Interview with Stephen Nigro
Former President of HP 3D Printing Group (retired)
October 4, 2019
This last month, we spoke with Stephen Nigro about 3D printing.
Editors Note: I thoroughly enjoyed talking with Stephen, and even though I have been in this business from an industrial perspective for over 12 years, his perspective on “Corporate Acceptance” of 3D Printing and what needs to happen to propel it into the manufacturing arena, are spot-on and words I have not heard in the past.
Hi Stephen. Glad you could join us today.
You and I have talked a couple of times before through the “3D Printing Today” group on LinkedIn that I started and as discussed… that group has gotten too large to manage. Consequently, a good friend of mine, David Lee, and I have decided to build a sister Web group to mimic that one.
Work on it until you get success all over again. Hopefully, it won’t take long.
One of the downsides of the LinkedIn group is we have no way to do podcasts or Interviews. We want to add both on our URL and since you were such a driving force in the production of the HP Multi-Jet 3D Printer…we wanted you to be our first.
Steven, you led the charge that changed the 3D Printing and additive manufacturing industry at HP…more than anyone else in the past 3 years. Could you tell our readers about your various experiences there?
Sure. Well first off, thank you for that. Obviously, it takes more than one individual to drive that kind of a business. Since I was quite fortunate at HP, I was surrounded with incredible talent and people. So we all were able to do it together.
When I look back on that and HP’s entry into the market, you have to go back in time a bit and remember the industry at the time. I think HP’s entry did a couple of things. And as I look back, I take pride in first, this notion that we really want to drive the growth in the market. Kind of realizing that the market was small and on a relative basis, is small even today. But knowing that the real benefit would come about, we said “Let’s grow the market”.
This notion, I think in our opening keynote, we said we wanted to grow the pie, and try and grow the pie with everybody versus trying to grab a bigger piece of a small pie. I think that’s one of the things, the notions we at HP brought. Related to that, we brought a kind of an embrace…let’s say embracing an open approach, because the big vision is to change the world. And specifically, how the world designs and manufacturers, and we said that it was just too big for any one company; certainly, too big for HP. And so we really embraced an open approach. And at the time, we go back a couple of years ago, there were a lot of closed systems being developed. Now when you take an open approach, you have to do something unique, because that’s how you’re going to build a business. And so, each day, we elected to focus on what we did best, but also that we said let’s partner and really embrace this partnership model, including our business model, which was a very different business model at the time versus others in the industry.
And finally, related to certainly that first notion, of growing the market, we said, let’s go focus on the industrial market versus a consumer market or let’s focus on production versus prototyping. Today, that’s generally what the industry talks about, production. But if you go back three and a half years ago, back in 2014, consumer and prototyping was still pretty much the market itself. I look back on that and kind of what HP’s entry into the market meant, and that we helped in shaping the market. I think those are a couple of things we really did well.
Since your retirement from HP, I now see that you are working with Kornit. Is there a connection to 3D printing and can you expand on what gets you excited about this new venture? Also what else are you working on.
Sure. I’m involved in a couple of things…Post HP. I’m involved with Kornit and I’ll talk a bit about that as well as a couple other industries. Since I live up here in the Northwest, I’m on a steering committee, to help put together the annual Oregon business plan.
And I’m involved in a nonprofit called iUrbanTeen (www.iurbanteen.org). IUrbanTeen emphasizes bringing STEM education to the underserved. So those are the three things I’ve been doing post HP, plus playing golf, skiing, and other things at the same time with my family. I have managed to stay busy. With regards to Kornit, that got announced a few months ago. Today I’m an advisor to the CEO who I know well. He used to work in my organization at HP and I am also an advisor to the Kornit board.
And later this month, actually in August, I’ll become a member of the board. Kornit is a publicly traded company on the New York stock exchange. And what they’re about is analog and digital transformation. So in this case they’re about direct to garment printing and direct the fabric printing. So at one level there’s really not a lot specifically directly connected to 3D, but conceptually it’s about analog to digital. It’s about driving quality and striving to create new design possibilities; this notion of mass customization. And so for me, being involved with Kornit has been exciting because it has allowed me to take a lot of my experiences certainly over the years at HP; whether it was starting the graphics business, certainly started in 3D printing business at HP and work with that leadership team and the board at Kornit to think about how they’re going to continue to grow. And to date…they’ve been very successful. They are doing a great job and I’m looking forward to working with them in the future.
