Insight from the 2017 Materialise World Summit

Materialise headquarters in Leuven, Belgium

Headquartered in the historic student city of Leuven, Belgium, Materialise is a company that has always impressed me—the more so following my attendance at the 2017 edition of the Materialise World Summit (MWS).

The ethics of this company stand tall. Since it was founded in 1990, Materialise has been steered by its shy, self-effacing leader, one Fried Vancraen. With an impressive engineering background and a hands-on approach to all that Materialise does, not to mention more than a little genius thrown in, his influence filters down throughout the whole company.

What I hadn’t fully appreciated though is the hugely influential, but very quiet, contribution of Fried’s wife Hilda. I briefly met this equally qualified, equally self-effacing bio-engineer and subsequently learned a little more about her direct input into the company from the beginning. While she does not like attention, she does love her job, the company, the people employed there and the people that Materialise is increasingly able to help through the software and application development around 3D printing for medical applications.

On the ethics front, as I have reported previously, Materialise does not and will not accept any military or defense contracts. I learned on this trip that on a couple of occasions where it was discovered—after the fact—that work carried out at Materialise had indirectly contributed to projects of this nature, the company computed the value of that work and donated the money to charity. This notably being in addition to the extensive non-profit support it donates annually. For me, this shines brightly amid the political and business shenanigans the world is currently witnessing.

Moreover, at this year’s MWS the company displayed something more—a real and engaging sense of humor. On the first day of the event, a number of Materialise staff dropped teasers about a big announcement the company was planning at the evening social event, with an ‘unveiling’ to be live streamed on YouTube.

There followed an elaborate production, hosted and performed by senior Materialise executives. The show centered on a dramatic unveiling of the Materialiser 0.1, including video footage of a 6 ft crate being driven by Fried in a white van, supposedly from the Leuven HQ to the Concert Noble where the evening event was being held. Eventually the crate, accompanied by a slightly disheveled Fried, made its appearance in the room. Once up on the stage, the crate was opened amid great fanfare to reveal……nothing, an empty crate!

Materialiser 0.1 was actually all of us in that room. The point that Materialise was making is that additive tech is important, great even, but it is meaningless without the people. People matter, relationships and partnerships matter. This was a celebration of people involved directly and indirectly in 3D printing. The overarching theme of the 2017 summit was collaboration and co-creation—summarized in the MWS 2017 strapline: Think. Beyond. Together.

I attended a press tour of the Materialise HQ facility a day before the summit proper began. Our host for the day was Vanessa Palsenbarg, Materialise’s corporate communications manager, and early on she explained how the facility was set up to encourage the co-creation process between Materialise divisions and with external partners.

The tour highlighted significant expansion since my previous visit, with a new building set to open this summer. We got some insight into the vast array of additive platforms operated by Materialise, today totaling 144 machines. Most process types are represented but not all were on display. Each additive process had its own room—plastic powder bed, industrial fused deposition modeling (FDM), stereolithography (SLA), etc. However, we were only able to glimpse Materialise's recently acquired Hewlett Packard (HP) platforms—which were in a much smaller, dark room—through a locked door.

The metal room too we were unable to enter. It wasn’t directly addressed as to why, but to be fair time did start to run short. Plus, it seems most of the metal platforms the company operates are housed in Materialise’s relatively new dedicated facility for industrial production in Bremen, Germany, which opened last year.

Indeed, one of the key takeaways from the tour was the company’s increasing expertise and knowledge in certified manufacturing processes and procedures with additive technologies. It is not easy, straightforward or fast, according to Vanessa, since it demands traceability for every part, device and/or implant. I did get to try on a beautiful 3D printed fedora though!

As the summit got underway the following day, Fried used the keynote address to highlight Materialise’s ‘unique position’ at the center of the additive manufacturing (AM) industry and to drive home the company’s key theme: ‘We are open to collaboration!’ This was with regard to all the key players in the 3D printing and AM ecosystem, as well as end users, with the ultimate aim always being ‘meaningful applications’.  

The parallel streams of presentations over the next two days left no doubt that this was not just rhetoric, with evidence time and again of collaborative partnerships and meaningful applications both from Materialise partners and company personnel.

Andreas Saar, vice president of manufacturing engineering solutions at Siemens PLM in the US, also gave a keynote address on the first morning of the event. Following my coverage of Siemens for the last issue of Disruptive Insight, I was interested to hear him say: ‘We decided not to buy a vendor, but work with different ones,’ at which point he listed DMG, Trumpf, Stratasys and HP. This is where the collaboration and partnerships come in. Andreas added: ‘We believe partnerships are important, this is the only way to drive this technology forward.’ Siemens’s partnership with Materialise, announced a week before the summit, was another case in point.  

This kind of co-creation and collaboration between ecosystem players fuels real progress and innovation across all disciplines (hardware, software and materials) and there were numerous other examples from Dassault, SAP, General Electric (GE), BASF and others. During one of the software presentations, someone whispered to me ‘Isn’t this in direct competition with Materialise?’ Well, yes, sort of, but it’s exactly that type of closed, competitive thinking that this collaborative approach negates, and it’s not a bad thing.

MWS also highlighted the benefits of collaboration and co-creation with end users. Standout examples were: LayerLAB’s GO project, namely a made-to-measure wheelchair; Tailored Fits’s customized ski boots; and the extraordinary breadth and depth of medical applications undertaken at the Mayo Clinic in the US, which will be covered in the upcoming issue of Disruptive Insight.

I was persuaded to moderate a panel session at this year’s MWS and would like to personally thank the panelists for their expertise and different perspectives. They were: Peter Leys, Materialise chairman; Professor Richard Hague, founder of Added Scientific and lead at the Advanced Materials Research Group (AMRG), Nottingham University; Pete Basiliere, research vice president (VP) for AM at Gartner; Mark Truman, head of white space for Jaguar Land Rover; and Filip Geerts, chief executive officer (CEO) of CECIMO.

While the future of AM was never going to be an exact science, the panel session did present an interesting opportunity to assess current capabilities and opportunities as well as the challenges that lie ahead.

Materialise is a company with extensive capabilities in the 3D printing ecosystem, continually demonstrating a willingness to form partnerships at every level, and it is a company with compassion that genuinely cares about people. One of the presentations was given by three of Materialise’s younger employees and their passion, loyalty, commitment and enthusiasm were testament to that fact. 

About Rachel Park

Rachel is a passionate advocate of additive manufacturing/3D printing technologies and the industry that has sprung up around it. However, as the hype and hyperbole has gathered momentum, her aim is always to offer a reasoned voice in the midst of inflated expectations and to cut through the noise in order to provide a realistic outlook of how things are.