Interview with BCN3D CTO Eric Pallarés


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There are a lot of startups in 3D printing and a lot of established companies developing 3D printers, but there is only one BCN3D. Born from a foundation, BCN3D quietly grew a line of FDM printers into a thriving open source based business with adherents around the globe. BCN3D’s systems are solid and the firm slowly pursued international growth beyond its Barcelona roots. Innovations in independent dual extruders and applications have strengthened BCN3D’s position. The firm was relatively quick to grasp that the future lay in coherent ecosystems aimed at business users. Much earlier than competitors it began to work to understand customers, their needs and applications. Now it is focusing on the Professional market and releasing larger and more feature-rich expensive machines such as the Epsilon to meet demand there. Alone, the firm is focused on workbench 3D printers which may be a very prescient move. Traditionally in the shadow of larger firms, will BCN3D grow to become a power in FDM, bringing Spanish flair and elan to the world of 3D printing? We interviewed BCN3D Co-Founder and CTO Eric Pallarés about the company and their prospects.

What makes BCN3D different? 
BCN3D’s mission is to help innovators create the future. In order to achieve this goal, BCN3D always tried to bring the sophistication of industrial features to an affordable solution. I truly think that is what makes BCN3D different is: providing accessible value, with versatility and a good taste for design in mind.
Are you still a foundation? 
No. BCN3D was born as a business unit of a non-profit organization in 2011. That foundation, called CIM-UPC is a technological center that depends on the UPC (Technical University of Catalonia), specialized in advanced manufacturing technologies.
The business unit, though, grew too much to remain within the technological center and it was not compatible with the mission of the non-profit organization. So we did a spin-off back in March 2019 and also received a seed investment of 3M USD, which allowed us to start operating as a totally independent company, let the team grow and develop new products.
 How has the company changed over the years? 
The business began as a unit within CIM-UPC and was born with the main goal of being self-sustaining. That’s why we rapidly started selling kits via our website, organizing assembly workshops. Despite being a small team with few resources we always were orientated towards the market. On the other hand, as we were in a fast-growing market, we had to grow and mature together with that market. Since we were in an industrial environment, with full access to industrial AM equipment and users, we understood the potential was at the industrial segment of the market, so we developed and released the Sigma in 2015, our first professional desktop 3D printer.  The following years were more focused on the understanding of the needs of the professional customer, to establish trusting relationships among our distribution partners, and to position ourselves not only as 3D printer manufacturers, but as AM ecosystem providers. The big change, though, came with the spin-off and investment, which has allowed BCN3D to more than double its team in less than a year, to develop and launch new products to the market, to deepen the understanding of the end-customer needs and to picture a clearer long-term strategy.
 What are your plans for the future?
In the short-term, 2020 is a year of consolidation. As I said before, we went from 40 to +100 employees in 9 months, we invested a lot of energy in developing new products and to expand our presence in the market worldwide. In a mid-term, we aim to be a reference provider of AM solutions.
What kind of products will you develop? 
Our core technology is FFF/FDM. We really see a lot of potential in the professional desktop and workbench segments of the market. Currently, most of the needs of the workbench segment are poorly covered. So we aim to provide reliable and affordable solutions to really unlock the applications of FFF/FDM that require the usage of engineering-grade materials.
I really believe in clustered manufacturing solutions for FDM, do you?
By clustered you mean “farms” or groups of printers, I guess. If so, I believe FFF is as a great candidate to provide those kinds of solutions. BCN3D is an example of that, actually. We’ve been printing end-use parts to assemble our own printers in our print farm for years. So there are dozens of thousands of printed parts out there, working on professional, serialized products like our printers. FFF print farms are affordable and in the context of the Industry 4.0 they really have a bright future. There’s still some challenges to overcome, related to reliability, repeatability and scheduling, but I think that’s something that the industry will adopt in the near future.
Do you believe in much larger FDM systems? Or faster ones? or compact ones? 
