Past, present and future: 12 months talking to XJet

As a set of technologies transition from one purpose on the factory floor to another, there’s a group of people who seem omnipresent in serving the function of the time.

When Objet’s PolyJet technology was launched 20 years ago, 3D printing processes were solely obliging rapid prototyping needs. It would become one of the pick of the bunch, helping to provide users with fine details and good surface finish. By 2012, Objet was still going strong, and before the year’s end, merged with Stratasys to form a $1.4b entity. Slap bang in the middle of those two occurrences, a co-founder, Hanan Gothait, departed, founded another business, and dropped back into the lab for his next challenge.

Over the course of ten years, Gothait developed a process that would come to be known as NanoParticle Jetting, the unique selling point of his new venture, XJet. He had also begun recruiting his trusted friends and former colleagues: Dror Donai, appointed to the position of Chief Business Officer; Haim Levi, to VP of Manufacturing & Defence; and Avi Cohen, to VP of Healthcare & Education – all of whom TCT Magazine has crossed paths with at various points since the launch of the Carmel series of machines at Formnext 2017. Yaron Hermeche CFO, and Igal Zeitun, CTO, are other former Objet employees now at XJet.

Our most recent encounter was in XJet’s hometown of Rehovot, where the company opened its Additive Manufacturing Center (AMC), and its CEO put the last 13 years into some context.

“The additive manufacturing market is moving forward. From ideas to products, from prototypes to production of real parts,” Gothait addressed an audience of partners, customers and press. “After many years of evaluation, finally the additive manufacturing market is moving into real products in so many fields. XJet could not find better timing for launching its product. The market is boiling, and I’m proud to tell you that we are ready to deliver.”

‘Been there, done that’

It’s been a long 13 years to get here. When Gothait left Objet for a return to the lab, he did so without knowing exactly how he would nurture inkjet technology into a process that could manufacture parts of quality and reliability. Even though he was starting completely from scratch, Gothait never saw the move as a risk, for him or the company. The decision would always be the right one. Gothait left in 2005 for personal reasons, and though tough to leave Objet behind, it was made slightly easier by the company’s performance through its first seven years.

“The company was profitable, was in great shape, growing dramatically, so [I thought] maybe I can contribute something large [elsewhere]. I felt that prototyping is working and there’s not a lot to do,” Gothait told TCT. “It’s saturated already, so it’s not growing fast anymore,” he noted later. “Manufacturing is a totally different planet, the variety of materials, the variety of applications, the variety of approaches, large, small, fast, this is fascinating.”

He set about working with a dozen or more doctoral researchers. Israel is a hotbed of high tech talent (they invented the USB flash drive, you know), and a home to many big corporations: Stratasys, HP Indigo, Elbit Systems, to name but a few. Tel Aviv is renowned for its work in software and cyber security, while 30km down the road, Rehovot has great aptitude in applied materials. Weizmann Institute of Science, the largest research centre in the country was – still is – just a stone’s throw away. Not quite the gamble it might have seemed, then.

It took a while to stabilise the technology, but in the spring of 2016, Gothait returned to the 3D printing world, where he promised to bring to market a material jetting process for ceramics and metals, not polymers, and one fit for series production, not prototyping.

“Objet did amazingly with polymers, so we didn’t see where we could add to what they do, and also we respect what they do,” Gothait divulged. “We don’t want to compete with what they do, but I think metals and ceramics is by far the larger opportunity at the end of the day. Photopolymers cannot move into production. The prototyping market is in the billions [of dollars], and production of metals and ceramics is in the trillions, so better to be there.”

Or as Levi put it at TCT Show 2018: “Been there, done that.”

‘Nothing new for years, until somebody came and changed the rules’

Also notable in that process is the lack of powders and lasers, separating XJet from the majority of the other players in metal 3D printing, and with ceramics, targeting a range of materials most other big players are yet to wade. NanoParticle Jetting sees these materials deposited as a liquid along with a support material through 24 print heads and thousands of nozzles. The liquid jacket around the nanoparticles evaporates in temperatures of up to 300°C and the part builds up as the tray descends. The components then go through sintering, before the support material is simply washed away in a Jacuzzi. Layer thickness of between 3-8 microns can be achieved with metal parts, and between 10-15 with ceramic ones. Density of up to 99.9% is also possible, per XJet. 

“This metal market was dealing with powders and lasers – it was the technology here for the past 20 years. Don’t misunderstand me it is great, it is reliable, but we really reached the limit,” Cohen reckoned at RAPID + TCT 2018. “This is it. Nothing new here for years and years. Laser, okay put two lasers [in], put four lasers [in], but it is the same thing. Until somebody came and changed the rules.”

That ‘rule-changer’ is Gothait, who spearheaded the development of this process from conception to commercialisation, bringing ‘something fresh’ to the industry. It was a big risk not to come to market with a laser or four and a powder bed, Gothait said, and it took a lot of time to develop NanoParticle Jetting. Yet, the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward, he hopes.

“There are many companies coming now [with metal 3D printing systems], all of them are doing powder bed, so the question is what’s their differentiator, because okay it’s another powder bed machine, with laser or e-beam or with the binder jet, and I think we’re coming with a totally different approach, so I think we have a lot of advantages,” Gothait offered. “I’m not sure there is so much room for people that are doing the same, but I cannot judge, customers will judge.

