Growth at the push of a button

Berlin-based start-up BigRep builds the world’s largest series-produced 3D printers (FDM), which are even able to print entire pieces of furniture and automotive spare parts. The Group recently acquired a stake in this young company. Read on for a glimpse behind the scenes of a small start-up that makes big machines.

 

It all started with a desk. Although its ornate design is inspired by the rococo styles that emerged some 300 years ago, you wouldn’t notice; the desk is bright neon orange, made of plastic, and stands in the corner of the company’s open-plan office in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district. Until recently, this desk toured the world – from one industry trade fair to the next. Berlin-based company BigRep used it to demonstrate to hordes of fascinated spectators that its machines are capable of printing entire one-off pieces of furniture at the push of a button.

Originally, the firm’s machines were made for designers, architects, and artists, but the focus is now increasingly shifting towards industrial customers.

Almost six feet high, the 3D printers are reminiscent of boxes, with a printhead moving along rails and working layer by layer to print pretty much any conceivable object from molten plastic (see info box). BigRep claims that no other company, anywhere in the world, produces 3D printers in series that are as large or as reasonably priced. In order to explore potential areas of application even more for further customer requirements, Körber recently invested in the Berlin-based start-up. As a result, the Group is currently the second-largest financial backer of BigRep and hopes to be able to seize the opportunities offered by additive manufacturing more effectively while working with BigRep to develop new applications for Körber customers in the various Business Areas.

Sights Set on Industry

Just like the rest of the team, CEO and cofounder René Gurka sits in the middle of the room, right next to CFO Dr. Stephan Beyer. Gurka originally studied law before going on to a variety of roles, including business developer and US-based international trade lobbyist. He even set up a private equity firm. In 2014, he then launched BigRep GmbH together with two partners.

On the metal rail, the printheads glide from left to right in a controlled manner, proceeding on the print job.
Photo: Dawin Meckel

 

In the corner behind the management team, a group of BigRep employees is working on the best way to make this happen. Here, the beating heart of the company is located behind a glass door – clearly visible but acoustically partitioned. It’s what company spokesman Maik Dobberack jokingly refers to as the “printer factory”. In fact, BigRep contracts industrial partner companies to build its printers before they are shipped to customers. Behind this door, however, in-house mechanical engineers, materials specialists, and programmers are constantly working on a whole host of devices – with names such as “Gabriele”, “Abby”, and “Charlotte” – that are gently humming around. After all, each machine has its own personality to a certain degree.

Start-up life in pictures

In their glass factory, the inventors try out new printer nozzles, test and improve software, and carry out research into new materials, which might  be especially malleable and able to withstand high temperatures, as an example. One of the colleagues here is mechanical engineer Johannes Wiessler, who enjoys the fact that he can solve new challenges with different colleagues as part of an open team. “There is no such thing as a typical workday here,” he explains. This variety is also a positive factor for his colleague Atula Poduval, a mechatronics engineer who originally hails from the industrial city of Pune in western India.

Eine der vielen weiblichen Mitarbeiter beim Berliner Start-up BigRep.
Atula Poduval, the Indian mechatronics engineer and programmer, adjusting printheads.
Photo: Dawin Meckel

Having completed her master’s degree in Germany, she decided to stay – and now develops control systems for printers at BigRep. “There is nothing monotonous about my work,” she explains. Given that some 80 people from 14 different countries work together at the Kreuzberg office, this should come as no surprise.  Although the working language is German, employees at most desks also communicate with each other in English. BigRep also has ten more employees based abroad.

Innovations under the Light of a Disco Ball

However, the research and development for all of the myriad possibilities offered by BigRep printers takes place  in Berlin. The in-house design and innovation department is based in a separate space on the first floor of the building. In the front section of this area, which is referred to as the “studio”, BigRep regularly trains customers and sales personnel themselves. In the back section (beneath a small disco ball), the NOWLab design studio tries out new areas of application for the devices. On warm summer days, the entire team gathers outside the NOWLab for barbecues in the courtyard; sometimes, they even use the goods elevator to bring down the table tennis table. When the weather is less agreeable, the team meets up outside the kitchen, which is sectioned off using transparent plastic sheets and is full of brightly colored chairs. Every two months, the senior management team keeps employees informed of the latest developments at the company over pizza and free beverages.

Video: board visit to BigRep

At the time of the video production, CTO/COO Michael Horn was responsible for the partnership with BigRep. He is now pursuing new challenges outside of the Group.

These are all typical phenomena at start-ups – an area in which Berlin now boasts a buzzing scene. Most of the up-and-coming firms in the German capital, however, produce apps or other software. Dynamic start-ups specializing in the production of hardware are a rarer occurrence, at least in the central and trendy Kreuzberg district. “The fact that we are based in Berlin makes it harder for us to find highly qualified employees,” says company spokesman Dobberack. That’s because passionate hardware developers usually head to southern Germany, which is the traditional home of German mechanical engineering. One such specialist who did make it to the company, however, is materials developer Paul Worms. As he puts it: “Being able to constantly push back the boundaries of 3D printing at a start-up in Kreuzberg – what more could you want?”

 

3D Printing: the Third Industrial Revolution

In additive manufacturing, which is better known as “3D printing”, a machine builds up a material in droplets or layers using a digital template, thus enabling the production of three-dimensional objects. 3D printing is the brainchild of American engineer and inventor Chuck Hull, who filed the first-ever patent for an additive manufacturing process for plastics in the early 1980s.

Photo: Dawin Meckel

Nowadays, 3D printers can process more than 100 different materials – from metals and concrete through to composite woods. This is reflected in the diversity of the technology’s applications, which range from precision-printed sneakers and prosthetic human limbs through to entire airplane components. Even items of furniture and complete houses can be produced using 3D printers, with users sometimes able to access the print files from public databases.

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