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AM Community Conversation with Dr. David Leigh, Chief Technology Officer for Additive Manufacturing and 3D Systems Corporation

Today on the AM Influencer Series, I am pleased to welcome our guest, Dr. David Leigh, chief technology officer for additive manufacturing and 3D systems corporation. 

He’s an experienced entrepreneur and founder with a demonstrated history of working with 3D printing and additive manufacturing. He got his start right here in Austin, Texas back in 1991 with DTM corporation after graduating from UT. DTM was eventually acquired by 3D systems, and David stayed active in the industry since. 

Tell us about where we’re at. 

If we rewind the clock, we had in the basement Dr. Beaman and Carl Dekker and several other students working on the first laser centering machine. We’re sitting in the engineering research center, teaching center here for the engineering school. They have a multi-floor Maker Space, so you know 30 years later they’re still doing it and it’s a lot broader accepted in the engineering disciplines. It’s become a bigger space not just a lab to invent the tools that engineers can use, but a lab that engineers can use to develop other things. 

What was your first experience with additive manufacturing? 

I have a cousin that was an engineer at TI and we knew a guy named JW Krueger. JW Krueger went to school at UT back in the 60s and was a roommate of my dad’s. He was a VP of engineering at this new startup called DTM corporation. My cousin called me and said ‘Hey why don’t you meet me for lunch, let’s go see what JW is doing. I was a student here and he was working in Austin, and we drove over to DTM and looked at it. I saw the machines for the first time, and you can sit there and look inside and it’s just like melting this one layer and it’s like what is it doing? And you saw this CAD model and the CAD was not really used, so my first class was really drafting, not really CAD. CAD was computer aided drafting, not computer aided design, and so a lot of it was 2D, and really interesting. So that was the first time probably 88, 89 kind of time frame. 

What would you say is the biggest impact to additive manufacturing as far as the broad manufacturing industry? 

The challenge that we had I would say as far as the broader industry, typically you have an expertise, so engineers have an expertise and they know certain tools and new tools come about. But the old engineers don’t have the experience with the new tools, so old dogs have to learn new tricks. I think the biggest challenge that we’ve had over the last 30 years, is just really getting people to shift from a 2D mindset to a 3D mindset. And that started to happen, but still, most of our manufacturing methods are traditional, so it’s machining, drilling a hole or shaping something or typically building complex geometries up. You may build a negative in molding, you may build casting patterns, but you typically don’t build the part itself just from scratch. I see that the biggest advent that this has really helped is really design for manufacturing and design for application. As engineers now can have a fairly low-cost 3D printer on their desk, they’re actually able to assist them in their manufacturing method no matter what it is. It helps them kind of get the design earlier so products can come to market faster, and they’re able to de-risk so many things. They can prototype molds, or prototype parts, and they can prototype or build jigs and fixtures to help in the 3D printing. I think the biggest strength that 3D printing or additive manufacturing has had today is augmenting traditional manufacturing. Additive manufacturing has not replaced traditional manufacturing, but I think that’s the goal and really where we’d like to see it, but currently it is just part of the larger ecosystem. 

How was that swing from working with people on prototyping, but then it actually becomes a final part? 

I would say in the early days, we would make three or four prototypes every one model, so typically one of the prototypes might go to the group that’s doing packaging or preparing the packaging, so they started kind of talking about concurrent designs - trying to do all the things at the same time so all the ships come into port at the same time. The reality is that doesn’t always work well, but the rapid prototyping and the prototypes we were able to make allowed them to do fit checks, so they could send it to the tooling people and they could make sure the tool was right. So that was really the early days, but not many parts were in use. DTM was working with Boeing and NAVAIR, so NAVAIR had a desire to put 3D printed parts on the F18. They had done some initial tests, mainly at Rocketdyne, which was in Southern California. They had done some stuff on the F15 and others where they actually saw that laser centered parts really could be mounted on the outside of the aircraft. They could instrument things like putting a camera on there, make a jig or a fixture or something they could mount, and it actually was working. And they designed some low pressure ducting inside the F18, and they found that it worked. But they had to write a specification for it. What we had to do was develop not only material spec, and a machine spec, but also a process spec. That was several years in development with NAVAIR and the Boeing company. That was the first experience of real parts going on real equipment, and that was again in the 90s, and that grew into more applications, and eventually the metals technology matured enough, and then now we’re seeing that stuff go all the time. And you and I have both seen that, some of the customers especially the space customers, I think just this week we had two people go to space on the private side of the same week. I would put money on the fact that both of those air ships had parts that were made with additive manufacturing. 

