Solidscape is one of the most focused and consolidated companies in the world of 3D printing, one which has remained more focused on its end products rather than the process. The company, specializing in wax 3D printing technologies, has found a significant niche in the AM sector, appealing to industries such as jewelry for its rapid manufacturing (rather than rapid prototyping) solutions.
The company’s unique SCP (smooth curvature printing) technology fits within a manufacturing process that is not necessarily as straightforward as other 3D printing companies. Instead, it envisions the 3D printer as an integral part of an end-to-end flow that also includes other key elements such as digital design, casting and other post-processing techniques. The company’s 3D printers are used to create complex geometries from wax, which are then put through a more traditional casting process to create a final part from virtually any type of material.
This, admittedly, makes the technology a little less fascinating in the broader (often unrealistic) belief of the 3D printer being a unique machine for production processes but does make it much more interesting from the point of view of real, current applications. We see evidence of this in the fact that Solidscape has installed over 6,000 systems; an impressive number when talking about systems with industrial prices.
Because of the practical nature of its AM technology, Solidscape does not seek visibility in the world of technology, as it is mainly aimed at existing segments, such as the jewelry market which today represents 80% of its customer base. For this reason, information on the company’s activities can often be fragmented and difficult to find. A recent transition, which saw Solidscape acquired by Stratasys and then Prodways (part of Group Gorgé), has again put the company in the limelight. Thanks to an interview with Lucio Ferranti, President of Energy Group, we had the opportunity to contact Fabio Esposito, Global President of Solidscape, for an exclusive interview in which we talked about the past, present and, above all, the future of the company.
Davide Sher: Let’s start at the beginning. Can you tell us how Solidscape was born?
Fabio Esposito: “Solidscape was a small company founded back in 1994. In 2005, the first signs of a possible presence in the world of 3D printing began to emerge and three investors took over the company, giving life to a series of investments planned over a period of three to five years. I joined the company as President in 2007. We have since consolidated our presence in the field of jewelry and have continued to grow, achieving a leading position in the sector.”
DS: Then Stratasys came onto the scene…
FE: “When it arrived in 2011, our project was already well underway, but with the support of a large group like Stratasys it was possible to further expand the company’s operations and ambitions. We started from scratch and achieved remarkable results—with an annual turnover of over 10 million dollars [Stratasys acquired Solidscape for 38 million dollars, N.d.R.]. When Stratasys acquired Solidscape, it was led by Scott Crump and had not yet merged with Objet. For them, it was a unique opportunity to expand the business beyond the world of prototyping, in the context of DDM (Direct Digital Manufacturing) that continues today.”
DS: How did things change after the Objet merger?
FE: “Throughout our relationship with Stratasys, Solidscape has always remained an almost completely independent company with an executive team that is free to pursue and define its strategies. The merger between Stratasys with Objet was very complex and catalyzed the group’s attention. Since we were already quite independent, little changed for us after the merger and we have been able to benefit from the economic security provided by the parent company, especially since the CEO of Objet, David Reis, who later became CEO of the Stratasys Group, was also on the Solidscape board of directors.”
DS: What then led to the following sale?
FE: “In 2016, Reis left and Ilan Levi arrived and changed the strategic approach by centralizing everything to the core business, which at the time was FDM and PolyJet. In all of this, Solidscape was not part of the strategic objectives. For this reason, we decided that the best thing was to sell the company. Our relationship with Stratasys remains positive as it gave us the opportunity to grow. In fact, Solidscape continues to record very high margins compared to other 3D printing companies, they let us operate in the best possible way.”
DS: What makes Solidscape unique?
FE: “We are one of the few companies that strongly identifies with the vertical market we are operating in. We do not go to 3D printing events, rather, we consider ourselves a company that operates first and foremost in the jewelry world. However, for medical, dental or toy applications, we can also play a critical role with our technology. We deal with indirect production, not prototypes. Our goal is to integrate ourselves further into our current markets and aim to expand further into other markets while maintaining a vertical approach.”
We are one of the few companies that identifies strongly with the vertical market in which we are going to operate.
“To date, we have installed 6,000 of our machines globally. Our systems are production oriented and have considerable costs, representing a five-year investment. Considering that about 1,200 machines were sold outside of the jewelry market, we are competing with manufacturers such as EOS and Arcam for industrial systems. If you go to Google, Apple and Luxottica, there are Solidscape machines.”
