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CEO thinking after Covid19 – Episode 1

These lessons of 3D printing during the Covid19 crisis changed the strategy of our start-up

Monday, May 11, 2020 was a special day.  

Like all French people, it was the first day of our post-confinement life and like many, I felt like I was opening a new chapter.

On the same day, FAO published a report on a subject of concern to me: “Climate Change: unpacking the burden on food safety.” The United Nations organization dedicated to agriculture and food presents different solutions for global food security. Among the new modes of production, 3D food printing.

Security of supply, economic independence has gone from being a subject of debate to a daily subject for all of us since this pandemic. A strange crisis that allowed 3D printing to show off in its best light. 

I believe in this technology 100% and I quickly explain why. I’ve been working on creating business models around 3D printing since 2011, first of all at Sculpteo – one of the world’s leading online 3D printing service. In september 2018, I decided to specialize in 3D food printing, which led me to go back to school and pass my Pastry chef diploma. I set up a new project to link my two passions: additive manufacturing and eating well. This is called The Digital Patisserie.

Like many tech entrepreneurs, my job is to gather the proper conditions in order to create a need for people that they are not really aware of. For 3200 days I’ve been getting out of bed with this question in mind: what’s the point of 3D printing in your life? (I confess that some mornings it comes after “is there any kefir left in the fridge?”  or “what did I eat yesterday for having such a nightmare?”)

Together with my comrades in this industry, we have carried out various actions: simplification tools, educational programs, serious and/or spectacular cases of study, explanation sessions in all possible formats, campaigns with opinion leaders, public authorities and the media, international licensing structures to create standards… Believe me it requests huge time from a lot of professionals!

Yet this virus has done better than all of us: it has put additive manufacturing at the heart of the daily lives of millions of people. The 3D printer has become a weapon of resilience for our societies.

Let’s be clear. Like you, I would have preferred that these regiments of the dead, whose hallucinatory numbers are told over the days, never existed. I would have preferred that these torrents of suffering and the end of difficult months never descended on our streets. 

I am said to always see the glass half full rather than half empty. In my daily life, I devote myself to “how?” much more than to “why?”. So yes, I admit, in those dark days a part of my mind was relieved and amazed. And proud of what we 3D printing people have done to supply those on the front lines.

5 success factors

On May 11, I decided to take a step back from the events. Compared to the last years of my experience in this industry, what were the conditions for such a performance? Are they reproducible?

This allowed me to establish 5 conditions of success that I integrated into the strategy of our start-up. I share them with you in this article. 

During its writing, I shared my personal observations with 3D printing professionals, whose action shows how a virtuous and effective organization can be set up in a matter of days. The reflections of Nora, Marc and Morgan have greatly enriched my analysis and I will be pleased to present them to you in the course of this text. 

Let’s start right away with a little savings reminder (version 101!). To exist a market must meet a number of conditions:

  • there is sufficient demand
  • the existence of an offer from producers
  • the existence of a market place where buyers and sellers meet

Several external factors may influence the realization of this market. I chose to highlight two in this article :

  • there is a competition based on alternative products with a more favourable cost-benefit ratio (replaceable market theory)
  • regulatory framework and public initiatives have been set on this market (economic policy, standards, copyright protection, etc.)

The events of the beginning of 2020 have led to the existence of a new market for 3D printed parts. First of all, let’s have a look on the features of this market. 

Your product should be useful for a world without stocks

Out-of-stock store.
Photo by Wesley Tingey on Unsplash

The arrival of the pandemic has highlighted the lack of stock in our current business model. We have become the kings of the tense flow, and therefore unable to respond to a massive increase in demand.

While medical equipment is the first leading example, the economic downturn has affected all sectors as a result of the disruption of major global supply chains. The time to restart the flow of goods will have direct consequences for businesses and customers for many more weeks.

