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Ewloe, United Kingdom
Writing, tweeting, debating and occasionally getting a little over-excited about 3D Printing. But always aiming to keep it real!

Thursday 4 May 2017

Insight from the 2017 Materialise World Summit

I’ve made no secret, over the years, of the fact that I have a lot of time for Materialise, the Belgian 3D printing company, headquartered in the historic student city of Leuven. Materialise’s modus operandi has always impressed me, and today that has not changed, in fact, it’s probably increased following my attendance at the 2017 edition of the Materialise World Summit (MWS).

The ethics of this company stand tall.

Since it was founded in 1990, Materialse has been steered by its shy, self-effacing leader, one Fried Vancraen. With an impressive engineering background, and a hands-on approach to all that Materialise does, not to mention more than a little genius thrown in, this filters down throughout the whole company. What I hadn’t fully appreciated is the hugely influential, but very quiet, contribution of Fried’s wife: Hilda. I briefly met this equally qualified, equally self-effacing bio-engineer, and subsequently learned a little more about her direct input into the company, from the very beginning, which has never waned in the slightest. She does not like attention, she does love her job though, and the company, but more importantly the people employed there and the people that Materialise is increasingly able to help through the software and application development around 3D printing for medical applications.

On the ethics front, as I have reported previously, Materialise does not and will not consciously accept any military or defence contracts. I further learned on this trip that on a couple of occasions where it was discovered, after the fact, that work carried out at Materialise had indirectly contributed to projects of this nature, the company computed the value of that work and rather than profit from it, donated the money (surplus to the extensive non-profit support it donates annually) to charity. For me this speaks volumes, and shines brightly amid the political and business shenanigans the world is witnessing currently.

Moreover, at this year’s MWS, the company displayed something more — a real and engaging sense of humour. You kind of had to be there for the full effect, but I’ll give it a go…

So on the first day of the event, teasers were being dropped by a number of different Materialise staff about a big announcement the company was planning at the evening social event. Like many others, I suspect, I bought into it, wondering if it was a new product but leaning towards a likely new application. As the anticipation ramped up, I put it out on Twitter, particularly when it was announced the “unveiling” was being live streamed on YouTube.

What followed was an elaborate production, hosted and performed by senior Materialise executives. The show was over the top, to say the least, and centred on a dramatic unveiling of the ‘Materialiser 0.1.’ The build-up included video footage of a 6 ft crate supposedly leaving the Leuven HQ in real time and being driven in a white van, to the Concert Noble where the evening event was being held, with Fried driving. Cynicism levels were starting to rise at this point, particularly when Brussels’ notorious traffic gridlock issues saw Fried pushing said crate along an empty street — alone. But I never once stopped grinning. Whatever this was — it was funny. Eventually the crate, accompanied by a slightly dishevelled Fried, made its appearance in the room. Once up on the stage, the opening of the crate came amid great fanfare, to reveal ……….. nothing, an empty crate. It turns out that Materialiser 0.1 was actually all of us in that room.

The point that Materialise was making is that additive tech is important, great even, but it is meaningless without the PEOPLE. People matter, relationships and partnerships matter. This was a celebration of people involved in 3D printing — directly and indirectly.

It was a mix of hilarious, sentimental and heart-warming. I liked it, which given my sentimental disposition, is not too surprising. I’m not sure everyone shared those feelings, but for anyone that watched three senior members of the Materialise board fully committed to delivering a passionate, at times comical, performance — not to mention the dancing (!), if you haven’t seen it, do — it will likely remain a talking point for years to come. 

The overarching point of this entertaining show, however, belied a theme running through the entire 2017 summit, namely collaboration and co-creation — coined in the MWS 2017 strapline: Think. Beyond. TOGETHER (my emphasis).

The theme of co-creation based on serious collaboration, partnerships and shared innovation permeated MWS at every level from the very beginning and throughout the two full days of the summit. Although the first indication of this emphasis on co-creation came earlier, during the press tour I was part of around the Leuven HQ facility of Materialise a day before the summit proper began. Our host for the day was Vanessa Palsenberg, Materialise’s Corporate Communications Manager, and early on she explained how the facility was set up to encourage the co-creation process — between Materialise divisions and with external partners to “find the logical fit for 3D printing for applications and within new and evolving business models.” The point being, it does not fit everywhere, and shouldn’t be made to fit for the sake of it.

Also during the tour, which highlighted significant expansion since my previous visit with a whole new building set to open this summer, we got some insight into the vast array of additive platforms operated by Materialise and today totalling 144 machines. Most process types are represented too, but not all were visible to us. Each additive process has its own room — plastic powder bed, industrial FDM, the Mammoths, metal etc, as well as Materialise’s recently acquired HP platforms – two of them — but we were only able to glimpse them in a much smaller, dark room and through a locked door. They did not appear to be in operation and I heard a couple of rumours as to why that might be from non-Materialise personnel, subsequent to the tour — I think my eyes nearly popped out at one point and my toes certainly curled!

