Three-Dimensional Counsel

After acquiring 50 companies in just five years, 3D Systems is primed to make 3-D printing a part of daily life

It’s not teleportation or interstellar travel, but 3-D printing is regarded with the same level of disbelief by much of the general public. The system could redefine how we manufacture everything from basic consumer goods to life-saving medical supplies, but it’s one of the most misunderstood technologies to emerge in the last few decades. Andrew Johnson, vice president, secretary, and general counsel of industry leader 3D Systems Corporation, outlines strides the industry has made and the impact it will have on the next industrial revolution, plus the role of lawyers in this fast-paced field.

Modern Counsel: The 3-D printing industry can seem confusing to outsiders. What should people know about it?

Andrew Johnson: That’s a lot easier to answer than it was five years ago. If you started a discussion about a 3-D printing company five years ago, people might say, “I’ve heard of it,” but it was mostly unknown. Today, we feel like we’re in the midst of the next industrial revolution.

MC: What does that mean for the commercial viability of the system?

AJ: With the product and service offerings that we and other companies have in the additive manufacturing space, we’re making 3-D printing affordable and available for consumers and manufacturers alike. I think it’s important for people to understand that while this is a relatively new industry, it’s completely revolutionizing how we manufacture. At 3D Systems, we believe we are manufacturing the future.

MC: In what ways is 3-D printing revolutionizing manufacturing?

AJ: [We offer] a spectrum of solutions, from content all the way to print. We’ve created a digital thread that we believe will eventually touch everyone; not only manufacturers who are using our solutions today to manufacture in ways that were impossible just a few years ago, but also household consumers. We believe that in the future, the question will not be, “Do you have a 3-D printer?” but, “Which room in your house holds your 3-D printer?”

MC: With that end goal in mind, what is your current market, and what people and industries are you reaching now?

AJ: 3-D printing already reaches almost every facet of our lives—from aerospace and automotive applications and a diverse and growing set of health-care applications to design, fashion, entertainment, and even edible prints. Complexity is free in a printable file. We’re limited only by our imagination to design and innovate.

MC: Some people fear that 3-D printers will put traditional product manufacturers out of business, but what you’re saying makes it sound like 3-D printing can advance traditional manufacturing.

AJ: This is an opportunity to relocalize manufacturing. It’s sustainable, it cuts down on waste, and companies like ours are bringing these opportunities back to the consumer. You can build what you need in your local community, and that’s pretty powerful.

MC: Let’s dial back to your role at 3D Systems Corporation. How does your dual role as vice president and general counsel shape how you make decisions?

AJ: I bring a multilayered perspective. I’m very much a partner in the strategic process, but I also bring the perspective of what needs to happen to implement what we want to do. My role requires an understanding of risk management. It’s a viewpoint that senior management expects me to bring. An attractive part of this position is that I’m not only a legal adviser; I get to help drive the business, and I try to do that in a way that achieves business objectives. The perspective of a lawyer is to ask: what are the risks, how do we get there, and how do we do it in a way that’s compliant and meets our legal obligations as a global company? What works in the United States may not work in Asia or Europe. It’s my job to approach decisions to help us get there but also to achieve compliance and efficiency.

MC: 3D Systems has completed more than 50 acquisitions in just five years, in an industry that seems to have new technology every day. What was the strategy behind this growth?

AJ: Through a combination of organic growth and a rapid pace of acquisitions, we’ve been able to enhance our platform and what we can offer our customers. We’re proud of the fact that we’ve been a leader in the acquisition space, and our opportunity to bring businesses and new teammates into 3D Systems in the past five years has benefited our business. We believe we will continue to do so as we further leverage what we’ve acquired.

MC: What is critical for anyone in this industry to keep in mind?

AJ: We’re creating an industry, and the industry’s not going to wait for us. We either create and innovate, or we drop back from leading and start following. We’re not interested in following—leading is much more fun. As this industry continues to evolve, there’s no time to remain passive. We want to stay out front in all facets of what we do. Strategically, our business evolves quickly, and in turn we must adapt and expand our growth initiatives. There’s an opportunity to define this industry that we don’t want to miss.

MC: And 3D Systems already plays a big part in defining this industry?

AJ: We certainly would like to think we do. We like to say that we move quickly but responsibly. That’s a big component of my job. As quickly as we want to move to establish and maintain our leadership position, we want to do it the right way.

MC: What is the most important thing for you to keep in mind while undertaking an acquisition?

AJ: Given the number of acquisitions that I’ve been fortunate enough to work on, I’ve learned that no two deals are the same. It’s easy to think, “We’ve already done a deal like this.” But what’s worked before may not work or may not be as important in the deal at hand. Every deal has its own set of hot issues. Some deals are not meant to happen, and that’s an important perspective to keep. It’s very critical that we are not emotionally invested in a deal, that we understand the value proposition for our customers and shareholders, and that we have the belief that, if it’s meant to happen, it will happen.

MC: How can someone prepare to work as an attorney in this emerging field?

AJ: A broad transactional background translates well into working with a group like ours. We’re a lean law department. We come from a number of different backgrounds. That’s not necessarily unique to our industry, but it’s important to have a diverse set of skills and know how to operate in a fast-paced environment while focusing on execution and results. Having the ability to understand, decipher, and take positions on pioneering legal matters is critical, but it needs to translate into execution and making decisions.