Let us take the example of food. As the French authors of Greniers d’abondance (1) recalls “It is only very recently that our relationship to the pantry has changed: deliveries in a tense flow and the always well-stocked shelves of supermarkets give the illusion of abundant stocks. However, the European Union has in reserve the equivalent of only 12% of its annual cereal consumption – or 43 days.” 

Our spring was marked by situations of food shortages, some of which continued over time. (A simple personal example: it took me 5 weeks to refill my baking yeast stock.)   

3D printing is a technology very suited to this situation of lack of inventory. With a basic material, it is able to manufacture any shape, any type of object. There is no time to adapt, as there is no tooling. 

During this crisis, 3D printers made masks, visors and artificial respirator parts, but they could have made something else entirely.

They printed what was most needed at that time. If we had faced a virus that lived on the ground and passed through our bodies through our feet, they would have made shoes with disposable soles (this is a fictional exercise).

3D printers have established themselves as a production method for these products because they showed a better cost-benefit ratio during the crisis. The unit cost of production is higher, but the profit was greater than the marginal extra cost. As Professor Daniel Cohen writes (2) 

“States have decided to stop the economy to save lives. This is unprecedented in the history of mankind.” 

Daniel Cohen – Founder Of Paris School of Economics

It is important to note that many of these equipments were donated and were sold at cost (which makes a cost/profit ratio unbeatable, I grant you).

I’m a fan of this technology but I’m not trying to embellish the situation. Yes, 3D printers produce objects much more slowly than other production techniques (and in a limited number of materials). 

It all depends on whether we want to preserve the mass capitalism of the 20th century as a framework for analysis. As Daniel Cohen says, I think even the leaders of our states have already changed their minds a little bit on this topic…

Is your product capable of being useful for a world without stock? Can it help your users to be more autonomous? This seems to me to be a subject to which all new products must respond from now on.

Your product must be able to rely on a community AND an organized production line 

In late February, Richard d’Aveni wrote in Forbes that he did not believe that 3D printing would play a major role in the Covid crisis because the technology was not capable of mass production.

The facts proved him relatively wrong. 3D printers may be slowly producing a unit object, but that hasn’t stopped them from producing much. Because all the owners of 3D printers got on the spot, creating a giant decentralized factory.

Here is a striking example: on 7 May, the French Government highlighted a video of the Lacoste textile company’s initiative for the production of 140,000 masks in consumer fabrics. The comment of Heliox, the most important French Youtuber in 3D printing? The makers’ collective she led during the crisis had already produced 157,000 face shields. 

Lacoste fabrique 140 000 masques.

These 10,000 French makers have produced as much as a flagship of the national industry. And they weren’t the only ones. It is difficult to identify how many 3D printed pieces have been provided.  By compiling reliable sources, it does not appear to be wrong to consider that there are more than one million pieces printed in 3D for free or at cost price. 

To achieve this performance comparable to any mass production plant, the key factor was the existence of strong communities.

3D printing is a manufacturing technology that is triggered according to digital commands. A 3D printer owner therefore spends a lot of time on his computer, and is usually very connected. This advantage played a full role in the speed of creation of this giant virtual factory.  

Nora Toure is the founder of Women In 3D Printing, a community that showcases diversity in our industry. As of March 17, Nora has brought together all the online resources and initiatives around the Covid crisis to enable the community to get involved. She then relayed all the calls for volunteers.

If you ever imagined that you could launch a technology without a community, think about it again. 

Another benefit of the existence of these online communities is the rapid organization of a supply chain.  Marc Fromentin is the business developper Francofil, a dynamic young SME that produces 3D filament in a small village in Normandy. This is how they committed themselves to responding to the crisis:

“Since the beginning of the epidemic, we have offered about 100 kg of PLA to partners with whom we usually work to equip hospitals and EPHAD. Then, we immediately deployed a solidarity offer for the makers by lowering by 40% the price of the 1 kg reel of PLA. In exchange for reels at 18 euros TTC, we asked the makers to accept the colors available in stock or in production. We were thus able to fuel personal initiatives with requests of 1 kg as public initiatives, with requests of 800 kg of the General Council of 93 (a French department).

