3D Printing And Its Unused Potential
Lost Olympic medals, a Game of Thrones crown, reusable straws, human organs, bottles, and airplane wings – thanks to the appropriate technology and starting materials, 3D printing can conjure almost anything. Business, however, still underestimates them. Andrzej Burgs, President of the Management Board and CEO of Sygnis New Technologies, talks about why it is worth changing.
3D printing has been around for decades but is of primary interest to hobbyists and designers producing disposable prototypes. What problems do Polish companies report to you with?
With a few, because they are afraid of the new. In most companies, people work in their bubbles without being aware of progress in other areas. For many people we meet during conversations about 3D printing, the possibilities of this technology are unbelievable. Our interlocutors often react as if we were talking about Star Trek, not something they can implement for, for example, PLN 10,000. If someone is not currently using 3D printing, they do not know what they are losing. It is as if we were wondering if it is possible to run a modern company without computers. Rather, it would not be easy.
It isn’t easy without computers, but without 3D printing, you can easily run a business!
If we are in Poland, then yes. However, we are losing the effectiveness of our work to the West, where 3D printing is slowly becoming the standard. We lack technological awareness. Decision-makers responsible for business development often switch when the discussion comes down, saying that they are from developing the business, with no knowledge of technology. Meanwhile, it is technologies that provide companies with strategic business opportunities.
Can you give some examples of these possibilities?
One of our clients was a shoe company that produces heels. It took a day to craft one heel by hand. Currently, they print seven heels on one printer within 24 hours. The process was significantly shortened, and the scale of the business automatically increased.
Another customer put 3D printers in maintenance at a large factory. They invested little, about PLN 20,000, in a printer, in materials and training, and saved PLN 250,000 a year because they reduced downtime. They print spare parts for machines: tips, grippers, manipulators, which wear out during production. Instead of waiting for the service that has to come from Switzerland, they return to production within two hours with printed spare parts.
It sounds impressive. Nevertheless, there have been many myths surrounding the 3D printing technology itself that is doing quite well. It is said to be expensive, slow, and also unreliable. Maybe that’s why Polish companies are resistant to it?
The problem is not that 3D printing does not work, but that someone has found an unreliable supplier. Companies often research on the web, choosing a random supplier who provides them with printouts prepared in a technology that does not meet the client’s expectations. Then it is very close to the conclusion that 3D printing does not work.
The price range is, of course, very wide, because the most expensive machines cost up to 3 million euros. The simplest ones, on which items can be mass-produced, cost only PLN 4,000. The barrier to entry into the 3D printing industry is, therefore, very low. It is enough to buy the cheapest printer, create a website and invest in advertising. And such a company is difficult to distinguish from a serious player who has many years of experience in 3D printing.
If we take a low-level business training, we are not saying that all training is pointless, just that this training was hopeless. We conclude and choose a different training company next time to avoid disappointment. It is a bit different with 3D printing. Novice print suppliers often use dumped prices that tempt procurement departments. A mistake in choosing a technology partner at this stage may discourage the company from further searching for many years.
What about the slowness that is often blamed on 3D printers?
It depends on what category we consider it. For example, we can make a prototype of a bottle in 4 hours.
It’s probably quite a lot.
Yes, if we compare it with the time, it takes to produce a bottle in glasswork, which is roughly three seconds. Only the prototype of a new bottle is made in the steelworks in three months. And the first bottle is needed to create more. Depending on which production steps we compare, printing time has a different meaning. If, for example, we are to create the first batch of a new product to check whether it is popular with customers, 3D printing allows us to start production in a quarter of an hour. After a week, we can hand over the first orders to distributors. If we decide to use the traditional manufacturing method, it will take several months to reach the distributors.
It seems that 3D printing has the potential to revolutionize the way many things are made. What materials are you currently able to print products from?
We currently have over a dozen 3D printing technologies. Apart from various thermoplastic substances, we print from metal, polyamide, resin, and ceramic pastes. We make silicone, resin, and metallic castings. In addition, we have 3D bio-printers, so we also print from hydrogels, tissues, or stem cells. In addition, we are working on our glass printer as part of an original project co-financed by the National Center for Research and Development. Our goal is to print low-temperature glass for photonics and optics.
And what are the biggest limitations of 3D printing in business?
Remember that the potential of 3D printing is huge but still limited. 3D printing is not yet ready for serial production. Above a certain scale of this production, other production methods are more profitable. But even then, 3D printing can be used to develop prototypes, to check the geometry of models.
For example, if we would like to produce a large series of chairs, 3D printing is not suitable for this in the world. And I don’t mean a thousand chairs, but a series of 10,000 chairs to be produced every month.
If we wanted to print a home tap, it would also be expensive, but on the other hand, in an increasing number of cases, 3D printing means real savings. It is more profitable for Boeing to print titanium wings than to mill them. This generates savings of approximately $ 3 million on each wing.
In this case, there are also other advantages, such as a significant reduction in waste.
And even eliminate them. Waste can indeed be melted down and reused, but you have to consider that the material will lose its strength and quality. It is also often the case that it is impossible to mill simple elements in one whole, so you have to do 3-4 elements and then fit them together.
For example, General Electric makes engines with fewer elements thanks to 3D printing technology. While in a traditionally made engine, we have 1000 parts, thanks to printing, this number of elements can be reduced to 10. Here lies the great advantage of 3D printing, which also can relieve the entire structure.
And what about the personalization trend and the new expectations of customers who want to surround themselves with unique items designed only for them. can 3D printing technology help here?
Business is moving in this direction. Not everyone can afford personalization yet, but companies will gradually adapt to customer preferences. In the future, it will probably come to the fact that even when buying a bucket, we will be interested in personalizing it because our kitchen will fit one 40 cm high and someone else’s 46 cm high.
