Co-founder and CEO Blake Teipel is bringing innovative, open-source architecture to additive manufacturing.
Teipel worked for such industrial heavyweights as Caterpillar and John Deere before co-founding Essentium with his wife and the company’s CTO, Elisa Teipel, and a team of engineers.
“We were always limited by the materials that you can use when you’re designing new products and getting those new products through the manufacturing value chain,” says Teipel of how his previous experience in manufacturing informed the startup.
It follows that Essentium started off as a materials research and supply firm before it pivoted to manufacturing. In 2017, the company started developing its first open-architecture, industrial-grade 3D printer. “It was a natural extension of our business model to make machines and to start writing manufacturing software and machine-control software,” says Teipel.
Essentium’s line of HSE (High Speed Extrusion) Printing Platforms have driven the company ever since. Teipel highlights three key differentiators with the first being open architecture. “People can buy our machines and use our materials on the machine or other people’s materials on the machine. Our entire operating strategy is to set up an ecosystem that functions like a CNC mill or an injection-molding ecosystem, so it’s right at home on a factory floor.”
“With most conventional manufacturing, you basically have these open-architecture systems where the customer can choose where they want to buy their consumables, whereas the converse of that is seen certainly with our two main competitors and most of the historical additive manufacturing industry. They’ve said, ‘Hey, you can buy our machines,’ but our machines only run on our materials. We believe that’s been a limiting factor for the adoption of additive in the world’s factories, because most of the buyers and procurement guys in the factories just don’t operate that way.”
Printing speed is a second differentiator: “We print very quickly. In order to accomplish that, we have a completely different motion system and motion architecture in our machines,” says Teipel. “We use linear motors with closed-loop, servo-driven feedback architecture on the control stack, so in essence our machines are built more like a semiconductor robot than like a 3D printer.”
“The third big differentiator is total cost of ownership (TCO),” he adds. “We have fundamentally provided the lowest TCO of any application in the extrusion world.”
Customers include such brands as Reebok and Rolls-Royce. Essentium also supplies the U.S. Air Force. “In total, we have over 100 industrial systems installed worldwide,” says Teipel. “The Air Force has a little over three dozen of these systems now at bases, depots, and service centers across the footprint.”
“They’re looking at qualifying the machines and the materials for use on flightworthy parts for mostly maintenance and end-of-service-life type of applications, although we are in discussions now for the incorporation of additive on the front end of the product cycle and the design side as well.”
In spring 2023, the company launched Essentium Printing On Demand (EPOD). Early adopters include aerospace companies and foundries. “It’s mostly ‘Main Street industrial,'” says Teipel, “So hydraulic valves, oil and gas valves, valve castings, valve housings, [and] things like that all need casting patterns and cores So now those can be printed, which lowers the cost for the casting industry and makes us more competitive globally.”
EPOD is meant to act as an introduction to the company’s technology for potential printer buyers. “The bulk of our business is still the classic razor/razor blade of selling the machine and the materials to our clients,” says Teipel. “We basically are offering whatever the client may have a budget to purchase and they have the internal appetite to consume.”
“Annual industry surveys have shown ‘very high’ adoption of additive manufacturing by industrial users,” says Teipel. “Most manufacturers maybe have a design center that does 3D printing, but inside of the factories, there’s not as much utilization of 3D printing. That’s starting to change, but really only in the last few years have you started to see printers inside of factories.”
About two-thirds of the company’s employees are based out of its 50,000-square-foot facility in Texas, and about 25 work at an R&D center in Irvine, California. “We’ve got our materials factory here [in Pflugerville], where we make all of our materials, even including the raw compounding of the pellets themselves and the manufacturing of the raw materials that go into the filament spools,” says Teipel.
“Essentium leverages ‘a global supply chain’ to manufacture its printers,” he adds. “We use a semiconductor company out of Singapore and make those machines on a transpacific supply chain.”
Subsequent to raising a $22 million Series A round led by BASF Venture Capital in early 2019, a plan to go public via a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) was scuttled. “We nearly went public a year ago with the SPAC bubble,” says Teipel. “Unfortunately, the bubble burst, so we missed our market timing.”
Nonetheless, he remains bullish on Essentium’s future. “We’re actually working towards profitability right now. If you follow the additive industry and you look at the public companies, for example, you’ll see very little actual profitability in additive. . . . We are really trying to be prudent right now in our growth, and make sure that we meet or beat industry growth rates, which we’ve been able to do consistently.”
Challenges: Teipel says he sees a very difficult business environment in 2023. “Macroeconomic uncertainty means that people who are managing the world’s factories are stuck in this constant cycle of change management, so they’re not sure what their own forecasts are going to be and they’re not sure what their own buyers’ timelines, in some cases, are, so there’s a lot of hesitancy inherent to adopting a new technology.”
Teipel goes further to say, “That’s a major challenge: macroeconomic conditions. When you see failing banks, when you see historically high inflation, sometimes customers will struggle to get their machines financed because the cost of capital is so high right now.”
Additive adoption has also been stymied by designs that originated with different manufacturing processes in mind. “Usually, customers are not yet designing for additive,” says Teipel. “Usually, our customers are trying to transition a part from milling or molding and make that part additively. For us, we can’t wait until folks are really designing for additive and then can exploit all of the benefits of additive, like part consolidation and lightweighting and inherent geometry advantages and topology optimization and things like that. But that’s just not what we’re seeing. Most of our industrial clients need a lot of support to transition a molded part or a milled part into an additive manufactured part.”
Opportunities: “There’s so much blue-sky interest, which I love,” says Teipel. “My inner optimist is just so happy with how much folks are wanting to learn and wanting to grow in their understanding and their awareness of what additive manufacturing can do. The technology for additive is very mature. We’re not facing an issue where you need to see better printing or stronger parts or certain technology advancements in order to promote adoption. Adoption is available given where the technology is.”
Needs: “Stability in the macroeconomic climate,” says Teipel. “It’s just a difficult time to build and grow businesses, but you know what? Again, there’s a lot of opportunity out there. There are a lot of people who are interested and who want to grow and want to expand and want to uptake the technology, so we’re out there to be a great partner to those folks who are trying to dip their toe in and even try to adopt additive in full-scale production.”