“I understand people that come with binder jet because it’s easier, it exists already [for] ten years, you can read all the research, you can buy some printers, you can see what’s wrong with them, what’s better with them, so for them it’s maybe less risk, but the opportunity for us is larger.”

‘Customers are the most important part of the company’

As Gothait says, the customers will judge, and its why he holds them in such high regard. So far, XJet has just a handful of them, at least ones with the machine installed, including Oerlikon, Syqe Medical and AB Universal. Since that product launch at Formnext, though, the company has made progress in enabling more of them to exist, and in turn, let them get more out of the technology.

The aforementioned three were revealed at Formnext 2017 and RAPID 2018. At the following TCT Show, the first reseller, Carfulan Group, in what will become a worldwide network was announced. Then in October, the AMC was opened. The network will supplement XJet in reaching as many regions as it can, while the company will likely maintain a direct point of contact with the larger markets, such as Germany and North America. The role of the AMC will be to develop materials – at the time of writing, stainless steel 316L and zirconia Zr02 are the only materials to be commercially ready, and no users are yet printing in metal – and aid in the identifying and developing of suitable applications.

“The AMC is a centre of excellence and not just to take the machine to the limit, [but] communicate with the customer, support their needs, see what they want to print, develop their ideas,” said Cohen. “I am very confident that once we grow, and open offices, we will definitely have an AM Center in every region we have an office.”

An impending scaling up of these facilities should accelerate further the development of more materials – aluminium, titanium, and tool steels are on the way on the metals side – and also ways in which to apply it all.

“Customers are the most important part of the company,” Gothait emphasised. “We listen to them and if they need anything we immediately respond to them. We’re working closely with them and in any direction they like, applications, materials, or software issues. We do everything.”

‘We want to do what we did with Objet’

This project might differ from Gothait and co.’s original endeavours in the additive manufacturing market, at least in terms of the process, materials, and target applications, but the approach and the impact they hope to make is much the same. It’s why many have made the jump from Objet to XJet in the last few years. “Looking at XJet, it definitely reminds me of the early days of Objet. A lot of similarity, and I’m happy for that,” Cohen reminisced. “That’s why I have joined.”

Objet came to market with a new way of 3D printing. It became one of the most renowned rapid prototyping OEMs around. And ultimately, it merged with another leading company. So how similar is XJet to Objet? Amidst a growing number of metal 3D printing vendors, will it merge with a peer? Acquire or be acquired? Or remain its own independent entity? What does the future hold for a group who have been there and done it, and who have sold up and started again before?

“[Consolidation] is a question for every entrepreneur,” considered Gothait, “but I decided to give myself one answer. I think the good answer, and my advice to others as well, is we want to build a good company, a good team, excellent products, happy customers, always moving ahead with new innovations, and support the demand of the market. I think if we do that, the rest happens by itself. If the right thing to do is merge or acquire a company, or to go IPO, then… there’s hundreds of parameters there,” Gothait interrupts himself, “but if you have a good company, a powerful company, then you have the variety of options [open to you].

“We could be successful and become an independent company, or maybe some giant company acquires and we can be a big division there. I think the most important thing is to build a strong company. Many entrepreneurs think about the exit, I don’t think that way though. Let’s run and make it big and strong.”

Que sera sera, then. Almost. At this stage, the company is in control of its own destiny. It’s confident, it’s innovative, has experience in building from the ground up, a wealthy pool of talent to dip into, and by all accounts, strong interest in its flagship product and proprietary technology. The corporate stuff is an afterthought for now, the concentration is firmly on building its technology into something that can have a real impact.

“The spirit here is ‘we’re about to change the world,’” Donai told TCT back at Formnext last year. “Investors may put the money in for the return, but for us, it’s not about that. It’s more about creating a real additive manufacturing [process]. We want to do what we did with Objet, to create a new quality of manufacturing, not quality that you still need to post-process the part, because the whole idea if you want to go to manufacturing is that you create a process that is finished.”

“I’m not claiming mass production because I think additive manufacturing will never replace mass production, but short series of end products, that’s where we’re aiming,” Levi offered. “That’s why we decided to go for both metals and ceramics, which is a unique choice in this industry. Metals is already there for additive manufacturing and ceramics, we strongly believe, will come down the road. It’s the most interesting lucrative market in the future.”

“The whole company is a hobby,” Donai continued. “It’s a dream to change the world, to really create, to manufacture in an additive way, rather than talking about prototypes or desktop solutions.”

“There will be many companies that supply 3D printers,” Gothait finished. “We’re coming with a different approach [so] we believe we will be one of the major ones, one of the larger ones, one of the most successful ones.”

When Objet merged with Stratasys in 2012, it was a big deal for a maturing market, but perhaps the exit of one its founders seven years prior will, in time, have the larger impression. Only time will tell, but it’s certainly the goal. Gothait, Donai, Cohen, and Levi were all there to build a prototyping company in the nineties and noughties, when prototyping was the height of people’s expectations. Now, they’re going again, with the only targets set in stone to serve a series production purpose, and do it well. Whatever else happens, happens. 

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