[INTERVIEW] Photocentric founder Paul Holt: unmasking the invisible million-part 3D printing production runs

Read Time:12 Minute, 48 Second

Resin-based 3D printing is a robust segment in the additive manufacturing world, but it wasn’t always this way, according to Paul Holt, founder and managing director of Photocentric. In an exclusive interview with 3D Printing Industry, Holt shared his unique insights about the industry’s evolution, Photocentric’s cutting-edge technology, and the changing competitive landscape.

Resin is “the obvious way that mass manufacturing will work,” says Holt. 

The outdated notions about resin 3D printing, as an “ephemeral manufacturing technique” bound to be discarded after a few uses, are no longer valid. “The initial concepts, or whatever lies that were propagated about thermosets, were down to the fact that the mechanisms of manufacture didn’t live through post-care, and the formulations were not resilient enough.”

Holt claims that resin’s durability is increasing due to technological advancements. It can last longer than thermoplastics.

‘Post care’ or post-processing refers to the methods undertaken after 3D printing, including curing and finishing techniques to stabilize the object. ‘Thermoplastics’ are a type of plastic polymer that becomes moldable at a certain elevated temperature and solidifies upon cooling, typically used in FDM 3D printing.

Holt noted that resin is often feared for its long-term effects, especially if it’s ingested. He argued that this misconception is not true. He explained his point by using the example dental fillings. These are commonly used applications for daylight photocurable materials similar to those that are used in 3D resin printing. Not uncommonly, a filing can come off and be swallowed. What is the point? The fear surrounding resin comes more from unfamiliarity, lack of precedent and lack of solid scientific evidence than any solid scientific proof. UDMA / TEGDMA is widely used by the dental industry.

Photocentric’s evolving approach: how do you get from stamps to 3D printing?

“Photocentric is unique in both its ability to be successful, and fail, in that it only sells products that it makes and invents,” says Holt. 

Photocentric was founded in 2002. Initially, the company focused on creating a stamping product. They invented unique photopolymers and fast photopolymers as well as a way to encode these polymers with LCD screens. Gradually their research led them to multi-layer creation, opening up the door to 3D printers. 

Holt claims that two important inventions in the craft industry led them to experiment with 3D printers. First, the company developed polymers that were very fast. They then created automated machinery to process large quantities of polymers for crafts. They used these advances to build their first 3D Printer and begin their journey into additive manufacturing.

In retrospect, the path taken by Photocentric might have looked “completely illogical,” perhaps even calling to mind the old joke about how to get from one place to another, ‘if were you, I wouldn’t start from here.’ With hindsight, Holt says the route makes complete sense, and indeed, there are many parallels between craft and 3D printing industries. 

“It’s a lot more successful to copy people’s proven models,” he said, pointing to Apple’s history of improving existing products and the risk first movers have when marketing a genuinely new product.

Breaking the Battery Mold with Additive Manufacturing: Photocentric’s Vision

Unafraid to forge its own path, Photocentric’s research into 3D printed batteries exemplifies this vision. Holt highlighted how the creation of three-dimensional battery that can be molded in any shape with a greater level of interfacial interaction could change everything. He stressed that innovations in this area must meet the following two criteria: be affordable and be able to produce large quantities. Any technology that fails to meet these conditions is, as Holt puts it, “dead on arrival.”

 “Batteries are essentially made by coating two faces with a slurry, one with lithium, the other with carbon. You push them together with a separator and roll them up, increasing the charge interface area,” says Holt.

Think of it as painting two faces on a piece of paper, then rolling it into a cylinder – the ‘charge interface area’ he talks about is similar to the paper’s surface area. The bigger this area is, the larger the battery’s capacity to hold charge and the faster the battery will discharge or recharge. It’s an effective but two-dimensional solution to a three-dimensional problem.

“If you look at batteries in three dimensions, you realize you’re not limited to just increasing the area. You can use the entire volume to create new shapes, such as interconnected columns, egg boxes or undulating hills. The entire contour area becomes a palette for design, changing according to whether you want quick charging, quick discharging, or holding a lot of current,” Holt elaborates.

