Executive Interview Series

INTERVIEW: Brigitte de Vet-Veithen on her first one hundred days as CEO at Materialise

Brigitte de Vet-Veithen, CEO of Materialise, describes her initial 100 days at the helm as a period of intensive engagement with the market, customers, and internal stakeholders.

With eight years of experience at Belgium-based software and 3D printing company, primarily focused on the medical side, de Vet-Veithen used these first three months to broaden her exposure to other, less familiar, aspects of the business. “I took time in the first 100 days to deep dive, to meet a lot of our customers and many of our people around the world,” she said, emphasizing the global scale of the business.

3D printing industry misconceptions and opportunities

Variations on the theme of whether 3D printing is failing to reach its potential for manufacturing are not hard to find. As someone who frequently speaks with operators of successful AM businesses, I find such a perspective at odds with real-world experience. Likewise, de Vet-Veithen observes a stark contrast between the perception of the 3D printing industry and its realities, particularly noting significant advancements in markets like China. “The end-use market is happening, and it’s happening big time,” she noted, pointing to large-scale applications such as mobile phone components being produced in substantial volumes. “The negativity is, I think, in my eyes unwarranted,” de Vet-Veithen added, asserting that despite slower adoption in some areas, there are substantial, profitable opportunities that are already being capitalized upon.

Perhaps industry needs to beat the drum a little louder. If share price can be seen as useful proxy for intrinsic value, then Materialise is in good company in the sense that, like many of its peers, performance has far from flourished. De Vet-Veithen notes that while market pressures on share prices are an ongoing challenge, the practical successes and opportunities within the 3D printing industry provide a strong foundation for future growth. She remains optimistic about the potential for Materialise, and indeed other industry players, to expand their impact in the coming years, suggesting that the company’s focus should remain on its operational strengths and market fit rather than short-term financial metrics.

Materialise CEO Brigitte de Vet-Veithen. Photo via Materialise.
Materialise CEO Brigitte de Vet-Veithen. Photo via Materialise.

Software’s role in improving additive manufacturing quality

De Vet-Veithen emphasized the alignment between Materialise’s capabilities and the needs of the additive manufacturing industry. She articulated a vision where the company could significantly impact the industry by making 3D printing processes “easier, faster, simpler, and cheaper.” Central to this vision is the role of software in reducing the overall costs and complexities associated with producing parts via additive manufacturing. “There’s a lot of expertise and knowledge that we can build into our software that guides the user,” she explained, underscoring the potential of their software solutions to bridge the expertise gap in the market.

This strategic focus, according to de Vet-Veithen, positions Materialise to meet the increasing demands of the market effectively, particularly in enhancing the accessibility and cost-effectiveness of 3D printing technologies. 

Another misconception that is occasionally encountered is that 3D printing is not a repeatable process. The Materialise CEO contests this notion that additive manufacturing cannot deliver consistent quality globally, drawing on her extensive experience in the highly regulated medical sector. “We have very good examples, where we show that you can be extremely repeatable and predictable in your quality,” she asserted, referencing the medical applications that require stringent quality controls.

De Vet-Veithen explained that software is pivotal in bridging the gap between current limitations and potential efficiencies in additive manufacturing. She highlighted the deployment of a new quality monitoring tool by Materialise, which actively collects data during production to ensure parts remain within specification. “It collects data as part of your process to verify whether yes or no, we’re still in spec,” she noted, underlining the direct impact of software on improving production standards.

Further, she discussed the broader strategic vision for Materialise, expressing a desire to replicate the success seen in the medical division across other segments of the business. Key to this ambition is a focus on simplification and clarity, both internally in product design and externally in industry communication. “We love to make things complex. So simplification is one of the things we’ve done in medical and will be one of the drivers for success in other segments going forward.” 

These efforts, she believes, are essential for enhancing the adoption of additive manufacturing technologies across various industries, potentially leading to greater integration of these technologies into mainstream manufacturing processes.

Industry trends, growth plans, and cross-industry initiatives in 3D printing

Highlighting the ongoing industry challenges related to competitiveness and sector fragmentation, de Vet-Veithen expressed optimism about uniting various stakeholders to work towards common goals. “I certainly hope we would get the industry to see that we all have a lot more to win by increasing the pie rather than all fighting for a share of a small pie,” she stated.

In pursuit of this goal, Materialise plans to host a strategic meeting with industry leaders at their headquarters. This meeting aims to forge consensus on standardizing terminology and interfaces to simplify customer interactions with additive technologies. “We’re talking about agreeing on literal vocabulary that we’re talking about, and then translating that into some way of agreeing as to how we can interface between different parts of the total solution,” de Vet-Veithen elaborated on the practical steps they intend to take.

These initiatives are not designed to enhance revenue immediately but to foster a cooperative environment that could expand the market’s overall capacity and efficiency. This approach reflects a strategic long-term vision that contrasts with the short-term focus often driven by quarterly financial reporting pressures. De Vet-Veithen hopes that by setting a precedent for collaboration, the industry can shift towards more sustainable and expansive growth trajectories.

De Vet-Veithen articulated a strategic focus on leveraging existing market opportunities rather than pursuing growth for its own sake. “Not growth for the sake of growth, but growth because I’m bullish about the market opportunities as we see them,” she stated. The targeted areas for this expansion include software solutions, service offerings, and specific verticals such as the medical sector, where Materialise has developed direct market applications.

The growth strategy is poised to capitalize on the segments where 3D printing adoption is strong or expected to increase. 