 What has been your experience in the past with SME? 

I guess a little history there, so when I was at DTM, we had five beta customers, one of the beta customers was United Technologies, and it was really Pratt and Whitney, in East Hartford, Connecticut. Dick Aubin was the guy who ran that lab, and he was very active with SME, one of their early advisers. And we really started the rapid prototyping association. We saw this, and he was really one of the visionaries that really saw that this 3D printing, (we didn’t call it 3D printing at the time we called it rapid prototyping) was really something that was different and would really help manufacturing and help design. We started having conferences and started having a show. When I started a service bureau, I ran a service bureau for 20 years after DTM, we saved up our money and went to RAPID. I remember one time there was a booth right next door, and there were all these people that came in from Israel to show their new technology, and it was really fantastic, and I got to know those guys. Just when you’re in the booth as an exhibitor and as a speaker, you get to kind of know behind the scenes. And the company at the time was Objet, and there was their first machine ever. Objet eventually merged with Stratasys, so it was an Objet Stratasys merger where Stratasys kept the name, but the headquarters went into Israel. But seeing those guys for the first time before anyone else saw it is really kind of neat. To see those stories unfold, from just a start-up until they go public and eventually, I ended up working with that group. So that was really one of my earliest memories, was just that trade show and getting to know all the people in all the booths. 

What’s interesting about this conference and several of the other conferences, I remember one of the conferences, I think it was RAPID, I went just as an attendee. I kind of walked the aisles and found somebody, (I had a thing I had a problem with - an expensive device I was trying to use) somebody else who worked on those devices, so I went by their booth, and they were able to actually repair it. We set up a recurring thing where we would send this thing in and they would refurbish it and send it back. Just walking the aisle and running into that one vendor paid for the show many times over. It’s amazing what you can learn and see, that the uncommon problem you think you have, is not so uncommon. And building your network is really a good thing. 

Anything special you’re looking forward to this year at RAPID + TCT? 

Well at the time that we’re recording this, COVID has been in regression, and then since the Fourth of July we’ve seen an uptick. I’m assuming we’re over COVID, but then I keep seeing things so maybe we’re not over COVID. I will say this, and not to be too optimistic, but I’m just done. I’m done with sitting at home and waiting. And because with this one we had to postpone a year, and then also push it back several months, I’m really looking forward to seeing the people to getting re-engaged. It’s a really important part at least for me and my career and what I do - it’s hard to miss that. I’m just looking forward to being there and seeing the folks. 

What’s the heart and soul of the additive manufacturing community? 

The way I define community vs a standard relationship or standard interface, is community is where you have connections on multiple points. If you think about your home, and when you’re in the community, you may see somebody at the grocery store, you may sit next to them at the ball game or your kids might play on a baseball team together, you may work together. You see people in three, four, or five different contexts, and that makes up a community. And the thing that’s interesting about the RAPID community or the additive manufacturing community is we’ve got that. You have AMA, you have Formnext, you’ve got RAPID + TCT, you’ve got all of that stuff. And back in the old days we used to have a mailing list called the RPML, Rapid Prototyping Mailing List, and people would throw out questions, or challenges, or problems. Every once in a while, you would get somebody who would flame somebody. Somebody would put out something and everybody would ridicule them and shame them to not say that again, or they’d defend it. So that was the early days. But what happened is a lot of those folks that were in those have kind of extended into the newer media, and so the media that we have now, podcasts and all that, we’re starting to see those pop up within companies. I think EOS has one that they do. What happens is that we’re creating all of these different connections, within the AM space, and I will say that it’s really kind of a big family. Maybe dysfunctional, but it is a family. I think that’s the key definition. 

