We talked to Lasse Guldborg Staal, co-founder of AddiFab, about elaborate 3-D printing and this is what she said about it.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Lasse Guldborg Staal: We have been doing pretty well, thank you. Compared with other nations, Denmark has gotten off lightly in terms of COVID-19, and we have managed to keep both the family and the factory running without major disruptions.
Tell us about you, your career, and how you founded AddiFab.
Lasse Guldborg Staal: I am an engineer by background, and got the opportunity to collaborate with AddiFab co-founders Jon Jessen and Peter Lund Sørensen on a couple of very ambitious medical device development projects. When Jon and Peter later wanted to found a company dedicated to the automation and industrialization of 3D-printing, they were kind enough to ask me along for the ride – which started modestly in Peter’s archetypical garage
How does AddiFab innovate?
Lasse Guldborg Staal: Like most other start-ups, we have dedicated ourselves to solving an important challenge. In our case, we are trying to close the gap that exists between prototyping and production. Our solution – Freeform Injection Molding (FIM) – is to combine the prototyping qualities of 3D-printing with the production qualities of injection molding on the same platform. Having defined the problem, and the solution we want to create, we can start breaking the solution into smaller bits that we can organize into workstreams. As an example, we need extremely high 3D-printer precision and repeatability to be of relevance to the injection molding community, and we have had to develop an entirely new printer build system to meet those two key objectives. And then, like most other start-ups, we move rapidly and continuously between conceptualization, realization, and testing to accelerate learning, deployment, and commercialization.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business finances?
Lasse Guldborg Staal: Like the rest of the global industry, we saw a significant slowdown in 2020. For the first half of the year, we hit budgets and delivery plans spot on, but the headwind grew stronger in the second half. For AddiFab, this headwind manifested as a strong increase in project sales, while several sales of systems for Freeform Injection Molding got postponed to 2021. And that led to challenged business finances, as our core business model is to sell systems…
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources and what are the lessons learned?
Lasse Guldborg Staal: The most difficult decision we had to make was to postpone the hiring of a few much-needed talents. Thanks to our skilled and very adaptive team, we have kept production running throughout the pandemic, and we took the opportunity to move machine installation fully online in response to travel restrictions. To our delight, we found that our customers responded very positively to being directly involved in the commissioning of their systems, and the additional training they got in working the systems. Moving out from under the shadow of COVID-19, we have made it a key priority to further enhance the online FIM experience.
How did your customer relationship management evolve? Do you use any specific tools to be efficient?
Lasse Guldborg Staal: Like everybody else, we had to move online to keep the business going. In Denmark, we are fortunate to have a very well-developed digital infrastructure, and AddiFab was already set up for networked operation. We run on our projects using Asana as the back-bone, and Teams, Zoom, and Team-viewer were already part of everyday work routine. But we had to spend a few months developing and refining our online commissioning model before we had worked out all the kinks and the necessary hardware.
We have found that most of our customers were easily able to move online with us, and we believe to have substantially strengthened our ability to operate remotely. But I have to admit that I miss the face-to-face dialogues, and the very analog huddling around a printer or a whiteboard that is involved in most technical solution-seeking. AddiFab is born digital – and we very much see ourselves as part of the digital revolution – but I still like to shake a hand and look somebody in the eye once in a while.
Did you benefit from any government grants, and did that help keep your business afloat?
Lasse Guldborg Staal: Since we had a strong first half of 2020, AddiFab was in a good position when the COVID-19 headwind got stiffer. This meant that we could keep operating at full speed without having to send much-needed talent home on paid absence. Nevertheless, we were the happy receiver of a matching loan from the government-backed Danish Growth Foundation, which helped us get across a rough spot in January and February 2021.
Your final thoughts?
Lasse Guldborg Staal: I think COVID-19 has taught us all some very important lessons about resilience, and about the importance of flexibility. In March 2020, when the first wave hit Denmark, we saw stocks of PPE getting depleted in days. It was a transformative experience to see the robust response from the 3D-printing community, with makers and industrial manufacturers pooling resources to deliver much-needed back-up in the first couple of weeks. Later, when supply chain shortages started developing in industries across the board, I saw key thought-leaders start to question the wisdom of outsourcing and propose concepts that would increase supply chain resilience. And now, we are starting to see manufacturers rethink the way they manage risks, with localized production and digital manufacturing paradigms at the forefront. Considering the fact that near-shoring and increased levels of on-demand manufacturing will also serve as important tools as we respond to the challenge of climate change, I think we may end up having gained a lot from the super-charged disruption of COVID-19.
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