3D Printing

Here is What Is Next for Materialise, One Company that Unifies 3D Printing

Materialise’s recent IPO brought in around $125 million for the Belgian company to invest in its future. During my trip through some of the top 3D printing companies in Northern Europe I just had to stop by and see for myself what that could mean. So, after visiting the future of consumer 3D printing and bioprinting in Holland and the present of industrial metal 3D printing in Germany, I went to see how this all comes together at one of the top 3D printing service and software providers in the world.

Based in Leuven, which is also home to the Stella Artois brewery and tons of delicious local Belgian beers, Materialise is not your average 3D printing company. Unlike many other emerging or industrial realities, most people around Leuven have heard about it and know what it does. That’s because, while the world has just recently been marvelling at the new possibilities offered to design by 3D printing technologies, Materialise has been exploring these possibilities for years and has already partnered on tens of high level experimental projects with top designers, stylists and artists — many of them local.

materialise HQ 3d printing industryThe first thing you realize, when you see Materialise’s main building from afar, is that it is very large. The company employs more than 1.00 people throughout the world (the 1000th employee was hired last March) and has registered revenues close to €70 million (68.7 million to be exact) in its latest full fiscal year, that ended last December 31st.

materialize 3d printed tulip lightsThe second thing you realize, once you are in the lobby, is that Materialise has been doing high level experimental work with 3D printing for quite some time and in many different areas. Designer dresses, artistic sculptures, prosthetic implants and medical models, sunglasses, geometric “tulip” lampshades and more begin to give you an idea of the many different fields the company operates in.

I meet with Vanessa Palsenbarg, Corporate Communications Specialist, and Lies Peeters, Marketing Coordinator, who very kindly offered to take me on a tour of the building, which hosts close to 100 industrial 3D printers. These include the gigantic (proprietary) Mammoth 3D printers, “the stuff of legends”, that everyone has heard about but can hardly believe. They live up to their name and are truly capable of 3D printing objects as long as 2.10 meters, in resin, using the SLA process.

Mammoth Stereolithography materialize

During my travels, I have noticed that for all 3D printing companies showing their premises to a journalist it is a very delicate matter – as no one wants to sacrifice any competitive edge just to show off – but for Materialise it is even more delicate as the company has just gone public on the NASDAQ US index and, while that means it has to disclose some information, it also means there are some things it just cannot reveal. Being that I am also an investor, the matter is even more complex.

Nevertheless I did get to see Materialise’s SLS room, with more EOS and 3D Systems machines than I could count, as well as their SLA (mostly 3D Systems’) and FDM (with a full array of Stratasys’ Fortus 900mc) rooms. I even got to see the Mammoth and it is just as incredible as it sounds. There are two arrays of machines and each one is as tall as a two story building. Seeing the size of a piece 3D printed to the full capability of a Mammoth is much more impressive in person than in pictures. Materialise also offers Stratasys’ Objet Polyjet technology, ZCorps/3DSystems full colour 3D printing as well as vacuum casting and reaction injection moulding (RIM).

Metal 3D printing at Materialise is currently done through lost wax castings (for the iMaterialise consumer 3D printing service) or through external partners but my own personal impression (and I stress that it is only my opinion and not in any way suggested by anything I saw or heard during my visit) is that its policy on that is going to change soon. Perhaps that’s just what part of that €125 million will be used for.

hand  pressing 3d printed object 3d printing industryThen again, Materialise already operates in so many different fields that it might even choose to not directly venture into metal 3D printing at all. As late as last December it introduced the new TPU 92A-1 flexible materials, while just last month it participated at Rapid 2014 in Detroit by organizing a 3D Printed Slot Car Championship. It is an ever more present player at fashion shows throughout the world and has a more complete software offering than most pure software companies.

materialize 3d printed root chair 3d printing industryIt also offers full rapid prototyping and additive manufacturing services, cranio-maxillo facial implants and models for biomedical engineering, not to mention the HeartPrint Models designed through its Mimics Innovations Suite. The main showroom, I visited at the end of my tour, was like a “3D printed wonderland”, with some of the top examples of 3D printed creativity from the last three years, all in one place. Objects like the BLOOM lamp by Patrick Jouin, more MGX Tulip lamps, the incredible MGX ROOT CHAIR (printed in one piece by Mammoth stereolithography) and tens of original small objects from iMaterialise.

This was the last stop on my Northern European 3D Printing Tour. I apologize to Jonas Martens of the Perpetual Plastic Project, whom I was not able to meet with (but I will be back soon), and I go back home with the feeling that the Fab Labs, 3D Hubs, Printed in Space, Leapfrog, Ultimaker, colorFabb, Concept Laser and Materialise are all connected, not just by 3D printing but by the common vision of a better future with endless possibilities. A vision I most definitely want to share.