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“We always wanted to help innovators”: From RepRap to workbench 3D printing with BCN3D

I first spoke with Eric Pallarés, Chief Technology Officer at BCN3D approximately one month ago. We discussed the company’s early days at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia’s (UPC) Technology Innovation Centre, latest hardware and goals for technology development over the coming months. But four weeks on from that conversation, the world is a very different place as governments, communities and individuals try to make sense of the current coronavirus pandemic that has already claimed so many lives.

Pallarés and the team at the Barcelona-based 3D printing outfit, knew they had to step in. As Xavier Martínez Faneca, BCN3D CEO, recently told TCT: “We are not going to be left behind and now more than ever we must contribute with our technology for the benefit of the most vulnerable”.

Before lending its 63-strong printer farm to the manufacture of scientifically-validated projects fighting against COVID-19, BCN3D was more attuned to the needs of automotive giants like Nissan snapping up its machines for their production lines, or fashion houses adopting its dual-extrusion FDM technology to promote sustainable manufacturing practices. The urgency to switch production to face shields, of which the company has now delivered more than 2,200 3D printing face shields to numerous hospitals across Spain, exemplifies the diverse user base Pallarés had told me about just a few weeks earlier.

“Additive manufacturing is a very generalist technology,” Pallarés explained. “We have large corporations […] that mainly are using our technology for jigs and fixtures for the logistic side of the production process or in hospitals and other medical centres. We also have big corporations working on prototypes or design concepts, […] medium and small companies quite often use our technology for end-use parts.”

2019 was a milestone year for BCN3D. The start-up officially spun out of the UPC and raised 3 million USD through seed funding to expand the business to new territories. In the months that followed, the company partnered with distributors like iGo3D, Global 3D and PrintMe 3D to grow its presence across Europe, amassing customers from footwear to motorsport, culminating in an estimated install base of more than 5,000 machines.

Pallarés shared: “From the very beginning of BCN3D, inside the Technological Centre and as a standalone company as well, our mission has been pretty clear, we always wanted to help innovators and creators to be more competitive.”

The beginning for BCN3D follows familiar beats to that of some of the biggest names in desktop 3D printing. Similar to the MakerBots and Prusa 3Ds of the world, it owes its origins to that of the RepRap project, the open source movement founded by Dr Adrian Bowyer who set out to produce a self-replicating machine and shared his innovation with the world. In 2011, inside the UPC’s Technology Innovation Centre, a non-profit organisation centred on promoting technology transfer and democratisation, BCN3D’s founders began working on their own products.

“At the beginning of the [RepRap] project, early 2010s, there was a lot of information, there was a lot of things to research and the project was sometimes very chaotic. But it was good because it helped new users to understand the technology and to start testing new options. We realised after a couple of years that the market had huge potential. We were inside the Technological Centre so we had access to the enterprises that were using industrial 3D printing and 3D printing services that we provided. [Those] customers were also interested in using 3D printing in-house.”

Seeing this potential user base, BCN3D scrapped its initial idea to make DIY printer kits and set about creating a complete machine. This led to the development of its IDEX (Independent Dual Extruder) architecture which features two independent extruders to enable printing of primary build material and supports for more complex designs, and for identical or symmetrical models to be printed simultaneously.

Elaborating on the decision to target a more professional user base, Pallarés said: “As providers of technical solutions, we understand 3D printing is the way to change manufacturing, or change the process and improve products. So, we always try to bring the industrial, super expensive features into a more accessible level.”

In October last year, those efforts came full circle when the company released the design files for its most recent Sigma and Sigmax R19 product iterations. It’s an ethos the company has followed since launching its first products in 2015 in a bid to continue contributing to that open source community.

Building on the original Sigma, the larger Sigmax launched at TCT Show in 2017, which TCT editor Dan O’Connor observed at the time as part of the “small revolution” happening in the desktop space, as manufacturers gradually turned their attention away from gimmicks towards engineers. In fact, Pallarés says that for the majority of BCN3D customers, these machines won’t be their first, and typically, they don’t just settle on one. Pallarés argues the brand’s success in a somewhat crowded desktop market, is owed to the low investment costs [The Sigma is priced under 2,500 Euro], machine dependability and an open materials platform which also includes partnerships with specialty chemical companies like BASF and Mitsubishi Chemical.

“The industrial environment requires repeatability and reliability,” Pallarés explained. “So as long as desktop 3D printers are not only affordable but reliable and repeatable, we see the increase of the impression of the technology. On the other hand, of course, the more industrial or professional environment also requires technical materials. We don’t want to just print PLA, I mean, that’s okay but you can buy a 200 Euro printer and print PLA. The value of 3D printing is printing with technical materials as close as possible to the traditional manufacturing technology that you’re using, like injection moulding or to substitute metal using polymers. […] If there are more materials in the near future, and we work towards these goals of repeatability and reliability, the market is huge.”

“The value of 3D printing is printing with technical materials as close as possible to the traditional manufacturing technology that you’re using.”

The focus on industrial materials is just one of the driving factors behind BCN3D’s latest hardware offering. Unveiled at Formnext back in November, the BCN3D Epsilon adopts the same IDEX technology but thanks to a fully enclosed heated build chamber, opens up material options for fibre-reinforced filaments. The company says it is targeting the “workbench” segment which, in a similar vein to MakerBot’s Method “performance” demographic, it defines as the gap between the professional desktop and industrial segment. With a price tag of 6,995 EUR, a build volume of 420 x 300 x 400 mm, cloud connectivity, and compatibility with a large range of hotends and materials, Pallarés says BCN3D is aiming to make industrial capabilities for functional end-use parts more accessible.

“If you take a look at the alternatives of the FDM technology, there’s almost nothing in between 5,000 and 20,000 Euros. So that’s where we want to put our BCN3D Epsilon to provide an affordable solution to print with technical materials […] by technical materials, I mean polyamide, polypropylene, carbon or glass fibre reinforced materials or plastics that really need to have a more controlled process in a more suitable environment.”

At launch, the BCN3D Epsilon was said to have caught the attention of BMW, Seat and Renault, while the rest of its machines have continued to rack up installs amongst customers like Tensabelt, which has been using the Sigmax to create alternatives to aluminium tooling for its queue management systems, or Escofet which is using 3D printing to validate designs for new landscape architecture.

Since becoming a private company, BCN3D’s team has more than doubled to over 100 employees and the organisation is now putting its efforts into global expansion, establishing more of those distribution partnerships in Europe and venturing out to Asia and South America. But Pallarés adds, the company will continue to have a close eye on innovation, not just in hardware, but across the entire workflow.

“That is part of our DNA,” Pallarés says. “3D printing is not just about the hardware, there is a lot of effort to put on the software side of development. For example, we just released our cloud platform, we understand that the future of additive manufacturing somehow goes through a platform where all the workflow is contained so we can retrieve data from the customer and to provide guidance all based on information, data on continuous improvement of the printing process, and that’s something that goes in parallel on the technological development on the hardware development of new products.”

While BCN3D continues to operate and deliver much-needed protective equipment to healthcare workers on the frontline, it’s a gallant reminder of 3D printing’s diversity and potential. By putting its technology into action and continuing to innovate, like CEO Faneca said, BCN3D will not be left behind.



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