»On Its Way to the Masses«
Interview: Thomas Masuch
How much progress has Additive Manufacturing made toward serial applications? Carl Fruth offers some answers in this interview with »fon«-magazine. As the founder and CEO of FIT AG, Fruth is known as both a key player and thought leader in his field. His company commenced operations at the first factory specifically designed for Additive Manufacturing in early 2016.
Mr. Fruth, what can you tell us about the latest developments at FIT?
Fruth: Right now, we’re continuing to fine-tune our FIT factory. You don’t just build something like this; it has to keep evolving. As soon as we’ve reached a certain level of sophistication, the next step will be to duplicate the facility. The essential part of industrialization is achieving scalability, after all.
Is this your response to the ongoing rise in demand?
Fruth: That’s always a chicken-and-egg type of question. We’re a prominent company in industrial Additive Manufacturing, which gives us an important position. It’s our job to lead the way, not oversee the industry. Your new facility is capable of industrial mass production using additive techniques, which definitely puts you among the industry’s pioneers.
What are some of the special features of a digital additive factory?
Fruth: First of all, a factory like ours produces a lot of different parts. In essence, it’s not really a factory at all, but something like a department store that offers configurable components. Our factory has a highly streamlined structure and operates on a pull system – that is, based on what customers need.
"The challenge we focus on in the years ahead needs to be making things more cost-effective across the board."
And what about in terms of technology?
Fruth: In contrast to the concepts you often see from other manufacturers, I don’t see the future of industrial additive production in a factory that has a lot of machines all lined up in a row. It’s not really about the technology at all; the key aspect is the structure. It’s also not important to have machines that all come from the same manufacturer. In industrial production, companies always look for the provider that offers the cheapest solution for a given application.
What are some areas where you still see obstacles to mass additive production?
Fruth: The technology and market are still at odds in a number of different ways. We often don’t have products that were designed for Additive Manufacturing, for instance, and additive techniques usually don’t make sense for existing products that were developed for another type of production technology.
FIT’s factory in Lupburg is the first in the world to have been designed specifically for Additive Manufacturing. Source: FIT AG
Where do the differences still lie between additive and conventional industrial production?
Fruth: Industrial production means producing a high level of quality at a low cost. At the moment, Additive Manufacturing is still tremendously expensive. That’s why designing products with added value is always key. In metals, for example, we’re currently looking at a product price of around three euros per gram. Even if we reduce that price by 10%, mass-producing entire products will still be much too costly in most cases. In other words, it’s not a question of price, but how to make money.
Still, price plays an important role, just as it does in every industry. When it comes down to it, people want to generate revenue through their business. How has the introduction of digital production affected the cost of components at FIT, and what’s your opinion of the current trends in the industry?
Fruth: It has made things cheaper to make – around twice as cheap, in fact. When I look at the developments in the industry, I see quite a few manufacturers that keep showing off more and more robots and extra features. What I’m not seeing is someone who can demonstrate a way to run production operations at 10% of the current costs within five years, for instance. For manufacturers like us, things are trending in the wrong direction. The challenge we focus on in the years ahead needs to be making things more cost-effective across the board.
As a “manufacturer for hire”, the only way you’ll come up with products that offer more added value and are designed for Additive Manufacturing is in collaboration with your customers.
Fruth: We definitely do work closely with our clients in that regard. The main challenge lies in the fact that they aren’t tinkerers; they’re mostly corporations that usually think in terms of specified standards.
Let’s get back to FIT. Around 40% of your company’s workforce is female. How have you managed to get so many women excited about Additive Manufacturing?
Fruth: Having well-structured processes makes it relatively easy for us to hire employees from other industries and integrate them into our company. We have quite a few on staff who have switched careers and started acquiring the necessary expertise with us. Meanwhile, we’re very young company with a mean employee age of around 30 years. We also have a very high proportion of women involved in our training program for model design, for example, which is a really creative area.
In 2016, you and your 250 employees generated €24 million in revenue. That comes to less than €100,000 per employee. For a well-structured company, that seems like a relatively small figure.
Fruth: Well, along with Additive Manufacturing, our company spends a good share of its time on model design, which requires a lot of personnel. Plus, our 250 employees include 40 trainees. You also have to keep in mind that we’re currently in a phase of dynamic growth. It’s impossible to grow when you’re always operating at full capacity; you have to keep some resources free.
Just recently, you acquired a stake in Sinterit, a Polish manufacturer of desktop SLS printers. What is FIT hoping to accomplish through this move?
Fruth: Sinterit builds systems that might not be the fastest, but they’re affordable and precise. We’re hoping this will strengthen our effort to bring additive technology to schools and engineering firms and further propagate the additive mindset. We want to help show people the benefits of taking Additive Manufacturing into account early on in the product development process. After all, we need more products and components that have been developed for additive techniques.
Mr. Fruth, thank you for taking the time to talk with us.