Executive Interview – David Burns

David Burns ExOne

David Burns is the President and Chief Operating Officer of The ExOne Company the latest 3D printing system vendor to become publicly listed. Since assuming this role in 2005, Mr. Burns has been responsible for the company’s operations in the United States, Europe and Asia.

In addition to his role at ExOne, David serves as a trustee for the Rochester Institute of Technology, the Strong National Museum of Play and the Executive Advisory Council for The Simon School. He is also a board member and former chairman of The Association for Manufacturing Technology.

David earned a B.A. in economics from St. John Fisher College in New York and an M.B.A. from The Simon School at the University of Rochester.

3D Printing Industry: For the benefit of the 3DPI audience can you tell us your personal 3D printing story and your history with the technology?

David Burns: My exposure to 3D Printing began around the year 2000.  I was the CEO of Gleason Corporation, a 150+ year old traditional machine tool company.

I was well aware, back then, that the work that was going on to optimize the deployment of traditional metal working technologies (Lean, six sigma, etc.) would eventually plateau.  Don’t get me wrong, I think that optimization work has been magnificent.  The improvement in basic metrics surrounding manufacturing productivity, quality, through-put, working capital through the 1980’s and 1990’s were more than impressive.   I knew that the constraints that exist in traditional manufacturing would eventually mean that some new and revolutionary solution would emerge.

My good friend, Larry Rhoades, was very active in the world of 3D Printing.  We were serving together as Board members at the Association for Manufacturing Technology (AMT) and Larry would not waste any opportunities to talk about 3D Printing.  So, back then, I was deeply interested in the subject.

Larry owned a company called Extrude Hone and he had a chance to sell the more traditional part of Extrude Hone to Kennametal in early 2005. Kennametal did not purchase the more experimental parts of Extrude Hone, including the 3D Printing business.   Larry sold Extrude Hone, and formed ExOne in 2005.  He asked me to join him in this new venture and I am pleased that I did.

3D Printing Industry:  The history of ExOne – from its origins at Extrude Hone – is an exemplary one of developing what you call “non-traditional manufacturing technology”. Can you give us some more insight into this philosophy and how it has served the company?

David Burns:  When we first formed ExOne, our stated objective was to create a business incubator that would house emerging, non-traditional manufacturing technology processes, and help them mature into businesses.  Larry and I were convinced that the mortality rate of emerging technologies was far too high, and we felt that we could provide a better answer for emerging manufacturing technologies.

We housed six different technologies at the outset – three related to 3D Printing.  I would say that we largely fulfilled our initial mission for a couple of years.  Larry tragically passed away in early 2007.  A year later, Kent Rockwell purchased the assets of the company from the Rhoades family.  Since then ExOne has been much more focused upon a more singular mission – to bring 3D Printing to the world of shop floor, industrial production.

Make no mistake – the development of a technology like 3D Printing is a time consuming, expensive and risky process.  To take it a step farther and to aspire to install 3D Printing on the shop floor displacing traditional processes is incrementally harder.  That said, it is a true chance to transform how and where products are designed and made.  The willingness of our company to be determined, to take risks and to stay focused has led to remarkable progress.

3D Printing Industry:  The ExOne 3D printing process is proprietary technology, for our audience, can you just give us an overview of how the process works — say, compared with SLS/SLM.

David Burns:  There are a variety of approaches to 3D Printing.  I believe that different processes will eventually fill a variety of needs and niches.  I do not see the various processes as competitive, in most cases.  I see the processes as spreading out to fill many needs in consumer and industrial product space.

ExOne is a binder jetting company.  Binder jetting was developed in the 1990’s at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and we remain a proud licensee of MIT technologies.  We have augmented that original Intellectual Property from MIT with ExOne Intellectual Property.

In all 3D Printing, we begin by developing a three-dimensional CAD model of the part that we want in digital space.  Once that model is optimized, the model is sliced into layers – each layer being thin enough to be more or less two-dimensional.

Once we have these thin slices, binder jetting follows a distinctive process.  A layer of atomized powder is spread into a contained work area called a job box.  Once that layer is spread, our machine traverses the layer and selectively disperses a liquid binder through a print-head, much the way that an office printer prints with ink on paper.  The difference is that these binders are specially formulated to be compatible with the atomized material that is being spread and the capability of the print head to actually jet the binder.  Once a layer is bound, the next layer is spread, and the binder jetting process is repeated, binding intra-layer and inter-layer.

As I said before, ExOne focuses on industrial production.  The machines we build are very robust and capable of working on the shop floor.  The machine sizes are large and fast by 3D Printing standards.  And, the materials and binders that we use are certified for industrial use.

M-Flex David Burns ExOne

3D Printing Industry: The 3D printing systems from ExOne are a unique offering in terms of materials that can be processed — sand, metal, glass and ceramics. Is all of the material R&D conducted in house? And as far as you can, could you share some of the most successful applications of these materials?

David Burns:  We primarily conduct our R&D in house. To facilitate in-house materials development, and to accelerate the development and certification process, we have re-organized our efforts in 2012.  We hired a new Chief Technology Officer, Rick Lucas, who has a strong background in materials testing and certification.  We then formed EXMAL – ExOne Materials Laboratory – and hired project managers and materials specialists, with the goal to bring materials to market faster.