I know that will work out for you. What do you feel has been the biggest change in the 3D Printing/Additive Manufacturing industry?
Like I said earlier, focus on production. I still stay very connected. I don’t get a chance to read all my newsletters though. You’ll have to make sure I get a link to your new website. But the focus on production, it seems to be pretty much what people talk about now, which again, like we said a few years ago was not the case. I think the other thing that has changed in the industry versus a few years ago, is there are several different players in the industry and not just the pure 3D players. Right? If you go back three or four years ago, only the major 3D Printer companies were making strides. Today, you have a lot more materials companies, you have a lot more software companies, and service providers.
For lack of a better word, you have an ecosystem being developed. And if you go to a show like FormNeXT, look at who was at the show three years ago versus now; you can see the makeup. You certainly have the 3D Printing players and some startups are still coming out. You see a lot of bigger companies coming in, material companies, software companies, which is going to be one of the keys to help this industry really grow to where it can grow…and will grow eventually in the future.
“It’s not hard to predict the future;
it’s hard to predict when.”
And that leads us to the last question. What do you think are the remaining challenges to global adoption in 3D Printing?
I still think… I like to quote, “It’s not hard to predict the future; it’s hard to predict when”, and I think that’s the case with 3D Printing. If you’re going to look at the history of 3D Printing, there’s certainly been the hype cycles that have hit it a few times.
And I still look at the industry as being really early, really infant in its development. And ultimately if you take a step back, the biggest challenge is to get that market to grow, to expand the market potential; and what does it need to have the market dramatically grow?
Simply 3D Printing or Additive Manufacturing is competing with analog processes, and ultimately whatever the use case is, it has to make business sense to use 3D Printing or Additive Manufacturing versus analog, and if it doesn’t make sense, then it’s going to limit the growth.
Now there’s also the phenomenon of inertia. The other factor that’s really in the way of the growth of the market is inertia. There’s a big change in management required. So what I see are the keys to continued growth, is to continue to drive the economics.
I mean, ultimately this break-even point and the costs of 3D printing, has to continue to go down. You have to compete with CNC machining, injection molding, and casting, if you will. The second thing, and I think where the real value is going to be unlocked in the industry, is finding those new applications where you can create completely new compelling products or solutions that only can be done using 3D Printing or Additive Manufacturing; in many cases as high performance applications and that’s why you see the adoption in aerospace, healthcare, and mass customization applications. Certainly, dental is a great one that has taken off.
But, I think related to the inertia, you have to get the world to design differently, to think differently. And I think actually in a lot of ways this is the largest challenge and that’s the challenge the industry needs to come together on because the whole industry will benefit if they can get the world to start thinking differently.
And that goes from the very beginning of the process. When the designer starts thinking about his design, is he thinking about it from a 3D Printing application as a manufacturing frame or are they thinking about it more as a traditional (manufacturing application)? And I would guess 99 plus percent of the time in the world today, designers are still thinking about, okay, I am going to have to injection mold this and I’m going to have to machine that.
There’s just a huge, huge opportunity, and challenge, to get those designers to think…I can design differently. And even when you get the designers to think differently, then you’re going to have to get the manufacturers to think differently. You’re going to have to think about how do I go and qualify this process?
I think the economics, and the quality and consistency that will come from the 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing technologies is one key.
I think to continue to find those applications that are compelling is number two. And I think those applications, if you can continue to unlock those, will help the industry go to the tipping point where people will get excited.
And then, ultimately, the measure is how many designers, when they sit down, and they are staring at that screen…are they thinking okay, how am I going to design this using additive manufacturing or 3D Printing. And if you can pull that off, if you can measure your progress against those three, I think that would give a good leading indicator to the path of global adoption of 3D printing and additive manufacturing.
