Like so many high-tech companies, ExOne was born as a start-up enterprise to commercialize the results of university-based research. In this case, the research was conducted at the University of Munich in Germany and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
The German forerunner to what would become ExOne, Generis, was founded by students at the university who had been carrying out research and practical development work into three-dimensional printing.
One of them is ExOne’s Managing Director in Germany and Chief Development Officer Rainer Höchsmann. “It started out with traditional ink on paper printing, and then we tried to imagine how we could make that process three-dimensional. We experimented with swapping paper for other materials such as metal and using particles made of sand, metal and glass to build up layers of material to form three-dimensional objects fixed with a bonding agent to give strength and stability.”
The first prototype was built for BMW according to clearly defined specifications. After two years, the fledgeling company was able to deliver completely on schedule.
“Having succeeded in developing a working protoype, we needed to find the financing to expand internationally,” says Mr. Höchsmann. “In 2003 we found an American investor in Extrude Hone, which was the exclusive licensee of a three-dimensional printing process developed at MIT.”
In 2005, ExOne was spun off to continue to develop and market three-dimensional printing and laser micromachining. In 2008, a development center in Japan was opened to ensure customer proximity in the Asian market. In 2013, the company was successfully floated on the NASDAQ.
ExOne is not just seen as a pioneer in the market but a leader, having successfully translated its research into practical, efficient machines. Its progress has been swift.
Having started in 2004 with a relatively small printer for different materials and binders, ExOne launched the S-Max in 2010, the largest 3D sand printer in the world. ExOne also makes machines for printing in ceramics, stainless steel, bronze and glass.
Ongoing product development means that the company can offer the largest build volume available in the metal additive manufacturing industry as well as the fastest production rates. Its machines are currently used in a wide range of areas from heavy industrial equipment manufaturing to decorative artwork and architectural hardware.
“Last year we installed our 100th prototyping machine in an industrial setting,” says Mr. Höchsmann. “With the pace with which our technology is finding resonance in the manufaturing world, we can truly say that the 3D age is upon us.”
There are many advantages to digital printing over conventional production techniques. It can be used to accurately manufacture parts with highly complex shapes and internal geometries to demand and without waste. Any excess material is recycled back into the system for the next part. As each part is made from a digital pattern, time-consuming traditional methods such as pattern making and expensive tooling are eliminated.
“We have calculated that total production time savings of up to 70% are possible,” says Mr. Höchsmann. “Changes can be made or mistakes in the pattern rectified at the touch of a button. The possibilities are limitless.”
ExOne sells both its machines and contract manufacturing services. It has eight offices worldwide and has grown from a start-up employing just nine people into an established player in a growing market with 370 employees.
“We ended 2014 with a healthy turnover and have been enjoying annual growth of between 30 and 40%,” says Mr. Höchsmann. “We have decided to focus primarily on industrial applications, which is why we have 60 applications engineers listening to our customers’ needs and ensuring that we meet them. We are in the fortunate position that our customers approach us with projects.”
The next goal for the company is to move forwards from prototypes to serial production. “We are the world leader for 3D printing of prototypes and want to retain that leadership position,” says Mr. Höchsmann. “We also want to address the mass market, to bring down the time it takes to produce on a 3D printer and thereby reduce costs to a level that mass production becomes affordable. This will open up new markets for our machines.”
At present, 80% of demand comes from the automotive sector, aviation and turbines. The company can also imagine applications in the consumer sector to make one-of-a-kind objects that are too expensive to produce the traditional way.