Some of the things I like to see are people getting to showcase new applications. You’ll walk up the aisle and see art pieces - I think there was an art show and fashion show at one point. It’s really kind of cool to see the application, but it’s also cool to go and sit and listen to technical talk, it’s a great mix. 

Speaking of making quick iterations with 3D printing, there are some processes that we deal with that could take three or four days to run in a machine, especially when you’re dealing with metal parts that are fairly large. The machine is expensive, the materials are expensive, so those iterations really aren’t the cheapest thing in the world. But as a general rule you can build something and come in the next day or later that day and see if it worked. 

That being said, I ordered an ice machine not long ago and it took six or seven months during COVID just to get an ice maker, which is pretty simple. When you think about the value of additive manufacturing in the supply chain, we see a lot of disruption with COVID with the supply chain. I mean even getting lumber, getting windows for your house, or toilet paper, or driving by a car lot, they’re empty. Additive still is producing parts. So that’s one of the things it’s able to do is it still shows up. Especially for the engineers who deal with long lead times in the development cycle. 

One of the biggest challenges in AM is the business case. These are not the cheapest processes, especially the production processes. The industrial systems are expensive, the barrier to entry to learn how to run a machine, not anyone can just push a button. But the thing that we’ve typically looked at is business case, is really it falls short of traditional business cases. But the thing is a traditional business case is production molding and everyone can come into the office, and they can all be in one facility and they can turn out parts, but then somebody gets COVID and the plant shuts down, and it’s not making parts. But the thing that’s great about additive is it can work with just a few people, and it can work remote. I think one of the things that’s now entered is almost like insurance. Having additive in the value chain or the chain of production has really started to enter into the business case. Not just in dollars and cents, it’s can I have something that I can rely on to continue to produce? 

What role do you SME playing in the additive manufacturing space? 

Well, I think the key role is a connector. You’re not going to go to SME to get your degree, you’re not going to go to SME to get all the training, you’re going to get your training at a local trade school, or university. You’re going to get your training by starting to work at a company that has equipment and you’ve never seen it before and you’re asked to run it. So that’s typically where you’re going to get your training. But that’s really only going to get you an intro into it. Where SME comes into play is really able to connect you to higher learning, to other people that have gone before you. You don’t have to learn it the hard way, you can learn it from others. I think again SME generates content generally that can be available offline, they generate trade shows like this where you can actually tactile, you can go walk the show floor and learn by doing and seeing. You can learn by sitting in a room. But the best thing is you get a business card of somebody that does something really similar, you put it in your pocket, you call them two weeks later and say, ‘Hey I’m running into this geometry, how do you fix that?’ And SME has for me, for a lot of others, played a key role in connecting those dots. 

What is the best way to attract the next generation into the field of additive manufacturing? 

I think the number one is the virtual play. The thing that’s interesting about what additive can do is it can actually make tangible what is virtual. We go into video games, we go into movies, we read books, we’re in this virtual space. You have this imagination. The thing is you can take that virtual space, that imagination and actually realize it through 3D printing. I think the first one is being able to engage in a real way with the software virtual space. I know some companies have actually merged the two where you can actually use 3D virtual glasses and actually walk through and see machines and they can actually train you. Those things I think work better with our younger generation. Up to this point, I assumed our next generation was going to be, I’ll say ‘unplugged,’ they’re not going to go into the office, they’re just going to stay in front of a computer, just be in a virtual place, we’re not going to see the traditional offices. COVID really accelerated that, but at the same time it’s shown that this generation that was forced to stay home during school, forced to stay home their freshman year of college, I think we’re going to see a rebound. We’re going to see a young generation that wants a community, they want to participate, they want to go to a football game and sit in the stands, they don’t want to just watch it on their iPhone. I’m not saying we’re going to have a rebellion against the digital generation, but I do think this next generation is going to want to collaborate and work together. One of the best tools that I’ve seen in this lab, and you can kind of see some of the glass behind it, is its maker’s studios. It’s lots of 3D printed parts, and you’ll see a lot of students crowded around a single laptop working on something and then printing it, and then testing it. I really see it as the actual technology as a connector. And again, it not only connects people to people, but ideas to reality. And I think that that’s the role. The thing is, we need to find ways to engage them, and that’s one of the reasons the University of Texas has built really a cornerstone to this teaching center, is the maker’s space. And that’s the way we’re going to have to teach them to learn. Just like at some point it was typewriters to computers, and we had to learn. When kids come up, they become digital natives. We’re not quite yet here where there’s AM natives, so there’s not anyone who has been able to see it. It’s still fairly rare to have a real maker’s space in a high school. Some high schools do, but most don’t. 

