Polish start-up leads European printing into third dimension

Polish start-up leads European printing into third dimension
By Adam Easton January 4, 2016

In just under two years a young Polish company Zortrax has become Europe’s leading 3D printer manufacturer, selling its award-winning models in more than 50 countries around the world.

Rafal Tomasiak, the company’s 30 year-old co-founder and chief executive, says he and co-founder Marcin Olchanowski were inspired when they saw their first 3D printer at a Hong Kong industry fair in 2008.

“It was an industrial printer that used different materials and technologies than ours do. But we saw immediately something that we’d been thinking about for years, how to solve every company’s biggest problem: how to quickly develop and produce a prototype that is the basis for the product found in stores,” says Tomasiak, who has been a computer programmer since he was 15.

“We decided to build a new type of printer that would be accessible for everyone, for small and medium-sized companies, that would be easy to use, offer professional quality and be relatively cheap,” he adds.

In 2009 they started to design a printer that would work straight out of the box without the need for training. The biggest challenge was writing the right software, which took about three years. After testing their M200 printer for 12 months, they raised enough funds to make 20 machines.

Raising enough money to produce more was potentially a bigger headache. “We thought that finding an investor for such a young company would take a long time. Getting a bank loan was practically impossible, so we decided to use the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter,” Tomasiak says.

“We were the first Polish company to run a successful campaign. We needed $100,000 but we raised $180,000. It also gave us free marketing,” he adds.

In fact many of the 144 backers remain clients. Zortrax built the next run of M200 printers, and after two successful bond issues, they began to expand their staff and sales network. In 2013 they had less than 10 staff. Now they have more than 160 people working for them around the world.

In January 2014 US computer manufacturer Dell, which had been following their Kickstarter campaign, gave them an order for 5,000 models.

The M200 printer, which retails for about $2,000, was the highest rated 3D printer in the online 3D printing service platform 3D Hubs, and the technology website TechCrunch called it “one of the most refreshing experiences ever in 3D printing”.

Zortrax now sell their printers in 53 countries and expect to make a $3 million net profit this year.

All the designing and programming is done at the company’s headquarters in Olsztyn, a mid-sized city in Poland’s beautiful Masurian lake district. The printers are made in China because of access to raw materials and the lower labour and manufacturing costs.

The printer works by feeding spooled plastic filament into an extruder that heats it to 260-300 degrees Celsius, so that it can be manipulated and laid layer upon layer onto a mobile platform. Complex designs can take many hours to print.

3D printers are already used in architectural offices to make models of buildings for clients, in the automotive industry for making prototype car parts, and in the modelling industry to create figures that are the basis for special effects animation in games and films.

In the medical sector, 3D printers produce prosthetic limbs for patients. Zortrax’s M200 printer has also produced a winch to help physicians carry out the surgical removal of varicose veins at a clinic near Warsaw. Zortrax engineer Robert Klaczynski and Dr Marcin Feliga of the Mediq clinic in Legionowo designed the winch, which allows physicians to remove optic fibre from the veins during the operation in a manner that allows the vein to be closed properly. Zortrax is in the process of patenting the winch.

Future dreams

Tomasiak is conscious of the need to develop new products and in May Zortrax launched its new Inventure printer, which will retail for about $3,000 when it starts shipping later this year. The Inventure printer is designed to make more complex models with small moving parts.

Next year they plan to float the company on the Warsaw Stock Exchange. Tomasiak said he aspires to be one of the three leading 3D printer manufacturers in the world.

Unlike some of his competitors, he does not think you will soon be able to find a 3D printer in every home.

“Whenever I talk to other manufacturers who say that there should be one in every home I ask them, ‘have you got a normal printer at home? Most say, ‘No’.  So for the time being 3D printers are not ready to be used at home. The printing process is not as easy as the promotional films make out. At first you have to create a design and the programmes are quite complicated. You need to be a specialist,” he says.

For the moment Tomasiak sees rapid expansion of 3D printing in business and the health sector.

“What’s the future? I think that most small and medium sized companies that have not started using 3D printing will definitely start to do so. The future is the medical sector, which is using it more and more and I think that is where 3D printers will be most useful, saving lives and treating patients,” he says.