Additive Manufacturing: Finding the Solutions that Matter
3D printing pioneer and MFG CEO Dr. Ronald L. Hollis talks about the future of additive manufacturing.
November 1, 2019
In June 2019, long-time additive manufacturing industry vet Ron Hollis took over as president and CEO of MFG and set about rebuilding the manufacturing marketplace. To DE readers, he may be best known as the founder of custom parts services company Quickparts.com in 1999. He led the firm through a period of rapid growth until 3D Systems acquired it in 2011.
He spoke to Digital Engineering about the changes that are happening at MFG, as well as his thoughts on the present state and future of the additive manufacturing market.
Digital Engineering: Can you tell us about the impetus behind the recent changes at MFG, and how the updated platform is benefiting end users?
Ron Hollis: I put the investor team together and bought the assets of MFG. We’re a 19-year-old startup. What I’ve always believed is that there’s a lot of great manufacturers in the market, but these guys are usually very bad at marketing themselves and being discovered. We want to make that connection more efficient so that they can be discovered by quality customers and grow their business. The marketplace is the most efficient way for buyers and suppliers to build a relationship. Once they discover each other, we can help them build profitable relationships by making communications between them better.
We standardized the request for quote (RFQ) process and have built tools so that manufacturers can standardize their responses with online quotes. That eliminates friction in the process, and both parties can focus on their core competencies. The engineering buyers are focused on engineering, and the manufacturers should be focused on manufacturing.
DE: How have you changed the technology platform to make that possible?
Hollis: MFG spent $70 million building a supply chain management ecosystem that didn’t work. We’ve thrown all that away and started over. We’ve built what we believe is a 21st century platform for the marketplace that will help manufacturers be discovered by buyers and help them build relationships. It is highly effective and intelligent.
We have smart routing of the RFQ and made it much easier for buyers to submit their RFQs. The old system was overwhelming and clunky. Now we are leveraging modern-day tools for communication between the buyer and manufacturer. We have added rating systems, so buyers and suppliers can rate each other. That helps them make qualified decisions about who they can partner with, and we are building micro marketplaces to help specialty or niche manufacturers (those that have special capabilities) be discovered by buyers that need that specialty.
DE: You’ve been involved with 3D printing and additive manufacturing for a long time. What have been the biggest changes you’ve seen in how this technology is being used for rapid prototyping and contract manufacturing?
Hollis: Here’s what is good: When 3D Systems and Quickparts combined, that was the waterfall moment for the industry. That was the point where the industry made it on the radar of the money folks. The public markets started to be more aware of the power of 3D printing and large amounts of money came into the industry. Now, here are well-funded companies coming in at the later stages that should be able to shift the industry by adapting the technology to solutions that matter.
That’s one thing the industry is doing wrong. They don’t realize what those solutions are.
DE: What are those “solutions that matter”?
Hollis: This isn’t sexy, but it’s niche applications. 3D and additive [manufacturing] were made to prototype, so it’s a natural fit for low-volume production of parts. Low-volume, of course, is a subjective measure. My philosophy is that this is a powerful technology if you apply it in the spaces or niches that are in that low-volume space.
When you want to have design flexibility, freeform capabilities and agile product development, those are areas where you start to say, “I want to build technology and machines and material that are applicable to that niche.” That is opposed to building a 3D metal printer and saying it will replace computer numerically controlled (CNC) machining. That’s where I think these companies lose some of their context and start spinning their wheels.
DE: What challenges do you see affecting AM/3D printing adoption, both in the prototyping and production part segments? What mistakes is the industry making?
Hollis: Newer companies like Carbon are marketing themselves as a solution for all things. But that story eventually runs out—the spreadsheet eventually doesn’t match the reality. We saw that with 3D Systems and the consumer space. They could never get the revenue to match the spreadsheet. That becomes a negative. You can prevent this if you take the investment money and apply it to a bunch of relevant niches.
DE: Are design approaches and capabilities catching up with manufacturing/prototyping options? Are engineers taking advantage of the evolving options they now have (both old and new, and emerging) to influence the design process from the beginning? How is that changing?
Hollis: Traditionally, CAD and engineering were always ahead of the technology, and manufacturing always had to catch up. When CAD solid modeling came about, manufacturing had to catch up with design. It was transformative in that manufacturing had to say, “Well, great, I’m glad you designed these high-tech fancy parts, but we can’t make them.”
In the 1990s, in the rapid prototyping industry, we all wanted to be manufacturers. We would evangelize that we were going to replace injection molding and CNC with 3D printing. It turns out that CNC wasn’t ready to die. Instead, it innovated to catch up with the design space. They’ve both pushed each other in that sense.
In terms of leveraging CAD design for additive manufacturing, which is evolving, generative design is the future for a lot of parts. It uses engineering, physics and science together to determine the optimal design for this part. Additive allows those optimized parts to be manufactured. I don’t have to worry about design-for-manufacturing constraints.
DE: How do you see the use of 3D printing/additive manufacturing developing within the context of the MFG universe? Can this type of platform help people determine which technology is best for their particular part?
Hollis: Our primary universe is traditional manufacturing. As we evolve the power of the micro-marketplaces, it will be smart enough to allow efficiency in connecting the people who can provide those types of technologies to people who need to buy parts using that technology. Right now, they don’t know how to find each other.
For smaller development companies, they may need to work with a partner that can provide more consultative support and help them go through this process. They need to learn the manufacturing approach to get the part made. That is important. Not all CNC parts are equal. My CNC parts have different criteria if I’m making them for Boeing versus a door bracket for John the Inventor. The requirements are totally different.
That’s where smart routing comes in. If I’m Boeing and putting in an aerospace part in this system, it doesn’t need to go to every CNC shop on the planet. Most of them can’t do it. That’s where we help buyers find the right CNC shop for their part. If I’m Boeing, I don’t want to work with a two-man CNC shop. I need a certified company with the right experts to be successful in the long term. That’s a problem today. That’s what smart routing does—it gets the RFQ to the right manufacturing partner.