Squeezed into a modestly sized function room on the second floor of Pudong, Shanghai’s Kerry Hotel, opposite the SNIEC exhibition hall where the fifth TCT Asia was well underway, stood Jos Burger, Ultimaker’s CEO.
Centre stage, he was fielding questions from a fleet of local and international journalists, yearning not only to learn more about the latest company developments, but to learn more about the company itself. Though Ultimaker has two Chinese representatives in Wenpoo and uCRobotics, it is still fighting to make a name for itself in this market, as are many of its fellow Western companies just across the road.
That much is no more evident than when a question is taken from a local reporter pondering the use of Ultimaker printers in ‘daily life’, away from the design studio or factory floor.
“I know everything about 3D printing. I know everything about CAD. But I have two printers at home I never use because I have no use case,” responded Burger.
In the context of TCT Asia, a show filled with large format systems firing lasers into beds of powder to produce polymer and metal parts on stands more than five times the size of the room we all occupied, it can be forgiven that such a question was pitched to the figurehead of a desktop vendor.
Burger moved to catch many in the room up on Ultimaker’s journeying transition. It was founded in 2011, and with every new hardware product has hop-scotched its way from the consumer market to the industrial, securing collaborations and opening offices in the US and Singapore along the way. The company still sells its Ultimaker Original+ and Ultimaker 2+ entry-level machines, but with the Ultimaker 3 and S5 platforms, and a dozen-plus material partners and some more software associates in tow, is now firmly camped in the professional space.
“If we talk to industrial companies here in China, we present them use cases of companies from Europe and the States, they all say this is also 100% us.”
“We started to feel as a company that we had to make the jump to other domains and we are doing that today,” Burger said. “Tooling is a big market for us, we’re dipping into that big time. There’s also the market for maintenance/ repair in the global market, a huge opportunity, a lot of efforts are going into that. And in our product development, oncoming product development both hardware and software, plus the material support, we are more and more focusing on domains like functional prototyping and small series production, and your holy grail of course is spare parts.”
That’s the end game for Ultimaker, the company stopping short of targeting mass production. It has conversations with manufacturers every day, and is aware of the scale of their inventories, keeping spare parts on stock for decades, and there for incurring costs for decades. But with the right hardware, software, and materials, the cause for these stocks could be removed.
“[Spare parts] is, by nature, a compelling case for on-demand 3D printing. And the reason why we believe, over time, that we can play a role there is that we have an ongoing development into new infrastructures, new machines, in order to accommodate for the highest standards on certification and compliance,” explained Burger. “I had a discussion with a [representative of a] German company this morning and he said ‘the machine is great, the software is great, your global support is great, but I have this internal thing called compliance and certification which is a big thing,’ so we invest heavily in that together with material partners to open up the door and to give the companies the confidence, and the combination of what we’re doing and the materials [partnerships] is bringing them the consistency and the properties that they are looking for, for spare parts.”
At RAPID + TCT last year, along with the introduction of the S5, Ultimaker launched its Materials Alliance Program with nine immediate chemical specialists named as partners. Three more, Essentium, eSun, and Polymaker, were announced last week, as Ultimaker strives to ramp up the development of engineering grade materials compatible with its platforms.
“We are working close together with the key players worldwide, allowing them to go out to their customers and tell their customers it’s safe to use an Ultimaker because it works with our stuff,” Burger said. “[Some] material companies have 20,000 recipes on their shelf of engineering materials, all certified and compliant. They don’t want to change that. They just want to see that those materials can be driven through an Ultimaker machine.”
Increasingly, that’s the case. Clariant, BASF, DSM, DuPont, Henkel and Solvay were among the first materials companies aligned, and last week Essentium made its Ultrafuse Z PCTG material available, Polymaker did the same with its PolyMide PA6-CF, PolyMide CoPA, and PolyCast filaments, and eSun too with its PETG, ePA-CF, and HIPS materials. Essentium’s Ultrafuse Z PCTG was put forward as suitable material for jigs, fixtures and assembly aids, particularly in the semi-conductor industry, while Polymaker’s PolyCast is a filament designed to produce investment patterns for casting applications and PolyMide grades boast strength and toughness.
With these collaborations, material profiles have been made available on Ultimaker’s Cura print preparation software, which, since last week, is now cloud enabled. This move is another that has been made with industry’s ‘most demanding enterprises’ in mind. It enables more efficient internal collaboration, and allows a central location to monitor print jobs across multiple sites. Material profiles are accessible through a library in the cloud, meaning users can retrieve material information no matter their location, and companies can establish distributed networks of 3D printing systems with no compromise.
“More and more, big clients are working on architectures to centralise the libraries of 3D designs and then we have decentralised manufacturing,” Burger said. “If you are in a factory, you just go to a dashboard to download the latest .stl file, and then you order the local printer to start a job. You need software for that and one of the key components in the software is ‘cloud enabled’ because you want to give central operating facilities the opportunity to control networks of printers, even if they are placed in all kinds of different locations. And that’s a probing business for us.”
Following this path towards industry has led Ultimaker to the world’s ‘manufacturing powerhouse’: China. Here, Ultimaker deduces that the demands are the same, the vertical markets are the same, and despite the existence of local OEMs, the clamour for Western brands is the same: “The Chinese buy a lot of Mercedes, a lot of BMW, they love Audis, despite having many local cars. The BMWs, the Audis, they sell very well, so we want to be part of the market here in China,” noted Benjamin Tan, the company’s VP of APAC.
In the US and Europe, Ultimaker counts GE, Volkswagen, Bosch, Phillips, Jabil, Mercedes Benz, Airbus, Boeing, BMW, Audi, Ikea, Shell and Tesla among its users. It sees no reason why that won’t translate to the Chinese market.
“If we talk to industrial companies here in China, we present them use cases of companies from Europe and the States, they all say this is also 100% us. It’s the same,” Burger said. “It’s all about lead times, it’s about cost, it’s about flexibility in design, it’s about iteration. The arguments are all the same.”
“We understand the Chinese market is highly competitive with many low-cost brands, but having said that, our value proposition is very unique,” offered Tan. “We have a very high differentiating factor. Our machines are highly reliable compared to many of the local brands [and] we have a very unique partnership with many global material companies. There are over 60 in the pipeline that we are talking to at the moment. Cura Cloud gives us a very unique position to compete locally here in China, because the Chinese market is highly sophisticated.”
China is the manufacturing powerhouse of the world. Ultimaker has evolved through its eight years in existence to improve the performance capabilities of its hardware, add more features to its software, and align itself with the leading chemical companies occupying the additive manufacturing space. It should amount to companies using its machines to print tools, end-use parts, and spare ones too.
But through the application of its machines by some of the biggest manufacturers in the world already, Ultimaker has established itself as a professional 3D printing brand in the Western market. And with two resellers in China, a commercial office in neighbouring Singapore, and by announcing its latest product and strategic developments at the largest AM show on the continent, its status as an industrial player was further amplified at TCT Asia 2019.
Ultimaker is coming of age, and now China is bearing witness to it too.