Materialise Founder Fried Vancraen Says 3D Printing Industry Should Pride Itself on Helping People
In 1985, Fried Vancraen completed his Master’s degree in electro-mechanical engineering and went to work at the Research Institute of the Belgian Metalworking Industry, analyzing a relatively new development in manufacturing, CIM (short for computer integrated manufacturing). He and others there were tasked with finding ways to increase the flexibility and efficiency of traditional machining processes such as milling and turning, but it soon became clear to Vancraen that there must be a better way to make things. That’s when he discovered 3D printing.
“The manufacturing industry has always been focused on becoming more flexible,” he said. “But actually that flexibility is always limited. Consider a milling machine—you put a tool changer on it to speed production, but then you need a computer to manage the tool changer. And you can put two machines together in an effort to reduce part handling, but then you need a robot to move the material and must add yet another computer to control it all. So, in order to gain flexibility in traditional manufacturing processes, you need an enormous amount of programming along with some very complicated control systems. That’s why I was so struck by the simplicity of 3D printing; it solves the problems of complexity in manufacturing while also offering great flexibility.”
Vancraen grabbed the 3D printing ball and ran with it. Since 1990, his company Materialise has been a leader in additive manufacturing, with the stated goal “to enable new uses for the extraordinary potential that 3D printing offers.” His work has since impacted the lives of many people, including one who is very dear to him. “When he was 13-years-old, my youngest son was diagnosed with bone cancer,” Vancraen explained. “He was one of the first to benefit from our 3D-printed guide technology, which provided for a more accurate surgery than was previously possible. Because of it, they were able to save his leg.”
Though clearly the most personal, this is just one example where Vancraen has felt the enormous impact that 3D printing can have on a human life. He points to work by the Mayo Clinic, printing 3D models of patients for use in surgery preparation, or that of the University of Michigan, which has pioneered the printing of bioabsorbable splints and stents. These and other medical institutions rely on software and technical support from Materialise.
“It’s about saving the lives of many people, especially the very young,” he said. “For instance, surgeons have been able to successfully separate Siamese twins. They can perform facial reconstructions, and repair congenital defects such as collapsed airways—instead of putting a child on a ventilation device for several years, doctors can now print a tracheal implant and send him or her home from the hospital a week later. It lets children have a normal life. None of that would be possible without 3D printing.”
He’s not done. Vancraen looks forward to expanding the role that 3D printing plays in prosthetics, implant design, and similar medical technologies. He even has an eye on organ printing, but admits that the hurdles surrounding this task “are immense.” In the meantime, he and his company are working to improve the lives of others, not only within the four walls of additive manufacturing but beyond—with the support of a few investors, Materialise has developed a transportation company in Benin, a small country in Africa.
“We were looking at ways that 3D printing could help those living in extreme environments, but came to the conclusion that some very basic needs had to be fulfilled before we could move further,” said Vancraen. “We set up a bus company, so that people could get to work and perform basic activities like shopping and going to the doctor. That’s just one of the initiatives we’re involved in. To me, it’s all about the logic of creating value for people by building a better and healthier world.”