Kristel Van den Bergh – “3D Printing is not the Panacea some claim it to be – but the untapped potential is huge!”

Kristel Van den Bergh is a creative intrapreneur with a deep passion for people and technology. Throughout her career, she has led various new product launches in Europe, China, and Northern Africa. Today, she is Innovation Manager at Materialise where she focuses on enabling new applications of 3D Printing through open innovation projects. In her free time, Kristel speaks about the potential of the human mind, connecting the dots with innovation and personal transformation. She is currently Steering Committee Member of the Prince Albert Fund and trained as a Co-Active Coach®.

Kristel, could you let us know about your background and what brought you into 3D printing in the first place?

I graduated from Leuven University with a Business degree and then worked for several years in management consulting. My transition into 3D Printing was facilitated by the Prince Albert Fund – a Belgian non-profit that offered me a unique opportunity to craft my own international assignment in a country and industry of choice. I used this wildcard to make a career shift and joined Materialise (China) for three main reasons: the prospect of endless application opportunities, the potential for social impact, and the privilege to work with industry experts who almost single-handedly created their industry over the past 27 years.

What was your very first experience with 3D Printing?

(image credit: Materialise NV)

As part of my onboarding training in the medical unit at Materialise, I had the opportunity to assist a jawbone reconstruction surgery using a fibula bone. The team of 8 surgeons was using our 3D printed personalized guides to extract and cut the leg bone which could then be used to reconstruct the jawbone. A few days before the surgery I’d seen the 3D preoperative plan digitally, but standing there in the OR and observing how the surgeons were executing it in real-time was very impressive. This showed me how this technology can empower humans to become even better and more versatile professionals.

What makes the 3D printing industry particularly interesting for you?

Thanks to its unique creation capabilities, 3DP stands at the very heart of modern product development and allows us to indulge in many creative endeavors. For instance, at Materialise we’ve collaborated with many artists and fashion designers to create unique pieces such as Madame Butterfly’s stunning pair of 3D Printed wings, we’ve helped the Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano to bring Ötzi the Iceman back to life, we are working with aerospace players to make lightweight parts that could eventually be projected into space and are assisting leading brands to enable personalised consumer goods. The real perk of working in the AM space is we get a unique behind-the-scenes look at many of those wonderful stories and have the opportunity to learn about all the ins and outs of different industries. No time to get bored and it’s a real treat for the brain!

You are Innovation Manager at Materialise – could you explain in more detail what your role is?

(image credit: Materialise NV)

Materialise Corporate Innovations Team (image credit: Materialise NV)

Our main goal is to create new certified applications of 3D printing in different vertical markets and to assist with the broader digital transformation that this technology can bring about. This transformative power of 3D printing is obvious if you look at what happened with the hearing aids, medical industry, and more recently the eyewear industry. In these cases, the technology has not only enabled entirely new product categories, but it has also allowed revitalizing the customer experience, it has automated design based on anatomy and enabled new digital end-to-end supply chains, it has changed the way caregivers and retailers interact with their clientele, and has spurred business model innovation. In our role, we are tasked to look at the full picture in close collaboration with our co-creation partners.

While this is really exciting and the future looks bright,  it’s also important to note 3D Printing is still not the holy grail some claim it to be. For several applications, conventional manufacturing techniques are still the right option.  That’s why an essential part of our job is to go through a holistic qualification process and select those golden opportunities where 3DP can add real value and where the current state of the art is able to meet the many different requirements of those markets. We have to be positive realists and keep digging – the untapped potential waiting to be unlocked is huge!

Could you tell us more about Co-Creation? 

We never attempt to make sense of this digital transformation puzzle alone. To create and launch new meaningful applications, we rely on our industry partners’ core competencies and their in-depth knowledge of the target market and application. In return, our partners can tap into a backbone of AM software, technologies, and design engineering skills which we have been honing for almost three decades. The way we bridge between our different realities is through Co-Creation. It’s a collaborative innovation process we use to accelerate the journey from idea, to design concept, to working prototypes, to finally reach a certified 3D-printed application as end-destination. It’s related to the Design Thinking approach. Throughout this process, we invite experts from different backgrounds, but also end-customers, to each share their unique perspectives as innovation happens when minds clash and ideas intersect. What I personally enjoy most, is the emphasis we put on managing the human side of innovation, i.e. on the mindsets, beliefs, and feelings of people, and not only on the technology aspects.