In addition, we should remember that the length of production runs is clearly shortening. We used to have 2-4 seasons in the fashion world, and now we have 22 seasonal units. The collection is changed every 2-3 weeks. The consequence of these phenomena is the reduction of the scale of production. It also creates opportunities for 3D printers.
You mentioned the resistance of Polish companies to new solutions. It is hard to believe, considering the quantifiable effects of using 3D printing.
Often, domestic production companies are already operating at full speed, and until the principals start replacing them with competitors from Bangladesh, they do not want to invest in innovative solutions. Therefore, looking at Poland itself is not enough for us. In my opinion, historical conditions also have an impact on resistance to change. Note that in the times of the Polish People’s Republic, we produced a lot of goods, but of poor quality. Then, during the period of political changes, it was decided to fix it and focus on quality. Therefore, quality engineers remained the main technologists and implemented new standards, focusing on quality, speed, and efficiency. But the last thing for a quality technologist engineer is to think about new offers. He wants everything that is already there to work as well as possible. I consider this to be a drawback of Polish production. This approach has worked well for many years as we strive for a certain quality standard. Today we have different times, we need innovation, but they are engineers,
However, in our pages, we often write about new solutions in domestic companies, which – contrary to what you say – successfully build a culture of innovation. Do you have any examples of it being different?
Yes, this will be an example of our failure. We presented in numbers the profitability of an investment in 3D printing for a company that produces metal toolboxes. For their department to be responsible for designing new models to make one prototype model, they must stop production for several hours. The loss of each hour of production in this plant is about PLN 22,000. It is not difficult to calculate that the purchase of a separate machine for even PLN 100,000 would pay for themselves in a few months. Nevertheless, the client withdrew.
Buying a machine is not enough. You need people who can handle it. And there is a shortage of such people on the market. Maybe that was the reason for the resignation?
Virtually every production company has computer hardware and software for technical design and people who operate industrial equipment related to this process. Of course, there may be a lack of competence in operating a 3D printer, but we are already at a stage where it only takes a few clicks to be able to print something on them. Nobody needs to write a program. Transferring a model to a milling machine sometimes takes several hours, and transferring a three-dimensional model to a 3D printer takes three minutes.
Definitely, technology must go hand in hand with knowledge. Is that why your company changed its business model? What were the dictates of these changes?
I have always been convinced that the most important thing in business is knowledge, not the machine itself. At the beginning of our activity, we bought machines, resold them more expensive, and we earned on the margin; that’s the end. It was the primitive business model of a typical trading company. We knew that it was not so, so we decided to encapsulate our products with additional services, such as training, implementation, and consulting in selecting machines and materials for printing.
We stopped limiting ourselves to what machines we have and began to pay much more attention to what knowledge we have and how we can increase customer potential thanks to it. We started traveling around the world, reading, learning from experts, testing various solutions, investing in training. We went this way because technological consulting practically does not exist in Poland, and we decided that it was time to develop this area.
You have already separated several companies, including Sygnis Bio Technologies dealing with 3D printing, technological Sygnis New Technologies, or Thirsty Pleasure, operating in the HORECA sector. Don’t you want to specialize in one area?
The time of one domain has passed. I am looking at the Alphabet set up by Google, which uses different technologies of its companies and crosses different competencies. We try to function similarly, although we are talking about a much smaller scale. When we work on a new project, we exchange competencies within companies, and we constantly care for information synergy. This approach allows you to counteract burnout and employee fatigue, and above all, it attracts interesting job. Clients come to us with problems that have not been solved yet.
Can you give me an example?
In the past, gold mining was based on extracting large lumps of this metal from the mine. Due to the lack of appropriate technology, the gold had been left unused. Due to the fact that gold mines pollute the environment a lot, today, more and more companies decide to recover gold from former mines, where it is the mining base. To get it, all you need to do is have the technology. A company that produces coatings for fine dust filters came to us. We had to print filters for the chemical-free recovery of gold (no mercury or hydrogen cyanide). Our task was to come up with a shape that would ensure the greatest fluctuation in the flow – so that as many gold particles as possible would settle on the filter.
And will 3Dd printing conquer more down-to-earth areas in the future?
It will spread in many areas, so Polish companies should wake up and be open to this technology. For example, in China and the United States, entire load-bearing structures of buildings are already printed. Walls, walls, ceilings. In Poland, we even have a startups dealing with 3D construction printing REbuild, which had to obtain a special permit to conduct research and work because our law does not yet allow printing of houses. It is the same with eating. Although there was a food printer at the Festival of Changes, no one could use the printed snacks apart from the device’s person. Remember that a 3D printer is not a magic box that will conjure up something out of nothing. What we put in is transformed into a product. It gives the starting material some aesthetic shape or mixes several substances,
You have taken our readers on a fascinating journey. What are your guidelines when selecting employees, and how do you approach your leadership role? Finally, tell them your own recipe for managing a team that works on coming up with innovative solutions.
At Signs, we solve problems of such a caliber that we cannot do without talks. Therefore, every employee must have social competencies. Without them, he would not get along with the team or the client. Besides, we are looking for people with open minds, not with prestigious diplomas.
I left my master’s degree in the fifth year, so formally I only have a bachelor’s degree, and this does not prevent me from sitting on scientific councils, popularizing 3D printing, and contributing to the development of technology in R&D projects. My role as a leader is primarily to inspire employees to want to learn, update information and acquire new skills. Openness to what is new and not fully understood is a valuable competence of the company that should be consciously polished. It allows you to overcome the natural resistance to change and reach for solutions that are at your fingertips, but no one dares to pick it up first.
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