Diving into Innovation: An Interview with Elementum 3D CEO Jacob Nuechterlein on 3D Printing the Unprintable


We recently had the opportunity to interview Jacob Nuechterlein, CEO of Elementum 3D, about the company’s development of high-performance powders for 3D printing. A former researcher and graduate of the Colorado School of Mines, Nuechterlein founded Elementum to innovate in the field of additive manufacturing (AM). The company employs its proprietary reactive AM (RAM) process, which involves adding micron-sized ceramic particles to metal alloys. This unique method enhances various material properties, including durability, corrosion resistance, fatigue strength, and overall strength.

Elementum 3D has experienced significant growth, now boasting a team of over 50 employees and having secured over $12 million in funding from sources such as the National Science Foundation, AM Ventures, and others. Starting with aluminum, the company has expanded its material offerings to include copper, nickel alloys, steels, tantalum, and tungsten. These advanced materials have found applications across diverse sectors, including Formula 1, defense, and space.

Nuechterlein highlighted that Elementum 3D’s triumph in the 2017 Formnext Startup Challenge was a pivotal moment for the company. The journey to this achievement was extensive, beginning in 2014 when he first embarked on developing his specialized powders. A significant milestone was reached in 2015 when these powders were successfully run on an EOS M290, setting the stage for the company’s subsequent growth and success.

“With RAM, we are marrying reaction synthesis with new materials. We change the feedstock with reactant materials reacting in situ. The reaction itself is between two nano-ceramic particles; these nucleants create a refined grain structure in the material. In the final part, these nanoparticle reinforcements improve mechanical properties such as fatigue and strength in parts. Our Inconel 625 RAM2, for example, doubles the strength. Ultimately, we want to print the unprintable, and now we have a lot of flexibility in different alloy systems.”

The creation of Elementum 3D was not a simple undertaking. Envision the mountainous task of procuring access to EIGA or alternative powder manufacturing equipment to introduce unique materials. Furthermore, persuading someone to use their costly machinery with an unproven, innovative powder presents a considerable challenge. Aside from this, the firm had to gain the trust of possible customers, encouraging them to not only test but also standardize on their product. While this business model may appear straightforward at first, it’s actually quite complex. The outstanding success accomplished by Jacob and his team is particularly impressive given their targeted clientele. Customers demanding the finest performance powders are often the most meticulous and quality-conscious, and generally resistant to change.

“Our commencement was supported by investors, who also supported our growth, however, we were mostly bootstrapping based on sales,” stated Nuechterlein. “We did raise capital, but not exorbitant amounts. We sought out patient investors who were attracted by the potential impact on the world, not just monetary returns. This typically led us to individual investors as opposed to venture capitalists, leading to our capital being primarily made up of individual investors. Raising large quantities of money is time-consuming and necessitates quick growth to justify the valuation. This constant race against time can be avoided by building off of revenue instead.”

Finding the right investors, especially those with patience, is key for a startup’s longevity. Startups frequently find themselves in a desperate chase for capital, however, it’s essential to seek the right kind of investment, not merely any available financing. This strategy is more sustainable over time, even though immediate financial needs may suggest otherwise. Jacob’s perspective on avoiding excessive fundraising is also significant. Unrealistic expectations and timing pressures can lead to poor, short-term decision making.

Additionally, drawing the right clientele is a key facet for a company such as Elementum. The way Elementum identifies and interacts with prospective clients is as critical as their strategy for obtaining suitable investment.

“Who is willing to pay for us? One of our largest customers in F1 has been using us for three years on the race tracks,” Jacob said. “But the majority of our business is in aerospace, space, defense, and high-end electronics. We’re seeing movement in mining and other industries, where they’re growing and beginning to investigate AM. It’s driven by how hard their industry is on equipment and their desire not to replace it frequently. Here, they’re looking at components, vehicles, and repair. They have similar needs to those in the oil and gas industries. We’re also expecting a surge in demand from the EV industry with copper. I’m really excited about chemical manufacturing equipment and pharma. Manufacturing tooling for plastic injection molding, and silicon wafer applications, are also growing. We’re seeing needs for metals that withstand harsh chemicals and fluids. There are a lot of markets expanding pretty heavily and we’ve seen large deals over the past few months, particularly in defense. We are growing substantially and will expand our volume.”

Nuechterlein also notes that Elementum 3D is experiencing growth driven by ongoing interest in reshoring and enhancing supply chain resilience. Moreover, the company is attracting customers who are creating products that cannot be manufactured through any other methods. Jacob’s ultimate goal is for Elementum to become a vital component in an engineer’s toolbox, expanding the possibilities of what can be crafted. The potential of these advancements to contribute to the creation of lighter, more efficient, and durable structures is something I find particularly promising. Such innovations could play a significant role in shaping our future, improving performance across various fields.

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“Why did the 3D printer go to therapy? Because it had too many layers of unresolved issues!”

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