Interview: Hitch3DPrint founder Alex Liu on becoming the 'Uber' of metal 3D printing

Apr 11, 2018 | By Benedict

Singapore-based Hitch3DPrint is a company going places. With a business model that promises massively reduced metal 3D printing costs, distributed manufacturing, and even environmental efficiency, this organized network of “hitchers” and “vehicles” offers a totally new way of approaching metal 3D printing. We spoke to Hitch3DPrint founder Alex Liu on how his company works, what its customers can expect, and how the service could become the Uber of metal additive manufacturing.

3Ders: Hitch3DPrint is a newcomer to the 3D printing scene. Could you give us a quick overview of what your service is all about?

Alex Liu: Hitch3DPrint is a platform that provides individuals and companies with easy access to the high-tech precision 3D metal printing via a novel concept where users are able to “hitch” any of the metal printers located globally in the same way one would hitch a car ride.

The beauty of the hitch concept lies in the lower cost of printing and still achieving quality and lead time requirements. Our database includes more than 1,000 metal printers worldwide featuring both laser and electron capabilities along with a wide range of materials and alloy variants. Production-grade quality at hitch price.

3Ders: How did you come up with the idea for a 3D print hitching service? Had you worked in the additive manufacturing industry before?

Alex Liu: I am a firm believer of efficiency and optimization. My seats are almost always empty when I drive to work daily. In Singapore, we hitch people for a small remuneration and that was when I started hitching people to work. I started with one passenger and began to maximize my spare capacity by hitching more passengers per trip. That was when I realized the total remuneration turns out to be more than what a regular taxi driver would normally earn.

I then derived this hitch concept and applied it to metal 3D printing. I have worked on metal powder bed fusion (PBF) since 2007 in both research and in the industry. From my experience, similar to a car, the print tray always has spare capacity. The cost to start a print job is high due to the setup cost involved (Argon gas, labour, etc). Furthermore, different orders come in at different times of the week and in different materials. It is impossible to consolidate the orders to maximize and utilize the print tray.

With all cost components of metal printing remaining the same, the hitch platform is able to offer a lower cost of metal printing since no set up cost is involved. In parallel, the service providers can stack multiple hitch requests in the same material onto their existing print tray to maximize their revenue. This is the beauty of the hitch concept being applied to metal printing. Users save more money. Service providers make more money. Resources are distributed.

3Ders: Who is Hitch3DPrint aimed at, and why might a customer want to hitch a metal 3D print rather than go through a traditional 3D printing service bureau?

Alex Liu: Hitch3DPrint aims to target businesses (and individuals) doing R&D, prototyping, product development as well as small batch production (high mix, low volume) where metal 3D printing is ideal. These customers will prefer to hitch a metal 3D print because of the following advantages:

  • Low cost (30 to 50% lower) and instant hitch quotation;
  • Short lead time since it is hitching onto a print job that is ready to print;
  • Access to high-end metal 3D printers located globally and which are able to provide high quality.

3Ders: How can a Hitch3DPrint customer know what kind of quality to expect from their print? Is the designated 3D printer, the “vehicle” for their hitch, discussed in advance?

Alex Liu: Parts produced by metal printers in the market have better or similar tensile properties as compared to those manufactured via traditional methods such as investment casting. PBF produce parts that have at least 99% density compared to their native density. Besides, the materials used are established alloys widely accepted in the industry. In addition, our partners demonstrate metal printing capabilities and follow published standards regardless of the printer model:

  • ISO/ASTM DIS 52901:2017 (Additive Manufacturing – General Principles – Requirements for Purchased AM Parts)
  • ISO/ASTM 52900:2015 (Additive Manufacturing – General Principles – Terminology)

3Ders: You state that Hitch3DPrint customers can enjoy free delivery on their items. Who takes care of shipment? You or the 3D printer owner?

Alex Liu: The 3D printer owners will take care of the shipment as they are shipped closer to the customers and would make sense if they do the shipping rather than have it shipped to Singapore before shipping abroad. With that, I would like to point out that we also work on an open model where the customers will know the company providing the printing service.

3Ders: Your platform currently accommodates both laser melting and electron beam melting processes, as well as several materials including titanium, aluminum, and steel. Are we likely to see more processes or materials in the future?

Alex Liu: Yes, as metal 3D printing is constantly being researched, new materials from the powder manufacturers are always being developed. We would be adding them onto the platform whenever there is a demand for them. We even are considering offering the [Airbus APWorks-made] Aluminum alloy Scalmalloy® to customers as the demand for this alloy starts to build up.

3Ders: Hitch3DPrint was established in Singapore, but your global network of partners spans the entire planet. At present, where is the best place for “hitching” a 3D print? Are there any regions where you’re trying particularly hard to expand your partner network? 

Alex Liu: Every place is a good place because we are global. We have requests from countries such as the U.S. and Israel and we have partners from the U.S. and France already taking up hitch requests. Depending on demand and funding, we are planning to open offices in the U.S. and E.U. (Belgium). If there are investors who are interested, please touch base with us!

3Ders: Can any owner of metal 3D printing equipment sign up to be part of the Hitch3DPrint partner network? What are the requirements?

Alex Liu: Yes, of course! As long as they own metal PBF machines, we would be more than willing to have them in our network. The companies that we engaged with must demonstrate that they adhere to the Additive Manufacturing standards of ISO/ASTM DIS 52901:2017 and ISO/ASTM 52900:2015.

3Ders: Hitch3DPrint customers will soon be able to “Book a Print” as well as “Hitch a Print.” Could you explain what the difference is between these two services?

Alex Liu: We will be starting a trial with Book a Print very soon. We are currently working with a U.S. company (beta user) on fulfilling their “Book a Print” request. The general difference is that Book a Print would encompass more flexibility in choices such as the preferred printer model, customized parameters, preferred print orientation and the ability to have more types of post-processing whenever they require. However, the pricing will be more expensive because the print tray will be fully dedicated to this request.

3Ders: Many people would be apprehensive about hitching a ride in a stranger’s car, and some people would also worry about 3D printing on a stranger’s 3D printer—especially for an important work project! What would you say to calm the fears of those people?

Alex Liu: The same can be said for getting an Uber ride. People are now comfortable with Uber rides because the situation has developed to a stage where there is traceability and accountability within a secured environment.

There is traceability and accountability within Hitch3DPrint too. The customer’s file can only be downloaded by the partner who decides to take up the hitch request. The customer in turn knows the company that has downloaded the files. We do screen our partners before having them on the platform and sign a comprehensive non-disclosure agreement with them (as well as the customer). We have quality checks by having parts printed by the partners and because we are strong advocates for digital confidence, we also ensure that partners have to adhere to our confidentiality policies as well.

3Ders: What do you think the metal 3D printing world will look like in 10 years?

Alex Liu: We believe that metal 3D printing will soon be a staple in most industries…since the prices offered by Hitch3DPrint are so attractive! Who wouldn’t like strong and light structures with no compromise?

Posted in 3D Printing Applications

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