The 3D printing process allows for the experimentation of thicker electrodes. These thicker electrodes offer many advantages, but are difficult to dry using conventional methods. By breaking away from the limitations of traditional manufacturing methods, additive manufacturing can facilitate entirely new types of batteries. This could create a game-changing industry.

Holt’s ambition does not stop at product innovation. He imagines a future in which the entire manufacturing process will be automated, from digital files to packaging output. Dubbed “Project Jeni”, this initiative is Photocentric’s main focus and, as Holt predicts, the “biggest single project” he’ll work on in his lifetime. 

The project grew out of the experience gained by firms during COVID in high volume manufacturing. Holt quips, “As you scale it, you just get more people in, and then you’ve got more problems.” In other words, increasing the scale of production might amplify human-dependent issues, an inherent challenge in the 3D printing sector.

Holt acknowledges that the journey to this future won’t be smooth. There are numerous small challenges and uncertainties to navigate, and it’s important to realize that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for every product. The potential benefits of fully-automated, high-volume and low-cost production are so great that it is worth the effort. Holt’s vision for Photocentric is nothing short of a revolution in resin 3D printing, redefining the future of manufacturing.

The Photocentric Magna 3D printer Farm. Photo via Photocentric.
Photocentric Magna 3D Printer Farm. Photo by Photocentric.

From the invention and sale of LCD 3D Printing machines

Photocentric is renowned for its revolutionary invention of LCD 3D Printing. “It’s really hard to remember what the world was like before LCD. These processes were so well established that it seemed like there was no alternative,” says Holt. LCD 3D Printing has proven to be an important enabler despite initial skepticism. It launched numerous new machines on the market, and is now one of the biggest disruptive forces in the last five years.

Photocentric is in a unique situation, carved out a niche on a crowded global 3D-printing market, with many new competitors. They did this by thinking differently about size and utility.

“What sets us apart?” Holt reflected during our conversation, “It’s our focus on large format printers and high-volume production of smaller parts.”

Photocentric has changed its positioning to a new sphere as Chinese manufacturers continue to grow the market for low-cost printers in smaller formats. This isn’t to say that they scorn these competitors, on the contrary, Holt applauds them, stating that their contributions to the market have set an impressive bar for value in 3D printing. They have optimized Photocentric’s initial concepts and given rise to a thriving ecosystem of affordable, readily accessible hardware.

“[They] provide the best value in 3D printing,” Holt observed, “Their products are amazing machines, being sold to millions each year.”

Photocentric’s strategy has evolved in two distinct directions: very large format printing and mass production of small parts. As Holt said, “Why not create very large objects or arrays of very small ones where you need to produce a lot?”

Regarding intellectual property (IP), Photocentric’s approach is unconventional. Holt views patenting less as a mechanism for blocking competitors and more as a means to safeguard the company’s freedom to operate. “The commercial benefit of having a patent isn’t completely obvious to the uninitiated,” he said, indicating a shift in perspective from the number of patents towards meaningful innovation and practical application.

Holt, citing the challenges and limitations of patent enforcement, argued that innovation should be centered on the market. “All we want to do is be able to go and commercialize our products if we can invent them and the marketplace wants them. We just want not to be stopped.”

Photocentric is unwavering in the face of increased competition. It continues to innovate and push boundaries whether it’s large-format 3D-printing or high-volume manufacturing of smaller parts. It sees the competitive landscape as a field of opportunity and not a lion’s pit. For them, it’s not just about surviving in the industry; it’s about shaping it.

The Photocentric Liquid Crystal Titan. Photo via Photocentric.
Photocentric Liquid Crystal Titan Photo via Photocentric.

Transparency helps grow the additive manufacturing market

Photocentric has been transparent with the costs of 3D-printing, including the cost of the machines, materials and other costs, such as energy and waste disposal. This transparency is crucial to companies that want to produce large quantities of parts.

