»3D printers are like vending machines«

Interview: Thomas Masuch; Photos: Heygears — 2020/06/15

Heygears is one of the most impressive additive start-up stories from China. Having grown to become one of the major players in the industry in the last five years, the Guangzhou-based currently employs 320 people. For co-founder Heyuan Huang, high speed has been one of the key factors in Heygears’ rise to prominence. We had the opportunity to talk to him about the company’s story and its road to success.

Mr. Huang, Heygears was founded just five years ago. What was your aim when you started?

HUANG When we first started Heygears back in 2015, we were not thinking of going into additive manufacturing. At that time, we had the idea to produce earphones using a different production method. But the design, which we wanted to make as ergonomic as possible, was far too complex for traditional manufacturing methods like injection molding. When we started exploring different manufacturing technologies, we found out that AM was the only way to produce the type of structure we wanted.

 

So you had to change your plans?

HUANG Right. We started looking at different 3D printing manufacturers and technologies and ran into a couple of boundaries. They didn’t have any experience in assembling components of that complexity, for example, nor did they have the amount of 3D printers required to fulfill our demands. We tried an alternative route by purchasing some 3D printers in those early days, but the materials we needed to use were extremely expensive and the resolution of the printers couldn’t be adjusted because the printers were completely locked.

»We consider ourselves less a producer of 3D printers than an enabler of applications.«

But that’s no reason to give up…

HUANG That’s not in our vocabulary! Instead, we started looking at yet another way to achieve our goals. We decided to take matters into our own hands and started developing our own system, which was a very risky process. Looking back, it was absolutely the right decision because at that time, Apple came out with Airpods, which made a big splash in the wireless earphone business. At the same time, however, our earphone sales dropped quite steeply. Luckily, we had our R&D team working on the printer side of things, so we decided to look for other applications that could be produced using our systems and found some in the dental field. Five years later, we’re proud to say that Heygears has developed different verticals using its core technologies in AM, AI, and big data handling.


Quite an interesting journey, starting out as an AM user and ending up a producer of 3D printers.

HUANG Indeed – but we consider ourselves less a producer of 3D printers than an enabler of applications. Given our background, 3D printing is only one method of manufacturing. It sounds like your business concepts differ somehow from those of pure 3D printing manufacturers. HUANG Heygears focuses on the application and the end product. Even though we bring a high volume of printers to market, our business model is not to sell printers and generate our revenue from machine sales; we want to enable applications and provide our customers with end-to-end workflows. Heygears believes that the only way that additive manufacturing can work is by establishing a very deep vertical application – not by selling printers to industries where we don’t even know how they’re going to use them. For us, 3D printers are like vending machines. Hence, our strategy is to think about what we can add to a vertical market to enable our vending machines to produce and sell more products. In addition to setting up a whole vertical system from the manufacturing point of view, we’ve developed our own software system, our own service team, and a very deep understanding of the dental vertical I mentioned through our dedicated dental teams.


And how does this strategy inform your business concept?

HUANG First of all, distributed production is our main business model. We actually sell our printers to our partners around the world at relatively competitive prices. These partners, which to a large extent are dental labs here in China, use our systems to produce end use parts. The second part of our business involves being a service bureau with a focus on small- and large-series manufacturing, including for things like dental components and earphones.

 

As a Chinese company, what are the benefits you enjoy in your local market?

HUANG Being a high-tech company based in Guangdong Province enables us to maintain an extremely high pace in R&D and machine production. If a customer orders 10 machines, for instance, we can commit to delivering them within two weeks. Meanwhile, the government in China also supports Chinese companies in getting certifications, registrations, and possible funding for certain inventions and innovation projects. There’s also another important thing we shouldn’t forget: Everything moves fast here in general. You can try things one day and get results two days later. This kind of trial-and-error is extremely important in product innovation.


What have you learned from cooperating with your European and international partners?

HUANG It’s true that Europe is moving at a different pace than China. Heygears’ aim is to collaborate and grow along with its partners across the globe based on our belief that we can all strengthen one another. For me, it’s all a collaborative learning process. We need to learn a lot from our partners, and our partners need more input from the market – and from us.


Mr. Huang, thank you very much for talking with us.

Heygears:

  • Officially founded as Guangzhou Heygears IMC. Inc. in 2015 by five friends who are still running the company today (all of whom are still under 30), Heygears has received more than US $ 100 million in funding. It now has more than 320 employees and offices in China and the United States, which enables the company to produce around 10,000 end use parts per day around the world. According to co-founder Heyuan Huang, that number will double by the end of 2020. The majority of Heygears’ customers are based in China, which is said to be the world’s leading country in dental manufacturing. Its other customers groups are located in the U.S, Europe, and southeast Asia.
  • Further information: heygears.com