We had the pleasure to talk with Martin Eichenhofer CEO and founder of 9T Labs. The whole story started about seven years ago after a discussion with his brother. He was then a student at ETH Zurich (Switzerland). Several degrees in hand and several years of research conducted on the topic, Eichenhofer has become today a reference source when it comes to “Composite 3D Printing”.
In this Opinion of the Week, the founder revealed the reason why they focus on Composite 3D printing, what they have learned over the years and their eagerness to get back to a “normal working environment”.
Why “Composite 3D Printing”?
The past two years have shown an increasing interest from investors in the composite 3D Printing market but this advanced manufacturing field is still at its infancy and now really starting to take off.
“Plastic and metal 3D printing have been around for decades”, says Eichenhofer. “When I first got in touch with the 3D printing industry, fiber composites were still mainly overlooked because of its complexity in terms of software and material processing. Interestingly, in general the fiber composite market had not yet seen the same degree of automation we see for conventional plastic and metal manufacturing. Therefore, when we debuted in this industry, the market opportunity and goal of our company was clear: we needed to bring fiber composite manufacturing to the same level of automation and integration as metal manufacturing”, continues the founder.
In just two years, the Switzerland-based company invested extra miles to understand the complexity of composite materials, and to transform the manual manufacturing process of carbon composites into an automated process. Their technology capabilities have convinced investors like Wingman Ventures, Investiere and the Technology Fund to back the company with the amount of €3.9 million (financing round of January 2020).
What they have learned from this technology
It is often said there is wisdom in challenges as they come to us to make us better. As a start-up, it was crucial for 9T Labs to understand and overcome these challenges to meet its goal. In this regard, Eichenhofer revealed that their team has learned four key lessons to enter the market of structural end-use parts:
- Understand the market opportunity for composite 3D Printing. 3D Printing is not a niche market in fiber composites, it offers a wide range of market opportunities, in particular metal substitution of thick and complex metal parts.
“Series production is real. The big market opportunity is all about making end use parts with structural fiber composite materials. For us this means, we have to provide the same level of automation, software and integration than what we see in CNC metal manufacturing.”, explains Eichenhofer.
- Strengthen the product offering. It is not just about providing additive manufacturing hardware, advanced software capabilities paired with the right material compositions are key to succeed. “A complete end-to-end solution and close customer relationships are extremely important to go quickly into series production. To lower the entry barrier for our customers we introduced our subscription model, providing always state of the manufacturing equipment, direct customer support and reduced capital expenditure”, states Eichenhofer.
- Match the quality requirements. Customers do not compromise on the quality requirement of the finished parts. “What the customers want to see is our ability to match the quality of conventional manufacturing processes. We learned that it is not enough to “just” print the part.”, adds the company’s spokesperson.
- Superior part performance & development times. Technology with a strong software focus enables more optimal part designs but does not compromise on development time. 9T Labs’ founder explains that unlike metal AM technologies which can leverage existing commercial software to develop products for the composite industry, the software is not yet at that level and provides an additional market opportunity. “Good software results in superior parts, reduced costs and significantly shortened development times.” explains the CEO.
All learnings over the last years are bundled in the development of the Red Series™. Unveiled two months ago, the all-in-one solution includes advanced software, additive manufacturing equipment, as well as engineering service. Today, this manufacturing solution is available on a subscription basis.
Their eagerness to get back to a “normal working environment”
9T Labs took its first steps in the international AM market at Formnext 2019. For now, their main focus will remain on the European market. The company will target other markets already early next year.
In the meantime, just like several countries across the world, 9T Labs has to follow the confinement measures related to the Covid-19 pandemic. A pandemic that slows down the sales processes as customers are usually invited onsite to learn more about the technology.
As we speak, the only wish of the whole team is to “return to the office, to interact and see each other in person.”
If you find out more about 9T Labs, its technology and what cost structure is needed for series production, feel free to register for one of the webinars the company will hold next week: on May 12th (session held in German) and May 13th.
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