  At the same time, most e-commerce brands or giants have increased their prices. There is the law of supply and demand. But there is also the human side… that many seem to have forgotten.”

Marc Fromentin – Francofil

Has this solidarity reorganization between final producers and upstream suppliers been observed in other sectors? I confess that I did not spend hours on this research, but I did not find any immediate examples, for example. massive donations of fabrics by major suppliers (perhaps an information bubble problem).

But it is obvious that the 3D printing communities have performed well thanks to the presence in France of filament producers.

The performance conditions of this market are strongly linked to the existence of suppliers of raw materials in the country who were able to play their full role during the production chain during the slowdown in international supply chains.

If your product works with a particular resource, then you need to take care to organize a network of local consumable suppliers for your customers.

Your product must be able to change its vocation

Swiss knife
Photo by Nick Ter Haar

The vocation of personal 3D printers was changed during this crisis. Marc Fromentin of Francofil talks about awareness.

“The makers have made people aware, with initiatives such as “Solidarity Visières” that 3D printing is not a gimmick but that on the contrary it has been able to respond urgently to protection needs. Without replacing surgical masks or FFP2, it has quickly protected a large number of people there or other usual channels (state, pharmacy, industry) have not been able to respond.

Clement Moreau, the founder of Sculpteo, talks about this change of function through a series of questions:  

“At Sculpteo, we are thinking about how to sustain the “emergency supply chain.” Is there a good way to prepare for these crises? Isn’t there a constant crisis, a tension somewhere? Is this ultimately the point of 3D printing?”

Since this crisis, the 3D printer has not changed in its functionality, it continues to manufacture objects from 3D files. On the other hand, it has changed its use, its vocation.

We all know the history of glue at Post-it at 3M. Except that today we are in a product that can constantly change destination, whose use is customizable by the customer.

For me, this is good news for products based on new technologies. When a tech comes on the market, there is an obligation to bring out a flagship application (the killer app) to increase the base of early adopters. This simplification is often unpleasant for those who know the full potential of the technology in question. This leads to endless debates between product teams and technical teams…

Let’s learn another lesson from 3D printing in this pandemic. Let’s leave products open enough for customers to invent other uses in case of an emergency.  

Your product needs to be at market places

Let’s go back to our economic market theory: a set of customers have a need for protective products and a production plant is able to meet that need.

How do they meet? 

It was something that fascinated me during this period of crisis. Individuals immediately created digital marketplaces to allow the meeting between applicants and bidders. By incorporating means of payment. That means by creating efficient economic marketplaces overnight.

The existence of marketplace is far more relevant in our case because the decentralized 3D printer factory allows the delivery journey to be limited to a few kilometers. The platforms have allowed to aggregate the thousands of local stories, to multiply them. In March, we knew one or two people around us who might need 3D printed pieces. And in the end, the 3D printers turned for 6 weeks at 24/7 to produce each of the dozens or hundreds of face shields. For people. And not all of them had the same head.

Sparkmate's urgently printed and manufactured products
Sparkmate’s urgently printed and manufactured products

Morgan Pelissier, one of Sparkmate’s founders, explained to me simply, “We first printed 10 face shields for a local rescue team. And the rescuers immediately told us: it was slipping for those who had little heads so we asked to the team that they measure their head one another, and we made models 85 and 90% smaller. Then we had a row of sheet for thermoforming. To limit the waste, we also revised the design, we took out 8 face shield per sheet instead of 4.”

The marketplaces around 3D printers have therefore circulated files, money and contacts, to carry out personalized transactions. Some of them even have been set up by people with no code skills.

This movement of economic and solidarity exchange places happened without the world’s major e-commerce platforms taking on this role, even though they had the power of the database to do so.

