What’s the Deal with BASF Partnering with Shapeways on 3D Printing Materials?

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In the fall of 2019, BASF 3D Printing Solutions, a 3D printing material and services supplier and subsidiary of BASF New Business GmbH, introduced Forward AM, a new corporate brand presence. The German chemical company says that the “Forward” stands for “future-oriented, leading-edge materials and technology,” and the logo features a baseline of “Innovating Additive Manufacturing” to show its industrial 3D printing approach—offering solutions and materials for the entire additive manufacturing value chain.

Right around the same time this announcement came out, the company also declared that it was acquiring 3D printing service bureau Sculpteo, moving out of the materials-only sector of 3D printing; the purchase was completed soon after. Now, BASF has another big announcement to share, with the news that it is partnering up with Shapeways, a popular technology platform for 3D printed product creation.

“At Shapeways, it is our goal to empower large-scale additive manufacturing. Our partnership with BASF enables us to provide the technology to power BASF’s vision in expanding the accessibility of Forward AM materials to more customers. Shapeways’ technology and fulfillment services have been custom-built to fit BASF’s business and will be able to connect other service providers to supply BASF with a vast network of manufacturers to offer their materials,” stated Shapeways’ CRO Miko Levy. “This streamlined process will not only showcase these innovative materials but will also enable BASF to accelerate its go-to-market strategy in 3D printing.”

Now, Shapeways customers can access a range of BASF materials through a new Shapeways and BASF co-branded website that uses Shapeways’ proprietary technology, so they can figure out which solutions will work best for their specific designs, be they prototypes or high-performing functional parts. At the moment, these materials include Forward AM’s industrial-grade Ultrasint powders, which the new co-branded website states provide adaptability and accuracy for users designing and printing parts with complex geometries, and Ultracur photopolymers, which work with DLP, LCD, and SLA technologies to print functional parts with, as the site states, “superior surface quality, long-lasting mechanical properties and exceptional detail resolution” for high-performance applications.

For example, Ultrasint PP nat 01, a polypropylene material popular in the plastic industry, is often used to 3D print serial production and functional components, such as hinges, clips, and air ducts. The highly reactive Ultracur RG 35 features a medium level of viscosity, which allows users to print rigid multipurpose parts, like connectors, snappers, and end-use components. Ultrasint TPU01, a thermoplastic polyurethane, is good for fabricating elastomeric functional parts, including automotive and industry end-use components, orthotics, and shoe soles. Finally, the durable BASF-enabled HP High Reusability PP is qualified for use in HP’s production-grade Multi Jet Fusion 3D printers to make chemically resistant objects, like parts for piping and fluid systems and interior, exterior, and under-the-hood automotive components.

“Our partnership with Shapeways and the use of their technology will allow a broader customer base to create and order high-quality 3D printed prototypes and functional parts online made with our Forward AM material. To help accelerate the use of additive manufacturing at scale, we are focusing on making our high-performance materials easily accessible to consumers while leveraging the manufacturing and services capabilities of our global 3D printing network,” said Jim Reddy, Managing Director North America, BASF 3D Printing Solutions.

What’s most interesting here is that a main competitor of Shapeways is Sculpteo, which, as I mentioned earlier, is now owned by BASF. Additionally, BASF has also invested in Materialise, another competitor of Shapeways and of Sculpteo, so its hands are now in several AM service bureau cookie jars. The German chemical giant has a market cap of $52B, and is using it to get fully entrenched in the additive manufacturing value chain, investing in SLA-based technology and Essentium’s High Speed Extrusion (HSE) Platform—teaming up with Materialise for the latter investment—and even dipping its toes into bioprinting. But the number of materials companies BASF has invested in, partnered with, and acquired over the last few years is dizzying:

I’m sure I may even have missed a few.

Rear-view mirror housing made from BASF Ultrasint PA6 X043 with Farsoon HT403P.

If BASF truly wants to rule the 3D printing world, it makes sense to focus on the materials side; after all, according to SmarTech Analysis, polymer 3D printing is expected to generate as much as $11.7 billion this year. But investing in multiple competing AM service bureaus seems odd. Is the plan to eventually merge them all together into one giant service bureau? I’m not sure. But the “future-oriented” part of its Forward AM brand definitely seems to apply here.

I do think it’s important to watch the company’s next moves very carefully, as time may soon tell what its larger plan is. But I am reminded of a conversation that the mice Pinky and Brain, characters from an old animated TV series, had at the end of each episode. Pinky always asked Brain what they were going to do that night, and Brain responded the same way each time: “The same thing we do every night, Pinky. Try to take over the world.”

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