Ultimaker Pushes 3D Printers in U.S. With Help of Former Z Corp Exec

The dream of putting a desktop 3D printer in every home hasn’t materialized, despite a lot of hype, and it might still be years away—if it comes at all.

“I don’t know if it’s dead as an idea,” says John Kawola, a Boston-based executive with Dutch 3D printing company Ultimaker. “But we don’t spend any time on it.”

On the other hand, a 3D printer on every desk at manufacturing companies worldwide? That’s a more easily attainable goal, Kawola (pictured) says—one that is drawing more attention from his company and the rest of the industry.

“We think it’s moving in that direction,” says Kawola, who joined Ultimaker earlier this year and leads its North American operations from a new Boston-area office (more on that below). Increasingly, he says, the quality of desktop 3D printers and their output meets businesses’ needs and expectations. “You could argue that wasn’t the case a few years ago.”

Ultimaker got started in 2011, as the buzz around 3D printing was growing. The machines were getting smaller and cheaper, and investor money was pouring into the industry.

Ultimaker’s founders didn’t buy into the idea that 3D printers would catch on with the typical consumer, Kawola says. Like some other companies, they initially targeted their printers toward hobbyists and the “maker” community—individuals who have the enthusiasm, technical skills, and money to spend hundreds or even a few thousand dollars on a 3D printer.

In Ultimaker’s early days, desktop 3D printers had yet to gain wide acceptance by big companies, who primarily use bulky 3D printers that cost tens of thousands of dollars. But that has begun to change, Kawola says, as technology advanced and companies’ engineers grew willing to trust desktop 3D printers for making prototypes of parts—and even some finished, usable products.

Over the past 12 months, “more and more of our business is selling to big companies, compared to selling to hobbyists,” Kawola says. (Ultimaker also sells to educational institutions, from K-12 schools to colleges and universities, he says.)

Kawola is a trained mechanical engineer who worked at 3D printing firm Z Corporation for over a decade, including about four years as its CEO. 3D printing giant 3D Systems (NYSE: DDD) acquired Z Corporation in 2012. Kawola led Boston-area robotics startup Harvest Automation from late 2012 until this past January, according to his LinkedIn profile.

He returned to 3D printing at a critical juncture for the industry. The sector’s hype, particularly around desktop printers aimed at consumers, has subsided. The most visible 3D printing companies—3D Systems, Stratasys (NASDAQ: SSYS), and Stratasys-owned MakerBot—have struggled in recent months. The industry has taken a beating in the press over the past year, with headlines suggesting the sector’s bubble may have burst or just been a “passing fad.”

Kawola thinks the negative articles have unfairly maligned the industry by painting all 3D printing companies—including those performing well—with the same brush as the struggling “incumbents.” He says companies like Ultimaker, Formlabs, MarkForged, and EOS are all doing well, and points to GE (NYSE: GE) recently spending $1.4 billion to buy two European 3D printing firms as another positive sign.

“Take everybody collectively, the market is still growing strongly—20 to 30 percent a year,” Kawola says.

He wouldn’t share Ultimaker’s revenue numbers, but he says the firm has shipped more than 40,000 printers to date. It sells a handful of desktop printers that produce plastic parts and cost between $795 and $2,999. The company has built a solid reputation in Europe, Kawola says, but it’s relatively unknown in the U.S.

Ultimaker is trying to change that. It began making 3D printers in the U.S. two years ago through a partnership with a contract manufacturer in Memphis, TN, Kawola says. This year, it opened small offices in Cambridge, MA—where Kawola and four other employees are based—and Brooklyn, NY. It also has a few employees in San Francisco, he says.

The plan is to grow Ultimaker’s U.S. operations. The Cambridge office could reach about 30 employees by the end of next year, Kawola says. The local staff members are focused on sales, marketing, customer service, and fostering the Ultimaker “community.” More than 21,000 people are members of Ultimaker’s online network of customers and industry enthusiasts, who use its website to discuss the company’s products, share ideas, and so on.

Ultimaker’s 3D printers and the software it develops to run them are open source, meaning a few months after the company introduces new products, it releases the technical specs to the public. That approach has helped Ultimaker improve its technology by incorporating ideas from users and 3D printing experts outside the company, Kawola says.

Although being open source creates a risk that “you’re giving away” the company’s technical “know-how,” Kawola says competitors must still play catch-up in a fast-moving sector. And building a successful company isn’t just about technology; it also takes reliable products, supply chains, and support services, Kawola says.

“In some ways, those are more difficult to replicate than the technology itself,” he says. “It doesn’t sound that sexy, but we’ve executed well.”

That must continue if Ultimaker wants to make a name for itself in the U.S. and sell its printers to more schools and large enterprises.

“I think there’s going to be a few winners here,” he says, referring to the 3D printing market. “We’re going to continue to try to earn that by executing well.”

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