When Claudio Kuenzler and Daniel Koelliker decided to offer 3D printing services as an addition to other digital services at their start-up Digitalwerkstatt in Basel, Switzerland, they knew they were taking a risk. In 2010, 3D printing was not as well known as it is today and the two young men couldn’t be sure whether their investment would pay off.
At first, they focused on architectural and design firms because Kuenzler had worked at architectural firms during his studies and was familiar with the need and technical requirements for architectural models. Soon, the two founders were able to convince their first clients to give 3D printing a try. The results were more than satisfactory and their clients started to recommend Digitalwerkstatt’s services to other businesses. Kuenzler and Koelliker saw their digital printing services firm grow to a company with six full-time employees over the years.
While Basel has a number of renowned architectural and design firms, the city is best known for its chemical and pharmaceutical industry. Novartis and Roche are just two of the international companies located in the Swiss city. “We started printing molecules to be used in research”, says co-founder Kuenzler. He invested in software that could convert the digital models the scientists were using directly and thus carved out a niche for his business. “We are now printing molecules almost on a daily basis”, he says.
Kuenzler values the recurring business, but also appreciates the variety his business offers. “We always have new interesting problems to solve”, he says. One of the most rewarding projects was printing a model of the spine of a toddler who was about to have surgery at the university hospital in Basel. By having a 3D model of the spine, the surgeon could prepare the operation better and minimize the risks. “This was a very meaningful use of 3D printing technology”, says Kuenzler.
While a good portion of his work comes from the medical, chemical and pharmaceutical field, Kuenzle also enjoys working on other research projects. Recently, the department of archeology at the University of Basel asked him to print replicas of prehistoric stone tools and ancient bones so that the artifacts could be shared with research teams at other universities. “It was quite impressive to hold a stone-age hand axe that was made by modern technology but that was based on a model dating back more than 500 000 years”, he says.
While 3D printing’s advancement has been impressive, Kuenzle warns that excessive expectation can hurt the industry. Many promises made by manufacturers haven’t materialized yet. He advises his clients on the best techniques and materials for their projects and often has to demonstrate that desktop printers are not advanced enough for many working prototypes yet.
“Our 3D printers for industrial applications fill a whole room”, he says, emphasizing that high quality and precision is required for many of his clients’ industrial parts and prototypes. His company Digitalwerkstatt also employs a mobile scanner that is used to scan larger objects at their clients’ site. One of Digitalwerkstatt’s larger projects included 3D printing a complete booth for a tradeshow presentation for one of their clients.
Recently, Digitalwerkstatt started offering to print 3D selfies for private customers. Each person is scanned and the mini-me on a scale of 1:10 or smaller is printed out and send to the client. The price ranges from 300 to 400 Swiss Francs. While a company with 140 employees has used the service, Kuenzle doesn’t see it as his main business. For him, it is the variety as well as the technical and design challenges that make the work worthwhile. “There are increasingly new materials for 3D printing and the printing speeds are increasing”, he says. “It will be exciting to see in which direction the field develops.”