Wednesday, February 1, 2023
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“It’s something that has been lacking in the AM industry.” – Materialise CEO Fried Vancraen on CO-AM


Deep into the Materialise booth at RAPID + TCT, behind a plain white door that leads to a secluded meeting space, senior members of the team are meeting with prospects, visitors and the press to talk about its latest software offerings.

First thing in the morning on the second day of the event, Senior Marketing Director of Software Hans Van Glabeke takes a seat, exchanges pleasantries and segues into discussing the latest iteration of Magics, a product that he admits, ‘if the visitors wanted to buy it, they already did,’ but one that underlines Materialise’s dedication to sustained product development.

Magics 26, made available at RAPID + TCT, has been introduced to the market with a Parasolid kernel that provides a ‘hybrid engine under the hood’ allowing the platform to handle boundary representation files when it makes sense to do so and mesh when it makes sense to do so. The new Magics is said to be able to make iterations ‘back and forward in a much easier way’ addressing a previous pain point as purportedly outlined on the Materialise booth that week: “Before, Magics was like making soup. You put vegetables in, and the soup comes out – very good soup – but there was no way back from soup to vegetables.”

Though impressive, the latest version of Magics is not why we have convened in this small meeting area on the Materialise booth. It is actually because Materialise also unveiled a platform designed to facilitate the use of AM for production; that would openly integrate third-party AM software tools, and would allow Materialise to ‘expand outside of the dedicated AM community.’

Right on cue, CEO Fried Vancraen enters the room.

CO-AM was announced in the days leading up to RAPID + TCT and if Magics is taking care of the vegetables, then this new platform is affecting the entire kitchen. The platform has been designed to cover the entire additive manufacturing workflow, from instant quoting and ordering through production planning and data preparation through build and post-processing. It connects tools provided by Materialise or others that encompass all the aforementioned facets of an AM workflow, while also giving users access to a data lake that enables them to monitor, tweak and learn.

Materialise describes it as a backbone where processes and tools sequence well and are compatible with each other.

“With software, it’s important that it supports the fundamental quality process that is necessary in every production environment because everybody is [saying,] ‘AM is not stable enough, AM is not repeatable enough’ for that large scale production,” Vancraen tells TCT. “Well, we will not get it there by a single material or a machine that is so much better because it’s a different process for everybody depending on their application. So, what we are trying to bring is a platform that allows [us] to perform that basic quality improvement function that is required in every production environment.”

The CO-AM platform has been an idea discussed within Materialise for some time, and while the company had existing engineering solutions like Magics and 3-Matic, it had identified a need for a platform that could carry these capabilities in a connected, cloud-enabled way to the industry. Last year, after looking through a ‘long list’ of companies, it found a solution to the need – one that would cost the company $33.5m but one that was ‘essential to close’. By November, the acquisition of Link3D had been completed and the CO-AM project snowballed.

“What we have proven by showing up within five months after the official announcement with a working product is that they have a very flexible, strong architecture that allows [us] to integrate fast,” Vancraen says of Link3D.

“In the press release of the acquisition, we used the word ‘acceleration’, and that’s why we are capable to deliver and show a product on our booth today,” adds Van Glabeke.

The tapping into the capabilities developed elsewhere doesn’t end there for Materialise and the CO-AM platform. Upon launching its latest offering earlier this month, the company outlined that CO-AM will be open to independent software vendors, with development partners able to access the software development kit, application programming interfaces and staging environment to natively build proprietary or co-developed solutions within the platform. This, Materialise believes, is a win for all. CASTOR and AM Flow have already been announced as partners.

“That fundamental ability that all of the different systems can talk to each other is especially important for some interesting applications or ideas like CASTOR,” Vancraen notes. “CASTOR is trying to identify – in a very scientific, structured way – which parts are suited for 3D printing. It’s a need that a lot of companies have but it cannot be used as a standalone; customers need to be connected to a production environment of the one who is going to produce it. But Materialise’s access to this production environment with these Magics planning tools, with its Link3D MES system and quality control systems, that CASTOR doesn’t have, so we are helping to open up the market.

“A similar thing for AM Flow. AM Flow can only be implemented in an additive manufacturing production line when it has the data of every part that is passing by so that it can do its sorting exercise, that it knows when it will be available and so on. It knows where it has to go, so it has to connect to the MES system in order to be functioning. It’s a prerequisite to have such an environment. When we open this up to them, they are very happy because they now have a much better, easier way to go to market.”

In the continued spirit of openness, Materialise also doesn’t expect to pull people away from their existing build preparation tools if they are not currently using Magics. Users of Stratasys hardware, for example, will be able to integrate GrabCAD.

“We know that, especially for the Stratasys FDM machines, a large part of the user base would rather access it through GrabCAD to match. This is showing the openness we are willing to have with respect to this,” Vancraen says. “On the other side Stratasys has also opened up, through its APIs, their machines, so that what we call AM Watch component can also give feedback of the machines to the data lake so that we know conditions of the machines, maintenance requirements, these can be taken into account in the scheduling, we know which parts are coming in, when the machines are stopping and so on. That’s all required to have this consistent data that allows the full automation control of the entire production line CO-AM is operating.”

The data, as with the rest of the platform, is open to all with obvious caveats where sensitive information needs to be secured. Materialise has experience in handling such environments within its medical arm of the business, in which it has eight highly secure Amazon Web Services implementations across its guide, CMF and implant operations to ensure patient privacy and to segment data amongst the relevant stakeholders.

“In the medical environment, I dare to say it’s at least as complicated as what we are doing now in a production environment because you have radiologists that need to have access to the images, surgeons that need to have access, the medical device companies that need to have certain access to the data, you have our internal environment where you have production planners, where you have operators, where you have a lot of stakeholders, even the commercial teams each need to have the right kind of access to the common database that controls in a very separated way – for instance data of competitors like Johnson and Johnson and Zimmer Biomet. We have been dealing with the kind of environment as of 2005, so we have gone through different generations of improvements to dare to say that we have the skills to create a stable, secure [platform].”

While the data handling portion of CO-AM has leant on Materialise’s medical business, CO-AM is currently being rolled out within the company’s Manufacturing services division. Inside this manufacturing business, Vancraen also notes that its small series foundry activities – where you will apparently find some of the ‘most complex casted components in the world’ – served as an inspiration for the CO-AM concept because they have been able to outperform the rest of the industry thanks in part to a ‘strong learning system’ that they have embedded.

Learnings that help users outperform their competitors is what Materialise is aiming to facilitate with CO-AM. It has been built on the PDCA – Plan, Do, Check, Act – cycle, though replacing ‘Act’ with ‘Learn’ and fitting the range of planning, engineering and inspection capabilities against a central data lake that provides consistency and connectivity between all of the tools.

“We decided that we would not just keep this to ourselves,” Vancraen finishes, “but that we would open it up to third parties because we as Materialise will keep focusing on the real additive manufacturing. But in the real manufacturing chain, you will have other processes like the post-process, CNC machining and so on, so we need to create connectivity between all of that. That is only possible if everybody starts at least talking compatible data language. That’s why the central data lake of which we share access with third parties through APIs is so important.”

That pretty much concludes the conversation, and as we depart from the meeting space and onto the Materialise booth, hands are shaken, IMTS is mooted as a mutual next overseas destination (where the Link3D brand will get its last hurrah before being completely amalgamated), and a lengthy queue has formed at the CO-AM demo point.

“We truly get a huge amount of positive feedback on this,” Vancraen says. “It’s something that has been lacking in the industry.”

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