Belgium-based Materialise has always treated 3D printing as very serious business, indeed. That steadfast and serious take on the technology has built the company into a mainstay pillar, a fact they underscore through a deep focus on providing a backbone to support growth in this business environment. During this week’s TCT Show in Birmingham, UK, I enjoyed the opportunity to catch up again with Materialise, sitting down for a chat with company CEO Fried Vancraen to discuss the latest happenings at the busy company.
With characteristic understatement, Vancraen told me that it’s been “very busy times” for Materialise lately; that’s putting it lightly for both man and company, as he’s had a full travel schedule lately following last week’s opening of a new Materialise facility in Poland and an expansion of the Leuven headquarters location slated for its grand opening next week. Between the two ribbon cuttings, Vancraen took the opportunity to head to the UK for TCT Show, where he was inducted into the inaugural TCT Hall of Fame a few hours after our chat.
“We will have eight HP printers, with two set to arrive, as we are moving activities to the new building,” Vancraen said of the Belgian operations, where a variety of technologies are in use.
The new Polish facility is “a factory devoted to plastic powder manufacturing, intended to become more automated. There will be post-processing and smoothing, such as for eyewear. Production is ramping up; we need to deliver short lead times.”
Materialise has been focusing on expanding activity in Poland for some time, and the recent official opening of the new facility has it positioned as a “new, cutting edge facility for additive manufacturing” that Vancraen noted is unique in the industry for its focus on plastics. Polish operations additionally have a group of software developers associated, hard at work toward next-generation developments. Advances, Vancraen explained, are set to integrate more control of not just points on 3D printers but to make sure of all the right settings and finishes; this all, he said, is much more complicated in a production environment than it is in prototyping.
“The backbone is expanding, I can say,” Vancraen said.
The expansions have all seen plenty of hands-on attention from the busy CEO, who has been travelling extensively to personally see to sustainable and viable growth. The big challenge, he said, is to get big printers situated and stable in their new environments; moving large machines into new facilities isn’t easy on operator or machine to ensure appropriate stability for extensive industrial use.
“At the moment, our approach is to build software for our use and in manufacturing We have to scale up our manufacturing. We aim to do this with the potential to develop matching software for others to help in their manufacturing facilities,” Vancraen told me.
“There are entire sectors now moving to 3D printing, and this will require multiple factories. We believe we can help with our software solutions.”
While the new buildings are mainly focused on plastics technologies, there is also a large amount of activity regarding metals, he told me, and much of this activity was showcased at TCT Show. Materialise had a well-trafficked booth showing off capabilities and offering advice to visitors. Of the busy show, Vancraen noted that “interest is picking up again” in 3D printing, and the crowded show floor was good evidence of this.
“The numbers in the Wohlers Report indicate that 2015 and 2016 were slow years compared to what was seen previously; now there are many more real installations of real factories, like we’ve been doing, that will drive real growth,” he said with reference to the 2017 Report.
“This hasn’t been seen on a wider scale, and in coming years that’s where I hope we will see a change — there’s a growing amount of meaningful applications.”
Among these meaningful applications for 3D printing that he touched on are customized eyewear — such as Materialise is making possible with Yuniku — and personalized footwear, critical parts in airplanes and other aerospace uses, and other high-profile applications that are “getting more and more attention now.”
Medical uses, of course, are gaining great traction and attention. Materialise, for example, received its first FDA clearance for 3D printed maxillofacial implants earlier this month, a move “in front of a ramp up that will happen gradually” in medical regulatory approvals. Europe and Australia are currently using more such implants, and the team at Materialise are hoping to see similar success in the US as more clearances come through. The biggest market for Materialise at present is Australia, where refunding systems have been more quickly set up, enabling faster adoption from a business perspective.
“Applications in medical are in development, but when it takes simple things like insoles time to ramp up, we see that it is much more complicated in complex environments like hospitals,” Vancraen said.
“We strongly believe that evolutions we see at companies like Siemens and HP will continue to serve as examples. Our backbone is present in Siemens and in HP to receive the data. With these and more companies, we see that more environments are in a condition they can easily work with additive manufacturing.”
Keeping an eye to business conditions and rising rates of interest and adoption, Vancraen and his growing team at Materialise are dedicated to raising the profile of the latest technologies and ensuring their realistic adoption across a variety of applications around the world.
[TCT Show photos: Sarah Goehrke]
“A lot of things are going on,” Vancraen told me mildly. “We keep busy.”