For example, Amazon could have written to all the millions of customers who bought ABS filament to encourage them to print 3D protections. And write to the millions of people who have regularly bought protective equipment to encourage them to look at alternatives when they were out of stock. 

What I learn from this is: 

  • the barrier to entry to create a large-scale market place is ultimately not that high as it is
  • as a hardware manufacturer, one is always hesitant to implement a market place around the use of its product. 

We can hope in the existence of an active and magical individual to do it for us. Or we can choose to stay pragmatic and take the lead. 

Working to build local market places around a new tech becomes strategic for the sustainability of your product. Because these proximity networks became a resilience factor: they reduce dependence on long-distance transport and increase the reactivity of the players in case of disruption.

Your product may escape a regulatory framework… but never long

Innovative technology often escapes a legal framework, as 3D printing has long been the case. This is a good thing, since the objective of the law is to accompany the changes in our societies as well as to protect individuals. 

My position as a dinosaur of 3D printing in France has allowed me to accumulate many observations on the impact of national law on this technology (in this 2015 video you’ll see me moderating a debate on the subject with lawyers).

Giving my opinion in detail would deserve many lines (perhaps another article). In a few words, I never found it simple to 3D print and respect the French law to the letter at the same time.

Legal locks have exploded in the face of the urgency of the pandemic. There is a legal framework for the sharing and permanent rehabilitation of 3D files (the Creative Commons license). But this license does not cover the use of printed parts.

The acceptance of a temporary erasing of the usual legal framework is obvious when you look at the story of Decathlon diving masks. The first reaction of Decathlon’s legal team has been to deny the interest of using their diving mask in hospital, in order to limit their responsibility as manufacturer (if people choke due to any misuse of the mask, this cannot be our fault).

I had the opportunity to listen to Quentin Alline, the product engineer behind the Easybreath diving mask. He explained how the events unfolded. When the articles on the first users in Italian hospitals are published, they see the flowering of complete plans of the mask on 3D platforms. And they are contacted by several scientific teams.

Then they decided to move on. They agree to share with a small number of teams all the documentation: their 3D plans, all their industrial tests after signing a confidentiality agreement. And they block the sale of masks in stores to keep them for hospitals. In ther words, they make the choice to temporarily give up their industrial property. 

Without the initiative of this manufacturer, and our collective amnesia on the standards governing the supply of protective equipment, 3D printers would not have run 24/7. 

Can we expect the state to take swift action to learn from the lessons and finally evolve from the current strict legal framework? Honestly, I doubt it. As the example of Decathlon shows, I believe that the initiative must come from the authors of the products. We must keep in mind that our customers earn new powers and new duties with our products.

And great powers involve great responsibilities, everyone knows that.

Your product may escape a regulatory framework... but never long
Photo by Jonathan Kho on Unsplash

Tech in search of sovereignty

After asking these elements, these general questions seemed legitimate to me. 

  • Do we need to invest millions to build new mega-factories to meet a goal of health, food, or economic sovereignty?
  • Hasn’t the cost-benefit ratio of decentralized production been sufficiently demonstrated? 

As such, 3D printing can be a fast, efficient, versatile and resilient solution for (as an example):

  • produce drugs and distribute rapidly throughout the country molecules in short supply
  • produce foods with an enriched nutritional profile and distribute locally to people in distress

These two examples concern my industry, I’m sure I’ll forget many more! 

These two examples are also relevant to the current situation of all countries. We all have in mind the increase in queues for food aid next to us. We are all aware that the coming months will bring us a food and social crisis.

At the Digital Patisserie, we decided that our first goal would be to increase the capacity of existing 3D printers to produce food rather than make a new type of 3D printer.

Oppositions and difficulties will be all along our way because food has a value chain close to a traditional capitalist market, and the digital transformation movement is still underway. The good news is that the crisis has accelerated this transformation.  

