Voice of the Industry – Interview with Lithoz GmbH

Lithoz GmbH, based in Vienna/Austria, is the world leader in additive manufacturing of ceramic components. Syndicated Pulse is honored to feature Lithoz GmbH as part of its voice of the industry interview program and thanks to Dr. Johannes Homa, who agreed to share his views on the state of the additive manufacturing industry as well as highlight the opportunities that lie ahead for vendors and Lithoz in this space.

Dr. Homa is the Co-founder and CEO of Lithoz GmbH. He completed his master’s in industrial engineering and a PhD at the Vienna University of Technology in 2005 and 2008 respectively. He has been teaching at different universities since 2009 and is also the co-inventor of three patents.

Syndicated Pulse (SP): Can you share with our readers a brief insight into Lithoz’s history and the vision for its formation?Dr Johannes Homa

Lithoz: We started to work on Additive Manufacturing (AM) for ceramics at the Vienna University of Technology (VTU), when I was developing diesel particulate filters with gel casting. We were using AM-molds and casting the ceramic slurry into it. My PhD-supervisor asked me then, why aren’t we making the filters directly by AM.  This was back in 2006 and we soon had an industrial partner from the dental field, which was impressed by our first results.

We switched then from filters to teeth and the goal was to have a precise AM-technology, which achieves the same or at least similar material properties as conventional forming technologies. At this time there were already some universities and research organizations working on ceramic AM, but none of them achieved the required quality (precision and mechanical properties). It took us really a huge effort and during developing a new machine, material, software and the whole process chain, we made the breakthrough in 2010.

We (Johannes Patzer our CTO and I) decided then to make a spin-off from the university and commercialize this technology. The dental company had the exclusive rights for dental application, but the rest was free. So we founded Lithoz in summer 2011 to develop the non-dental market for AM of ceramics. We installed our first commercial system in 2012.

In the meantime we made a lot of progress and we have already installed our first system in the US. We had also quite a lot of interest from the AM-community, because we have a unique process and now Dr. Hans Langer (CEO and founder of EOS) is also shareholder of Lithoz. Through our partnership with Dr. Langer our work finds special recognition and gives us a bright outlook for the future. We are now 18 people working at Lithoz and expanding further!

SP: Lithoz is one of the emerging companies in the additive manufacturing (3D printers) market. That said, what do you consider as the growing/emerging opportunities in this space?

Lithoz: AM is in the meantime broadly accepted in metals and plastics, but the ceramic industry was reluctant in applying AM, because the high-quality standard of this industry was not met. We have given the ceramic industry a new forming technology and the AM-industry a new material. We are currently involved in very interesting projects and I can promise, that there will be lots of new applications in the next years. There are so many opportunities in this field and it is currently hard to tell, which one will be the most effective!

SP: In your opinion, what are some of the key technology trends that are shaping the industry?

Lithoz: In my opinion, there are a couple of trends which are already well known, e.g. mass customization, economical production of prototypes and small scale series. But I think the major key element of AM is the opportunity of designing parts without most constraints known from traditional forming technologies (I would not dare to say, there are no limitations at all). This is interesting on its own, but the conclusion thereof has much more impact: The function of the part is more important than the design restriction. Therefore completely new functions can be implemented and new applications can be developed. E.g. GE’s fuel nozzle does not only reduce the number of parts from 18 to 1, but also saves a lot of fuel due to better performance. That is what AM is all about!

SP: Given these technology trends, how does Lithoz approach technology innovation and product development within the company?

Lithoz: We are trying to encourage our customers, students and other stakeholders to think in functions and not in design. This is a very difficult and time demanding task, because we have not yet ourselves fully understood the capabilities of AM. It will take many years!

SP: The 3D printing market has been witnessing a continued consolidation trend over the past few years. What causes would you attribute to this industry-shaping trend?

Lithoz: I think that there is currently a lot of money in the market and companies can not only grow organically to fulfill the expectations of their investors or shareholders, therefore there is the need for acquisition. Furthermore, companies try to have more control over the value chain and therefore they are trying to integrate forwards. So machine manufactures are buying service bureaus to gain a bigger share of the value chain. Another driver could be the horizontal integration of different AM-technologies to offer the customers a broader spectrum of applications.

