How was it to start a 3D printing startup in 1989 (!)? This entrepreneur did that.

We already wrote briefly about Wilfried Vancraen, founder of Materialise. He was the one who warned you about not rushing to download those Nokia 3D printing kits (Nokia would like us to adopt the term “3DK” for them).

He’s also the founder of the company that printed the spectacular dresses by Iris van Herpen at the Paris Fashion Week this week:

Wilfried Vancraen started 3D printing all the way back in 1989 (that’s not a typo). I briefly try to imagine how lonely it must have been to say: let’s start a company for 3D printing back then, but I give up when I realise there weren’t even internet forums to ask: how do we figure this machine out?

In the late 1980’s, Vancraen was a mechanical engineer with an interest in biomechanics and an MBA, working for the Belgian federation of the metallurgical industry.

The hype back then was “flexible” manufacturing and “computer integrated manufacturing”, he says in his office in Leuven – it feels a bit like a hermit’s cell with its naked concrete walls and a row of small windows.

“That was a bit of a misnomer. Hardly anything was integrated at all. You needed a computer for every single machine you wanted to control – and another computer to control the computers. And they weren’t flexible either, and the systems crashed a lot.”

“But then I was introduced to 3D printing in 1989 – the very first machine on the market. It was technologically very limited. It could only work with one material, one with lousy mechanical characteristics at that. But as an economist, I saw a new approach of manufacturing. It started from an additive process, instead of starting from a material and subtracting things from it by drilling into it.”

“There was also a symbiosis between the manufacturing technique and the computer that appealed to me. It was very different from those buggy “integrated” systems that I struggled to rationalise economically.”

“And the flexibility was attractive: it’s amazing what you can do with the technology, much more than with classic manufacturing techniques. If you look at the design the lamps here in the building, you can clearly see that. Of course, those are later developments – the tech wasn’t ripe back then.”

Recently, Ben Horowitz said that he likes to invest in startups that tackle “tiny markets”. He would have been overjoyed with the 3D market in 1989: there was virtually no market for the tech. Vancraen was so far ahead of the curve, he had to create a market, always a risky thing for a startup. Somehow, he managed.

Vancraen: “My goal was to find a niche where we could add enough value for a technology that was obviously limited at the time. Essentially, that’s the story of the last 20 years of Materialise in a nutshell: we are continually looking for the next niche market, every time with a market potential that is larger than the last. Fortunately, it’s easier today than it was back then.”

The first niche market was the same for all the players in 3D printing, Vancraen says: rapD id prototyping, a first, quick look at how a 2D design would look as a real object. Previously, designers used clay models for that. 3D printing obviously added value there. If you’re going to make any type of serial product, from lamps to cars, you don’t mind that the first prototype is very expensive. You’ll amortize it anyway.

Vancraen: “It was also the shift from pen and paper to computer design. Fortunately for us. The first drawings arrived here on paper. We had to input them into a 3D modeling software before we could use it. If we would have had to continue inputting all the drawings into the computer, we would never have developed an economically viable service. As often in tech, you have to surf on other developments, find a place in an ecosystem.”

The question was: who would start 3D printing? Vancraens employer felt it wasn’t the right structure for a for profit venture. The KU Leuven had just started its technology transfer office LRD. Initially, the idea was to form a fund with KU Leuven and the industrial players, who would fund Vancraens venture.

“So I started talking to Alcatel, Agfa, Samsonite, Philips. But it was the classical European story: all of them had to ask for permission at headquarters: France, Germany, the Netherlands. And they weren’t interested: too much hassle for a non-core activity. That left me and the university to fund the company.”

In 1989, entrepreneurship wasn’t a lifestyle, but Materialise is definitely a lean startup. Vancraen cleaned out his savings to raise 51 % of 150 000 euros. Vancraen: “Every last penny went into it. The day we deposited the money, my wife literally couldn’t buy bread. Immediately, we borrowed € 250 000 from a bank to buy a machine. Next, I had a machine, but no software to run it, and no place to put it (laughs). In a way, that’s been helpful: from day one, we’ve managed Materialise on cash flow.”

Which means: sales, sales, sales. It’s a good thing he went to the scouts, he says. “I learned as much in the boyscouts as at the university. Working with groups, leading people with different backgrounds, managing projects.”

There have been close calls, he says, or close-ish rather. “But I always see a solution somewhere. Even today, I see a number of things that threaten Materialise. But there’s an entrepreneurial confidence that we can do it. From the start, actually. I never had a moment that I thought: we won’t make it. In all those years, I just stayed that early course: manage for cash flow. Until today. ”

Today, Materialise is a cluster of buildings, added over the years, with different production units tucked away in the building.

Milestone creations from Materialis’s history are on display left and right, like Patrick Jouin’s “One Shot Stool”, a spectacular foldable stool, that is now in the collection of MoMa and several other design museums (you can see it in this video around minute 1:10). It’s printed in one piece – it’s incredible to see how easy the joints fold:

Here are some pictures of how it folds:

Some of the production halls look a bit like your basic woodworking shop – lots of dust, people in overalls and with goggles who use sawdusting machines to polish the objects after they’re printed.

But the most spectacular sight in the company are certainly the Mammoth-printers, a hugy 3D printer that Materialise developed itself (see feature image). The Mammoths are stored in a separate room, bathing in a red UV light – it looks a bit like a crypt, with row after row of tombs, with  a low humming of the airconditioning and the rumbling of the machines.

During my visit, a large print head was adding layer after layer of epoxy. Next, a small laser light flitted over the surface to fixate the relevant parts in the layer – sometimes as small as a dot, in other parts short lines or semi-circles. After the fixation phase, the superfluous epoxy is drained, filtered and reused. Then, the printer bed lowers automatically by just a fraction of a millimeter, and another tiny layer of epoxy is added.