Do you have any (fun or not) story about the company or your career to share with us?

Building and testing new 3D printed products at Materialise

Materialise has quite a unique innovation culture where we really get to build stuff and try them out.  In fact, working in our HQ facility feels like being the kid on the block with the huge garden where all the other kids come to play. Since we have access to various 3D printing technologies, design engineering and software skills in one place, many of our global clients gravitate towards Belgium to – quite literally – give shape to their creative ideas. That’s why our lunchroom often transforms into a dynamic makerspace.  Also, we often use ourselves or our colleagues as Guinea pigs to test out our latest scanning techniques and printed prototypes. For instance, I’m organizing an in-house “call for noses” as the design of a new wearable requires us to test it on many shapes and sizes.  Another example is our head of engineering who suffers from a sleeping condition and has been testing and improving the prototypes he personally designed the weeks before. Speaking of iterative design with short feedback loops!

What is the most impressive or impactful use of 3D printing you’ve seen so far?

This is most obvious in the healthcare sector where our medical teams are saving lives of newborns, they are helping people to walk again, and working side-by-side with surgeons to solve some of the most complex cases. I’m now personally also working on a new wearable device for chronically ill patients — what might seem almost trivial for a healthy person can make a huge difference in the quality of life of the most vulnerable in our society. I believe technology and innovation should always be in the service of humanity, not the other way around.

3D bioresorbable splint restored a collapsed bronchus in baby – Case by Dr. Hollister, University of Michigan & Dr. Green, C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, USA

What do you consider game-changing technologies in Additive Manufacturing?

Any combination of technology-material that allows us to tap into a previously inaccessible application segment is game-changing for us. I’m personally excited to see how material science will drive things forward, especially the developments in flexible rubber-like materials.

Anything exciting future developments you are looking forward to?

I’m looking forward to the future synergies between AM and other exponential technologies. For instance, if we take the example of design engineering: modeling and sculpting in VR are already democratizing the creation of new 3D design content. Topology optimization tipped the veil of how AI-based generative design techniques can empower our engineers. So I’m very curious to see what else the human-machine symbiosis holds in store for 3D printing in the coming years.

Have you run into any challenges from being a woman in 3D Printing?

Personally, I haven’t encountered gender-related difficulties, especially not in our company where around 40% of staff is female and various key positions are held by women. However, at the broader 3DP industry level, I do feel women are sometimes underrepresented.  When attending AM events, the clients I speak to, the keynote speakers I listen to, and the suppliers I deal with, are predominantly male. Also in co-creation sessions with our industrial partners, I’m often one of the very few females in the room.  

Was this different when working in the medical 3D printing field?

It was actually in the orthopedics field that the gender gap struck me the most. It took me 3 years before meeting two female surgeons during a company tour. They explained how the industry was still very traditional (only 7% female) and one of them illustrated the concept of subconscious gender bias with the following riddle: A dad and his son are driving in a car when suddenly they get hit by a truck. The dad dies on the spot, the boy is brought in critical condition into the ER. The nurses prepare everything for the surgery, the chief surgeon enters at full speed, but all of a sudden stops and says: “I cannot operate, this is my son!”. How is this possible? The interesting part is that her own husband couldn’t figure out the clue for another 40 minutes!

In your opinion, how could we encourage more women to become involved with 3D Printing?

Innovating with an emerging technology such as 3D Printing has taught me to always approach challenges from different perspectives and to focus on strengths and possibilities instead of limitations. These are important principles I carry with me in daily life and always try to pass on. The world of 3D Printing is a vibrant space with many opportunities, which can be accessed through many different doors, and welcomes people from many different backgrounds (both techies and “fuzzies”).  So I’d encourage every woman (and in fact anyone) with 3DP aspirations to adopt an abundance mindset and just go for it!

Thank you for reading and for sharing! 

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