Kim Francois is the Corporate Business Development Director of Materialise China. She has almost 10 years of working experience in AM of which 9 years as Managing Director of Materialise China. Recently she took up a new challenge at Materialise to be in charge of further expanding the business in China.

Kim, could you let us know about your background and what brought you to 3D Printing in the first place? 

My background is not at all related to AM. In fact, I studied sinology and office management. Before I joined Materialise I had never heard of 3D printing and I was one of the few hires without an engineering background at Materialise. Materialise was looking for somebody with knowledge of China and the Chinese market to make the cultural bridge. And there I was. I had dreamed of moving to China from when I was a little girl, so this was a perfect match. I packed my suitcase and off we went on a new adventure. Since then, ten years have passed and I fell in love with AM, the Chinese market, the dynamic way of living, the Chinese culture. In short: I love it ☺.

Can you describe your very first experience with 3D Printing? 

In 2009, when very few people were adopting AM, we hosted a delegation of a Chinese university. They were true pioneers and today they are still doing AM research. The professor explained me what they had been doing during the last decade while non-stop smoking heavy Chinese cigarettes. At the end of the meeting, I felt dazed. Partly from the cigarettes but also from the enormous amount of new and exciting information I received.

To date, what would you say is your greatest achievement in Additive Manufacturing? 

A few things  come to my mind:

When Xi Jinping came to power in China, a new 5 year plan was announced which explicitly mentioned AM. As Materialise, we could feel the impact and we acted upon it. In 2012 and 2013 we set up an an exhibition space in our office with exclusive AM parts from our MGX design collection. MGX was a unique project to showcase the versatility of 3D Printing by inviting artists, designers and architects to work with us and create a pioneering 3D-printed design collection

We were located in a 1933 slaughterhouse, which is cultural heritage in Shangha and we got a lot of media attention through this exhibition. There was a certain vibe that came with it as well: the employees were super energized, we received visitors from all over the world and the media pro-actively contacted us. This exhibition really put Materialise on the map in China!

As Materialise’s mission statement is “to create a better and healthier world with 3D printing technology”, we run several charity projects in Africa. A colleague came up with the idea of doing a charity project in China as well. We made it happen and since 2016 we have influenced ten thousands of kids in West-China from the age of six till fourteen by introducing them into the wonderful world of 3D Printing by having Materialise China volunteers teach customized courses for primary school students who have limited access to new technologies. I participate every year in this project and it makes me proud and excited to bring AM to these kids in remote areas. They are always super enthusiastic, curious and you can tell that they enjoy every minute of it.

The Chinese AM market: in 2009 the Chinese AM market was limited to very few players and the majority of the market was not interested or not aware of AM and its added value. Since then, we have seen dramatic changes in the market: now TCT Asia is huge, AM is one of the key technologies promoted by the government in the Made in China 2025 plan, so the market has completely changed and there is a huge interest and curiosity to make it happen. The Chinese market has really embraced the technology very quickly and we see continued growth in this area. 

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

There are so many stories to share. How much time do we have? 😉

  1. The MGX exhibition back in 2013: as explained, it gave us a lot of exposure in the Chinese market and really put Materialise on the map. But it wasn’t easy to get all the parts into China on time. The grand opening was scheduled on a Saturday afternoon and we received all the parts on a Friday afternoon, as the goods were stuck in customs for a couple of weeks. We worked until 3 am to get the whole gallery and exhibition ready but none of the visitors noticed anything the next day (except maybe some tired looking people ).
  2. One of the first long business trips I did was focused on the automotive industry. I learned so much, but I will never forget the complete lack of interest in AM in those days. People thought I was a marketing girl trying to promote something that people were not interested in, that was way too expensive, too slow and hence not needed. So I was basically wasting my time .
  3. As of 2012, 3D Printing got a lot of attention in China. Materialise was invited to speak at lots of conferences to share its experience with AM. As China is famous for its flight delays, we once had a delay of eight hours. We arrived in Beijing early morning 6:30 am, we checked into the hotel, showered and went straight to the conference to give a speech. Sleeping is often overrated in China .
  4. Since 2017 we run a charity project called “Little Hearts of China”, where we collaborate with the Shanghai Children Medical Center and its foundation to help children from the west of China who don’t have the financial means nor access to doctors for surgeries. Materialise provides the doctors with free surgical simulation as well as free 3D printed models. We also make sure that all the travel, “hotel” and food expenses are covered so the family can focus on the surgery and the recovery of their son/daughter afterwards. After every surgery I visit the kids and their parents. The gratitude and warmth of these people is indescribable and the impact of these projects on people is enormous. I’ll never forget a 14 year old boy with a severe heart condition. He was only able to walk 500 meters. His family earns seven thousand RMB per year (around 850 USD) and needs to take care of seven people. The boy is the oldest son in the family and the future of the entire family relies on him. Through this surgery we were able to not only give the boy a new future but also ensure the family’s future.

