A look of concern appears in Hans Langer’s face when I mention I have an artificial hip. “A lot of people are walking around with an implant that’s heavier than it needs to be. It’s damaging their bodies,” he says.
What his proposed alternative would be is evident from the artefacts – from parts for car seats to handbags – on display at his company’s headquarters near Munich. All weigh noticeably less than similar components usually do because they were made with the 3D printing machines manufactured by EOS, founded 24 years ago by a far-sighted Mr Langer.
EOS is one of the world’s three biggest makers of 3D printers, a technology many experts now think could revolutionise manufacturing by ushering in a new era of “on demand” production of small batches of components. Although the technology has existed for a quarter of a century, it has taken this long for 3D printing machines to reach acceptable standards and for a base of users to develop. The other two industry leaders are 3D Systems in the US and the US-Israeli company Stratasys.
A 61-year-old scientist-turned-entrepreneur, Mr Langer’s lively manner and sparkling eyes belie a tough side. Over the years he has had to dig himself out of several tight holes, such as a series of patent disputes and being forced to cede control of the company to one of his rescuers before winning it back. Now he owns the business outright just as it is poised to benefit from the momentum building around 3D printing. He believes EOS can increase annual revenues as much as fivefold by 2020 from €120m last year (in recent years it has had pre-tax profit margins of 10 per cent) – good news for its 480 or so employees.
Also known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing builds complex shapes out of layers of particles of plastic or metal. EOS’s main contribution has been in a sub-sector of 3D printing called “laser sintering”, which uses laser beams to fuse metal or plastic powder to make highly complex shapes. This provides nearly all of EOS’s revenues. Mr Langer says 3D printing is a “disruptive” technology because it can make new products with better properties than existing ones, and which would be nearly impossible to make with existing processes.
Lessening the weight of objects without also reducing performance is one of those crucial properties and is increasingly important in sectors ranging from orthopaedics to car manufacturing. “If you cut weight you save on energy and reduce wear. In many cases people [in industry] have reached the limit for what can be done with conventional production methods,” he says.
As he speaks, Mr Langer’s manner hints at the understated exactitude of his scientific training. In fact, he was expecting an academic career until one of his PhD supervisors urged him to get out into the commercial world.
He was always interested in science. As the son of a glider instructor, he was fascinated by unassisted flight. “I had a ride in a glider at the age of two, and I piloted one when I was 14,” he says. “I was determined to fly gliders for hundreds of kilometres. How I did it when I was 19 and made a 300km flight was linked to meteorology, aerodynamics and navigation.”
Mr Langer spent four years at the elite Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics in Munich, finishing with a PhD in laser technology. It was there that he was told “not to waste my life in a university laboratory”, because academic life would contain too little excitement compared to business.
In 1981, when he was 29, he joined a small laser company started by Carl Baasel, a business founder in a tradition of German scientist-entrepreneurs who carve out companies from niche areas of technology. Mr Langer describes Mr Baasel as an inspiration.
Within three years, however, he found himself in charge of the European division of General Scanning, a US company that was an early leader in positioning systems for lasers, and a pioneer of the nascent technology of 3D printing.
Inspired by what he saw unfolding, Mr Langer asked the company to back his ideas for 3D printing based on laser sintering. But General Scanning rejected the plan as too risky. “I told the board that my idea . . . could one day turn into something big. But they felt my plan had too many difficulties,” he says.
Undeterred by this verdict, he set up his own venture. His seed finance of DM4m (roughly equivalent to €2m) came mainly from three sources. The first was Falk Strascheg, a laser entrepreneur who had set up Technologieholding, a leading German venture capital organisation.
Other backing came from German government funds for start-ups and BMW, the Munich-based carmaker which used 3D printing to make small runs of prototype parts for some high-performance vehicles. Mr Langer held 75 per cent of the equity in EOS, with Mr Strascheg taking the rest.
But, as with many start-ups, EOS had to change tack. “Our early [sintering] equipment was terrible,” he says. Sintering was initially harder than expected, and to generate some much-needed cash flow EOS based its products on the alternative 3D printing technology of “curing” liquid polymer.
This technique had been pioneered by Charles Hull, whose 3D Systems promptly instigated a series of patent disputes. Alert to the crippling expense of patent tussles, Mr Langer agreed in 1993 to sell his 75 per cent of EOS to Zeiss, the big German optical equipment maker.
It took four years for EOS and 3D Systems to reach a settlement. During this time, Mr Langer made enough money from backing other technology start-ups to buy back control of EOS.
But then he was hit by more patent lawsuits, first from DTM, a US 3D printing company, and then from 3D Systems yet again because it bought DTM in 2001. After spending more than €10m on legal fights over a decade, Mr Langer eventually settled the patent disputes through a complex deal in 2003 with 3D’s new chief executive, Abe Reichental. “Defending our rights to use key technologies was vital, especially when we were in such a fast-expanding field. But because of the expense, everyone involved realised as time went on that we had to find a way to resolve the disputes once and for all,” he says.
EOS renewed its focus on sintering and developed enough expertise to improve the precision and reliability of its machines. Yet Mr Langer is anxious to emphasise how far there is still to go. “You have to remember the technology is still maturing and is probably in the same phase as the semiconductor industry was 20 years ago. I’d say it will be another 30 years before we really begin to appreciate what 3D printing is capable of doing.”
However, when General Electric recently bought Morris Technologies, a fast-growing customer of EOS that specialises in aerospace parts, it was GE’s biggest overt foray so far into 3D printing, for which GE chief executive Jeff Immelt is an enthusiast. As Mr Langer says: “It sent a good sign.”