I caught up this week with Stefaan Motte, Vice President and General Manager of Software at Materialise, to discuss three decades of 3D printing in three stages.
The 3D printing industry is young, tracing its roots back to the 1980s — and Belgium-based Materialise has been around for much of that history. Founded in 1990, the company has a strong legacy in and perspective of the dynamics at play in this fast-growing field. Motte was kind enough to take a walk down memory lane with me, illustrating the three stages of evolution to date.
“The three stages we see, we have not just first-hand experience but have been a driving force in going from one stage to the next,” Motte told me.
The stages as Materialise sees them are:
Making it possible
Making It Possible
In the first years of the industry, 3D printing needed to prove itself — the practicalities of getting it to work, Motte explained.
“Looking far back, three decades back when it all started and the world looked at 3D printing and [Founder and CEO] Fried [Vancraen] saw his first 3D printer, the first challenge was in making it usable,” he said.
What better way for a company based in beautiful Belgium to begin than by 3D printing for beer? Magics software, before becoming an industry standard for print preparation, started by preparing “a star-shaped form, very similar to pretty much every beer glass we have here in Belgium,” Motte said, a shape that “it wasn’t possible to get in the printer on those days.” And that’s where Magics came in, with the software designed to “make printers capable of printing those things.”
“Magics as a software all started with a beer glass, being able to print a beer glass. Literally — true story,” he said with a laugh. Cheers to that.
From 3D printing possible objects like drinking receptacles, “we moved on to printing impossible things that were impossible to realize with standard machines,” Motte said. Creating software tools to translate new design possibilities — complex and lightweight structures, bionical shapes, etc. — into files a 3D printer could understand led to the next step for Materialise and Magics.
“The first 15 years or so was about coming up with the right tools, about realizing those designs, about using that connection between software and printer,” he said.
That groundwork proved viable for the next steps forward, as Materialise and the industry continued to work on prototyping — and began to look beyond.
Starting with a focus in medical, Materialise was among the companies asking an important question: “How do you find applications where 3D printing can make a difference?”
“At Materialise, very early on we started working with leaders in their field in the medical domain, as well as all sorts of industrial companies. Co-creating, as we call it, we began looking at where the technology fits to meet needs or overcome challenges and problems, to realize opportunities,” Motte explained of the approach.
“We bring in our best experts, those companies bring in their best experts, and what comes out is Magics. We were looking at ways to use 3D printing to come up with really impactful applications.”
And over the years, he continued, Materialise has realized quite a few of these.
The highest-profile sea change brought about via 3D printing to date was in the hearing aid industry. An oft-quoted statistic in 3D printing was that this was a 500-day revolution, in which effectively all in-ear hearing aid devices adopted 3D printing: “We saw it really transforming an industry,” Motte said.
The medical field remained a primary focus, as Materialise worked on the creation of first customized surgical guides and then customized surgical implants. Such applications, Motte noted, have been impacting lives and changing standards of care.
These realizable applications are creating a list that “goes on and on,” as Materialise has also been working in other fields, such as Hoya. With its co-creation-focused partnerships, Materialise is looking to rethink end-to-end the processes used to create real-world products. The company’s work in eyewear is leading to a new paradigm where it “makes sense in that industry to deploy 3D printing with real opticians, for real wearers of eyewear,” Motte said.
We are now seeing “a mindset where all those industries started realizing the potential of 3D printing and where the need might be in their context,” he continued. “Many companies started following our lead in this, looking beyond what can be printed with other technologies, looking beyond the boundaries of conventional thinking, and seeing where it can make a difference. At Materialise we continue with this, we continue to co-create, and you see more and more of these applications. You see not just the technology is maturing, but the mindset about this technology, even from those outside the industry.”
This is evidenced in the global growth of sales of 3D printing machinery and materials, he noted, as this leads into the third stage.
3D printing is moving beyond its origins as a niche industry, gaining a higher profile and creating a bigger impact, as Materialise sees it. This growth means volume, which must be supported through sustainable efforts in making adoption and use economically viable.
“This third stage, entered recently, is making it feasible, making it sustainable, it is all about economic viability, not for just niche applications, but the whole wide world out there looking at and adopting 3D printing,” Motte said.
As the conversation around production-quality 3D printing picks up steam, Materialise is seeing that for meaningful applications to continue to gain ground, “we need to scale our production to print not just one piece or one hundred,” but manufacturing-scale operations. Industries such as medical, aerospace, and automotive are leading the way in encouraging additive manufacturing for end-use products, and these operations require proven solutions.
“The foremost thing on their minds is how can I make this viable, sustainable, cost-effective, and profitable? How is it economically meaningful to do so?” Motte noted.
Recent releases from Materialise have focused on “making products interesting from an economical point of view, not just for those happy few who can pay a premium price, when going into mass production,” he said. Software is a critical consideration for propelling additive manufacturing into real-world manufacturing environments.
In part two of our interview, we look into Materialise’s recent and upcoming products in addressing this third stage of 3D printing.