We were not able to visit the metal room either. It wasn’t directly addressed as to why, but to be fair time did start to run short. Plus, it seems most of the metal platforms the company operates are housed in Materialise’s relatively new dedicated facility for industrial production in Bremen, Germany, which opened last year. Indeed, this facilitated one of the key take-aways from the tour, namely the company’s increasing expertise and knowledge in certified manufacturing processes and procedures with additive technologies. It is not easy, straightforward or fast, according to Vanessa, and demands traceability for every part, device and/or implant.

I did get to try on the beautiful 3D printed fedora though — bonus!

As the summit got underway properly the following day, Fried Vancraen gave the first keynote address, which he used to highlight Materialise’s “unique position” at the centre of the AM industry and to drive home a key remit of the company: “We are open to collaboration!”

This was with regard to all the key players within the 3D printing and AM ecosystem, as well as end users, with the ultimate aim being, always: “meaningful applications.”  

Attendees that heard the following keynotes that first morning and that attended any of the speakers from the subsequent parallel streams of presentations over the two days were left in no doubt that this was not just rhetoric as evidence was provided time and time again of collaborative partnerships and meaningful applications — both from Materialise partners and from Materialise personnel.  

I’ll just curate a few examples from my 30+ pages of notes

Andreas Saar, VP Manufacturing Engineering Solutions at Siemens PLM in the US, also gave a keynote address on the first morning of the event. Following my coverage of Siemens for the last issue of Disruptive Insights, I was open to learning more about this company’s position in the ecosystem and will need to readjust some of my opinions on this, specifically when he said “We decided not to buy a vendor, but work with different ones,” at which point he listed DMG, Trumpf, Stratasys and HP. And this is where the collaboration and partnerships come in. Saar said: “We believe partnerships are important, this is the only way to drive this technology forward.” Siemens’ partnership with Materialise was another case in point, announced a week before the summit.  

In this way, co-creation and collaboration between ecosystem players fuels real progress and innovation across all disciplines (software / hardware / materials) and there were numerous other examples — from Dassault, SAP, GE, BASF and more. At one point during one of the software presentations, someone whispered to me, isn’t this in direct competition with Materialise? Well, yes, sort of, but it’s that type of closed, competitive thinking that this collaborative approach negates. And it’s not a bad thing, IMHO.

Beyond the ecosystem itself though, what MWS highlighted more than anything else was the benefits of collaboration and co-creation for meaningful applications with end users. They were in abundance, but stand-out examples, for me at least, were the GO project by LAYER, Tailored Fit’s Ski boots and the extraordinary breadth and depth of medical applications undertaken at the Mayo Clinic in the US and will be covered in the upcoming issue of Disruptive Insights.

My main reason for being at MWS this year was that I had been persuaded to moderate a panel session. One of the contributing factors that swayed me (having successfully resisted this role for more than 20 years) was that it would not be recorded. I don’t remember much about it now, to be completely frank, nerves can do that to a person, but the issues thrown up during the session were pertinently and expertly addressed by the panellists who came from different backgrounds and were thus able to offer a variety of perspectives. And for that I must personally thank Peter Leys, Materialise Chairman; Professor Richard Hague, founder of Added Scientific and Lead at the AMRG at Nottingham University; Pete Basiliere, Research VP for AM at Gartner; Mark Truman, Head of White Space for Jaguar Land Rover; andFilip Geerts, CEO of CEICIMO. Considering the future of AM was never going to be an exact science, but it does present an interesting opportunity to assess current capabilities, along with the opportunities — and challenges — that lie ahead.

Also, I have to thank Vanessa Palsenberg for the invitation, she and Tais, from Materialise, (almost) kept me sane in the run-up! But that’s the thing — they’re good people.

Materialise is undeniably a company with vast capabilities within the 3D printing ecosystem, continually demonstrating the will and the means to form partnerships at every level, but perhaps most importantly of all, it is a company with compassion that genuinely cares about people.

One of the presentations during the two days was given by three of Materialise’s younger employee demographic and their keen passion, loyalty, commitment and enthusiasm were testament to the fact that Materialise is a company that practices what it preaches — every single day.

As applicable as this is to the 3D printing and additive manufacturing industry and its wider network of users, now and into the future, it’s perhaps also a principle that can be applied more widely across the world?


  1. Wow! You just gave me a completely new view on who and what Materialise is about. My mind somehow shifted from this quite anonymous corp to a player I personally would love to work with in the future.

    And I actually would pay to see a recording of your panel. I rest assured that your brief details about it are the biggest understatement of how awesome it really was.

    @Readers: So please leak any smartphone recording of it to me ;-) #RPleaks #forthegreatergood

    @Rachel: Can't wait to see you again! Your reports are the very thing that make me thinking of getting more involved in 3D again, after my current Habibi.Works leave.

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