AVM: You were once a venture capitalist investor and swore you’d never invest in 3D printing. Today, you’re the founder and CEO of one of the fastest-growing additive manufacturing (AM) companies in the industry. What changed your mind?
Buller: When I was an investor at Khosla Ventures, I was compiling some due diligence on a deal we were considering investing in. As part of that effort, I reached out to some engineers I had connections with who were exploring additive manufacturing as a possible solution to some of their biggest engineering challenges.
It all clicked for me when I was talking to an engineer from SpaceX. I asked them about their use of additive manufacturing and they told me that it’s generally not a challenge for them. 80% of the parts they produce through AM can be successfully produced on the first try; 15% of their designs take two or three tries to be successfully produced; and they said that about 5% of the parts they aimed to build were a challenge. These were parts that were super complex and very important to delivering on specific needs, like improved thrust-to-weight ratio, part consolidation, or some other metric. So to me, next-generation 3D printing technologies could only address about 5% of this company’s parts produced through additive manufacturing — the other 95% of the parts were already producible with technologies currently on the market. This validated my existing concern about investing in the 3D printing company we were evaluating.
However, right after that, an engineer across the room spoke up and said, “Yes, but you have to keep in mind. We’ve been working with additive manufacturing for years. We usually know what can and can’t be produced from the start. Those 5% of parts remain a challenge because they are so critical to our business that we absolutely cannot compromise the designs. If we could easily produce that 5% of parts, 100% of our parts would fit that category.”
I immediately realized what we needed was additive manufacturing solutions that were limitless and could truly unlock design freedom for innovative companies and engineers. There was a huge opportunity for someone to come in and solve these challenges that the dozens of the companies in the industry had given up on. That’s why Velo3D was born–to give engineers ultimate design freedom so they don’t have to compromise their designs; it is our mantra.
AVM: Additive manufacturing has exploded in the aerospace and defense industries—especially in maintenance, repair, and operations—why do you think that is?
Buller: The aerospace and defense industries are some of the most innovative industries in the world. This is because they can deliver a huge competitive advantage for entire countries of people. As we’ve learned time-and-time again, a single large-scale attack can cripple economies and create cascading effects around the world.
As innovators, these two industries are always on the forefront of adopting new innovative technologies, like additive manufacturing technology. This includes the development of new applications and products as well as in the maintenance of existing designs.
The U.S. armed forces alone operate more than 14,000 aircraft. Each one of these aircraft undergo regular maintenance to ensure safe operation, which includes replacing parts at regular service intervals. The lead time for some of these maintenance, repair, and operations (MRO) parts can be measured in months to years due to the challenge behind manufacturing them and other supply chain issues. Many of these mission-critical parts only have one or two suppliers who can produce them. And what we’re seeing in this post-COVID world is in some cases, no suppliers are around anymore that can reproduce the parts needed to restore/operate the vehicle.
However, 3D printing can streamline supply chains in several ways to decrease on-hand inventory required and shorten lead time. Many of our customers are choosing our technology because they see an opportunity to take existing designs and print them, rather than manufacture the parts through conventional means. Using this approach is as simple as taking a traditional CAD file, uploading it to our Flow print preparation software, and printing. Depending on the part, there may also be some need for machining afterward to add threads or other mating surfaces.
Another benefit to using AM in MRO is you can create distributed supply chains that allow you to produce the parts you need across a large number of machines and suppliers, rather than one or two. You can also produce the parts closer to where they are needed, so you only need to transport the powdered metal, rather than try to predict what parts you will need to keep on hand.
As the global supply chain continues to encounter problems, I expect we will continue to see new opportunities arise in MRO for aviation and defense.
AVM: What are some of the considerations companies should have when evaluating whether to produce MRO parts for existing machinery using additive manufacturing?
Buller: The biggest concern is that companies should benchmark whether the solution and the part can be produced in a way that is predictable, consistent, and in-line with specifications. Not just on one printer, but can identical parts be produced across any identical machine that is calibrated for the same metal alloy?
With many current 3D printing solutions, that’s not the case. And in those instances, customers will likely need to requalify a build every time it’s produced on a new machine. In my opinion, that defeats the purpose of using AM to streamline supply chains for MRO. To test this, try to obtain multiple parts from different printers before making your final decision.
Cost is another important consideration. What does the part currently cost when produced through conventional means? What is the cost through additive manufacturing. It’s also important to analyze what the lead time and required on-hand-inventory “costs” the program. For many of the customers we work with, that’s a more important consideration than the fiscal cost.
Some facilities and programs are required to have millions of dollars in spare parts on-hand for every aircraft in operation. However, if you were able to produce the parts more quickly through additive manufacturing — not to mention closer to where they are needed — you may be able to reduce the required parts on hand. This reduction has big impacts on a budget.
AVM: What are some of the critical applications of additive manufacturing?
Buller: In aerospace and defense, probably one of the most interesting applications additive manufacturing is being used in is to build parts for propulsion systems, including air-breathing engines as well as rocket engines. With additive, companies are able to build parts that include features that would be impossible to produce through any other means.
We’ve seen customers consolidate hundreds of parts in a rocket engine into single components, eliminating points of failure and once again streamlining the production supply chain of these systems. We’ve seen engineers build regenerative cooling channels into the walls of rocket engines. Really, with additive manufacturing the idea is you can produce the perfect design rather than having to compromise the design for manufacturability.
AVM: What’s required for additive manufacturing to see even broader adoption and especially adoption in the commercial space?
Buller: Additive manufacturing still has a way to go to see mass adoption. It’s often seen as too complicated to utilize in anything but mission-critical designs. And I do agree with the idea that if you can produce a part exactly how you want through conventional means at a lower cost and a similar lead-time, it doesn’t make sense to build that same part using additive manufacturing.
However, what we need to see for that next phase of adoption is to eliminate the need for specialization in designing a part for additive manufacturing.
There is this concept in the industry called design for additive manufacturing (DfAM). To most engineers, this would sound like an extension of design for X, where X could equal manufacturability, performance, cost, or any number of criteria. However, many are starting to see that DfAM is actually a crutch our industry needs to get rid of. It focuses on compromising a design so it can actually be produced through AM. This might mean changing the geometry of the part, adding supports where they cannot easily be produced, or breaking a single design into multiple parts to make it manufacturable. It also requires extensive specialization, so an engineer who knows how to design parts must “relearn” how to design parts for AM.
I think this is a huge hindrance to our industry and is limiting its adoption in some key industries. Once we have additive manufacturing solutions that can produce any design and can turn a regular CAD file into a print file, we can overcome one of the final barriers to adoption.