This is the future: Andre Wegner – How 3D Printing is killing manufacturing

Andre Wagner is one of the world’s experts on 3-D printing. You’re pretty young though, so I suppose it’s a young technology as well…

That’s right. I think entering now is really the big opportunity because there are still so many facets of the technology that haven’t been explored and haven’t been developed. Authentise, a company we founded, has created software to manage intellectual property concerns in 3-D printing, which was just coming up because it became a manufacturing alternative. We took a leadership position in that and that’s why we’re here.

Well, let’s start at the beginning. What is 3D printing? How does it work?

3-D is essentially, a manufacturing alternative that falls in line with subtractive technologies that essentially, just chisels away material from a block. Formative technologies, which you might know as injection moulding, is just about pumping material into a mould. An additive that falls into that line is also a very old technology. Essentially, just adding layers of material one-on-one in just the same way as we did for pyramids, for example. 3-D printing or additive manufacturing is a type of bucket term for many different kinds of technologies, using many different processes. The commonality between all of them is that you’re automatically layering one object on top of another and one material on top of the last layer of material.

Just to bring it into practical terms, in your presentation today you referred to the way that the Lotus team in Formula 1 is using it.

Right. As many other Formula 1 companies have, they’ve used 3-D printing to create prototypes. What’s interesting about 3-D printing for them is that they can create an object of one (one prototype) and have no additional expense to for example, make 1000 of those units. The unit cost is always the same. What that means for them is that they don’t have to tool up anything. It doesn’t cost them anything to make it. They don’t have to have a hand-carved object in any way, so prototyping has always been the de facto technology because it gives people design freedom and it allows you to build things of rather high complexity in units of one.

They would therefore take it into a wind tunnel, see if they could lessen wind resistance by shaving away a couple of centimetres, produce another prototype, and carry on from there.

In essence, that’s what happens with those technologies. One of the reasons we’ve heard so much about the technology lately is that it’s moved out of this pure prototyping realm and it’s become a manufacturing alternative. The concept is hundreds of years old. The technology is about 30 years old and it’s only been in the last ten years where we’ve started making final production parts from 3-D printers. What that means is that firstly, we move to tools or moulds, for example. Michelin is using them to make moulds for tyres that have better displacement than any other tyres. Now we’re getting to final metal printed turbo chargers, which a company in Europe make sports cars called Koenigsegg, is doing. It’s using metal printing to make turbo chargers that have better performance characteristics. This evolution from prototyping to finished parts that has drawn the most attention in the industry.

Why has it taken so long? Is it just a typical development process for a new area?

I don’t know whether it’s typical. I think the reason for 3-D printing in particular is that the patent’s locked up a lot of development. The patent started expiring around 2007. You saw, with that expiration of patents, a dramatic increase in the amount of innovation happening in the sector. Prices started declining rapidly from $20,000 to a couple of hundred Dollars. Depending on the technology, from $250,000 to $3,000. Orders of magnitude reduction in price, which is really exciting and that’s enabled a bunch new cases as well as driven more innovation because the old stalwarts in the industry have said, “Actually, I need to start improving on quality or speed. I can’t just rely on my old cushion anymore”.

How many of these 3-D printers are around? For example, are there any in South Africa?

There are hundreds in South Africa. It’s very hard to measure the low cost printers but in the printers above $50,000, there are about 300/400 in universities and companies all around South Africa. There is a networked, called Mini Networks. One is called 3-D Hubs, which takes low cost printers and people who know how to operate them, and puts them in a network. If you want to access that network, it’s very easy for you to do so.

What kinds of things are they making?

It depends on the printer you’re using and it depends on your use case. It could be anything from a plastic prototype, a widget, or gadget to making fuel injection nozzles for jet engines that are 17 percent lighter and 2.5 times more durable.

I’m just thinking from a South African perspective because clearly, we import a lot of manufactured products here. We have labour issues here, which is hollowing out the labour force. Would there be an alternative here? Would people who are just tired of the strikes etcetera, be able to buy a 3-D printer and put that to work, rather than ten workers?

That’s an interesting concept. I don’t think a person would do that. You’d probably see distributor/manufacturing taking effect in some kind of hub and spoke model where just like the common industry, the printing industry… if you want 50 business cards printed, you go to your corner shop and it does the printing. If you want one million high quality, very big posters you’d probably go to one at a central location in South Africa or a couple that can do that for you. The concept of supply interruption is real, though. It might not affect all products. There will be many products, which will be cheaper and have easy alternatives to, which we will be making in big numbers with traditional manufacturing processes. However, the maximum viable economic unit numbers (the number of units) we need to make with a 3-D printer is increasing. It used to be just one. A prototype would be one unit. Now, with the fuel injection nozzles that GE makes, it’s 3500 and with some manufacturers, we’re getting 10,000 units and more. That numbers’ just going to increase.

