Prints charming

16 May 2012

Having visited Belgium it’s easy to return weighed down, usually by chocolate and beer, but Stephen Holmes returned from Materialise World 2012 heavy in thought following an interview with the company’s CEO Wilfried Vancraen

Materialise World is a bi-annual event taking place in Materialise’s hometown of Leuven that covers not only what can already be achieved using 3D printing tools, but what additive manufacturing can provide in the very near future.

The MGX Lily lamp

Materialise offers 3D printing in a wide variety of formats and materials, using large rooms packed with ranks of various high-end machines within its headquarters to print parts for customers.

However, the whole set up is much more than a simple print bureau: it offers its own web-based printing service i.materialise; collaborates with designers and artists to produce ‘off the peg’ products for sale through its MGX by Materialise brand; created Magics, a widely used software for optimising 3D models for 3D printing, and helps to pioneer work in all kinds of industries – from medical and audiology, to automotive and consumer products.

3D printing to the max

Materialise World displayed it all: a glamorous fashion show displaying 3D printed headwear; race car body shells printed in one piece on its mammoth SLA machines, and an incredible human face transplant digitally planned, engineered and practised before a scalpel even touched the patient.

“The key message of the conference is with additive manufacturing you can make multiple sectors better,” states Materialise’s CEO Wilfried Vancraen. “If we talk about fashion, for instance, better can be that it allows you to use a new kind, or more creativity than before.”

Creativity doesn’t stop at the product. Materialise looks to the bigger picture, showing new ways in which additive manufacturing can create new markets, rather than simply shoehorning them into traditional industries.

MGX by Materialise’s light fixtures are already products in the traditional sense, but Vancraen foresees a future change: “The entire business model of the lighting companies is based on the fact that they sold a consumable that they could sell to every household once or twice a year.

Today with the LEDs, they outlast the lighting fixtures. “What can be a solution for this industry is to give more attention to the lighting fixtures and create their systems; you can keep that simple element [the bulb] and change the fixture, and from time to time you can change and dress your room in a new way. It’s how we look at business.”

He explains that if this were the case it could require a different distribution model as well. Instead of buying a lightbulb perhaps you would pick a new fixture from a computer screen and a printer would build it.

Change is afoot

The world of 3D printing is changing, and although Materialise has been busy creating printer drivers that are compatible with all the latest small ‘domestic’ printers, so they can link up to more professional software systems, it sees it still as an industry driven by professional services.

“Good results can only be obtained if you optimise the system, which can be done in an industrial setting much more than in a private setting,” explains Vancraen. “You may dream of making spare parts in your home, but products have more than one dimension of difference than just 2D to 3D.”

The difference is not only the third dimension; it’s a question of materials. In paper printing it’s all paper. In products you have groups of varying ceramics, metals and plastics, and by virtue of 3D printing you start to have combinations and new classes of materials.

“Every type of material or family of materials will have its own specific processing characteristics,” continues Vancraen. “The variety of 3D printers will always remain much larger, so when we take that into your house it means you will need an ABS printer, a polyimide printer, and even in metals you have different printers per type of metal.

“At the end of the year my family makes a calendar with family pictures. This is not something we print on our home printer because it’s already closer to a product than just a picture.

“If we are then printing products, then I do believe that the dominant business model will be web-based.”

Start small, think big

i.materialise, its online bureau service, is already catering to thousands of users. Although the clientele is still predominantly businesses at the moment, Vancraen expects that to change with more small companies beginning to reap the benefits.

He makes the loose comparison with the early days of Apple: while today it is a giant consumer brand, the early products were all used in certain sectors like graphic design, the film industry and by a lot of small businesses. It’s those small businesses where Materialise’s take up is increasing.

“What we notice at the moment [is that] a lot of artists and designers are also small businesses: some young product designers that don’t have clientele yet, so they work with i.materialise to offer their services directly.”

The aim is to use this technology to make a positive difference to the way we live by making ideas a functioning reality. Although it might not have a roll to play in all industries, Materialise believe that 3D printing will be the manufacturing industry success story for years to come.         

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