When asked about the company’s impressive growth from a turnover of £10 million in 2019 to £16.5 million in 2021, Holt remains humble. “We’re sitting in an industry that posts regular articles claiming CAGR of 25%. So anyone who’s sub 25% is shrinking,” he says. He believes that the real growth comes from changing the way things are made, and not just adding a 3D printer.

Unmasking the million-part invisible 3D printing production run

The bold claim of 3D-printing one million parts makes for a headline-grabbing announcement. Yet, public mentions about such successes in high-volume manufacturing remain scarce.

Photocentric was involved in the development of two well-known projects, both addressing issues related to supply chains. Photocentric produced a monthly volume of one million 3D printed face shields for the UK’s NHS, a project that earned Holt an MBE in the New Year’s Honors list. The PPE was manufactured using 45 Magna 3D Printers. 

Merit3D, Adhesives Technology and Adhesives Technology have also 3D printed hangers that keep epoxy cartridges and mixing nozzles together. The compelling aspect of this project wasn’t the product itself but the cost, necessity, and disruptive influence of this “B plan” 3D printing approach. When traditional manufacturing routes became blocked, 3D printing was the last resort.

Holt told me that the 3D-printing industry has another million parts of production. Holt’s response is cryptic and sly. “All in the places that you don’t look,” he says. The crux of his argument is that this kind of mass manufacturing is not happening at the fore of industry; it’s not on display at trade shows; it’s happening behind the scenes, often involving parts that would generally be considered “boring.”

In essence, 3D-printed components that are often overlooked and unassuming are printed in high volumes, causing a quiet revolution within the manufacturing industry. Companies are protective of the information because it is disruptive.

Holt also addressed functional properties of 3D-printing materials. Working with BASF, the world’s largest chemical company, Photocentric aims to commoditize photocurable compounds to replace traditional materials used in injection molding. The challenge? How do we ensure that these new materials are as effective as the plastics?

It is not without obstacles. 3D printers face a number of challenges, including the needs for manufacturing, cost-effectiveness and functional parts. 

Photocentric’s future and that of the 3D printing sector

Photocentric’s managing director is already preparing for the company’s future five years down the road. The company’s short-term strategy involves launching unique printers to challenge the status quo. Their first offering is the Titan. It’s more than a large-format printer; Holt refers to it as a game-changer in terms of cost and productivity.

“We’re interested in very large format printers for particular companies that want to get better value out of going and making very large parts and to do them to make functional large parts cost-effectively. That is a different statement to what most large format printers are offering.”

However, Holt’s five-year vision is even more ambitious. He believes that digital mass manufacturing will soon become the norm for industries all over the world. The ability to produce millions of parts every month that are customizable in any way needed is limitless. Holt says that this production paradigm is not only transformative for manufacturing, but also for the environment, since every part’s carbon footprint is taken into account.

Holt likened this expected shift in manufacturing to how AI was first perceived as “freaky” before being universally accepted. He predicts, in the same way, that companies seeking to reduce their carbon footprint will adopt digital mass production within five years.

In response to questions regarding the recent M&A activities in the 3D printing industry, particularly the Stratasys and Desktop Metal merger, Holt sees it as more of a strategy to clear the competitive landscape than to enhance user experience.

When asked about Photocentric’s potential M&A considerations, Holt maintains a clear vision for the company’s independence. “We’re like burrowing away on our own, comfortably heading for the gold vein that’s in the hills,” he said. He is confident in Photocentric’s interconnected LCD manufacturing method and believes that they can solve any problems without the need for an external partner.

Wrapping up, Holt reveals that the true motivation behind his ambitious plans for Photocentric isn’t simply to produce products. He sees 3D printing as merely a means to an end – a technology that enables them to offer a credible alternative to worldwide manufacturing. He believes that the global impact of the shift is what will make the difference.

Photocentric is treading on a path that few others have. The company’s vision of 3D-printing is less about technology and more about mass manufacturing. One thing’s for certain: they’re a company to watch closely in the coming years.

Click here to read our series of Executive Interviews. 

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Photocentric founder and managing director Paul Holt appears in the image. Photo via Photocentric.

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