Kip Hanson of Manufacturing Engineering speaks with David Leigh, CTO at 3D Systems and a pioneer of 3D printing.
KIP HANSON, ME: I see that you’re relatively new to 3D Systems but have many years in the additive manufacturing and rapid prototyping space. What do you find most interesting so far about working there?
DAVID LEIGH: I’ve been involved with additive manufacturing for more than 30 years now and have met many great people along the way. A number of them work at 3D Systems, so reconnecting with friends and colleagues has been a lot of fun. It’s also been good to connect with Chuck Hull, our company founder, on a more personal level. He’s still quite active as our chief technology officer focused on regenerative medicine and is a very nice guy. But one of the coolest things about working here is that 3D Systems is the company that started it all. From Chuck inventing stereolithography which launched the 3D printing industry, as well as adding other plastics and metal 3D printing technologies, materials, and software, we’ve survived where many others have failed and continue to enjoy a strong position in the public market. I really like that, and am very excited to now lead the team that is building our innovation roadmap, which will help us remain a pioneer of new technologies and help accelerate the adoption of additive manufacturing.
HANSON: Having worked for two of 3D Systems’ biggest competitors, can you share any insights on how you plan to help your new employer succeed in this dynamic industry?
LEIGH: In addition to EOS and Stratasys, I’ve either worked for or helped launch several other firms, including Integra, DTM [Desk Top Manufacturing], and Advanced Laser Materials, some of which were later acquired by companies that ended up hiring me. So in some ways, my working at 3D Systems is a bit like being a professor moving to another university—it may be a different door, a different building, and a different set of students or processes within, but the work remains much the same. I would also add that all of us in 3D printing face unique challenges. We all share information on ways to solve those challenges, and if we as individuals are not a collection of the tools we picked up along the way, then we weren’t very good collectors. And so I’ll continue to use those tools and hopefully build a better toolbox as I go.
HANSON: You founded Harvest Technologies in the mid-’90s, a well-known service bureau that Stratasys acquired in 2015. What do you see as the future for on-demand manufacturing, and what advice would you give to companies looking to break into this market?
LEIGH: To be blunt, I’d say that it’s about like trying to open a specialty hat shop in downtown Dallas. Maybe you’ll make it, but in all likelihood, it’s going to be tough to pay the rent because there are so many hat shops now that are online. Anybody can throw up a website and sell hats. You don’t even have to make them. It’s the same thing with service bureaus today. There’s Protolabs and Shapeways and Materialise, to name just a few, companies that established a beachhead early on and are now publicly traded. They’re like the Amazon of 3D printing. Competing with them will require a differentiator—maybe you worked for a research lab or aerospace company, for instance, and have a unique skill or application you can build a business around. It’s these types of companies with special expertise that will be the most successful going forward.
HANSON: You recently received an AM Industry Achievement Award from SME’s AM Technical Community Leadership Committee. What do you feel have been your most notable industry accomplishments, and why?
LEIGH: That’s a really good question that’s really hard to answer. I jokingly say that I’m not the most accomplished in the industry; I’m just the most stubborn. I’m still here. Most of the people who were more accomplished than me have already exited the industry. They’re skiing right now or on a boat somewhere, off doing wonderful things. And I say good for them, they deserve it, but I’ve stayed. I’ve poured my whole life into additive. So that in itself is an achievement, although I like to think I’ve also made some notable contributions. At Harvest Technologies, for example, moving from prototyping to production was always my number one goal. I wanted to produce end-use parts that work and could be certified as such. Because of that, we were the first AS9100 certified service bureau. We were the first ones to supply parts for commercial aerospace. And I was part of the committee to create what are now ANSI standards. So I think this last one was probably my biggest contribution, as it has helped standardize AM, and built an ecosystem that brings it within everyone’s reach.
HANSON: Where do you see 3D Systems in 10 years, and how will you help it get there?
LEIGH: There are companies like 3M and IBM that have completely transformed themselves since their founding and are now offering technologies and solutions completely different than where they initially started. I don’t see that for 3D Systems. What I do see is that we’ve invested in key areas of our business—in software through the acquisitions of Additive Works and Oqton, for example, and regenerative medicine through acquiring Allevi and Volumetric—while internally, we continue to devote development resources on our core technologies. All of these efforts will help the company grow and evolve. But some of my answer goes back to what I just said about the ecosystem. The industry continues to evolve as well, and all of us can use our different technologies to help make it more inclusive and less proprietary. We have to be good stewards of all that we have available.
HANSON: On a personal note, you’re also the founder and a managing member of the Grand Avenue Theater, said to be “the best little theater in Texas.” Tell us about it.
LEIGH: I continue to be an entrepreneur, so outside of 3D Systems, I’m on the city council, I own a construction company, I’m in the commercial and residential real estate business, and yes, I own a theater. I guess I’m just a high-energy guy. As far as the theater goes, I worked as a projectionist in high school. I always liked it, and honestly, the way you run theaters today is not so different from operating a service bureau. You have a server that connects these various projectors, you schedule the projectors to turn on and off, and as such, you have finite capacity constraints. A machine can only make so many parts in a day, and a projector can only show so many people a film, right? Managing each of those is a skill that I’ve developed along with a passion of mine. You put those together with a market need in my small community—they didn’t have a theater—and it presented an opportunity. Being an entrepreneur, I seized on that opportunity, and despite the last two years of COVID shutdowns and the like, we continue to operate. It hasn’t been easy but continues to be something I enjoy doing.