To print a large piece in this way might take days, but it’s a spectacular sight when a giant piece emerges from an epoxy bath, says my guide.

You can see the Mammoth at work here, printing a replica of Tutanchamon’s tomb:

The building reflects the growth of Materialise: gradual and opportunistic.

Materialise has a line of products for the consumer market called MGX (mostly lamps and design objects), but also works for the medical industry (drilling guides) and for the automotive industry (car parts). It develops software and services around 3D printing. Another company, Materialise Dental, was spun out and sold.
Materialise has always looked to expand into any territory where it thought it could add value, says Vancraen, speaking like a true bootstrapper. In the course of the years, Materialise did only two financing rounds – a friends, fools and family round in 1998, and in 2002 with “an industrial partner”. The rest of the company – today with annual revenue in the tens of millions of euros – is bootstrapped. “Sometimes we work with fees, like pharma startups: we license our knowhow and get milestone payments. We can’t be present in all markets and distribution channels anyway, we’re way too diversified for that.”
“The nineties management books – like “In Search of Excellence” – were all about the need to specialise. I never did that. We always diversified. We needed software to run our machine, but we also sold it. And when we were printing components for fax machines, we thought: we could do the same based on CT scans of humans. So we went into medical devices.”

“We weren’t the first to do that. 3D printing started in 1988, and in 1989 they printed a medical model at UCLA. But we were first to work on an industrial process instead of a research project.”

“3D printing is not printing

The thing is, he says, that 3D printing is not like printing. “It’s additive manufacturing, and it requires real knowledge about the processes and the materials. Different materials behave differently, have different weaknesses and strengths.”

“That’s what bothers me about the hype surrounding those 3D printing kits for the Lumia 820. We’re doing a “Mythbusters” about that, because the way they present it shows that it won’t work. It’s too simplistic. Thousands of hobbyists will end up printing scrap if they use them.”

“We have been trying for years to market a fantastic technology that we believe in – but in a cautious way, so as not to burn ourselves by setting expectations too high. My personal horror story in that regard is the fiasco of the paperless office. It was touted from the early nineties on, but it never happened!”

“The growth of paper consumption equals the growth of the world population. Period. It’s only since 2010 that you see a downward trend. That’s 20 years after they’ve begun selling “the paperless office”. I’m afraid 3D printing is the paperless office of today – there’s just too much hype.”

For one, the idea that every retailer or dealership will have some kind of 3D printer in a shed and print car parts on demand is plain wrong. “We have a model for what works. The price of 3D printing is: the volume of the object to the power of three. We call our model for checking if something will make sense the marble model. Because that’s what makes business sense to make with 3D printing today: something that’s roughly the size of a marble. Low volume, high margin. Something small, but expensive. Today, we might start thinking about calling it the tennis ball model.”

“The idea that you would use addivite manufacturing for high volume, low margin production is just dead wrong. 3D printing is typically for the long tail, for small series, customized manufacturing. In that sense, we’re riding the current trend towards more personalization that you can also observe in the medical and pharmaceutical sector.”

A good example are hearing aids, he says. “I think 100 per cent of the hearing aids – the part that fits inside your ear at least – are 3D printed today. Phonak is the biggest player in 3d printing. They started using it in 2000 for their high end models, now every hearing aid is made with it. They use Materialise software to design a shell, which is printed locally.”

A hearing aid, he points out, is tiny. Same with dental applications. “A significant percentage of dental applications are 3D printed today – like crowns, and implants, that sort of thing. Other applications are jewelry: there are thousands of 3D printers worldwide that are printing jewelry.”

How about the panic surrounding 3D printing of weapons, I ask? An AK 47 wouldn’t fit inside a marble, but it’s clearly valuable if you’re in organized crime.

“It’s a real danger,” Vancraen says. “We’ve already refused orders that we didn’t like. Our motto is to make the world a better place with technology. So we don’t do any work in the weapon’s industry, which is why have a bigger footprint in medical devices than we are in the aerospace industry. But we have also refused things that looked suspiciously like skimming devices (smiles).”

Another thing is copyrights and patents. Recently, Ryan Whitwam of ExtremeTech warned for a scenario where 3D printing would be branded “the new Napster” - a dream come true for pirates of intellectual property. The end result would be that the entire 3D printing industry will become suspicious, he said.

Vancraen: “I’m very aware of the danger. But what can you do about it?”

Nathan Myrvold (sometimes called a “patent troll”) of Intellectual Ventures recently obtained an patent for a ‘3D printing DRM’ system, I say. His idea is to create a central database with IP data. Before printing anything, your home printer would check whether you are authorised to do so. It’s the DRM system of DVD’s and CD’s reinvented.

Vancraen: “You can think of many systems, but none of them will work. The only solution is to create a network of trusted manufacturers – a bit like how banks try to keep mafia money out of the monetary system. But there will always be people who do take the orders, I’m afraid.”

“For me, one of the biggest dangers might be medical devices. It’s the same as with Nokia’s Lumia shells. The danger is that a surgeon and an engineer meet and think they can start printing implants with their titanium printer. As I know very well as a biomechanical engineer, an implant is a function of engineering and know how about quality, biomechanics and surgical interaction. It’s definitely a place where regulation needs to catch up.”

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About the author

Raf Weverbergh

Editor of whiteboard. Raf Weverbergh was a magazine journalist whose work appeared in magazines like Rolling Stone, Playboy, Mail on Sunday, Publico and South China Morning Post. He is the co-founder of FINN, a corporate communications agency where he advises startups and multinationals on their PR and Mustr, the easiest media database for PR professionals. You can contact him on Twitter, Linkedin or Skype (rafweverbergh).

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