SP: What are some of the key changes that Lithoz has witnessed over the past 12 months? How has the company changed to reflect this evolving marketplace?

Lithoz: Lithoz has not really witnessed any key changes, because we are currently working in a rather small segment, where AM is fairly new. But what I have noticed so far is a reduction of expectations, which has been evolved by media in the past years. People are beginning to understand that AM is not just a 3D-printer, where you can print out whatever you want, but a new forming technology with its pros and cons.

SP: What would you like your customers/clients to know about Lithoz’s product offerings? Do you also offer services?

Lithoz: Lithoz offers its customers a complete system – machine, software, and different ceramic materials – for the efficient production of ceramic parts. We have a huge competency in the whole process chain, starting from CAD to the post processing of ceramic parts. We totally control all process steps till the sintering of the final parts and we have experts in all fields, from machine to binder development and from software to application engineering. We are offering the whole process chain and the customers can decide by themselves how far they want to get us involved. But we are no service bureau, which means we are competing with our customers.

SP: In terms of markets and demographics, where are you finding the most uptake for your printers? What markets do you consider as key for both present and future growth?

Lithoz: I see a strong demand of biomedical application. Since we are providing resorbable and non-resorbable implant materials there are many applications for AM. Patient specific implants will play a bigger role in the future.

But I see technical products as one of the key drivers for AM. Once an application has been found, where AM parts are outperforming conventionally produced parts (e.g. GE’s fuel nozzle), the demand could easily be higher than the one for biomedical applications.

SP: What are the products that you have introduced recently? Can you share some insights as far as future product announcements?

Lithoz: Lithoz has introduced the CeraFab – printer and alumina, zirconia and a bone replacement material. Lithoz will present a bigger machine in autumn this year and other materials will also be available. Currently, we are working very much on customer specific materials, where the customer provides the powder and we are adapting our technology to the required powder.

SP: Many 3D printing patents have either expired or are expiring soon. In your opinion, does this bode well for the industry?

Lithoz: This will allow other companies to penetrate the market, but AM is not as simple as it looks like. Some key patents have already expired and still there are not a bunch of new companies (except FDM) because there are more things involved than only a patent to have a high-quality process.

On the other hand competition is not bad. It helps to grow the market and it drives new inventions.

SP: Who would you consider as key competitors in the 3D printing space, and how are you trying to differentiate yourselves from them? I can think of ExOne for ceramics may be?

Lithoz: It is not new, that ceramic materials are used for AM and there are different processes which are capable of producing ceramic parts. It depends very much on the application which AM-technology should be chosen. I don’t think that there is one superior technology for ceramic materials, but I am convinced that there is one technology which perfectly fits to a certain application. We have been focusing on precise and dense parts with material properties as in conventional forming process. Currently there is no other company which is delivering that. Therefore I don’t see ExOne as a competitor. There will be some competitors in the future but first of all they have to demonstrate that they are achieving similar properties that we do.

SP: What have been your biggest challenges so far and how have you realigned your strategies to overcome them?

Lithoz: When we started the company, we thought that research institutes and universities would be the first one to buy our system, because they are always keen on new technologies. Unexpectedly, we sold our first system to the industry. This was not so easy for us, because they had very high requirements, but we were able to meet them.

SP: Would you highlight any specific partnership or alliance made in the past year? What can we expect on this front from Lithoz going forward?

Lithoz: Lithoz is now in cooperation with different universities and research institutes. We will continue to expand these partnerships, because they can contribute a lot to broaden the applications. They help us to push frontiers further and discover new ways. We are also negotiating some alliances with different well-known companies, but unfortunately I am currently not allowed to talk about this. But you can be sure, that there will be interesting things in the future.

SP: What do you think of the market conditions in 2014? How about 2015?

Lithoz: We are actually very happy. We have met our goals and we are looking forward to a bright 2015.

SP: How do you envisage the future of the 3D printing market say in the next 5 years? As a conclusion, what role can we expect Lithoz to play in shaping the future of the market or what does the future hold for your company more specifically?

Lithoz: AM will be much more accepted in 5 years and there will be a couple of AM-applications, which will revolutionize the traditional market. Lithoz will be the key partner to drive such applications. Lithoz is and will be on the leading edge of ceramic AM.