Towards End Products, The Visions of 3D Printing – Interview with Odeta and Ap, Co-Founders of Vulkaza
Away from spare parts, towards end products: There is an ongoing revolution in the 3D printing industry. Vulkaza and its 3D print on-demand platform envision the bright future of 3D printing and manufacture in which the community spirit is also included. What’s more, the start-up Vulkaza makes the creators’ ideas come true, supports local product production and thereby has a share in ecological resilience. Odeta and Ap, co-founders of Vulkaza and 3D printing gurus, throw light on the evolution of 3D printing, analyze the current market and foresee the potentials of on-demand 3D printing exclusively in our interview.
We’ve been hearing about the 3D printing revolution for the last 12 years. Where is that revolution and what is the status quo?
Ap: Around 2010-2015, a revolution was promised, however, it was based on the wrong premise. The buzz at the time was that everyone should have a 3D printer at home, but the structure of 3D printing did not live up to the promise, because it was too complicated to have at home. What we believe in is the concept of blacksmiths of the 21st century. This means that basically, there will be people in every neighborhood that have 3D printers, so that – just like 200 years ago when you needed something you would go to the blacksmith – now if you need something you go to the neighborhood blacksmith with a 3D printer. We have integrated this into a digital business model so you can still order from the same places as usual but it is produced locally.
Odeta: Another important thing is materials, which have been quietly progressing on the sidelines in 3D printing with each passing year. Bioplastics made from corn or soy starch, carbon printing, wood fibers, ceramics, and all of these things, combined with 3D printers getting better and faster every year, have now made it possible for the consumer-facing revolution to actually start happening. Nowadays, the materials are mostly bioplastics or plastics with wood fiber.
How many 3D printers are out there? How big is the 3D printing industry?
Odeta: The market for 3D printing was valued at $13.8 billion in 2021, and it is expected to expand by 20% by 2030. In 2021 alone, 2.2 million 3D printers were distributed around the world, up from 2 million in 2020. Every country, pretty much all around the world, has a large number of printers. According to some estimates, by 2030, the number of units exported each year will have risen to 21.5 million, which is enormous. That mostly comes from industrial spare parts. Prototypes are produced for very technical industries, like automotive, aerospace, healthcare electronics, and manufacturing in general.
During the pandemic, makers across the world have come together and united into a global distribution network using manufacturing force and 3D printing. Hundreds of thousands of face shields were produced in less than a month, which has happened across different countries. That has proven the scale and the capacity of 3D printing as a distributed manufacturing network with 3D makers.
Who are the primary buyers of 3D printers?
Odeta: I would say that three key players are buying 3D printers. One is a very professional, 3D printing business, which usually operates print farms with hundreds of 3D printers producing items for customers connected in a print form. Secondly, there are on-demand companies like Hubs or Shapeways or iMaterialize that have the industrial 3D printers as well as the desktop 3D printers. The third one is what we call a mature to semi-professional 3D printers. These are people who are passionate about the industry, who are interested in it, and who decide to move to the 3D printing industry because they have a need in their own environment. Usually, semi-professionals buying 3D printers can go one of two ways: the 3D printers gather dust and nothing happens or they get a bug of 3D printing, just like Vulkaza’s CEO Ap who all of a sudden ended up owning eight 3D printers and actually made semi-professional 3D prints in his spare time, and then turned towards professional 3D printing and owns a related business that provides the day-to-day income.
Can you explain the different types of 3D printers in more detail?
Odeta: There are industrial 3D printers and desktop 3D printers. Desktop 3D printers can actually be divided into many more different categories, and when it comes to 3D printing in different materials such as metal ceramics or wood, usually 3D printers are used that are specifically designed to print in that material. Luckily, most can afford a desktop 3D printer since the price starts at 200 dollars.
Why has 3D printing been used mostly for spare parts and prototypes today?
Odeta: Materials and 3D printers alike were super technical and people who got into 3D printing were also quite skilled in technology. We see that 3D printing does not live at the top of the mind in regular consumers’ thoughts because the whole process is way too complicated. It’s like “Where do I get the design? What is possible? What about the materials? Where do I get the 3D printer? How do I start it?” All of these questions are very technical so it’s natural that just the technophile people entered the scene on the day of the launch of 3D printing. So it’s quite logical that given the kind of people who have joined the industry, the natural development has been to create very technical products that are also appealing in terms of design. Until we have product designers that work in that visual realm and until we make it easy for these creative people to join this revolution and use 3D printing as a medium for the production process, it is very unlikely that 3D printing can be used for anything but spare parts and prototypes. So we really need to attract more creative and aesthetic designers to 3D printing and make it super easy for the end products. Consumers must grasp it in order to purchase or manufacture tools for the designs they desire, and by then, they must be able to easily design for 3D printing. Customers must, of course, be able to utilize the network without needing to understand the materials. And we can’t expect genuine printing to become popular until all of these components are in place. Then there’s the space for the finished product.
Ap: Over the last couple of years we have seen rapid growth in the 3D print ecosystem as a whole. Suddenly the printers are good and cheap enough, the availability of materials is high enough and the software is mature enough to enable a whole different segment of products. We are now seeing that 3D printing is especially competitive in fast-moving consumer markets, where time-to-market is critical, but also for companies that seek to reduce warehousing and inventory costs.
