When it comes to ensuring customer success, few individuals know better than Chris Trout. As Velo3D’s Vice President of Customer Service, it falls on Chris and his team to ensure Velo3D customers are successfully using the Velo3D end-to-end manufacturing solution.
I recently chatted with Chris to talk about his time at Velo3D, his experience working in the semiconductor industry, the similarities between additive manufacturing and semiconductor, and what makes Velo3D’s company culture so special.
Tell us a little about your professional background and what led you to Velo3D.
I pursued a Bachelor of Science in Electronics Engineering Technology, and then an MBA while working full time. Early in my career, I spent over 11 years in the semiconductor industry and developed an understanding of how to provide service and support for complex capital equipment. That learning led me here. It was a familiar group of people, some of whom I’ve worked with before at other companies. The technology and subsystems were also familiar, so it felt natural to move into this industry.
How long have you worked at Velo3D?
About four and a half years, but it feels longer given the progress we’ve made in that short time. The rate of innovation has been nothing short of incredible, and there have been so many positive step changes in performance along the way.
What other similarities are there between the semiconductor industry and additive manufacturing?
There are many similarities between semiconductor capital equipment and additive manufacturing equipment. Both categories have control systems, pneumatics, elevators, lasers, optics, sensors, and metrology. I often simplify that the biggest difference is that we avoid particles in the semiconductor world because they ruin the product, and that we add particles (metal powder) in the metal additive manufacturing world to make a product. Of course, it’s far more complicated than that. We approached building Sapphire® in a very similar way though, where we employ lots of sensors and leverage SPC to manage the process outcome.
Is that approach common among additive manufacturing companies?
I’ve come to appreciate that Velo3D’s founders brought their semiconductor knowledge and expertise to additive in a significant way. Because I was new to additive, I thought this was typical for the industry, and later found that it was not necessarily so, and that we were unique in that we thought about things differently and designed many of the subsystems from the ground up so that we could best control the process outcomes. This is reflected in the types of parts our customers are now able to print that they could not print before.
For those of us who are unfamiliar with the industry, can you explain what semiconductor capital equipment is?
Semiconductor capital equipment is a category of large, complex machines used to build things like microprocessors and memory used in computers and other electronics. These machines resolve features at the nanometer scale and produce billions of transistors in a small area. That requires extremely tight process control over a long sequence of different operations. Doing that reliably requires the use of many sensors, controls, and data monitoring. We’re applying that know-how in metal additive to build large complex parts that are difficult or impossible to manufacture in other ways.
Switching nanogears here for a second, tell us more about your role as VP of Customer Service. I know we’re proud of our approach to customer service at Velo3D, so I’d love to hear more about that from your perspective.
I get a lot of satisfaction from helping people, and this role allows me to do that all day long, whether it is interacting with our customer-partners, my staff, or others within the company. I attend a lot of meetings which I know some people don’t like to do, but it’s very rewarding that I get to see what’s happening at customer sites and throughout the company, and then participate in developing solutions. Occasionally, I get to travel and visit customers, and I really value that opportunity. Another thing I learned from semi is the value of being close to the customer. You can interpret the word “close” either as proximity (close by), or in the relationship sense (close with). Both are important which is why our service team is distributed geographically and why we communicate frequently.
On that note, what motivates you to come to work?
Well, it seems like there is a technical breakthrough every week. Walking through our lab or a customer site, it’s amazing to see a new part or geometry that’s not been printed before, and then everyone gathers around and marvels at it. It’s a very satisfying feeling when you see and hold that innovation in your hands. The uses for metal additive equipment and the industries that have adopted this manufacturing method tend to use it for fascinating applications. I’m always learning something new. The people in the industry also tend to be enthusiastic, and it’s contagious.
What differentiates Velo3D from other additive manufacturing solutions?
We rethought how things should work and went into the design process with a blank slate. We started looking at how we could make each aspect of the additive manufacturing process better, but that thinking evolved into how we can develop a game-changing solution that would offer a leapfrog in technology. We intentionally avoided some of the more common industry building blocks, and their inherent constraints, in favor of developing an integrated, hardware-aware software toolset that supported our unique approach.
Company culture is very important here, can you speak to the company culture at Velo3D? Is there anything that stands out to you?
Yes, I think everyone here is pulling in the same direction and that’s especially important in rapidly growing company. I’ve been at other companies where you have groups within a company pulling in different directions which can lead to unhealthy conflict. Here, everyone is focused on the same goals and objectives, and I think that is one of the reasons why Velo3D is such a great place to work. Another is our company values which focus on “doer-ship”, leadership, and innovation. These make a lot of sense to me, and each quarter we nominate and recognize individuals or teams that exemplify them.
Do you have a favorite project you’ve worked on at Velo3D?
Yes, the Technology Validation Systems (TVS) were the first set of six “beta” systems that we designed and built. We shipped several of them out to the field to collect customer feedback. And before we did, the support team got to take them apart completely and put them back together several times to improve and refine both the product and the user experience. We learned a lot by doing that and then folded that learning back into product development and released the general availability Sapphire® that we’re shipping today.
Tell us something that not many people know about you.
I’m a moderately obsessive “food-tographer”. The Roman, Apicius said that “we eat first with our eyes” and that strongly resonates with me. I make it a point to take a picture of what I’m eating either at a restaurant or at home. I also like to cook, so when I do, I pay a special attention to the plating. This is all so I can remember the enjoyment of the process and the time shared with my friends and family. My wife is frustrated when I pause to compose these photos, but she kindly puts up with me and sometimes helps.
What are some of your favorite foods?
I love sushi, and any type of Asian cuisine, really. I also love smoked meats and barbecue. I took a competition barbecue class with a friend, and make it point to sample the local style on trips to Austin, Memphis, Kansas City, and the Carolinas. I have a favorite, but I’m not telling.
Thanks for chatting with us today, Chris.
Absolutely! Thanks for having me.