The Blueprinter provides an interesting alternative to laser sintering (LS) technology (which makes those nylon prints you see from Shapeways). Invoking a process called selective heat sintering (SHS), this Danish machine uses a thermal printhead to fuse powder into a 3D object. In that way, the method is similar to laser sintering, but at a much lower cost. As Rachel pointed out in her first post on the topic, back in 2012, the Blueprinter is about €12,500, compared to the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars of an LS machine.
Aside from the remarkable cost of the industrial machine, the company prides itself on its reusable powder system. They’ve made part cleanup a contained task, with an accompanying cleaning station that deposits excess powder into a bin, where it can be collected and reused for the next job. This, the company states, allows for the recycling of more than 90% of the powder from a given print.
Now that Blueprinter has been around for about five years, the company is finally settling in, with CEO, Niels Appel, saying, “Since 2009 everything has been about getting the Blueprinter to work consistently and transform it into the product we knew it could become. Now the Blueprinter is on the market – ready to be switched on – and explored by industrial designers, engineers, architects and other prototypers all over the world. Blueprinter is no longer just a development house. With the launch of the Blueprinter, it’s a business.”
With a growing team and new offices, Blueprinter has begun shipping its printers all over Europe. Previously selling its prototyping machines to educational institutions and engineers, the company has the production capacity to increase its outreach to more customers. Appel adds, “This is an important milestone for Blueprinter, and we can definitely feel an increase in demand. Customers are talking to each other and the word is spreading. Right now we are busy sending printers around mostly in Europe.”
Blueprinter began as the thesis work of two mechanical engineering students, Anders Hartmann and Frederick Tjellesen. Hartmann explains:
It all started in 2007 when Frederik and I were to write our master thesis. We brainstormed a lot, trying to come up with an interesting case. I remember that we ended up with each of us writing a list of 5 suggestions, and we both had the topic “3D printing” on our lists. We were already quite familiar with the market, because we worked a lot with prototyping earlier, and we knew that the existing professional 3D printers were very expensive to use.
Therefore we decided to try and come up with something smarter and cheaper and at the same time maintaining the quality required by professionals. This was the beginning of the Blueprinter project. We set out to create the affordable 3D version of the professional printer. After analyzing the strength and weaknesses of current technologies, we ended up with a powder based solution with a thermal print head. Luckily, and a bit surprisingly we couldn’t find other technologies with the same combination and it became clear that we had found something with a very strong potential.
The idea has since grown, as, in 2009, the duo obtained an initial investment of €150,000 from Seed Capital:
Yes, to suddenly manage a business was new land to us. After we finished the thesis, we started looking for investors to help us make the project come to fruition, but it wasn’t easy, and I ‘d be lying if I said that it hasn’t been hard. We didn’t know where to start or whom to go to. It was a long process and sometimes we considered throwing in the towel, even though we really felt we were on to something. As always, things are more complex than expected. I remember one of the first meetings we had regarding the polymer powder we wanted to use in the printer. As mechanical engineers, we didn’t understand much of what they told us and we went straight home and started Googling. It has been “learning by doing” from the start. The turning point finally came when we got investment capital from Seed Capital. From that point things went very fast. I was told that Seed Capital received ten inquiries from other hopeful entrepreneurs every day, but somehow we managed to get through the eye of the needle after three elimination rounds. Suddenly we had more than €150.000 on the bank account. Not a lot compared to the total investment done today, but a lot compared to the fact, that Frederik and I had not received salary for 12 months.
The Blueprinter’s SHS process is a unique and interesting addition to the existing array of 3D printing technologies. At the moment, it seems to be limited to 3D printing its single white plastic powder, but, as the company expands its material range and gets its machine out there, there’s a possibility that SHS will prove an affordable alternative to the expensive laser sintering method.