With its high-tech 3D printers for high performance polymers, the KIT spin-off Indmatec GmbH is offering undreamt-off possibilities in prototyping and small series manufacturing.
Prof. Dr. Brando Okolo has been dealing with materials research for several years in the course of his academic career. He lectured at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) in the field of micro-reforming of metals and plastics, with a focus on 3D printing technologies and Rapid Prototyping. He then took up a professorship at the German University of Cairo (GUC). “In my research, I also dealt with additive manufacturing – that is, on the basis of digital 3D construction data – using polymers as a material to work with. In this period, I already discovered the potential that 3D printing holds for high performance polymers, and I had my first thoughts about going into business,” Okolo recalls. The decision to end his lecturing activities after five years and realise his dream of an enterprise of his own brought Okolo back to Germany and his Karlsruhe environment.
Thanks to his past at KIT, as a scientist, Okolo already had a good local network. His old friend and management expert Tony Tran-Mai, who had until then worked as a marketing manager, joined him as a partner in founding his start-up. “It was more of a coincidence that we talked about the topic. I found Brandos’ vision of starting up a technology supply firm for the 3D market convincing, and so we decided to focus all our efforts on founding the spin-off,” co-founder Tran-Mai explains. Not only did a very large amount of development activities flow into the venture. Private capital was provided, too. “We can only advise anyone going into business to concentrate fully on founding. Without a Plan B, the founders will be more engaged in founding right from the start. We viewed the whole thing as a great opportunity,” Tran-Mai stresses. The vibrant founder network at KIT had also helped in this context – both with the consultancy service for start-ups and with network events.
The founders did market research to find out whether there was a future in the initial notion of printed high performance polymers. This revealed that the duo had indeed discovered a niche market. Okolo recalls: “There were no competitors who were involved in such a highly technological market. It was only our efforts in materials research and plant development that enabled us to make the high performance polymers 3D printable.” With an interdisciplinary team consisting exclusively of former KIT staff members and graduates representing the fields of informatics, automation and robotics, the idea became reality – Indmatec GmbH was officially founded in 2014 and was already making a profit after one-and-a-half years.
Not only does the enterprise, which is still in its infancy, market the specially developed 3D printers, but it also supplies the corresponding printing material, the so-called filaments. With the technology they are based on, these filaments play a pioneering role in 3D manufacturing technology according to the principle of fused deposition modelling, also known as Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF). The current focus is on the high performance polymer polyether ketone, or PEEK, although the printers can also be used to process other high performance polymers. The unwound plastic is melted in the printer’s heat bed and applied layer by layer with a print head heated up to 420 degrees. This is above all interesting for companies seeking to manufacture high-quality components as prototypes or small series, such as in the automobile, mechanical engineering, semiconductor and oil and gas industries, or even in the medical sector. On the basis of 3D data, designed components can be printed and tested. The Indmatec portfolio is rounded off by corresponding service programmes such as training or manufacturing orders.
To the founders, intensive research is part of the concept for success. “It is professionally fulfilling for me to work so closely together with our research team day-by-day and to immediately implement our results in industry,” says engineer and scientist Okolo. Indmatec succeeded in winning over a renowned German corporation for series production. This way Indmatec is able to have industrial printers manufactured according to its specifications while nevertheless maintaining its own focus on application-oriented advancement of its technology.