The Challenge of Industrialization

by Thomas Masuch — 2020/01/30

Materialise is not only one of the world's leading software providers in the AM world, but also one of the largest service providers – for both plastic and metal parts. Headquartered in Leuven, Belgium, the company and its 2,000 employees represent one of the pioneers in the industrialization of additive manufacturing. At the same time, however, the challenges that this developmental stage of industrial 3D printing brings with it are also evident.

Using around 190 industrial 3D printers, Materialise produces thousands of prototypes and serial parts per month at its locations in Belgium, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Germany. While the prototype business has been a reliable basis for years, the service business is growing primarily due to the increasing demand for serial parts according to Jurgen Laudus, who heads the Manufacturing division at Materialise.

Laudus explains that the demand for prototypes has weakened somewhat as a result of the difficult economic situation at present, especially in the automotive industry. »There are fewer products coming to market. Product development is under pressure. Companies have to cut costs and be careful with their spending,« he says. That's why automotive companies have to focus a great deal on new engines, engine developments, or fuel economy, which leaves them with less to spend on interior design.

On the other hand, this also creates opportunities for series production. As a result of cost pressure, automobile manufacturers also try to go into series production with as little effort as possible. Additive manufacturing offers the opportunity to produce serial parts without necessarily having to invest in expensive molds. »If you see that your product is selling well or is popular, you can then continue 3D printing or still invest in molds while avoiding the risk of big investments.«

A question of price

Laudus pursues a two-pronged strategy in his division, which has a workforce of 450. On the one hand, for example, efficiency is increased throughout the entire production process, including in post-processing. This is Materialise's response to the ever tougher competition for simple 3D-printed components. »If it's an easy product, there's not a lot of service needed. Here, it's purely about the price. And that's where the challenge is for a service bureau: to be as lean and efficient as possible,« Laudus reveals. »The company that can fit the most parts on one 3D printer, achieve the fastest build time, and implement the most automation in finishing – that company will be the most successful.«

On the other hand, Materialise concentrates on sophisticated products – in the fields of medicine and aerospace, for example, where certified production environments are required and factors other than price are also decisive. »It's first of all the quality, the lead time, so the speed of delivery, the service level that you provide and then comes the price,« Laudus affirms.

»Not so easy to compete«

This is where Materialise, with its 9100 certification and Airbus qualification, has a real added value that Jurgen Laudus would like to use to further strengthen the company’s position in the aerospace market. »It's not so easy for other service bureaus to compete with us unless they have gone through the same qualification. We were the first company to be able to supply 3D-printed parts for the Airbus A350.«

Materialise can also bring its expertise to bear in the areas of design engineering and production in connection with customized products, including in the medical sector. »Here, you need to know how to create porous structures; you can't just copy them,« Laudus points out. In addition to medicine, the pillar of the company that has grown over decades, other products have also emerged – such as shoe soles or a customized ski boot that Materialise manufactures on demand for the Swiss manufacturer Tailored Fits.