Interview with Blake Courter CTO at nTopology

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As CTO at nTopology, Blake Courter leads the technical vision for nTopology’s products and fosters best practices in engineering and application development.  Prior, he served as Head of Software Research at Stratasys, launching several new products and technologies, and as Director of Product Strategy at GrabCAD, helping it grow from 400k to 5M users.  In 2002, Blake co-founded SpaceClaim, an influential CAD vendor that was acquired by ANSYS, and he started his career in product management at PTC. Blake holds a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering with a certificate in Materials Science from Princeton University.  Blake will be a speaker for the upcoming 3DHEALS2020.

Jenny: When was the first encounter you had with 3D printing? What was that experience like?

Blake: In college, I set up the first CNC mill in our mechanical engineering department, so achieving functional parts using awkward toolchains informed my view of advanced manufacturing.  My first exposure to a 3D printer was a Stratasys Genisys, which I had the pleasure of working with after college as an application engineer at PTC. Although I was impressed with the ease of use compared to CNC, I was not impressed with the results compared to CNC, so they seemed of limited use outside of model making.


Jenny: What inspired you to start your journey in 3D printing?

Blake: Twenty years after that first encounter, the startup I was working for, GrabCAD, was acquired by Stratasys, who presented us with the challenge of evolving their technology to make more functional parts.  Joining forces with their existing engineering teams, we were able to take a fresh look at the process and technical challenges, and I’m thrilled to have contributed to products like GrabCAD Print and Advanced FDM.  It was also at Stratasys that I realized that implicit modeling, a technology with which I’d been enchanted for over a decade, was finally viable on the raster, multi-material 3D printers, which was a game-changer. That got the ball rolling for their Biomimics project and digital anatomy printer.


Jenny: Who inspired you the most along this journey in 3D printing?

Blake: Given that my entering the industry was accidental, I was incredibly impressed with the vision of the Stratasys management team in 2014.  They brought us not only to solve problems but also to research and solve the deep underlying challenges. They enabled us to apply our full set of talents and creativity to the challenges at hand, which resulted in breakthroughs.  Scott Crump, Jon Stevenson, and Amos Benninga’s leadership stand out in particular.  


Jenny: What motivates you the most for your work? 

Blake: If there’s any orienting principle in my career, it’s been to evolve CAD and CAM technology into tools that are more natural for their users or domain.  It’s a problem with many fronts, and it’s been a pleasure to work at it from many angles.


Jenny: What is the biggest obstacle in your line of work?

Blake: At nTopology, we’re actively working on what I believe to be the most important problem in the industry, which is creating the appropriate framework for expressing engineering intent when designing for advanced manufacturing. By combining geometry, physics, and manufacturing via the unifying language of fields, our customers are able to regularly achieve performance breakthroughs.  We still have a long way to go to make that process faster and easier, as well as to adapt the technology to multi-material workflows.


Jenny: What do you think is the biggest challenge in 3D Printing?

Blake: The fundamental challenge across the industry is that today’s engineering software is not designed for the complexity that our manufacturing technology can deliver.  The main source of the issue is that people are only considering the shape of an object formed from one homogeneous substance, but the mesoscale and multi-material capabilities don’t fit that model.


Jenny: If you are granted three wishes by a higher being, what would they be?  

Blake: That’s a tough question to answer during an election year.  The selfish answer is that I wish I knew more math, so I should probably wish for the motivation to read math weekly, do the exercises, and finish the books.


Jenny: What advice would you give to a smart driven college student in the “real world”?

Blake: You don’t have to be the smartest person or the first to notice, but if you are the first to start working on the solution to a problem, you quite possibly might solve it first.


Jenny: What was the best investment you made in 3D printing?

Blake: After GrabCAD was acquired by Stratasys, I had the privilege of building the GrabCAD maker space and lab.  I believe it served me and the team well.


Jenny: What was the worst investment you made in 3D printing?

Blake: Let’s just say that the consumer hardware and toolchain seem stalled.


Jenny: What was the biggest risk you took in your career?

Blake: At Stratasys, as a product manager who likes math, I came up with a ridiculous hack that let me slice CAD parts on the GPU and imbue them with lattices.  With a little fiddling and some help from engineering, it opened up a new world, but at the time I felt very uncertain, mostly because I didn’t understand why others hadn’t done the same thing yet.  


Jenny: What do you enjoy in your spare time? What are you passionate about outside of your work/3d printing?

Blake: I grew up in a family of creators, and I dedicate a lot of my time to the fabrication of objects and the maintenance of the fabrication of machines.  My wife and I collaborate in community art projects, and our two-year-old daughter is just starting to become interested in shapes and fabrication as well.  Sometimes, I play the banjo.  


Jenny: What is your favorite quote? Why?

Blake: I think; therefore I am. (Rene Descartes)

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