Of course, sophisticated R&D requires help from the outside.  We partner with material suppliers, testing labs, universities and customers to really target opportunities for industrial production.

Brake Drum Casting MagnesiumThe combination of machine productivity and new materials has led to some really interesting outcomes.  For highly complex parts, like those with volute shapes (pumps, blades of all types) we know that the ExOne process can yield cost effective outcomes for customers.  Our output of direct part manufacturing grew by 40% in 2012.  Each new material creates great leverage into new market opportunities.

3D Printing Industry: You have had some great headlines across the 3DP press and further afield since the company went public — how has that gone and do you still feel it was the right thing to do? Have things changed significantly since or is it very much business as usual?

David Burns:  We have been very gratified by the response to both the IPO, and the subsequent reaction in the market.  Those things have helped to affirm – that 3D printing is believed to have a bright future and is a technology that will have a major impact on how parts are made in the future.

We chose an IPO path for one simple reason – after years of preparing our company and our technology for the industrial marketplace, we feel that we are ready to grow more rapidly than an individual investor could fund, and the public marketplace seemed a good source of that growth capital.  We feel fortunate that we were initiating our IPO at a time when the markets were receptive and eager for new opportunities.

We now have additional requirements relative to financial and securities reports, but other than that, not much is different.  We created a strategic path some years ago and have diligently followed that strategic path, and will continue to do so.

3D Printing Industry: Where do you see the biggest growth markets for ExOne?

David Burns:  We see our growth tied to our ability to offer new, certified materials to industrial companies for 3D printing.  We are a global company and we are prepared to support industrial production wherever it takes place in the world.  We believe that companies in the Americas have developed intense interest in 3D printing –so, our sales efforts have been heightened in the United States.

3D Printing Industry: I was staggered to see the sheer scale of the S-Max 3D printer that was launched at Euromold last year — was this scale-up something that your customers wanted? Could you confirm the largest printing volume dimensions?

David Burns:  The build chamber there is 1.8M x 1.0M x.7M (depth).  We believe that it is the largest build volume routinely available to industrial customers for printing industrial materials.  We have shipped 25 of these machines, which were first shipped in 2011, with many more planned for this year.  The price of these machines is generally 1M Euros or higher, depending upon the set of options chosen.

3D Printing Industry: Where do you stand on 3D printing in full colour materials? The binding/jetting process would suggest this could be built in to the process — so is this something that we will see from ExOne in the future?

David Burns: Well, the full color process is important primarily in the world of printed polymers.  Since ExOne does not print polymers, this is not an issue with which we are concerned.

3D Printing Industry: What is your take on the “3D print a gun” issues that seem to be gaining momentum across various press?

David Burns: I am truly reluctant to discuss this issue and will defer to others.  I will only say that, if a technology allows individuals to circumvent the rules that are established by society for the common good, then society needs to find a way to regulate the use of that technology.  This includes weapons, but also transcends to discussions about other objects, as well as the circumvention of IP laws.

3D Printing Industry: In terms of 3D printing applications, do you have a favourite and will you share it with us?

David Burns: So many wonderful stories have emerged about 3D printing – it is hard to focus upon one favorite.  As an individual, I am truly enthralled by the potential of 3DP to change the human condition.   There are well documented stories of printed skeletal components that have changed people’s lives, of the potential future of human tissue regeneration and even of the chance that houses could be printed out of concrete in disaster areas.

All of those stories are not personal to me, but anecdotal.  As an industrial printing company, our stories are perhaps less emotional, but I will tell you one that I enjoy.

ExOne TomPumpI was at a trade show about 18 months ago and a man came into our booth.  He was from Europe and his company makes prototype parts for his customers, with a focus upon pump impellers.  We talked for a good long while about how 3DP reduces the elapsed time for manufacturing and he was, let’s say, unconvinced.  We agreed to disagree about what was possible, but I assured him that we could support my assertions about lead times.  He said firmly that he would send us a file to print and he did not see any way that he would have parts in 10 days as I claimed, especially since they needed to ship to Europe.

About a month later, I received a note in the mail.  It merely said that 9 days after sending the file to us, he was staring at his parts in a box on his desk.  It closed with the simple line – “I believe.”

3D Printing Industry: What is your vision, including personal predictions, for the next 5 years for 3D printing in general; and for ExOne in particular?

David Burns : The world of 3DP is moving at lightning speed, and the lens through which I can see that world is only the ExOne world.  That is the world of the industrial deployment of 3DP.

3DP is transformational and it is really difficult to forecast the trajectory of transformational technologies.  I do believe that the addressable markets for 3DP are in the many billions of dollars, with more markets opening every day, as new materials/machines become available.  So, I see explosive growth for 3DP generally around the world.

For ExOne, I believe that our fundamental strategies are solid.   I believe that in the future, the company will be acknowledged as an important partner to industrials manufacturers.  I believe that we will have a worldwide network of production service centers that will give access to 3DP to both large and small industrial producers.  I believe that ExOne machines and materials will be recognized as competing favorably with traditional manufacturing processes in terms of cost and quality.  And, most importantly, I believe a new generation of engineering thinking will emerge that leverages all the advantages that 3DP provides.