop 3D printing to create custom tools and jigs that are used daily on the assembly line, replacing an old process that required outsourcing and long lead times."

He told us that customers have driven adoption in the engineering world. The adoption process often involved the question of whether a desktop printer could actually build a jig, fixture, or tool. Since the quality of desktop 3D printers has been improving, and the prices are now low enough to allow for an experimental purchase, designers have been pleasantly surprised to discover that 3D printing quality is good enough for many jobs.

Market segmentation. Kawola says the market segmentation we've been seeing, where there are very inexpensive 3D printers, hobbyist and enthusiast 3D printers in the $500 range, and desktop professional 3D printers in the three to five thousand of dollar range (which is where Ultimaker lives) has "maybe only happened in the last year or two."

He says that the family of machines, including ones from his competitors, that sell in the three to five thousand dollar range, have "a level of capability and ease of use that best serves the professional user."

When asked about downward pricing pressure and improved capability, he told us, "Nobody would have said that a $3,000 printer [can now] do what a $30,000 printer could do a few years ago. So I think we're not naïve to think that a $500 printer could do what an Ultimaker can do today."

The filament business. We discussed how the chemical and plastics companies are entering the space of 3D printing, because demand is going up and making it more appealing for them to apply materials research to the world of filaments and printing materials. This, too, will drive prices down over time.

Ultimaker allows customers to use non-proprietary filaments, but they also partner with filament makers and provide a capability to read filament characteristics via NFC for ease of configuration on filament the company rebrands and supplies.

Kawola estimates that their market share of filaments on their printers is 30-40 percent, but knows there are a lot of customers who buy Ultimaker printers because they're open, so they're careful to make sure that customers have the choice of either added convenience or open availability.

The growth of materials in 3D printing. Kawola says that with materials development and ongoing software development, the opportunities for materials will grow. He sees a future with a wider range of materials and a higher threshold of quality. Going back to the chemical and plastics companies, he mentioned that as the opportunity grows, they're putting more and more researchers and scientists to work innovating with new materials and processes.

As a software developer familiar with SDKs, one of the most interesting take-aways from my interview with Kawola was his disclosure that Ultimaker had created what he calls a "materials development kit" to "shortcut the process and really hand them [the materials makers] the recipe book." This includes a library of profiles and settings, and other knowledge Ultimaker has developed in how certain materials work with their hardware.

3D printing in a product's life-cycle. While short form manufacturing is possible with 3D printing, he sees desktop 3D printing's dominance in the beginning and end of the product life-cycle. In the beginning, there's the creation and design of prototypes and custom works. At the end of the life-cycle he sees an opportunity to store spare parts in 3D models, rather than in physical inventory.

3D modeling and specialized tools. Kawola acknowledged that understanding and using 3D modeling software is a substantial barrier of entry for widespread adoption of 3D printing. However, he pointed to the jewelry market as an example of where design software optimized for a specific market (in this case jewelry design) can reduce the barrier of entry by having a built-in knowledge of the forms being built.

He told us, "So you can imagine in the future being ShoeCAD and ToyCAD and FurnitureCAD and a whole bunch of other things to make it easy, because if most customers have to start from scratch designing the cube or designing the circle, it just doesn't make a whole lot of sense."

Increasing printing speed. 3D prints can take a long time. Some items I've printed have taken three, four, or even five days. He addressed that issue by saying, "There's a bunch of work being done that is very promising that I think we all can very confidently see that by optimizing all those parameters, we could probably get to a 5x or 10x difference in terms of total speed for FDM."

FDM is "fused deposition modeling," the process by which plastic is deposited on top of other layers of plastic and each layer fuses to the next. FDM is the way Ultimaker and most desktop 3D printers make objects.

Kawola says that software is also driving a future increase in speed. He told us, "The algorithms to think about slicing and tool paths, and putting down more or less material in different parts of the part, that's also happening very quickly. And I think that will help really drive not only the part quality, but speed."

There's still work to be done. We wrapped up our discussion with a look at what really drives adoption. He told us, "At the end of the day, what do people want? People want to be able to walk up to the 3D printer. They want to be able to take their iPhone, they want to send the file to the 3D printer. It prints it in an hour."

He ended with, "And when it's done, a bell goes off and it's right there, and you pick it up. And we're not there yet. So I think, that's what we think about most when we're thinking about our technology and addressing the market."

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