Why do you think 3D printing can be applied for end products rather than just prototypes and spare parts?
Odeta: Simply because of all the developments within the 3D printing space and its materials and as the 3D printers are becoming easier to operate and faster to print. One part is that the materials are getting cheaper. Another aspect is that even any person looking at 3D printing without understanding all the technical complexities, like myself, can come up with very interesting and very unusual ways to get out shapes and designs that cannot be traditionally produced by 3D printers. Artists who are outliers in their field were always looking for new ways to make art, and have been using 3D printing for a long time. We also start to see that there are a lot of sellers and 3D printing designers who started selling renders on Instagram or Etsy. We can tell that such designs were made by a creative person who took the medium and used it in various ways than it had previously been used, incorporating aspects such as very elaborative and very distinct shapes, textures, and forms. These individuals have the potential to develop 3D printing into an ideal method for producing difficult-to-create ideas that cannot be easily produced by other means of production. So, once again, this relates to creative people designing for the medium, using their creative skills, and breaking the medium to some extent in order to get shapes, forms, and patterns that aren’t always really usable – done through several methods of production.
Ap: The key difference is that you need more control over the end result. While a prototype might be fine in any color and you can accept small deficiencies, interior items and 3D printed art that will hold a significant place in somebody’s home need to look good from all angles.
Why is 3D printing a sustainable production method?
Odeta: To begin with, unlike other methods of production, it is additive manufacturing. We’re only employing the materials that are absolutely necessary for that particular production. Every second of the print, the 3D printer is supplied with the coordinates of where it has to be in order to only extrude the material required to make that product. There are no leftover materials. Of course, there are certain misprints that require the entire product to be scrapped, but this is becoming less common as 3D printers and materials improve. Another feature is that it is an on-demand process. As a result, every single item is 3D printed only when it is needed – which is highly relevant, especially in today’s consumer society where tons of unused things are thrown out of warehouses and never reach a customer. Because only the products that are required are produced, 3D printing or manufacturing on-demand allows for a significant reduction in product waste. Additionally, 3D printers are available in almost every country on the planet. That means that if we build a network and attach those available 3D printers to it, we can start making stuff right away. Instead of shipping across continents, we will be able to ship products within neighborhoods. This is a huge CO2 saving and cuts down on pollution, especially when it comes to transport and supply chains, particularly with the current state of supply chains where prices are rising enormously, delays are occurring, taxes are being imposed, and unfortunately, wars have to be taken into account. All this prevents goods from moving freely around the world and being produced on demand. If connecting 3D manufacturers around the world is done properly, we would address many currently very personal sustainability issues. On top of that, once we only use bioplastics for 3D printing, we will be reducing the petroleum or oil-based plastics in the world, making a huge impact on CO2 emissions, and also just in general in our environment.
Ap: Three reasons: 1) Less waste, 2) less transport and 3) more sustainable production.
With traditional supply chains, millions of tons of perfectly usable products are thrown away directly from warehouses every year because the product never made it to market, or it went out of fashion before it was sold. With 3D printing, we can produce goods exactly when and where they are needed. We don’t start the production until after the product was bought. This leads to massively reduced waste in supply chains.
7% of the world’s CO2 emissions come from transport, and with distributed 3D printing you can also produce items locally, meaning that you don’t have to ship a product across half the globe before it ends up in somebody’s hand.
Shifting production like this also benefits the environment because you are producing using a better energy mix. Moving production from, for example, China, where 85% of the energy comes from fossil fuels, to Norway for instance, that is 100% renewable, greatly reduces the CO2 footprint of the products. In addition, 3D printing offers completely new ways of designing and producing products as well as lowering the material usage of the same exact product.
Why would businesses partner with 3D print-on-demand companies?
Ap: By moving to an on-demand production pipeline, companies can increase their time-to-market, reduce the inventory costs and become more sustainable while simplifying their GHG compliance – all of this results in a more robust and sustainable (in all meanings of the word) business model. Since there is no risk of ships getting stuck in transit or a pandemic closing the ports, this distribution method is more robust. At the same time, reducing the up-front cost of inventory is also very beneficial in the rapidly changing and uncertain financial environment in the near future.
Thank you very much for this insightful interview, Odeta and Ap. A manufacturing transformation is approaching. Does any of you own a desktop 3D printer and is ready to join the revolution? Let us know by leaving a comment below.
About the Interviewees:
Vulkaza COO Odeta Iseviciute adds experience in marketing, sales, business strategy, product development, and business operations. Her latest experience in e-commerce and digitizing a user onboarding journey at a bank added an insight that lead us in defining a unique model for utilizing 3D printers. Odeta is also a judge and a mentor at WSA and Red Bull Basement programs, and a TEDx organizer.
Ap Mossevig, Vulkaza’s CEO, has accrued expertise in hardware and software development, business development, product management, solution architecture, and lately 3D printing. As the Corona crisis hit the world, Ap played a key role in printing and delivering a significant part of the 40 000 protective face shields to hospitals and care homes around Norway. Ap is the 3D-printing guru well-versed in both design and 3D printing.