Where do you see additive manufacturing evolving in the next few years? 

One of the visions, and again it informed my attitude about where things are, if you look at the computer industry, it was invented in really post WW2, a lot of it was code breaking. Then we grew from the 40s, 50s, into big, massive computers in the 60s, and then in your own garage in the 70s, and then really starting to streamline in the 80s, 90s. But it really wasn’t until probably 2000 or so when the internet came, that really, we’ve seen a scale of computers. It’s handheld computers, it’s smartphones, it’s in your car, I mean a Tesla, right? It’s everywhere. Well, where is 3D printing on that thing? Well 3D printing was invented in the 80s, so that’s 40 years after computers. If it was the same linear scale, if you really look, computers went from basically the 50s to the 2000s, so it took around 40 or 50 years for it to really scale. If we add 40 or 50 years from the 80s, we’re really looking at probably 2030, 2040 when we’re really going to see the same uptick - that hockey stick growth. And I think we’re on that pace. I say all of that stuff, how do computers do it? What was it? And for me who grew up as a kid in the 70s but high school and college 80s and 90s, when I was a kid, you had a Commodore 64, you had an Atari, you had a TRS 80, you had an Apple 2e, you had an Apple Macintosh, Sun microsystems, every single one of those things had different operating systems, had different motherboards, everything was different. Now, it’s AMD or Intel are the chips, you get a Viewsonic or somebody like that on a monitor, you have a Logitech keyboard. I think we saw that shift somewhere in the 70s until 2000. I think what we’re going to see is a standard interface, where common software can run any 3D printer. You have a common user interface on a 3D printer no matter what the material, and you would then start getting specialization within that peripheral. Right now, you have to buy something special to the system, but they may become like a generic HP printer. You don’t have to buy an IBM printer to work with an IBM computer. You can buy an HP printer and work with a DELL computer. I think that’s what we’re going to see, is a little more focus. I think people are fighting over pieces of the pie, if you think about AM as like a pie chart, we’re fighting over those. I think what we need to do is grow the whole pie. And in order to do that we’re going to have to specialize. 

I think we can probably take our cues from the stock market, who are really trying to invest, that they see that hockey stick that I just referred to, they see that that’s a decade or two decades away not a hundred years away. That’s a return that’s on the horizon. I think a lot of people want it to happen in the next two years, the reality is things don’t generally happen in two years. You could get an inflection but I definitely see the next decade as probably one of the biggest decades of growth for this industry. 

Is there anything else you’d like to share specifically while we’re here? 

I think just a general thing is it’s been fascinating to sit on the sidelines or to be a part of an AM industry that’s really kind of a revolution in manufacturing. And to actually see it from the peanut gallery, I mean to either be on the stage and fighting the good fight, or sitting and watching other people fight the good fight. It’s been great and I’ve really generated a lot of good friends through the process. And I remember reading a lot of books and seeing a lot of the stuff in silicon valley when that came of age. And all the people that were making computers and high-tech stuff in their garages, and so I’ve seen that from afar but have never been able to participate. And it’s just been a great joy to participate in it face-to-face, as we have. And RAPID, AMA, a lot of those events, the SFF, solid freeform fabrication happens here, the symposium, it’s just going to go eat pizza with those guys that you’ve been eating pizza with for ten years. It’s really nice to see.

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