Definitely. And what you’re saying in reference to designers and manufacturers…the design group usually says, “if those guys would just manufacture what we design, we’d all be happy”. And then you go to the other side of the building and the manufacturing side of the house says “If those guys would just design something we can build, we’d all be happy”. And, I agree, that’s the place where 3D Printing can bridge that gap across that ravine.
And before we end…may I interject a quick question?
What I see is there’s a transformation coming culturally and what intrigues me is that the younger children that grow up with 3D Printing are the ones that will not think in that 99 percentile that you talk about. They don’t know that they can’t make it a certain way. And I sense that as that begins to happen, as 3D Printing gets enough inertia in that area, we will begin to see some changes there. Now that’s me from the outside looking in. What are your thoughts on that?
Well, that’s a great observation. Absolutely. I would add that the younger generation coming into industry will help bring a new perspective but a greater acceleration can happen if corporations also embrace the new possibilities of 3D printing.
I mean, we have said that industry needs to help get designers to think differently. And the best place they can go is to those designers who are learning how to design as opposed to the ones who have learned already. I think education is great. But the risks you face, and I guarantee this happens in big corporations, if the big corporation doesn’t give permission to start thinking about design differently, those new designers come out of school with the mindset…”Hey, I have these great tools I designed differently in; and the first thing that senior designer that has 20 years experiences says is “What are you thinking? That’s not the way…that’s not the way it works”.
And so, I think education is essential and I think that’s going to help drive the ship. But again, I want to challenge the industry because I was in the industry obviously not long ago and I want to challenge the industry to not only go after education, to build on what you said, David, but also to make sure they go after corporations; because the corporations will all have to design differently.
I’ll give you my personal experience. In 1981 when I came out of undergrad at UC Santa Barbara with a mechanical engineering degree, I joined HP. I’m actually designing for real. UCSB at the time was a very theoretical mechanical engineering program. I actually did not have very much practical machining or design experience.
I was much more theoretical. And on my very first design, I designed it on a drafting table, before CAD systems. I sent it down to the machine shop and of course, the expert machinist, Wolfgang, comes up to me; he looked at my drawing and says “You want me to build it like this?” I’m like, “Yeah, why not?” And he’s saying, “Do you realize how hard it is to build this? If you just changed a couple of these things for me, I could actually make manufacturing this a whole lot easier.” I’m like, “Fine, I can make those changes because they really have no functional requirements.”
So that’s a great example. I came in and I was within my first two weeks, being kind of constrained in terms of how I was thinking about design as I came into HP in 1981.
So, I think you have a great notion there. Education absolutely. The next generation is thinking “Why are you constraining me this way?” But also there needs to be an equal push on corporations to embrace those new ideas and let them come in.
And one last question.
What do you think is the general public’s perception of 3D printing? When somebody says “3D printing”, what comes to mind for them?
One thing I can tell you when you tell people you’re involved, wow. Again, I’m no longer involved with 3D Printing, but when I tell people I was involved in 3D Printing, they’re like, “Ahh, that’s cool.”
The public loves the idea of 3D printing. Now, of course, there’s the 3D Printed gun that has gone up and down in weight, but it has surely raised awareness.
But put that aside. People in general, they love the notion of 3D printing. Now, they probably have their Jetson’s view of it…for those old enough to remember the Jetsons. But it’s awesome, there’s no doubt, there’s this positive notion, especially among the youth.
You just mentioned that to the younger generation, when you bring up 3D Printing, they say “That’s really cool.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard,” That’s really cool.” So I think that that’s, that’s a real positive for the industry.
I actually think the industry is closer to the tipping point.
As 3D Printing gets that mainstream awareness, those compelling use cases are really going to help the industry. If there was actually an industry forum, they should hire a PR firm with global 3D ads and a manufacturing PR agency with the goal of raising the public awareness of what can be done with 3D and additive. And I think that that alone would help drive the industry probably as much as technology innovation would at this stage.
Well, guys, we’re at 25 minutes and I don’t really want to keep you anymore. We do so appreciate you taking some time with us and, we surely do appreciate you being our first interviewee for www.3DPrintingToday.com Laughter.
Well, it’s all up from here for you guys. Thank you very much for making me your first interviewee and reaching out. You guys stay cool there in Texas.
Paul and David
We will. Thanks