Al Siblani is the long-standing Chairman, CEO and Managing Director of EnvisionTEC Gmbh, the German manufacturer of 3D printers for highly precise applications. Here 3DPI’s Editor, Rachel Park, takes some time to talk to Al about EnvisionTEC’s position in the 3D printing industry, the ongoing R&D at the company and the wider market.
3D Printing Industry: EnvisionTEC has over a decade of history in the 3D printing industry. As one of the earlier pioneers within this technology field tell us how EnvisionTEC was conceived and your involvement in building and guiding the company.
Al Siblani: I entered the rapid prototyping industry (as it was called then) when I placed the first Helisys LOM2030 machines at Ford, GM and Chrysler. This was before founding my first company, Sibco, Inc. in 1993. Sibco was the only third party provider of services and materials for the rapid prototyping industry and it was through this experience that I began to see the need for new and better rapid prototyping systems. In November of 2002, I founded EnvisionTEC GmbH and began delivery of the Perfactory® 3D printer to meet those needs licensing and utilising DLP from Texas Instruments as the technology platform for our systems. We have also begun delivery of the Bioplotter system and most recently 3SP™ (Scan, Spin, and Selectively Photocure) technology. With these three core technologies, I take a very hands-on approach to working with my R&D team to continually develop sound solutions in terms of 3D printers and materials to meet the specific needs of our customers.
3D Printing Industry: EnvisionTEC’s Perfactory® systems produce some of the highest resolution 3D printed parts — how important is ongoing technology development and improvement?
Al Siblani: When I first began developing the Perfactory® with DLP technology, it was about much more than speed, it was about surface finish quality as well. For truly useable solutions, the highest accuracy available doesn’t mean as much if you’re left with a part with visible and tangible layer lines. The DLP technology produces highly accurate parts, incredibly crisp detail and also that previously elusive smooth surface finish. We place a great deal of our focus on continuing to improve on our existing technology as well as developing new solutions for a rapidly expanding 3D printing market. My R&D teams are dedicated to advancement – our expectations for our capabilities rise just as our customers’ expectations do. DLP, our flagship technology, is perfectly suited to a wide variety of applications that require high precision results coupled with speed and superb surface quality. It does, however, have size limitations in cost versus performance. We set out to find a solution for the growing number of applications requiring larger capabilities without sacrificing that high resolution and smooth surface finish that EnvisionTEC is known to deliver. Earlier this year we released our first 3D printers that capitalized on the technology that answered this need — 3SP™. 3SP™ stands for Scan, Spin, and Selectively Photocure and represents EnvisionTEC’s commitment to providing true solutions. This technology provides the same high quality results as our DLP process, but on a larger scale and also has the added bonus of faster build speeds. There are currently four models that use 3SP technology, 3-Dent and ULTRA® 3SP™ Ortho for the dental market and ULTRA® 3SP™ and ULTRA® 3SP™ High Definition for the MCAD market. Our next step will be to continue to evaluate and improve the technology as we develop material solutions for different applications and needs. As there is not a single 3D printing solution that works for every application and every need, you can be sure that we will continue to strive for solution-based improvements for our existing applications as well as whatever new applications come along and create the need for specialized solutions, especially in mass customization markets.
3D Printing Industry: With a strong customer base, EnvisionTEC has a strong presence in many vertical markets, most notably jewellery and hearing aids, can you tell us more about these markets and how EnvisionTEC 3D printers support them.
Al Siblani: EnvisionTEC supports these verticals by delivering solutions, and not just 3D printers. We look to deliver a finished product, designed with software that is fully integrated with our own software, and printed on an EnvisionTEC 3D printer with a material that meets the exact needs of the end user. We work closely with many industry-specific software developers to ensure a seamless transition between content creation and 3D printing. EnvisionTEC has very deliberately made 3D printers that are as user-friendly as possible in order to ensure that the same person who designs or scans a model will be able to complete the process and 3D print it, without the need for an additional specialist to run the 3D printing process. For example, a jewellery designer should be able to focus on their creative process in designing a piece, not worry about how to learn to perform multiple additional steps to prepare their piece for print. Therefore our content creation-to-print solutions are already optimized for use with the major industry software programs, allowing for the designer to spend more time doing what they do best, not learning additional software. We also spend a lot of time with our customers, finding out how we can best help them be successful with 3D printing. Practical solutions for one industry might not work for another, so we take great care in helping to develop solutions that work best for each one individually, and that is evident in the breadth of functional materials that we offer for the verticals we dominate.
