European Business: Let’s begin with your company’s name, SLM Solutions Group AG. Does it stand for something specific?
Stefan Ritt: SLM is an acronym for Selective Laser Melting, which is really at the core of 3D metal printing technology. It refers to the process of thinly layering metal powder while simultaneously melting those layers with precision lasers – this is the basic concept behind 3D metal printing. In addition to our printers, our company also facilitates trainings on the functionality of the machines, either at the SLM Solutions Group AG headquarters in Lübeck or on-site. When dealing with such innovative technology, it’s important that operators have a good grasp on the full capacities of the 3D printers. Our products are designed to take on such complex tasks that it is a shame when they are not pushed to their full potential.
European Business: 3D printing is certainly a trending topic in today’s business and media circles. Has this level of awareness also been beneficial to your company?
Stefan Ritt: Yes, there has been quite a lot of buzz surrounding the rise in 3D printing recently. Unfortunately, this has also led to quite a few misconceptions about how our metal printers work. People assume that you just pour in some metal powder in the front, and that the finished product falls out the back – this simply isn’t the case. It requires design, simulation in advance, then heat treatment, milling, rotating, analysis, x-ray, computed tomography – depending on the industry – only then can the parts be used. This complex process often leads to communication problems, which is the reason why we also offer comprehensive consulting services.
European Business: Misconceptions aside, the capacity to produce intricate metal designs with an in-house 3D printer has got to be an exciting prospect for many companies, regardless of industry.
Stefan Ritt: Of course, there are no limits to the applications our machines can take on. Because the metal printers use layers of fine metal powder, there are virtually no restrictions on how the internal structure is designed. This is absolutely not the case in traditional foundries or milling shops.
European Business: Is there a major difference in resource consumption between the two methods as well?
Stefan Ritt: Absolutely! Time is obviously the most valuable resource in the digital age, which is why we see companies investing more in digital solutions. 3D printers allow businesses to bypass certain steps in the production process that are generally both inefficient and time-consuming. When using SLM metal printers, you can dispense with mold construction completely, significantly decreasing both production costs and wait times. Another more tangible resource-conserving element of the SLM machines is the fact that 90% of the metal powder can be re-used for the next printing job, whereas a standard milling process wastes between 40 to 50% of its metal inputs.
European Business: This must have a notable impact on a company’s profit margins over time. Is this your biggest selling point when working with clients?
Stefan Ritt: Our machines are an investment, but more importantly, we want to get to know the people behind them. It is about reliability, longevity, and market awareness. Our customers buy a product that comes with a trust of five to seven years, from which a solid partnership develops. This is more valuable than just a pretty machine. We maintain long-term partnerships with our clients.
European Business: What draws you personally to this line of work?
Stefan Ritt: At 57 years old I have had the unique opportunity to work across generations with professionals who bring a refreshing mix of expertise, technical skills and innovative perspectives to the table. I am an engineer – mind, body and soul – living every engineer’s dream, which is to find an entry point into all industrial sectors, from aerospace to automotive, household appliances to telecommunications. Most people in my profession don’t get a chance to experience that sort of variety in their work.
European Business: What are some of the major career highlights you have experienced during your time at SLM Solutions?
Stefan Ritt: In 2014 and again in 2016, SLM Solutions was awarded the Growth Champion title by Focus Money magazine. That was really very exciting for us, to be recognized by a national media outlet for our achievements. From revenues of around 18 million EUR in 2013 to about 100 million EUR in 2017, SLM Solutions has established itself as a market leader over a relatively short period of time. Otherwise, I’ve really enjoyed partnering up with some major players in the field of innovative technologies, like General Electric, NASA, Airbus, VW, Audi as well as numerous cutting-edge universities and research institutes to create designs that contribute to the advancement of science and technology.
European Business: What do you foresee for the future of 3D printing?
Stefan Ritt: Simply put, I predict that within just 50 to 100 years, 3D printers will become an essential component of every household.