Expert Interview: BCN3D’s CTO, Eric Pallarés, on the Versatility of its IDEX 3D Printing Technology
26 February 2020
3D printing technology has been evolving rapidly, with a lot of innovation in the Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) segment. One company pushing the envelope for FFF 3D printing is BCN3D Technologies.
Founded in CIM-UPC, a technological centre of the Technical University of Catalonia, BCN3D since 2019 is an independent 3D printing company based in Barcelona (Spain). BCN3D has developed the Independent Dual Extruder (IDEX) technology: a Dual-extrusion 3D printing has many benefits, including increased productivity and the ability to print with two different materials.
In this week’s Expert Interview, we’re joined by Eric Pallarés, Co-founder and CTO at BCN3D Technologies. With Eric, we discuss BCN3D’s newest Epsilon 3D printer, exciting applications achieved with IDEX technology, and we explore what’s next for the industry in the following years.
Can you tell me a bit about BCN3D and your mission as a company?
BCN3D started as a project in 2011, at the technological centre of the Technical University of Catalonia. That technological centre specialised in advanced manufacturing technologies, specifically in 3D printing. It’s one of the reference centres in southern Europe working in additive manufacturing (AM) since the 1990s.
So, when we discovered that there was an open-source project called RepRap, we realised that the project aligned with the technology centre’s mission. We started a business unit to promote the use of this low-cost technology, and we used open-source models that were available on the network.
Shortly after, we developed our products, and the business unit was big enough to spin-off from the university. This happened in March 2019 when we started like an independent 3D printing company.
Our vision, as a private company, is to help innovators create the future. And the best way to do it, in our opinion, is to develop accessible technology and to collaborate with our customers to provide affordable solutions. We always try to make industrial features available for a wider customer base.
When we started selling open-source kits, we also created the User Guide where the customer could see exactly how to assemble the printer. That was something new at the time. We have also brought Independent Dual Extruder (IDEX) to the market as the first desktop solution for reliable dual extrusion.
Now we are pushing the workbench segment to the market, which stands between the industrial and the desktop professional solution. In general, our mission is to help innovators bring high-value solutions. These don’t really need to be very expensive and so we make them accessible.
How are your solutions different from other similar technologies currently available on the market?
We are positioned in the professional desktop market. What makes us different is our IDEX technology. Most dual extrusion desktop 3D printers have both tool heads in the same carriage. BCN3D printers, however, can control both tool heads independently, thanks to IDEX. This technology allows working with both tool heads simultaneously, doubling the production capacity.
We introduced IDEX technology in 2015. I would say that now it’s become the standard of extrusion that other manufacturers also apply. We’re, of course, the first company which developed a solution based on that architecture.
IDEX technology enables our solutions to be the most versatile and reliable on the market. It also enables us to 3D print different materials in the same part.
Recently we’ve noticed that there’s an increasing interest in using 3D printing, even on the FFF level, for end-use parts and not for just a single unit, but even for short series of production parts. So, in that regard, our technology can achieve twice the productivity of similar FFF solutions, which makes it appealing for serial production applications.
Could you talk about the industries that you’re targeting with your technology?
AM is a universally applicable technology. The solutions we provide can be applied to many different vertical markets. In terms of applications, we’re talking about jigs and fixtures, as well as end-use parts and prototypes. These kinds of applications can be found in very different industry verticals. I would say that, right now, our main industries are engineering, manufacturing, product design and architecture.
BCN3D has recently launched the BCN3D Epsilon 3D printer. Could you explain how the technology works and what the benefits are of the new system?
We currently see a gap in the market, between the professional/desktop and the industrial 3D printers. There are printers for less than 5000 euros and then the price leaps to 20,000 euros, and there’s almost nothing in between. We call that market the workbench segment.
The professional desktop 3D printer users have been using the technology to create complex geometries and models, but they always stick to basic materials, since they struggle when they try to print with more advanced materials. That’s where the Epsilon enters.
The printer was designed to work with technical materials, like ABS, polyamide and polypropylene. Those materials are not new in the industry; however, it can be challenging to print them in a reliable way. Hardly anyone is doing it. And that’s what, in our opinion, is a missed opportunity, because there’s a lot of potential in this market.
We’re putting our efforts towards creating a reliable solution. And for this, it’s very important to have an enclosed build chamber. The printer has been designed with a warm environment in mind so that the temperature is passively controlled inside the printer, and all the printing profiles are provided and optimised to work under that warm environment.
We’re also focusing on the safety side of the printing process. Our machine is used in industrial environments, so we need to raise the bar for the safety standards to match those. Consequently, we’ve put filters inside our 3D printers and developed safety pause features.
We also make our systems Industry 4.0 ready, by enabling them to connect directly to the Internet to be managed by multiple users and to bring information to the cloud so the process can be constantly improved.
Can you share any successful applications that your customers have been able to achieve with your 3D printers?
One of the latest success stories we’ve been promoting is with Spanish shoemaker, Camper. The company is using our Sigma and Sigmax 3D printers to create visual aids and prototypes.