Discussing the service side of the business through Materialise’s bureau operations, de Vet-Veithen highlighted its significant size, especially in Europe, where it stands as one of the larger service bureaus. She reported 7% growth in this sector for 2023, indicating a consistent upward trend. This segment benefits from the reluctance of companies to invest in capital expenses, such as purchasing machines, making service bureaus a viable alternative for customers looking to adopt 3D printing technologies without the upfront investment. “There are significant growth opportunities, there are opportunities in that service market, definitely,” suggesting a robust path forward for Materialise in addressing both immediate customer needs and long-term industry growth.

Sustainability, innovation, and technology in additive manufacturing

De Vet-Veithen elaborated on Materialise’s commitment to environmental, social, and governance ESG principles, which are deeply ingrained in the company’s operations. Materialise has set ambitious targets to reduce its CO2 impact by 50% from its 2019 baseline by 2024. Although progress has been made, achieving close to a 40% reduction primarily through changes in office operations and travel. “We’re well on track, but there’s still work to do,” she said, pointing out that future efforts will focus on collaborating with suppliers to reduce the carbon footprint of raw materials and production processes.

Materialise also aims to influence the broader industry’s approach to sustainability, particularly how additive manufacturing can contribute positively to sustainable product development. De Vet-Veithen stressed the importance of discerning which applications of 3D printing genuinely reduce environmental impact, as not all additive processes are inherently sustainable. “It’s for certain applications that there’s a positive CO2 impact, but not necessarily for everything that you 3D print,” she explained.

“Greenwashing is just not an option,” she stated, emphasizing that genuine impact and transparency are central to Materialise’s operations. “It’s about whether we really have that impact,” she added, underscoring the importance of real-world outcomes over mere reporting.

Discussing technological innovation, de Vet-Veithen attributed Materialise’s competitive edge to its deep and broad reservoir of knowledge accumulated over time. This expertise is leveraged across their software solutions, services business, and consultancy offerings, enhancing their ability to meet diverse customer needs. “One of our key differentiators is that we have those 34 years of knowledge to base ourselves on that we can build out to our products that we can offer to our customers,” she explained.

AI, internal capabilities, and operational challenges

Our conversation then turned to the integration of advanced technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning as critical to making additive manufacturing more accessible, faster, and cost-effective. De Vet-Veithen highlighted the importance of data in powering these technologies, noting Materialise’s extensive data collection from its service bureau and medical production activities as a significant advantage. “It’s only great technology that only has an impact if you can feed it with the right data,” she noted, detailing how Materialise uses its data to drive industry advancements and improve efficiency for clients.

De Vet-Veithen emphasized the transformative impact of AI on Materialise’s operations, particularly in the medical sector. She outlined how AI technology has been pivotal in significantly reducing lead times for personalized medical products, thus expanding the market reach and improving patient care. “AI has helped us tremendously to shorten those lead times from what used to be three weeks to just a couple of days,” she noted, highlighting AI’s role in automating and making predictive enhancements based on accumulated data.

In discussing internal capabilities, de Vet-Veithen revealed a unique aspect of Materialise’s operational model, referred to as their “kitchen.” This internal testing ground allows them to trial new software solutions in a controlled environment before market release, ensuring reliability and effectiveness. “We can test a lot of the new software ideas in our own kitchen, to see whether it works before we bring it out to the market,” she explained. This approach not only refines their products but also facilitates a dynamic feedback loop between their service operations and software development teams, enhancing both manufacturing and medical units within the company.

Industry growth, competition, and talent

The CEO of Materialise noted that maintaining alignment and understanding of the company’s mission and strategy across an increasing number of global locations and team members poses significant challenges. “With that growth come challenges because we become more and more global. It just makes it a little more challenging and more complex to have everybody aligned,” she explained.

De Vet-Veithen also highlighted broader industry challenges, particularly in terms of resource availability. She emphasized a critical shortage of 3D printing knowledge and software engineering talent, which she views as limiting factors not just for Materialise but for the industry as a whole. “3D printing knowledge as such, is a gap which is limiting us,” she stated, underscoring the importance of educational initiatives like their academy program aimed at bridging this knowledge gap.

Human capital is also a factor in the shortage of software engineering resources, essential for driving innovation. “Software engineering talent is a type of resource that is scarce in the market,” she noted, highlighting the competitive demand for this expertise across various industries.

De Vet-Veithen expressed a non-traditional view on competition, emphasizing the potential for industry growth rather than rivalry. “I don’t necessarily look at the industry and say there’s a lot of competition because there’s enough opportunity for everybody,” she noted, advocating for a collective focus on expanding the market. 

The CEO is aware of the importance of evolving with the market while retaining the company’s core mission and vision. “Our mission and vision as such are not going to change. However, what will change and will have to continue to change is the way we bring to the market and the way we do this because the market is changing,” she stated.

Stepping in the shoes of someone who has undeniably made an outstanding contribution to the 3D printing industry might be a daunting prospect for many. De Vet-Veithen comes across as calmly assured and with quiet confidence stemming from solid experience gained at one of the leading enterprises in the additive manufacturing world. One hundred days on the job is too short a time to make any sensible assessment, and yet when Materialise publishes financial results for the first quarter of 2024, the ever-irrational market is set to do just that. 

Cooler heads will no doubt be watching with eyes on a longer time horizon.

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Featured image shows Materialise CEO Brigitte de Vet-Veithen. Photo via Materialise.