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Belgian 3D printing company Materialise is in an industry that is entering a growth phase, but to help get 3D printing to the mainstream market, the company sells its own IP to competitors.
Materialise has two main sources of revenue: the production of 3D printed parts, and making 3D printing software available to other companies, says CIO Stefaan Motte.
“We started to develop the software backbone for our own operations, but we are also selling that software suite to all sorts of companies, even competitors,” he says.
The main reason Materialise made its software available to its rivals is to speed up the development of the 3D printing industry, says Motte. “We had a choice: should we keep our software to ourselves so we could print things others could not print, or should we make the technology widespread?
“The goal is to make meaningful applications, and as long as 3D printing is a niche technology, that will not happen.”
Materialise has been working on its software backbone since the company was founded 26 years ago. “To begin with, there was only one man – our CEO – and a printer,” says Motte. “He looked at the emerging technology of 3D printing, and saw that something more meaningful could be done with it.
“He realised that with bridging software, it would be possible to create, for example, customised devices, car parts or even [medical] implants.”
The basic concept is the same for all industries, says Motte. “It might sound easy, but there is a lot of data going in. 3D printing makes it possible to do incredible things that you cannot do with ordinary manufacturing, but you have to have software to enable it.
“If you are to create an implant for a patient with a defect in their skull, the implant has to fit perfectly and have bone-like properties. And to be able to print that, you need to know how the medical domain works. We made software to create a bridge between medical scans, regulations, and so on. And then we designed all the tools needed to create the implants.”
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Motte’s formal title is vice-president heading the company’s software division, but he also uses the title CIO to describe his role. “The reason why Materialise does not use the formal title CIO is that we are a bit of an atypical company, in that we combine producing 3D printed parts with developing software that both we and others use,” he says.
The company’s software development team consists of about 400 people, who create the commercially available products it sells.
New software features are first integrated into the company’s internal software backbone, and when they have matured, they are integrated into its commercially available products, says Motte.
“The advantage we have is that we have one of the biggest production facilities in the world in 3D printing, with more than 2,000 parts printed per day, and the machines run 365 days a year,” he says.
It is not possible to measure the 3D printing software business’ contribution to Materialise’s revenue because several different business models are in use, says Motte.
Previously, Materialise did not just make 3D printing software in-house, but also most of the other software it needed to run the business. “When Materialise began, we were forced to create software to accommodate the very specific needs we and our customers had,” says Motte. “But as time went by, and 3D printing evolved from niche market and became much more mainstream, our processes did the same.”
That led Materialise to move towards customised standard IT tools for functions such as customer relationship management and enterprise resource planning, he adds. “For some systems, we have already made the move, and for some we are still in transition. We time the roll-outs carefully and do it in a structured way, in order to have minimal or no disruption in people’s day-to-day work.”
This is a complex exercise because Materialise is decentralised, with operations all over the world, he adds. “We are moving to more and more centralised IT systems.”
For its operations, Materialise makes extensive use of cloud-based providers, but also has its own datacentres. “Our operational IT staff number about 50, and we also tap external knowledge through consultants,” he says.
The most important thing Motte has learned during his six years at Materialise is that it is important to go to the people who are using IT and get an understanding of how they think and work. “It is not about creating something and selling it – it is about co-creating, and coming up with applications and changes in the software to fit the context,” he says.
Motte thinks the future is very bright for the 3D printing industry. “Lots of things will change in the next five years,” he says. “In some industries, such as healthcare, 3D printing has already gone mainstream, and in other industries we will see it happen in 2018–2019. Big companies are adopting 3D printing for big parts.”
And Motte believes Materialise is well positioned in a growing market. “These are very exciting times for us,” he says. “Benelux can be proud of having a world-class player emerging from Belgium.”