I see a trend in the market demanding bigger systems over the years. But, the bigger you get, the more difficult is to control the process. You know, thermodynamics is tricky and there’s a lot of material science involved in melting plastic and precisely depositing it while ensuring a good interlayer adhesion without distortion. Also, going big does require going faster, otherwise the print times are not competitive enough. So I think we are still a bit far from big FFF systems for serialized production of big parts since going bigger and faster requires more complex equipment and a lot of research. In any case, the trend is clear: all of our customers want to reduce printing times and more applications require bigger printing volumes.
 We see a lot of the market concentrate on the Professional segment. Meanwhile, the midmarket is quickly emptying. Will you still make printers for $1000 to $2000? 
There’s a gap in the market. We have detected that between the professional desktop segment (under 5k$) and the professional one (from 20k$) there is almost nobody offering solutions. We want to reinforce our position there with our BCN3D Epsilon line. We believe in offering affordable solutions, so we will remain in the professional desktop segment offering our well-known and consolidated Sigma/Sigmax line.
Do you see a role for yourself in for example $500 systems for education?
It is really difficult to provide a solution with that price tag, designing and manufacturing locally in Europe, and with multiple players already offering competitive products. Despite this the Education vertical is very attractive and we have multiple customers, we don’t aim to develop that low-cost, entry level system in the short term however.
What does the IDEX do for users? 
IDEX stands for Independent Dual Extruder. It has proven to be the most versatile and reliable architecture for dual extrusion, since it’s easier to calibrate, there’s lower inertias (which improves the printing quality) and it reduces material cross-contamination, preventing the molten plastic driping out of the nozzle. This is especially convenient when you’re printing with water soluble supports.
And secondly, it is the most productive FFF approach, since both toolheads can print simultaneously in Mirror or Duplication modes, doubling the productivity of the printer in comparison to most of our competitors. This is very useful for printing short runs of end-user parts, which is an increasing trend in the market.
What does a heated chamber mean for users? 
First of all, I want to remark the BCN3D Epsilon does not have a heated chamber, but a passively controlled chamber. That means we are not actively controlling the temperature inside of the chamber. The heat comes from the heated bed, but we monitor the temperature within the chamber to prevent overheating. That’s extremely important for the customer since it dramatically increases the reliability of the printing process, especially with technical materials such as PA, PP or ABS, even if we print large parts.
Are you looking at higher temperature materials and printers such as PEEK? 
We see that there is an increasing interest in systems capable of printing these kinds of high performance polymers. But we still need to figure out the real size of the market, the applications that do require those materials instead of engineering ones (like PA with CF). But in terms of technological awareness, of course this is something we are looking at. That’s our responsibility.
I like that the BCN3D Epsilon has a HEPA filter, should that be standard on all FDM systems?
I Not only it has a HEPA filter but also an Active Carbon one. Yes, it will become the standard. I think in the near future more and more regulations will appear, as well as medical studies about the impact of UFP and fumes on health. But it’s obvious that if you smell something it means there are particles in the air so the more we can prevent this and keep the air clean, the better. We don’t want to wait for the regulators to take action. 
It seems that FDM is winning in jigs and fixtures, do you see any other application where FDM will win? 
I think concept validation also uses FFF for most of the cases. The low-cost, relatively high freedom of design, hassle-free and ease of use and reduced time to get a job done allows many designers and engineers to use FFF in the early stages of development
Are you looking at other technologies than FDM? 
“At this moment FFF and the ecosystem around it (which includes the cloud platform we recently launched) are our focus.”
What markets are you focusing on?
FFF is a generalistic technology than can be applied in different applications and multiple vertical markets, so our customers are very diverse. However, I’d say that Engineering (which includes Automotive, very strong in Catalonia), Manufacturing and Product Design are our main markets at the moment.
Layer adhesion has always been problematic in FDM, are you doing anything to improve this? 
“We have different research lines as well as collaborations with filament manufacturers in order to avoid the major FFF limitation.”

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