By guest author Joris Peels from 3D Printing
Investment activity in 3D printing companies is at an all time high. One family of strategic investors that are funding across the 3D printing market are polymer companies. Covestro (DSM), BASF, Evonik and Arkema have all shown deep pockets and invested in 3D printing firms. When polymer companies invest, they’re typically seeking access to applications, market knowledge, a market for their materials, or to help broaden the market to drive up volumes for 3D printing. With its latest investment, Arkema seems to want to do all of those things at once.
The French polymer firm, which makes materials for powder bed fusion (PBF), pellets, filament and has a long history in photopolymer resins for vat polymerization, has now purchased a 10 percent stake in ERPRO 3D FACTORY. ERPRO 3D FACTORY (E3DF) is focused on series manufacturing for 3D printing and it mainly uses PA 11. This is handy, since Arkema’s bio-based PA 11, Rilsan, is available for PBF. And as you can see in the image above, ERPRO has quite a few PBF machines—EOS mostly, by the looks of it. This kind of an acquisition falls right into the strategic plans of Arkema’s Senior Director of 3D Printing, Sumeet Jain. You can learn more about him and his plans in the 3DPOD below.
By investing in a company looking to industrialise series manufacturing for PA 11, Arkema not only learns directly from the user what its materials are supposed to do and how they should perform, but also has a readily available customer for those materials. What’s more, PA 11 is a rare bio-based engineering plastic that performs well in real-world parts and can be manufactured at scale. Building on those qualities, the company can extend the applications, certifications, and qualities of Rilsan and other materials in manufacturing while selling materials.
Arkema will take a 10 % stake in ERPRO. ERPRO has disclosed that, since its founding in 2017, it has made over 17 million parts which is a considerable number. The company already has used bio-based polymers for most of these parts, including Rilsan and Sartomer N3xtDimension resins. Many of you may not be familiar with ERPRO, but they 3D print millions of mascara brushes for Chanel. This is a huge coup for the 3D printing industry and a great success by ERPRO. The company claims that it, can “manufacture 50,000 mascara brushes in just 24 hours, in other words, 1 million mascaras in a month.” The company also makes MyFit earbuds.
ERPRO’s path to market is very strategically astute. Rather than operate as a service bureau and make many hundreds of thousands of highly variable parts, it has focused on few customers that may make millions of parts. This makes them the ideal partner for large companies willing to industrialize 3D printing. With Arkema by its side, ERPRO is now an even more credible partner for large corporates wanting to perform serial or large scale 3D printing series manufacturing. In the case of working with large corporates, the bio-based PA 11 and environmentally friendly production angle will resonate even more.
Imagine you’re a large French Automotive company or a luxury goods group, what could possibly make you feel even more cuddly than these 3D printing paired with bio-based nylon? Who would you trust more? If the company would acquire or partner with Twikit, or a similar firm, then they could offer end-to-end, materials-to-mass-customization as a service. It would be difficult for anyone to compete with such an integrated offering. I love this as a go-to-market, let’s allow our CEO talk to your CEO and then we can do a deal between all of the people we trust. I think that this would be a, “warm bath” and a very comfortable way to get large companies in France and beyond to adopt additive at scale, with millions of end-use products for Chanel as a reference.
If we can compare it to moves by others who have either sought to buy volume or expertise or both in separate deals, then this seems like a smart move by Arkema, as well. Now, for 10%, you can participate in being in the rear seat, if not the driver’s seat, of industrializing bio-based PBF using your materials for millions of products. The learning curve would be steep but currently, there are few other companies that can produce at this scale and are willing to share their experience. This would mean that it would really make sense for you to work with this alliance of firms to manufacture your products if you were doing a scale-up or startup with hearing aids, dental, luxury goods, fashion, sporting goods or similar.
If we’re looking at the next stage of the 3D printing market, we are looking at millions of series products. Millions of made-to-spec items manufactured repeatably, reliably, at-scale, globally. Alliances spanning the entire value chain would be the fastest way to serialize serial production and bring many companies to the 3D printing fold. I would expect several different similar alliances to form over the next few years that can all take in an idea and industrialize it to millions of parts. Arkema has chosen this way to enter the space, while BASF wants to do this with Sculpteo. Surely the other materials firms can’t be too far behind?