For months, Daniel Thomsen and David Storey, the Managing Director of Stratasys (Korea) and Director of RPS, respectively, have been communicating clandestinely using personal emails and personal calendars, not wanting to risk letting the cat out of the bag before everything was tied up.

On Thursday February 18th, 2021, it was no longer time to keep quiet the negotiations between the two companies, but instead to announce that Stratasys had acquired the UK-based supplier of stereolithography (SLA) 3D printing hardware for an undisclosed amount. It was the second such deal Stratasys had revealed in three months, after the $100m takeover of Origin in December, and again was described as a move to ensure that Stratasys is the ‘first choice polymer 3D printing provider for designers, engineers and manufacturers.’

At the conclusion of the talks between the two companies, with everything agreed and ready to be announced to the industry, RPS staff were called to two virtual meetings this week. The first saw Storey and his fellow RPS Director, Steve Moran, joined by Stratasys CEO Yoav Zeif on Thursday morning to inform them of the takeover and formally welcome them to Stratasys. And the second took place a day later, where Thomsen, who is currently living in South Korea but intends to move to the UK as soon as he can, fielded questions from the RPS employees in an open session. Shortly after, Thomsen and Storey spoke to TCT to discuss why the acquisition made sense from both sides, the quality of RPS’ NEO SLA series and how the companies plan to move forward together.

We don’t want to get in the way of RPS’ activities. We need to leave them be and let them run.

Stratasys first outlined its intentions to move into the SLA 3D printing market in April 2019, launching its V650 Flex 3D printing system at the AMUG Conference. It was introduced off the back of global customer demand and would allow customers to produce design concepts, investment casting patterns and tooling with materials from DSM’s Somos range. The platform turned out to be somewhat of a stop-gap, with Stratasys moving less than two years later to acquire RPS, a company it perceives to have the ‘best in class’ SLA 3D printing system on the market.

“If we want to be the first choice polymer 3D printing provider, we need to have all the right systems and solutions to solve all the problems that designers, engineers and manufacturers have,” Thomsen said. “We identified that there was a gap in our portfolio, maybe a gap for specific applications and broadening our stereolithography portfolio was required to expand our reach into the market or expand the number of customers that we can address and solve problems for.”

In integrating RPS and its product portfolio into the Stratasys offering, the V650 Flex, in the long-term, becomes redundant. Stratasys has confirmed it will slowly phase out the machine, though it will service and support current users of the model for at least the next seven years, with Thomsen saying the RPS systems will ‘add significantly to the portfolio’ and ‘we do see that the system can address more of the user needs.’ The V650 Flex’s discontinuation comes as RPS’ NEO series not only offers a larger build volume in the 800 model and a slightly smaller build volume in the 450 machines, but also boasts an open materials architecture and is backed up by the Titanium software that enables build history, parameter detail and part traceability data to be captured. These capabilities have proved popular in the motorsport industry, with several Formula 1 teams adopting the technology, and with many service providers. They have also ensured the technology stood up to Stratasys’ extensive testing prior to negotiations being finalised.

“Formula 1 and service bureaus are two very high pressure environments to work in, where you need a very stable and reliable system,” Thomsen said. “During the process of talking with RPS, we identified that their system is extremely reliable and extremely stable. Obviously, we printed a large number of parts on RPS machines at RPS, but we actually – and I’m not even sure David knows this – printed parts on their machines outside of RPS with some of their customers. We couldn’t fault it. We put suicide builds onto some of these machines, they wouldn’t fail. We were very convinced that this technology was extremely stable and delivered parts as per the customer’s need.”

Across industries, RPS’ NEO series is said to be suitable for producing prototype and tooling parts, as well as investment casting patterns, anatomical modelling and clear aligner moulds. Per Storey, the technology has got ‘stronger and stronger’ since its initial release in 2016 and is ‘chosen as the number one platform’ for the work it carries out in the Formula 1 space. The company launched the NEO 450 systems in October, making its SLA technology more accessible, while facilitating the manufacture of small to medium parts. The further development of its product portfolio, as always, will depend on the wants and needs of the customers, but Storey noted there is a desire to make the system ‘more production based, logical and efficient to use.’

Already, both companies see opportunities to further enhance the system. Stratasys, who was leaning on third party material suppliers for its own SLA efforts, is developing resin partnerships that ‘bring value’ to the RPS offering, something that Storey is also keen to press on with.

“Critical in what we did as a product was to be providing an open system that would drive material development forward, and we see that as if you open this up to a number of suppliers, the potential to do a step change in materials is significant,” Storey said. “[If there is a step change], stereolithography becomes far more end user application driver than it is today. I think there’s a will from all parties to open it up and see if we can get some additional development taking place.”

One other opportunity is the support of Stratasys’ GrabCAD software which, while there is still work to be done to facilitate that integration, will be implemented on future versions of NEO products to enhance build preparation and support generation. RPS will also have access to Stratasys’ extensive application development capabilities, while R&D staff were also reassured last week that Stratasys will afford them the same freedom they previously had.

“They are talking to the customers, they are understanding the market needs and we are absolutely open to further developments, because customers are asking for these and we want to solve their challenges,” Thomsen said. “We don’t want to get in the way of RPS’ activities. We need to leave them be and let them run.”

That reassurance, combined with the addition of GrabCAD and eventual access to more materials, are important gains for RPS as it becomes a Stratasys company. But it wasn’t the primary pull. Confident in the ‘awesome’ technology it had brought to market, what attracted RPS was the global go-to-market channels that also persuaded Origin months earlier. Having developed the technology, established it on the market and seeing it deployed in intense and challenging environments, the company now wants to see NEO printers adopted far and wide.

“We’ve got a really good product and we’ve been extremely successfully in the UK,” explained Storey, “but we needed a really good reseller channel that worked for us and was in line with our ethos as a company of caring for customers, because we’d always come from that. We see the Stratasys acquisition would allow us to work globally and definitely in line with the ethos and care that we’ve got with our [existing] customers.”

Stratasys sees it as addressing a gap in the company’s offering. Like with the Origin transaction, it opens the company up to new applications and despite the complications of COVID-19, like for example having to meet new staff over video conferencing platforms rather than in person, the company has looked to push on with the growth of its polymer 3D printing portfolio. As outlined, the company wants to establish the leading portfolio of its kind, and though Thomsen wouldn’t be drawn to comment on further acquisitions to round out its portfolio, he did stress that moves like this are ‘part of the company’s strategy’; that it needs to have ‘all bases covered.’  

As part of that mission, Stratasys and RPS move forward together. It will see a restructuring of the Stratasys portfolio, slight improvements made to the RPS offering and, the companies hope, the wide-spread adoption of what they both believe to be the best in class SLA system on the market.

“The synergy is here. We make a fantastic product. I want to grow that product, we want to take it to the heights that other people are not, so this is going to be the number one system of choice,” Storey summarised. “Maybe it won’t be the cheapest, but it’ll be the best. That is our aspirations as a team and the Stratasys channel facilitates all that. From our standpoint, we have this massive reach now and this is a fabulous opportunity for us to get what is a really great product out there and to put that in the hands of people.”

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