DS: Who are Solidscape’s competitors?
FE: There is always competition and in recent years there has been a “race to the bottom.” Today, there are technologies like DLP or even SLA that use resins even though they might have limited possibilities. If you consider that machines from Formlabs or EnvisionTEC and DWS still have more affordable prices, there is no doubt that the pressure on us increases. But these are more suitable machines for prototyping. 3D Systems is also a presence but generally is an expensive platform to master and maintain for our core small-to-medium size customers. Looking strictly at production, our technology is unique and rather difficult to replicate. The most important advantage is that we are able to use two materials (and therefore a soluble support material) enabling an almost unlimited complexity of possible geometries.
DS: Where will future growth occur for Solidscape?
FE: In short, the jewelry market still has completely unexplored areas in regards the use of 3D printing from a manufacturing point of view. In the jewelry industry in general, the use of 3D printing for production is still estimated to be below 10%. This is another reason why we continue to invest heavily in marketing for the jewelry market. Our goal is to expand our portfolio beyond the printer. The adoption of CAD, for example, is still very limited, so the ability to adopt 3D printing is also limited by the number of software licenses. Regions like Southeast Asia or Latin America, which are markets with great potential, remain largely untapped. This is why we have launched a new software platform that increases accessibility to designers. We are looking at the whole process, from the idea to the final piece.
DS: How did the decision to sell to Prodways come about?
FE: The decision was made to sell the company when we decided to look for a parent company as serious as Stratasys, but without all the complexities linked to the merger with Objet and the subsequent acquisitions of MakerBot and GrabCAD. With Prodways, we have identified a company whose technologies were highly synergistic with our products; Prodways offers high-level industrial systems but its fleet does not include inkjet technologies. They also do a lot of research on materials and have a large group behind them [Group Gorgé working in advanced fields such as robotics and nuclear power, NdR.] Joining them is allowing us to advance our development and expand our customer base significantly and rapidly.
DS: Are you working on hardware upgrades or other new systems?
FE: We are continually working on new hardware developments to further increase the performance of the machines. Just two months ago, we launched the new machine, the S390, based on a new, higher performing technology with a new family of materials supplied. In June, we launched the new SolidPIRO software platform that allows you to quickly and easily integrate 3D printing into a jewelry production line.
DS: How is Solidscape’s relationship with 3D printing services?
FE: We need to differentiate between specialized and non-specialized jewelry service bureaus. We often work with specialized service bureaus. In 2015, we created the largest service bureau in China, with 150 of our machines producing something like 250,000 pieces per year for the Chinese market, and we are also developing advanced end-to-end solutions for them. You must remember that the needs of those with multiple machines are very different from those who use only one machine for prototyping.
DS: And what about generalist “application agnostic” services?
FE: Our machines are built to produce very complex geometries for professional high-end jewelry applications. B2C services such as Shapeways, iMaterialise or Sculpteo generally do not address this type of user but, should they receive requests that would benefit from our technology, they would turn to their specialized partners.
We need to focus on the product rather than the process
The 3D printer alone does not mean anything, it’s just an integral part of the process whose purpose is the final piece. A general service is focused on technology. In our case, however, printing is a part of a very complex artisanal process, which requires very important knowledge and experience. The value of the piece is also in the processes following the printing and the micro-fusion.
DS: Is direct 3D printing of precious metals a competitor? Or is this technology still too young?
FE: It certainly has potential, but I still do not think that there are technologies that can offer the possibilities and choice of materials that can be obtained using Solidscape systems and micro-fusion. Maybe in ten years the situation will be substantially different; problems related to direct 3D printing will be solved, such as the removal of supports or the surface quality. The gist with our technology is that realizing wax patterns means never being bound to a single material. While one of the problems of direct 3D printing is that materials are limited. The day when someone presents a printer that offers precision, high surface and mechanical properties and, above all, gives you the opportunity to choose different materials (say, platinum, titanium or gold), then it might become a direct competitor. Today, the costs of running a metal printer are high and the capabilities in terms of accuracy are too limited. I hope, by a fact of technological innovation, that these limitations will eventually be overcome.”