View from the top: Innovating and educating
Materialise UK is at the forefront of developing additive manufacturing's place in design and manufacture. Paul Fanning reports.
Perhaps the best indication of the sheer breadth and depth of Materialise UK's operations and customer base is that its Managing Director Philip Hudson finds it virtually impossible to categorise the company.
He says: "People ask me what I do for a living and I find it hard to answer. We do so many things: the other week I was at Aston Martin one day; the next I was at a breast pump manufacturer; and the day after that I was watching someone have his hip replaced! And it was like that for two weeks with completely different applications every day. So the typical customer is anyone who's developing a product, a service or a process."
The reason for this level of diversity lies in Materialise UK's parent company. Based in Belgium, Materialise is a world leader in all aspects of additive manufacturing. Not only can it boast the largest number of additive manufacturing machines in any one site anywhere in the world, it also builds (but does not sell) some of the biggest additive manufacturing machines in the world. And, as if that weren't enough, it has created the software that Hudson describes as "the de facto solution for additive manufacturing".
Materialise employs nearly 1,000 people worldwide, while the UK operation has recently expanded to 13 and has seen consistent growth. Indeed, the company saw growth of 17% during the depths of the recession and predicts growth of 20% per annum over the next few years.
As well as offering expertise and experience, Materialise has also innovated in terms of its customer interface. It offers a web-based service whereby users log on, upload a design, chose the technology, material and finishing degree, get an offer and then they can immediately place an order. Since parts can leave Materialise the same day, for an engineer there is no faster way to bring their design to life and see how it can be improved by holding it in their hands. In addition, there is also a more traditional prototyping service offered. Here, users can consult with Materialise's team to arrive at a quote. Finally, there is a more bespoke additive manufacturing arm that partners with customers to arrive at a design. This process can be crucial, says Hudson, because there is a need to work through the technical aspects of designing for this type of manufacture. "We work out the design with them," he says, "because they don't necessarily realise the criteria required to optimise a design for additive manufacturing. Therefore, our team is ready to help them."
The nature of this technology is such that a great deal of what Materialise does involves educating potential customers in terms of what it is possible to achieve. This, says Hudson, is often made easier by finding an individual within the company who can help champion additive manufacturing, there remains considerable resistance to its adoption within industry. He says: "There's a lot of evangelism involved. You do feel sometimes as though you're trying to convert people. The great thing is that often, there is a moment when the person 'gets it,' and one of the benefits of my job is to witness that. Some people are taught that there is one way of doing things and that's it, so when they finally see this new direction their eyes get bigger, their jaw drops a bit, and you know that their world has been changed. It's fantastic"
One thing that has helped to improve knowledge is the increased attention that additive manufacturing has received from the media of late. However, as Hudson points out, this has been a double-edged sword in a number of ways. Any presence in the marketplace is good," he says, "That said, there was a Newsnight piece featuring additive manufacturing and although it was great to see the technology make Jeremy Paxman nearly speechless, it can do so much more than create a replica of someone's face or a pen. I think that the segment simplified the technology a little too much and they could have done so much more and still have engaged the audience. That being said, it is nice to see that there is a buzz about additive manufacturing now and the press are doing a good job of picking it up and seeing that there is something there."
Another problem created by this 'buzz' is that it creates unreasonable expectations on the part of the customer. Says Hudson: "There's a presumption that you can do anything. Even on Newsnight where they were saying "You can print pens". Well, no you can't. You can print a tube and that tube will be quite expensive compared to a Bic. It is not fair to the audience to start promising that today you can print a pen and in the future you'll be printing your iPhone at home. It just isn't true."
Hudson believes that any 'dumbed down' or 'hyped' coverage of the subject serves to obscure the real achievements being made in the field. He says: "The real story is that we're printing components and assemblies much more sophisticated than anything we've been able to do before. You can build component parts now in a single piece with functionality in them and with internal channels for drainage and airlines. That's really clever design. The real added value of additive manufacturing is for products where the level of complexity is high, the volume low, and the ability to respond to changes can help ensure product success. In fact, we made an app we call the '3D Print Barometer' so that people can describe their part and see if additive manufacturing really is the best method for bringing that part to life.."
Hudson remains confident that the additive manufacturing market is only likely to grow over the coming years as a generation of engineers emerges from university that is familiar and comfortable with the technology. And, he believes, Materialise is in an excellent position to take advantage of this. He says: "I think Materialise is very well placed for that because of the sheer scale and size of its operations. Not just the number of machines we've got, but also the knowledge of what the machines and the technology are capable of doing. That's what really counts".
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