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

Not really. But in the early days, whenever I visited a customer together with a male colleague from HQ, the first question was always whether I was their secretary ☺-. So I guess some female stereotypes are still present. 

Materialise China is not about local production. Why did Materialise decide to open a representation Chinese office more than a decade ago? What difference does it make for Materialise to have a local presence?

We opened our Asian office in 2000 and we employed a native Chinese employee to address the Chinese market. As the market demanded more and more support, we decided to open a representative office in 2005 to have a local presence in China. Having a local office and people in the field shows the importance of the Chinese market for Materialise and the willingness to invest and grow this market together with our partners.

How is China responding to manufacturing relocalization in every part of the world thanks to technologies such as additive manufacturing?

Recently Materialise China conducted a survey together with Beats marketing company in which we questioned traditional manufacturing companies in China about their current view on AM and its complementary possibilities with the conventional technologies. The majority of the companies are interested in AM and see high potential towards future adoption. Biggest challenge at this moment is knowledge and understanding of AM, having trained people to use the technology and the price. So at this moment adoption is still quite low in this market, but the survey shows interest and willingness. It is up to us – as Materialise – to enable and guide these companies during their AM journey.

Can you let us know about the Adream project you’re part of?

Materialise has always been very active in charity projects, but mainly focused on Africa. In 2015 one of my colleagues came to me with the idea to give the children in West-China access to new technologies and organize a course to introduce AM. We worked on the project, pitched the idea with the Materialise China board of directors and got approval. Since April 2016 Materialise China has been working together with Adream foundation to teach tens of thousands of children about 3D Printing, its applications and the role they can play in the AM story in the future.

Anything exciting coming up you’d like us to know about?

Materialise is celebrating its 30th birthday in 2020, so you can expect some exciting news. Make sure to block the dates of our World Summit in Brussels on May 11th – 13th and be on the front rows to find out all the exciting new projects and products of Materialise and its partners.

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

One of my favorite applications is still the hearing aid industry, which was completely revolutionized by AM. Today, 99% of all hearing aids is 3D printed but most users don’t even realize it. This is what it’s all about: it’s a tool that enables an industry to customize, increase its time to market, make processes cheaper,…

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

Every technology has its strengths so not one can be more game changing then another – from my perspective. I believe that AM should empower meaningful applications and sustainability needs to become top of mind. Materialise’s mission is to develop innovative technologies to create a better and healthier world and we have a strong track record. A good example is the sport shoe molding process. Through AM we were able to reduce the acid waste that was used to apply textures on sport shoes. In 2020 Materialise will introduce important innovations in sustainability, so stay tuned for that!  

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

The fact that it’s a technology that is complementary with other manufacturing technologies and therefore an enabler. It creates new business models and enables innovative, out-of-the-box thinking. As it’s a young technology I do believe that we will be able to benefit even more from it in the future and it excites me to see new applications popping up on a daily basis.

What do you think of the 3D printing industry today? And how would you like to see it evolve? 

As  a technology that’s only 30 years old, I believe that it has a lot of potential if we focus on the added value AM can bring. So I see lots of new applications on the horizon. As long as they are meaningful, relevant, cost efficient and people are able to adopt them, the sky is the limit.

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

In everything in life balance is important. The best working teams are always a balance of different strengths. As a woman, we feel and think differently from men and therefore balanced teams of females and males will bring new ideas and greater collaboration. This also counts for technical and non-technical profiles as engineers think differently from social scientists. Collaborating and sharing our views will create innovation and new opportunities. 

Favorite 3D tool (could be a software, machine, material…you name it)? 

Sintermodule, as it shows the need for efficiency and the usage of AM in its optimal way.

Favorite moment in your day job? 

The moment I get up and start working ☺. I love working and being active in the AM industry, the daily contact with the customers, the new people I meet and the new possibilities. For me, every day is a new adventure!

What’s on your 3D Printing wishlist for the next 5 years? 

More meaningful applications, but also dedicated AM university programs so we have more dedicated people to be able to spread AM globally.

Another inspiring woman you’d like us to interview? 

Emma Teng from PTY medical. She’s a lawyer and started her own company as a distributor of Biomet’s CMF products. A couple of years she saw the potential of AM and expanded her business to be able to be complementary with her product portfolio, bring her customers better service and differentiate herself from the competition. She’s a strong business woman that took risks but saw the potential of new technologies.

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