Traditional capitalist market

(source: resiliencealimentaire.org)

What’s left to do? 

The success of 3D printing during the shortage of protective equipment can be explained quite well. Several factors have combined: the existence of targeted demand, a network of producers scattered throughout the territory and grouped in communities, simple digital tools, regulatory barriers set aside.

The good news is that the 3D printer is capable of doing much more than that. Some hasty might think that this technology is just good at producing headbands for visors. I’m not pretending that it could replace an automobile factory, but I’ve seen millions of printed parts at Sculpteo and I can tell you that the variety of use cases is not far from infinity! 

We need this production network. We consider the 34,000 bakeries in France to be part of our quality of life; just like the pharmacy network. When are we going to consider 3D printers as one of our strengths? 

After reading the FAO report on food security, I noted a list of actions to be taken to make this wish possible. They enrich our vision and our strategy for the Digital Patisserie.  I share them with you below, hoping it can inspire you. 

  1. Make the entire existing 3D printer fleet capable of making parts with materials other than plastic. In another field, several start-ups have embarked on electrification of the existing bike fleet rather than making new bikes. Can we easily transfer it to personal 3D printers? The majority of personal printers work on FDM technology. For example, with UTC, we started working on an edible filament project. But there are many other possible solutions.
  2. Give the maker a clear legal status for these emergencies. Establish the rights and duties of “manufacturing rescuers.” In France, we are the champions of this: there are conventions for carpooling, citizenship in public space… Let’s recognize 3D printing as a social advance in the same way as soft mobility, or recycling. If you get public money for an electric bike, why not when you buy a 3D printer? 
  3. Rely on these communities to pass on the basic rules for preventing risks in food production. We have all become more sensitive to hygiene issues, it is up to us to find out how to make it an opportunity for other types of 3D printing.
  4. Organize raw materials supply chain so that 3D printer owners can easily source suitable material. 

Few makers have started to make their own filament… And we all buy processed foods from various distribution networks. Yet the majority of food printers make the components themselves. And there is only one established producer of material cartridges for 3D food printing. Which agri-food manufacturer would be willing to play the game? And which pharmaceutical company would be willing to supply cartridges of molecules to be integrated into a 3D printer? 

I have never believed so much in the economic model that I have been advocating for 3200 days and dust… This work gave me a clear idea of the steps to be implemented to accompany a will for food sovereignty based on 3D printing. 

I hope reading this article has given you ideas for your own business and product development. What solutions do you intend to implement to make your place of life able to absorb the next shock? 

If you would like to go further on this subject, I recommend several articles that have served me for this text:

  1. https://resiliencealimentaire.org/covid-19-qui-veille-au-grain-pour-demain-les-propositions/
  2. https://www.forbes.com/sites/richarddaveni/2020/02/25/the-coronavirus-wont-boost-3d-printing/#5455b1e14c43
  3. https://www.telerama.fr/idees/daniel-cohen-lorsque-toute-notre-vie-aura-ete-numerisee,-nous-serons-geres-a-distance-par-des,n6646030.php
  4. Le Monde’s journalists counted 250,000 visors at the end of April. (https://www.lemonde.fr/pixels/article/2020/04/23/les-visieres-imprimees-en-3d-une-reponse-des-makers-a-la-crise-sanitaire_6037538_4408996.html)
  5. France Third Places recorded more than hundreds of thousands at the beginning of May (https://francetierslieux.fr/les-tiers-lieux-et-makers-de-france-mobilises-face-a-la-pandemie/)

and I also recommend:

  • 3D printing of drugs: 

https://theconversation.com/3d-printed-drugs-could-be-a-godsend-for-those-on-multiple-pills-a-day-and-potentially-life-saving-119764

  • an analysis of initiatives from a global perspective

https://www.forbes.com/sites/sarahgoehrke/2020/03/24/on-demand-manufacturing-meets-pandemic-manufacturing-demand/#20de9b3e403c

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