3D Printing Industry: Where do you see EnvisionTEC’s greatest growth markets to be?
Al Siblani: We are currently seeing the greatest growth in the professional design (MCAD) market and in the dental market. In both of these markets, our new 3SP™ technology has been able to offer an improved solution for the needs of each particular industry. The field of orthodontics is a growing sector for 3D printing within the dental industry. In working with our orthodontic customer base, the 3-Dent™ and the ULTRA® 3SP™ Ortho were specifically designed using our 3SP™ technology to allow for the production of highly accurate dental models to facilitate the creation of custom orthodontics appliances. Our other high growth market is the professional design market, where a shortage of high quality 3D printing solutions that also delivered high-speed production at a low operational cost prompted us to again turn to 3SP™ technology to provide exactly what was needed.
3D Printing Industry: EnvisionTEC is a company that has always struck me as a company that quietly — yet successfully — goes about its business and engages people through shows, demonstrations and dedicated training facilities. However, marketing activities seem to be ramping up now — is this a conscious decision?
Al Siblani: There’s no question, our products speak best for themselves in person. No amount of marketing can compare to being able to hand someone a model printed with our technology so that they can see and feel the difference in contrast to other technologies. That being said, the industry is growing at a rapid pace and as general knowledge of 3D printing increases, so do the number of places we would need to be in order to introduce EnvisionTEC’s technology to those it might help most. In response, we have increased our market presence in social media, online marketing and other media outlets. We have also focused on developing more product awareness and knowledge through a dedicated dealer portal, increased educational efforts such as white papers and best practices to benefit our customer base, and especially case studies highlighting the successes of our customers due to the capabilities of their EnvisionTEC 3D printers.
3D Printing Industry: As a manufacturer of industrial grade 3D printers, EnvisionTEC’s focus has always been on the professional market but do you see any potential in the consumer market in the future?
Al Siblani: Of course there is great potential, but only when you can create customized, user specific content as easily as you can create a Word document. Mass adoption can only be successful when content generation is very simple and the end product is useable. EnvisionTEC specializes in creating solutions for needs and currently, the consumer market is still in more of a “want” atmosphere. The maker community is truly exciting – they have embraced 3D printing and by doing so, extended public awareness of 3D printing, discovered additional applications, and so much more, but they are a unique group. Most already possess some technical knowledge or are willing to learn in order to be a part of the 3D printing movement. Unfortunately, no one has found that magical application that makes a 3D printer in every home actually useful. Nothing has been discovered that makes it a need. Yet. We will gladly throw our hat in the consumer ring when we can provide a solution that promises simplicity to create customized content for useful 3D printed parts that are functional. Until then, our focus will likely remain on what we do best – creating high quality solutions with professional tangible results wherever 3D printing can improve quality of life. Having said that, I believe that our technology platforms today can deliver unparalleled speed in production of high quality parts for the consumer market at competitive prices.
3D Printing Industry: Over the last 10 years, what is the best reaction you have seen to someone seeing a 3D printer for the first time?
Al Siblani: It never gets old. I love it — it is exciting each and every time I get to watch someone “get” 3D printing. The excitement it generates and the way it inspires each person to think of the possibilities is amazing.
3D Printing Industry: In terms of 3D printing applications, do you have a favourite and will you share it with us?
Al Siblani: We have so many customers doing the most amazing things with 3D printing. The ones that bring me the greatest pride, however, are the applications that are using 3D printing to improve quality of life for someone. One such customer has developed a program to use our E-Dent material to create dental crowns in 3rd world countries where dental care is usually rare and expensive. In the poorest of areas, tooth loss, which is very common due to lack of dental care, deprives residents of the simple luxury of enjoying a meal. It is deeply rewarding to know that I can help put a smile on someone’s face who never dreamed they could afford to replace those lost teeth, allowing them to finally enjoy a meal again.
3D Printing Industry: What is your vision, including personal predictions, for the next 5 years for 3D printing in general; and for EnvisionTEC in particular?
Al Siblani: While 3D printing is at the top of the hype curve, I still believe that we have uncovered less than 10% of the applications it can be adapted to. I look forward to seeing what new and exciting developments come about and how EnvisionTEC can help bring about more change for a better world around us and also to help democratize the 3D printing world.