Materialise, A Belgian-based hi-technology firm, has become one of the pioneers of the 3D printing revolution. What are the chances of it becoming another Apple?
The Materialise Group was set up in 1990 by a young engineer Wilfried Vancraen as a joint venture with the University of Leuven, Belgium. The firm still retained its headquarters in the University town. The venture aimed to develop the emerging engineering science of stereolithography.
The termed was coined by an American inventor Charles W. Hull a few years earlier, defined as “a method and apparatus for making solid objects by successively “printing” thin layers of [chemically-fixed or ‘cured’] material…” It has become associated with related terms such as additive technology and 3D printing. Conceptually it may be thought of as a stereoscopic scanning of a 3 dimensional object and presenting information to “print” out a thin layer of chemicals which are fixed by UV and become the base for subsequent layers.
Materialise’s first years
Within a few years, the firm’s ideas and prototypes were winning design and innovation awards. Initial applications were for ‘demonstrator’ processes attracting attention for their potential for medical applications. By the turn of the century it had established centres around the world including the United States. More recently the organisation has been able to raise awareness of the potential for its knowhow far beyond its dental markets. The potential for art and design has been particularly recognised.
Mission and Vision
The company website states:
The company’s founders have always had one main objective: striving to develop products that add real value to a designer’s, patient’s or toolmaker’s work and life. [Our] mission is to innovate product development resulting in a better and healthier world through its software and hardware infrastructure and in-depth knowledge of additive manufacturing.
Our product developmentfocuses on making the world ‘better’ through making ‘better’ products [which save lives and make life more comfortable. This vision relies on dedicated software infrastructure and state-of-the art equipment, combined with specialized knowledge executed through the Materialise core competences. The mission statement is telling ‘what’ we are trying to achieve, our value statement is indicating ‘how’ we are going for this mission.
We strive to add value for customers, until they become fans, with a team of specialists, in an open environment that favors personal growth on a healthy financial basis.
The Company Structure
As of January 2011, the company consisted of eight Business Units in the fields of: Rapid Prototyping & Low Volume Manufacturing; Additive Manufacturing Software; fixturing, Measuring & Scanning; Biomedical R&D; Cranio-MaxilloFacial Surgery; Orthopaedics; MGX Design Lighting Accessories; and i.materialise [3D Printing Made by You]
The corporate founder and CEO Wilfried Vancraen has a high profile for his technological innovations. In this respect there are echoes of Apple’s Steve Jobs.
23 May 2011 Wilfried Vancraen [CEO of Materialise] wins RTAM/SME Industry Award
Wilfried Vancraen was selected to receive this prestigious award by the RTAM/SME Industry Achievement Award Subcommittee in recognition of his exceptional contributions and accomplishments in the Rapid Technologies & Additive Manufacturing industry.
A pioneer in his industry, Wilfried (“Fried”) Vancraen has been developing breakthroughs in the medical and industrial applications of Additive Manufacturing (AM) at Materialise for more than 20 years. Fried also pioneered several major applications in the AM sector including stereolithographic medical models, colored stereolithographic medical models, perforated support structures, RapidFit Fixtures, and automated hearing aid design.
Fried has recently undertaken the launch of the i.materialise website which allows consumers to express themselves by turning their ideas into 3D reality. The website empowers consumers to create designs that enrich their lives and enables them to share their sense of beauty with the people around them by adding unique touches to their environment.
The next Apple?
Materialise has not yet gained global recognition, but there are some similarities to the Apple brand in its ceaseless innovativeness, and technologically brilliant founder.
 Dentistry has been a fertile profession for innovation. An earlier post described an alternative process from Nobel Biocare, a technical competitor.
 The Victoria & Albert Museum is to hold a design exhibition Industrial Revolution 2 exploring the artistic potential of 3d Printing.
 Further revolutionary applications are reported [April 2012] which could result in a home pharmacy from which you would ‘print a drug’.
 In April 2013 the first hand gun was produced and successfully fired as a trial of 3D printing applications.
More about ‘home office factories’
LWD subscriber Dr Dina Williams contributed this BBC youtube