What does it mean for the manufacturing sector when you drive down and see these big factories – lots of people going to work there? Will those jobs be at risk?

Certain jobs will be at risk but the opportunity is also, to create more jobs especially in South Africa. I just got the chance to speak with some guy at CSIR and I understand what you’re planning to do with the titanium industry. You have many natural resources and most of it is exported. It’s a very long chain to get to the final manufacturing of titanium parts and all of that happens outside of the country. All the value addition happens outside of the country. If we can shorten the chain and move from ore to powder and from powder to printer, instead of moving through ten steps to get to the finished product, it’s much more viable to have them in the country so we might actually be creating jobs. That’s something, which I believe the Government is working very hard on.

The beneficiation goal/ideal that is spoken about so often in Africa (not just South Africa) could be accelerated by 3-D printing.

I think so because you have shorter value chains because of 3-D printing and that benefits countries like South Africa that want to install a manufacturing base.

What does it do to China?

Our answer is, “Not very much, at the moment”. Maybe, they’ll be the end winners. They’re investing an awful lot of resources in this – billions of Dollars. Right now, the whole industry only makes about $3bn to $4bn per year and that’s increasing by 40 percent per annum so it’s a very rapidly increasing market. However, it’s still something which, compared to Walmart’s $500bn revenue line, doesn’t compare.

When is the critical point? When will 3-D printing become ubiquitous?

I have arguments with people in the industry about this. There are two schools of thought. One is that the freedom of design will enable us to make objects with material and performance characteristics that are completely novel. It’s a question of going through each of the potential applications, finding it, addressing it, designing the object for additive manufacturing, and then moving on. My personal thought is that it’s actually much more about supply chain and then it becomes one of not engineering ingenuity, but it becomes one of, “Can we replicate all the steps in our existing physical supply chain, quality assurance, taxation, ERP systems, and restrictions? Can we replace them all with a digital equivalent?” Once we do that… once we allow humans to engage properly with the technology, then the curve really starts, so there are two schools of thought. One is in design freedom and one is in the supply chain.

On the supply chain side, you only have to drive on the roads in South Africa to see how much money is invested/spent on getting products from Point A to Point B. This would presumably be one way of reducing that.

Yes, I think so. What’s remarkable to me is that we spend so much money. In the U.S., it’s 16 percent of GDP – $8.5tn per year on moving stuff from A to B and storing it at B, and we get products late. We get them non-customised. They’re fake. Supply chains fail us all the time. They’re the quintessential failure point and we never really address that. The really exciting part for me in the technology is that we have this very expensive failure – the most expensive failure that exists out there – and we have an emerging alternative. It’s not quite there yet. It’s just developing but companies like Authentise or other companies are out there, that are building the different pieces that belong in that value chain and are making it a reality. That’s a really exciting opportunity.

Andre, I can imagine some entrepreneurs are listening to this and saying, “I need to get rid of my truck and buy a 3-D printer” or other entrepreneurs are saying, “Here is an emerging technology. How do I get a slice of it?”

That’s a really good question. If you’re already an entrepreneur, my start would be to engage with the technology at your current level. For example, take a traditional foam cutting company in Accra or anywhere. They might be able to use 3-D printing to develop tools for their factory or to make customised objects easier. They might be able to use 3-D printing to make packing better better/easier. They might be able to 3-D print models of custom foam installations to give people the feel of what it’s going to be like. Those are all immediately realisable and they cost you nothing to make happen. You can buy a $400.00 printer and get your engineer to start playing. That’s another point. It’s important to engage. Set yourself a goal (within six to nine months). You know there are used cases out there – pretty widespread. They would be doing something similar. You’re not inventing rocket science. It’s most important to familiarise your team and customers with the technology, and then you build on that. The clients we work with are typically only Fortune 100’s and they get it. They know that 3-D printing will be very disruptive. The term ‘disintermediation’ comes up a lot, but they also know that it’s a step-by-step approach. From one of them (the second-largest home improvement chain in the world) we built an installation that would allow the customers to print and scan right there in the store. Start simple. Start with what you already know and then develop from there. There are many other projects, which are really going to put them at the heart of this new digital supply chain, but it was only because they learned from the initial installation.

Just Google 3-D printing suppliers and you can get into the game.

That’s about right. Think about your problem zones. Think about the things that are creating headaches for you and your engineers. Typically, they are really good points to start printing.

Andre Wegner is the CEO of Authentise and he is core faculty at Singularity University. This special podcast was brought to you by Barclays Africa.