Mariana Kobal on 3D printing and the joys of working in Kerry

5 Mar 2020

Mariana Kobal. Image: Wazp

Ahead of International Women’s Day, Wazp’s Mariana Kobal discusses how things have changed for women over the course of her career and what drew her from Ukraine to Kerry.

From early on in her career, Wazp co-founder and COO Mariana Kobal has been transforming ideas into physical products for international companies. Her experience spans product development, product re-engineering, people management and the reorganisation of R&D departments.

Fluent in five languages, Kobal has worked with companies across the globe, but she has now settled in the south-west of Ireland. Along with Shane Hassett, Kobal co-founded manufacturing start-up Wazp in Kerry in 2014. We spoke to her about her move from Ukraine, and what she believes is so exciting about the 3D printing industry.

‘Kerry’s start-up landscape is buzzing with new business ideas and ambitious entrepreneurs’

What drew you to the 3D printing industry?

I was lucky enough to begin my career with a furniture supplier in Ukraine, where I gained an enormous amount of knowledge and experience in dealing with customers’ requirements for companies like Ikea, Argos, Kettler, Tesco, Habitat and Metro, among others.

I have managed re-engineering projects where we could increase the production and cost efficiency by 50pc, while also reducing the CO2 footprint by 30pc. I continued my career with a multinational furniture giant with factories and offices dotted all over Europe, where I was the R&D manager for the group.

That’s where I actually learned about 3D printing. Developing and implementing a large number of projects, our R&D teams struggled on many occasions to get the right components, especially if they were a non-standard, intricate shape. We had to go to Asia to source the components. It was challenging. But then everything changed for me when we used a 3D printed decor for a wardrobe and it saved the day.

While I was doing this, Shane Hassett, who I founded Wazp with, was working on project management and process improvements at the same company. Shane is absolutely fascinated by the potential of the new technologies and automation. Together, we spent quite some time exchanging ideas for a business, and 3D printing ticked all of the boxes, so we set up Wazp to explore it further.

At the time, we had about 10 business ideas on the table, but 3D printing was by far the winner.

How would you describe the start-up scene in Kerry?

Kerry’s start-up landscape is buzzing with new business ideas and ambitious entrepreneurs. It is constantly growing. I can’t thank KerrySciTech enough for the massive support they have given in attracting young companies by exchanging experiences and doing brilliant marketing to draw talent to the region.

There are a lot of events going on to develop the tech side of businesses and it is paying off. Wazp is very proud to be part of the start-up community and there is a great deal of value that we take from events and gatherings that are constantly ongoing. The region has good infrastructure to grow tech companies and thanks to efforts that are made to attract business to the region, I can only see more positive things to come.

Would you recommend Kerry as a location to set up a start-up?

Honestly, before I moved to Kerry I worked in much bigger cities, and I thought my move would be temporary and I’d be doing a lot of remote work. However, very soon I realised how much I had been missing out on! The people, the overwhelming feeling of being part of a community, the work and home balance, the costs and the landscape – I have learned a new, better way of living and doing business!

We have had – and still have – incredible support from the Local Enterprise Office, from IT Tralee and Enterprise Ireland, who have helped us to kick off our business. This played a crucial part in our success, which we never forget and will always appreciate. It is so easy to build relationships with business partners, such as banks and courier services, and the deals are made faster and more human than in a large city.

Another thing worth mentioning is the talent. We have universities and institutes in a proximity of 100km, with access to more than 18,000 students. That’s a massive market of talented individuals who are ready to make a difference. On top of that, we don’t have to spend time in traffic jams!

Over the course of your career, how have things changed for women?

Since I started my career journey, there has been a distinctive shift towards gender equality in general. From my personal experience, I became a manager of a team of seven when I was 23 years old and the team members were twice as experienced as I was. It was quite a challenge as I had to double my efforts in order to gain respect and prove that I am good at what I do.

The same thing happened later, at another company, where I had a team of 50 experienced people at different locations and all of different nationalities. I knew I was strong and driven enough to be able to convince them that I can bring value. And I did. I am still in contact with many of them and I am so proud of everyone and cherish the times that we had together. I believe that persistence, intelligence and an open personality are the values that change attitudes, no matter the gender.

3D printing is still an industry that’s dominated by men, and at most of the meetings I am the only woman participating. However, I never experienced unfair treatment because of my gender. I do really believe that the times are changing already and our individuality and drive are defining our path towards success.

What’s the most important thing to do to create an inclusive work environment and a healthy workplace culture?

The Wazp team always have been and always will be central to Wazp’s success. We have set up a stimulating work environment and culture that promotes self-respect, ambition, entrepreneurship and creativity. It is very important for Wazp that employees feel secure and satisfied every day.

Our goal is that everyone is coming to work energised and enthusiastic in the morning and feels success at the end of the day. We are promoting a healthier and more active lifestyle and provide support for employees whenever possible. We have a wellness programme where we cover 50pc of gym costs as well as providing healthy snacks in the office. We often organise outdoor activities for employees, like camping and teams sports for example.

To make the office more inclusive, we have added quiet corners and warm lights throughout the premises. We believe that it doesn’t cost much or take a lot of effort to create a welcoming environment.

Finally, what trends do you expect to see in 3D printing in the years ahead?

The industry is not only transforming the way that products are produced and supplied. It is growing and transforming itself every single day. There are more and more companies which are looking at using 3D printing for volume manufacturing, rather than prototypes and small series, like what Wazp began doing five years ago.

With volume manufacturing, new, previously non-existent challenges arise such as the repeatability of prints, for example. Every batch at every printer must be the same quality. I think there will be a big focus on that.

Materials is another area that will be one of the focal topics. Nowadays, markets demand cleaner, recyclable materials at better costs. There will be new, revolutionary material solutions around bio-blends, such as adding waste starch or almond shells to the powder granules, which will impact sustainability and reduce waste in a big way.

Crucial focus is going to be dedicated, as well, to the automation of pre- and post-printing processes. The printer is only one step in the long manufacturing process and the reduction of waste, smart layouts, software and automation will be a game changer when it comes to efficiency and quality.