Thanks to 3D printing, Camper has been able to speed up its design process and achieve more creative freedom, while keeping the cost of developing a new shoe as low as possible.
Before the shoemaker started using 3D printing, it was outsourcing the production of physical models. The process was slow and expensive, and they couldn’t iterate the designs as much as they would’ve liked. Now, thanks to our technology, Camper can validate complex geometries in-house.
The company started creating the prototypes of the insoles, and now it prints the whole model of a new shoe and iterates many times before it has the final concept.
Another example will be NGNY Devices, a Catalonia-based company that develops machinery and automated equipment for healthcare. The company uses our Sigmax 3D printer for prototyping and end-use parts for the machines that manage test tubes: they classify, uncover, make copies, retake, centrifuge, label and identify them.
Each machine serves a different purpose. So, all of them need to be customised to the customer requirements. Before the company started using 3D printing, it used CNC machining. They had an average of 70 custom parts on every machine, so, in total, they were spending more than 2.000 euros per machine.
With 3D printing, NGNY has managed to increase the number of iterations and to reduce the lead times. Additionally, the customised parts of the machine now cost less than 100 euros. So, as a result of this shift to 3D printing, the company saves up to 40,000 euros per year.
In terms of materials, NGNY is using PLA and polyamide (nylon) on these printers. So, they started working with PLA to test parts and then they saw they can scale to end-use parts with nylon.
The third example I’d like to share with you comes from IED, the Istituto Europeo di Design. It’s an international design school located in Barcelona. They have been working with our printers since 2017, using it for prototyping and functional testing.
It’s proved to be an exceptionally useful tool for the design students. It allows them to speed up the creative process and turn conceptual designs into reality faster. So, for the students, it’s not about the cost, it’s about the reduction in manufacturing time.
Before 3D printing, they used to do mock-ups with paper and cardboard, which is very time-consuming. With 3D printing, they are now able to model more complex projects faster.
The two extruders on our machines work independently, enabling the printing of water-soluble supports or multi-material parts. 3D printing of the water-soluble supports is very convenient for them because they don’t need to worry about the removal of the support material once the part is printed.
How would you describe the current state of AM in Spain?
Spain is not the strongest economy in the European Union. It cannot be compared with Germany or even France, but it’s embracing the idea of digital manufacturing quite fast, especially in the region of Catalonia, where BCN3D is based.
A lot of different automakers are based near Barcelona, so the industry around the automotive field is quite strong. And those companies have been using 3D printing for many years. So, in that regard, things are going quite well.
What would you consider the key challenges facing 3D printing more generally?
One of the challenges for making 3D printing more mainstream lies in materials. I’m not talking about high-performance polymers that are quite trendy right now. I’m referring to inexpensive engineering materials for a wide range of applications.
I think that there are many niche 3D printing applications that are waiting for the right material to be developed. So as soon as we can print these materials, like different kinds of polyamides and flexible materials, we’ll be able to create the technology around the material for certain applications.
Furthermore, there’s still a lot of work to do on the software side. 3D printing applications are becoming more and more demanding and the parts are getting bigger. So, it’s important to make sure that the printing process will be correct and done in an optimal way, with proper part orientation and the right printing parameters for each specific geometrical feature and with distortion under control. For this, we need to further develop the job preparation stage, which is the simulation and pre-processing software.
Finally, the third challenge is productivity. I think that, currently, 3D printing can barely compete with traditional manufacturing technologies in terms of volume, repeatability and quality. So, the more we can improve such parameters, the more companies will embrace digital manufacturing and change the current production model.
How do you see the industry evolving over the next five years?
The past provides us with a hint of what’s coming. A lot of new players appeared in the last few years, providing accessible hardware solutions that help different sectors to start using AM and not just for prototyping.
Considering the past, in the next five years, we’ll see the early majority of the manufacturing industry embracing AM. But that will be just the early majority, and there will be a big part of the market left to be tapped into and a lot of applications still not discovered for AM.
Then, instead of the biggest growth happening on the hardware side, as we’ve seen in the past, I foresee a larger growth of the 3D printing materials and software segments.
Software, particularly, will be the key to unlocking the Industry 4.0 potential. Everything is currently largely disconnected on the AM production floor, from the processing to the information a company is managing. In the coming years, we’ll see tighter integration of processes and data, facilitated by the development of advanced software solutions. And, consequently, an increase in software solutions and new business models, based on services rather than equipment, will proliferate.
What does the year ahead look like for BCN3D?
It’ll be the year of consolidation for us. 2019 was a busy year and quite tough because we started operating as an independent company. This required us to create many internal structures. We added a lot of people to our team. We were a team of 40 at the time of the spinoff and then a team of 100 a few months after. We also started many projects and released our first product, the Epsilon, as a separate company.
We’re very ambitious, and we now expect 2020 to be the year when we reap the benefits of the investment made in our company and the structures created in 2019.
To learn more about BCN3D, visit: www.bcn3d.com