FROM BASEMENT DYE EXPERIMENTS TO THE GLOBAL MARKET in Five Years

Text: Thomas Masuch; Photos: Dyemansion, Maria Johannes - 27/05/2018

Five years ago, young entrepreneurs Felix Ewald and Philipp Kramer were actually hoping to sell custom 3D printed smartphone cases. To this day, however, the founders of Dyemansion haven’t sold a single one successfully. Instead, they’ve turned their start-up’s focus to industrial dye and finishing applications, which has brought them international success. Providing Ewald and Kramer with a boost along the way was the formnext Start-up Challenge.

Upon hearing about 3D printing while they were still students, Felix Ewald and Philipp Kramer remember thinking, »That sounds pretty cool.« This gave rise to the idea to order smartphone cases from service providers and sell them to large companies from their home base in Munich. The cases, however – which were designed to match the corporate identity of each customer – often left traces of dye behind in users’ pockets and were returned as defective. »That’s when we had to make a decision: do something else entirely, or develop our own dye solution,« says Ewald, who holds a degree in business information systems.

SIX MONTHS FOR A SOLID BLACK

Just 23 and 25 at the time, the two tinkerers spent several months exploring various dye processes, contacting experts in the textile industry, and cooking up dye recipes in their Munich basement.

"There’s a high level of demand for dye solutions around the world right now, and we need to address it before other companies start catching up."

It took Ewald and Kramer about half a year to come up with a quality black pigment, which was to be the starting point for their production of colored cases. Around that same time, they attended a gathering of entrepreneurs in Munich and met Arno Held from AM Ventures, an investment company specializing in AM that was started by EOS founder Dr. Hans Langer.

A BIT BORED OF SMARTPHONE CASES

It turned out that Held thought the 3D printed case idea was »rather boring; there were already too many sellers back then.« What he was interested in was the dye used in the process. »I quickly realized that this could be a solid business model,« Held reveals. He goes on to explain that there was only one provider of dye technology for sintered components at the time, and he hadn’t found it convincing in technical or economic terms.

In the case of Ewald and Kramer, however, it was both their dye solution and the mentality of the two entrepreneurs that won Held over. This prompted AM Ventures to invest in Dyemansion, which financed its further technical and entrepreneurial development. The majority stake, however, remained with its two founders. The infusion of capital enabled Dyemansion (which had four employees back then) to unveil the first prototype of its dye system at formnext 2015. In typical start-up fashion, the unit was »finished on Monday and put on display at the exhibition on Tuesday«.

»THE BEGINNING OF THE END …«

For their first exhibition appearance, Ewald and Kramer’s main goal was to get their pilot phase rolling. »That meant we needed companies willing to work with us,« Ewald recalls. Dyemansion thus took part in the formnext Start-up Challenge, which recognizes young and innovative companies from the world of additive manufacturing.

Within just a few days of the exhibition, it had not only won the competition, but secured handshake agreements to cooperate with four different organizations, as well. »That was the beginning of the end – the end of our lives outside of work, that is,« Ewald says with a laugh. Since then, Dyemansion has undergone rapid growth. It now delivers products to over 400 customers, including global players like BMW, Daimler, and the apparel company Under Armour, as well as Materialise and Shapeways – both world-leading service providers in 3D printing.

Meanwhile, formnext has continued to play a prominent role in the company’s development, with Dyemansion presenting its latest innovations in Frankfurt every November since.Along with its fully automated dye system, it has showed off a unit for powder removal and another for surface finishing. These offerings are enabling the young company to cover the cleaning, surfacing, and coloring steps of post-processing in an approach it calls the »Print to Product« workflow.

As Dyemansion has grown, so has the size of its booth at formnext. Now a well-established exhibitor, the company has built a solid reputation on both its many technical innovations and the quality booth parties it has thrown.

A LITTLE LUCK HARDLY ANY MISTAKES

Looking back, Ewald attributes Dyemansion’s successful evolution to two essential factors. »For one thing, we were really lucky to meet the right people at the right time and place,« he admits. »We also didn’t make many mistakes and rarely wasted money.«

While the 29-year-old reports that Dyemansion already began turning a profit in 2017, he doesn’t see it in a position to consolidate or seek more measured growth at the moment. »There’s a high level of demand for dye solutions around the world right now, and we need to address it before other companies start catching up,« he says. »People are looking for a holistic setup that produces high-quality parts.«

A GLOBAL OFFENSIVE

This is why continuing its international expansion is a key objective in the company’s current and future advancement. Establishing a location in the United States, along with corresponding sales and service structures, will be an important step in this process. This is where Dyemansion is working closely with partners like HP and EOS, the latter of which has even been including the company’s products in its own portfolio since November 2017.

The fledgling start-up from 2013 has since witnessed some big changes as a company, as well. By the end of this year, it plans to increase its workforce from a current 28 employees to 50. »In the beginning, we just hired our friends,« Ewald concedes. »Now we need to follow proper management processes, even if it’s not really our thing.«

NOT TOO BUTTONED-DOWN

»At the same time, we don’t want to get too corporate,« Ewald points out. To keep things from getting too buttoned-down, Dyemansion has its own in-house cook and encourages employees to address one another by their first names. E-mail addresses at the company also do without last names. This also applies to affirmed industry experts like Kai Witter, formerly the director of central sales at EOS, who is now busy taking Dyemansion’s sales efforts global.

It’s the laid-back character apparent in the company’s culture that has inspired Witter. »The thing that excites me about Dyemansion is the atmosphere of absolute fearlessness,« he raves. »In my experience, the fear of making mistakes influences what many organizations do and don’t do.«

Not so at Dyemansion, which always makes doing what needs to be done and maintaining a clear, uncluttered vision its top priorities. »It’s the only way we’ll be able to stay agile and innovative and avoid sinking into the sea of mediocrity out there,« Witter says.

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