In 1990, in a world without internet or smartphones, Wilfried Vancraen learned about the innovative technology of 3D printing during a visit to a research lab in Germany. He immediately saw its great potential and founded his own company Materialise . Talk about a digital pioneer.
What started as a spin-off from the KU Leuven has grown into an international company with over 2,000 employees in 27 countries. Materialise is active in many sectors, from the medical sector to aircraft construction, and operates at the intersection of software development and Additive Manufacturing, the industrial name for 3D printing.
During the Go & See session on 5 May, Executive Chairman Peter Leys, CIO Eddy Crits and CTO Bart Van der Schueren (who, by the way, was one of Materialise's first employees) talked about a unique company in a unique sector, one that is facing many current challenges. For 32 years, they have been developing cutting edge software and technology, and continue to innovate and digitise.
"The great strength of our company is that we market as a tool the solutions to the problems we ourselves encounter in the organisation," Peter Leys told us during his introductory speech. "That is what I call our internal flywheel."
According to CIO Eddy Crits, it is a common misconception that digitalisation and innovation start from IT. "Digital transformation starts with people, not with technology," was the entry point for his keynote speech. "Technology as such does not interest me. I'm only interested in solutions," said Crits - quite a bold statement for a CIO. "The purpose of IT is to enable business. In that way, Covid-19 has been a kind of blessing for us, it has really put IT on the map and has been an accelerator for the evolution of IT as an 'order taker' - the service desk that logs tickets - to a service provider and partner-at-the-table who is at the controls."
The budget that the IT department receives within Materialise is therefore not small, and more than a quarter of the IT budget goes to projects and investments to support innovation. "We are constantly innovating. We take off with one plane and have to land with another, and all adjustments have to be made during the flight. So you can't replace both wings at once, you'll crash. You have to do it gradually, bit by bit. In the same way, innovations have to be done without causing problems for the business," Crits explained.
"Technology as such does not interest me. I am only interested in solutions." - Eddy Crits, CIO Materialise
Materialise is currently in the middle of the TIGER project, the project in which they are converting all the old legacy systems to new ones. This includes the shift to the cloud, but also the shift from silos to ecosystems. All this change is great, but how does Materialise ensure that there is support for these innovations within the organisation? "You do that by involving the people who will be working with the new systems in the decision-making process at an early stage. It's not a question of imposing a new system, no, you consult the experts and ask them: what do you need? And how can we facilitate that?" explained Crits.
"You create support for change by involving end users early in the decision-making process, and listening to their needs." - Eddy Crits, CIO Materialise
Life comes to a standstill and borders are closed due to a pandemic. A cargo ship gets stuck in the Suez Canal. A war breaks out. In recent years, the traditional supply chain has come under heavy pressure. Then Additive Manufacturing (AM) offers interesting perspectives: everything you need, you can make yourself. You don't have to send it over from China. Iterative production also becomes possible.
What also makes AM so unique is that it always has to start from a digital file. There are no alternatives. "If you want to print something but you run out of ink, you can always write it down. If you want to mill something but your machine doesn't work, you can still carve it out by hand," CTO Bart Van der Schuere told us during his keynote. 3D printing cannot be done without a digital file, so digitisation is at the heart of what they do at Materialise. And that offers a lot of possibilities.
"Take a ship. There are a lot of parts on board, because you never know in advance what will break and what you will need. Storing every possible part in warehouses poses a lot of logistical challenges. But what if that ship had a 3D printer on board, and digital detail plans of all possible parts? Then they could always make exactly what they needed."
Additive Manufacturing has many useful applications, for example in the medical sector. "Every year we help about 50,000 patients," Van der Schuere knew. "3D printing makes lives better and even saves lives in some cases. That could be about printing a CT scan, or a customised implant, or a whole host of other life-saving applications."
Other examples of applications are: hearing aids shaped to your ear down to the smallest detail, insoles, spectacles, and so on. Everything becomes more personal. But with all these different possibilities, how do you choose which projects to develop? "We always look at where the added value of Materialise is the highest. That's why we don't print mobile phone cases, but prostheses," the CTO replied.
"3D printing helps 50,000 patients every year and saves lives." - Bart Van der Schueren, CTO Materialise
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