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Dan Feinberg talks with Nano Dimension CEO Amit Dror about the new DragonFly LDM 3D printer technology announced by the Israeli company on July 24, 2019, aimed at increasing machine uptime and moving forward from prototyping to higher production volumes.
Dan Feinberg: Amit, I found this particular machine that you just announced very interesting. The present machine was mainly designed for small runs, such as proving out the process, prototypes, quick turns, short runs, etc. The new one, DragonFly LDM, is more of a low- to medium-production unit. It’s intended for production processing, correct?
Amit Dror: Yes. The first machine, DragonFly Pro, is more about prototyping, and I’ll explain in a minute why. The DragonFly Lights-Out Digital Manufacturing (LDM) is much more robust for round-the-clock 3D printing of electronic circuitry. Engineers and designers can now prototype and do low-volume manufacturing in-house with minimal operator time. This represents a significant advancement for 3D-printed electronics.
Feinberg: Anybody who wants to try out the process would use the prototyping one. Still, some people have bought multiple units. If they have multiple units, I would think they’re already using it for some production. The new unit will be attractive to anyone who has more than one unit already.
Dror: The DragonFly LDM is a necessary evolutionary upgrade from the DragonFly Pro, and probably more customers will feel even more comfortable using it.
Feinberg: What I’d like to know more about is the differences in production volume and manufacturing speed per day or eight-hour shift. Also, it would be great if you can give us an idea of the cost comparisons for both production and the unit itself.
Dror: I’ll start with the differences. When you look at the machines from the outside, they don’t look that different from one another. We made sure that with the new LDM technology, you can turn off the lights, go home, and the machine will continue working.
One of the key differences is that the DragonFly Pro required more attention by the operator. For example, every eight hours, somebody had to check on the machine, and in most cases, wipe the printheads. It’s inkjet technology, so there are printheads that are extremely delicate; they have to be clean to make sure that at any given time, the printing quality is not being jeopardized. We needed our operators to monitor the print every few hours. That is acceptable within inkjet technology, but when you want to go into production, it’s less about the technology and more about the experience. We’ve created this new feature that washes the printheads in a very automated way. Operators don’t need to be there, which simplifies the operation process.
In addition, I want to address what it does to some of the key parameters that indicate the value for our customers, such as the availability and uptime with the machine. When the operators start printing something in the morning, they wipe it about once throughout the day; but at some point, they are going to go home. If the operator wipes the system in the afternoon, it’s going to go into this pause mode sometime during the night to protect the printhead until the morning when they come back. They’re losing eight hours, for instance, until the operator returns in the morning. But the new version can run 24/7; imagine the impact of that over weekends. The uptime is almost doubled from approximately 45% of absolute time to above 85%.
Feinberg: And that would be at optimum, assuming that there are absolutely no issues when you’re doing the maintenance and that set-up and cleaning are delay-free. Of course, we all know that never happens.
Dror: True. Actually, that’s why we did say 85% because once a week, there is weekly maintenance, which is another point; we’ve significantly reduced the overhead related to weekly, preventative maintenance from one day to three hours. It was almost a full day before. I’m not saying someone had to deal with it for a whole day, but there were some activities where the machine was doing by itself that wasted time.
I jumped into some of the parameters to show the significant improvements that enable our customers to start looking farther towards production. And many of the features, both hardware and software, that we’re talking about—such as a new algorithm and more monitoring of the machine—support the ongoing production of applications coming from the field. We launched the DragonFly Pro toward the end of 2017. We sold a few tens of printers and received feedback from customers that they liked it and the applications. As we moved forward, our customers wanted to start getting more and more applications.
If you’re running the machine and getting more comfortable with it, the more you want to move to create an antenna or capacitor that you’re happy with. You want to make more—the mindset of moving from prototyping to production. If it’s for prototyping, you’re willing to live with it doing one-of-a-kind runs, but if you want to start creating these things constantly, then the whole approach to ROI is different, and so is the time invested by operators.
Feinberg: Right. The expectations are totally different.
Dror: One of the applications that we have is about reducing the downtime. It doesn’t matter if I call it preventive maintenance time or operation time—reduce it and let the customers create constantly, repeatedly, with better yield. The machine provides results that are of higher quality because some of the operation-related activities that I mentioned were done manually before. If you need to wipe something manually, there’s a chance for human error because you have to touch something. If the machine is doing it by itself, it’s going to do it exactly on time. It won’t forget anything, and if something needs to be done gently, such as wiping the printhead, the chances for human error are eliminated, and the outcome is higher yield because it’s all about omitting a mistake.
