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A Conversation with Kurt Wagner, CEO of Wagner Machine Company

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Our guest this month is Kurt Wagner, the 2nd generation CEO of Wagner Machine Company. He is married with 3 children and enjoys mountain biking and reading about all things related to manufacturing. His company will be taking delivery of a Sapphire system in Q1 2021 to print Al F357 parts for industrial customers.

Kurt, tell us about yourself.

I started working at the shop in shipping and receiving when I was 15 years old. I have worked in every department and have been instrumental in adding new capabilities. My parents started the business in 1982 and my wife and I have gradually transitioned into running the business over the last 15 years. I am now the CEO of Wagner Machine Company.

You have observed the additive manufacturing (AM) industry for quite some time. How do you think the metal AM industry has matured over the years?

I have been following metal additive manufacturing since the first time I went to IMTS in 1996. In the last 24 years I have seen massive improvements in reliability, speed, and accuracy, but there are still barriers to entry that limit widespread adoption. In my opinion, the two biggest challenges are verifying consistency of builds and the use of difficult-to-remove support structures. For many metal additive part applications, it is important to be able to prove that the parts you printed this week are exactly the same as the parts you printed last week, last month, or a year ago.”

Even for prototype parts it is critical to prove that your process creates parts that meet the material specs. Up until recently, the main way to verify that has been to spend massive amounts of time calibrating the machine and running test specimens on a regular basis. Even then you are only relying on statistics over time to convince customers that your process is reliable and consistent. As everything has been improving, this one constant drag on productivity has remained. Assure from VELO3D is the first comprehensive monitoring system I’ve ever seen that actually works and I am very excited to use it.

The support-structure issue has always been another big barrier for 3D printing parts in metal. Many designs are impossible to make without complex internal supports, and most of the time those internal supports are difficult or impossible to remove. “Many customers I’ve talked to have abandoned metal additive in the past simply because they were usually told that their parts couldn’t be made the way they need them. That seems crazy for a process that is supposed to allow maximum design flexibility.”

VELO3D hasn’t completely eliminated the need for supports, but they have drastically reduced it to the point where I’m confident we can get the complex jobs done right. We have customer projects that will be printed on Sapphire that cannot be additively manufactured with other 3D metal printers.

What are you most excited about when it comes to metal AM?

The most exciting thing about metal additive is that we have a new tool to solve problems for our customers. Over the years we have added advanced technology to try to stay ahead of the needs of our customers. We purchased our first CNC machines in 1986 and started using CAM software for programming within a year. We were early adopters of wire EDM, digital reverse engineering and solid modeling, abrasive waterjet, swiss turning, 5-axis milling and robotic automation. Each of our existing processes helps us solve challenging problems for our customers and over time, we have become adept at combining those processes to make extremely complex parts. Metal additive is a perfect fit with our current capabilities and will help solidify our reputation as the best one-stop-shop for complex parts and innovative solutions.

What needs to happen for end customers and precision-machine shops like Wagner Machine to trust metal AM for quality-assured production?

I think VELO3D already has the answer for this. Real-time monitoring of the process from start to finish with the Assure system is exactly what I have been waiting for to jump in. The old way of relying on statistics to infer future part quality is valuable but needs to be supplemented by real-time metrology. Now there is a way to use statistics and real time monitoring for metal AM and that is a game changer.