Materialise is a well-known brand in the world of 3D printing. The Leuven company marks itself out with its continuous innovation, both alone and in collaboration with partners. These innovations have led to the company winning the Factory of the Future Award. Materialise is receiving the award for their focus on digitisation, state-of-the-art production resources and the further development of projects on new products and technologies with this award.
Materialise commits to digitisation and state-of-the-art production methods
Materialise has been an authority in the world of 3D printing for nearly thirty years. The company was established in 1990 by Wilfried Vancraen and his wife Hilde Ingelaere as a spin-off of KU Leuven (the Catholic University of Leuven). Materialise was one of the pioneers of 3D printing and has been expanding their know-how for nearly 30 years. The company was listed on the Nasdaq in 2014 and has since acquired even more know-how and capital. They currently have more than 2,000 employees in 19 countries.
“We mainly print for two large sectors: the medical sector – everything for, in or on the body – and the industrial sector”, says Bart Van der Schueren, CTO at Materialise.
Materialise splits their printing work into three distinct types of projects.
“First of all, you have one-off projects. This concerns the production of prototypes, including printed material for racing cars and satellites” says Van der Scheuren.
- Serial production
“We also have quite a few serial production projects at Materialise. For example, parts for airplanes or drones.”
One of the biggest 3D printing challenges is ensuring the feasibility of the project pricing. Additive Manufacturing (AM) is not a product where price elasticity can apply. Materialise is always searching for potential options to reduce prices.
“For example, we decided to produce less complex products, which lowers costs. This also means more serial production.”
- Mass customisation
“After all, we also provide mass customisation, the largest product group of the three. The mass-customised products we make are related to individuals and often to medical products, such as hearing aids, insoles or glasses. The insole workflow is as follows: A foot is placed on a pressure plate and a scan is made. The data are subsequently analysed. These data are used to create the design that is then checked by experts. The last two steps are printing and delivering the insoles. Materialise produces approximately 5,000 unique medical cases or products per month.”
Alongside printing, Materialise also develops 3D printing software, not only for internal use but also sold to other printing companies. Most other printing companies do not develop their own software.
The cloud plays an important part within Materialise. “It is used to connect or share process flows, making it possible to use them in other countries or companies. For example, pressure plates for insoles. These can be rolled out in sports shops. The analysis can be completely automated and can be carried out on any computer.”
“The post-analysis design work can also be automated. Working in the cloud in three countries with 8-hour time differences between each of them (Malaysia, Ukraine and Colombia) means the cloud can be operational 24 hours a day to provide the required service.”
Focusing on digitisation means more flexibility. 3D printers have to be connected to the workspace. The Build Processor was developed for this. This technology manages communications between the software and the 3D printers, decreasing the complexity of 3D printing.
“Any printer can be connected to the Build Processor from the software platform. Connections can be made to the rest of the production system and to the MES (Manufacturing Execution System) software. Other options include Magics Software, a versatile software package that prepares data, and the STL editor for Additive Manufacturing, which converts files to STL and can restore errors, edit designs and prepare construction platforms. Everything can be monitored, because every specific machine has a specific build ID. Batches can be connected to the build ID, to view the progress of the units in every build. Camera images are used more often to collect big data and control the process even better.”
Network Factory is another criterion for the FoF Award and forms part of the Materialise DNA. Connecting competencies with those of partners to create valuable applications is a core value.
Human Centred Production
Despite Materialise committing to more digitisation in post-processing operations, most of the work is carried out manually. “Many tasks have to be carried out, including the measurement and labelling of products. This is mainly done by hand. Once it is digitised, it is easier to insist on automation, but for now we apply the human factor.”
Materialise has invested in training courses for sprayers, to raise their level of expertise.
Advanced Manufacturing Technologies
One of the criteria for the Factory of the Future Award is in-house development of world-class production resources. Materialise scored points here. The company started making their own machines shortly after its establishment. In the beginning, for example, only small machines were used to print medical models of skulls. These machines were developed further into larger ‘mammoth printers’, used to print large models, bumpers and dashboards.
Old printers are still actively used
The old printers from when we started 29 years ago are still in use at Materialise. These are frequently updated: completely disassembled, with the installation of new hardware and build processors. Not a single machine has been discarded in all these years. The mechanical part lasts a long time: such a framework can have a lifespan of at least 30 years. The optics however need a lot of maintenance work, because the laser must always have the appropriate diameter. Otherwise the quality suffers.
Having state-of-the-art production systems is also essential for a Factory of the Future. Materialise also has HP printers with the newest 3D printer technology. Most of the equipment and technology used at the company have been there for a relatively long time.
“One of the projects we demonstrated was related to the fact that when 3D printing is used with a powder bed process, the powder sticks to the printed unit. The excess powder that sticks to the printed unit is sandblasted off. Most of the material is recovered and recycled. Materialise knowledge of and impact on 3D printing allows the company to recover even more residue from the material, resulting in more environmentally friendly production.”
RapidFit Plus is a subsidiary of Materialise, revolving around software. “We have often had issues when sending printed bumpers to foreign countries via courier services. Damage often occurred.
We reacted by developing an application that supports the printing of aluminium profiles with a 3D-printed part. This application was developed further in terms of measurements to ensure quality parts. The business continued growing, resulting in the birth of RapidFit, which focuses on the automotive industry.
Operations Customers send RapidFit/Materialise a measurement plan for a product they would like to be measured. The product is designed, developed and built based on the measurement plan. The product is designed in Kiev; the assembly and printing takes place in Belgium. The products are measured once again with the newest measuring machines. The printing itself is sometimes not accurate enough. The product is often post-milled after printing.
Most business operations at Materialise are B2B, but a few are B2C, such as designer products. In 2004, we took the first steps towards manufacturing end products when we 3D-printed design lamps. It is, however, a very competitive business. “The range of products and materials is very broad. The challenge is to offer people something that allows them to create their own unique product.”