When we came out with the DragonFly Pro, as proud as we were, that was the first of its kind. We didn’t think production at first, but we started to later; we wanted to check out what the technology could do. There is always something to learn once you get out there. We’ve refined our approach toward production with the DragonFly LDM. We have statistics and added to the machine sensors that check the humidity and temperature within the printing area and outside of the printer in real time because we want to make sure that we’re on top of what’s happening. We have those traces, they have to be conductive, and if they’re not, we want to know why. Everything we’ve done with the LDM technology was about taking additional steps towards manufacturing.
Feinberg: The DragonFly was a huge step forward from the prototype unit that you showed us four years ago. While it allowed you to put the proof of concept in the hands of the manufacturers, it was not a production machine. What’s been interesting to me over the past few months is that some people have bought more than one of the original DragonFly. And since it was designed to prove a concept and do small runs, my feeling is that those customers would be candidates for the new one.
Dror: Yes. And those customers who were the first adopters of the machine are our partners. We respect them. We made sure that the LDM technology could also be installed on the existing DragonFly Pro. All of our customers are going to have the opportunity to upgrade their machines. There are physical installations, and it’s a combination of hardware and software and some training, but they’re all going to be offered an upgrade because they are our more advanced partners, and we want to make sure that we don’t waste time. They invested, and they will get the next level in return so that they can continue and lead their different fields of activities and markets.
Feinberg: Are you giving them a trade-in?
Dror: No, it’s an upgrade. The external cover or box of the machine is similar. We planned it that way, so we made sure we could do the upgrade. And there are some subsystems, like the washing subsystem. You have a subsystem for the washing and sensors, but it’s all upgradable. Many of the other subsystems stay the same, so we don’t have to touch them; it’s more like sending certified technical experts to perform the job.
Feinberg: Does that mean that the original machine will still be available as well as the new machine?
Dror: In terms of the offer we’re going to give customers, depending on the different resellers that we work with, whoever is going to buy a system in the coming period will receive an attractive early-access offer for the DragonFly LDM upgrade.
Moving forward, we will only be offering the DragonFly LDM. It doesn’t make sense to compromise on the system because our customers can do so much more with this innovative, state-of-the-art LDM technology. If you’re a potential new customer and I’m offering you something that’s pretty much the same price, take the better one, and if you’re an existing customer, take the upgrade. It’s not going to be that much of an issue for you. It’s a strong interest of ours that we also provide our customers with the platform and technology that could more easily lead them to production.
Feinberg: Another big plus as they go from prototyping to production is that the sales of the units may stay; it does increase but not exponentially, because you’re going to be buying the new unit instead of the old one. And I’m assuming that the new unit would probably end up being somewhat more expensive than the old one.
Dror: Right. Not right now, but looking into the future, it will be. It offers more.
Feinberg: Because the price of equipment is set by its value. Therefore, the price can and should increase from a business standpoint. This is a major step forward. Sales and interest in your consumables are going to go up considerably.
Dror: And I think that it’s fair for me to say that we also believe that the number of sales of the machines will increase because we always create a high level of transparency. I’m not making a projection, just suggesting that we have good reasons to assume a larger number of systems in the second half of the year. Some customers have already said, “We love the technology, but we would feel more comfortable when the overall operation becomes easier.” And it’s going to simplify the sales or purchasing process for some of our prospects moving forward because these new additions and improvements are a result of feedback from the field.
The important thing for us is understanding that we’re bringing a lot of new improvements and additions. We made an announcement together with a German customer—HENSOLDT—that has been through a process of back-to-back testing of DragonFly Pro versus DragonFly LDM over the last few weeks. It was important that it’s not us making statements, but also a customer who’s already tested and is willing to stand up and to say that they’re supportive. We feel comfortable with the new system, and I’m as excited as you are. I hope that this one will help us to increase sales.
What we learned and realized, and maybe it also caused the delay in entering the market, from the strong feedback we received was that we had to change the approach to make the next move. It’s not about the desktop; it’s about a manufacturing machine. We took the time to pivot from a desktop to the bigger machine. It took some time and money, but we strongly believe that the product and solution we’re offering is the right one. We came up with the DragonFly Pro, we learned what needs to be done, and we’re able to move on to the next evolutionary stage, which is the LDM. Now, we can support our existing customers and upgrade them.
Feinberg: Do you still plan on maintaining a presence here in the United States, and if so, what are the plans for managing it?
Dror: Most of our people are based in the Santa Clara office, but we have machines and people throughout the country as well, such as Florida. We've built up that infrastructure. So, it was about setting up the office and recruiting people and resellers. We have six top resellers in the U.S. This is our largest market, and we’re supporting our customers and resellers with both sales and technical support.
Feinberg: We appreciate you staying in touch with us. I wish you luck.
Dror: Thank you.