How the fall of communism led to the rise of 3D printing

The break down of communist-sponsored heavy industry in Poland and its gradual sell off has helped turn Poland into a 3D printing hotspot.
Written by Michiel van Blommestein, Contributor

A not-so-long time ago, much of the Polish economy was being carried by enormous state owned manufacturing companies. These enterprises have since splintered into a score of small businesses, and now appear to be fertile ground for a thriving 3D printing market.

The technology to print 3D objects seems to have garnered more interest in Poland than almost anywhere else, with a number of 3D printing firms appearing in recent years.

Now, like everywhere else in the world, the possibilities of 3D printing offers are all the rage in Poland. Earlier this year, the Warsaw zoo even ordered a 3D printed prosthetic beak for one of its penguins. Some of the producers, like Cieluch, are production companies that simply added 3D printing machines to their portfolios. Others, such as Pirx, started from scratch.

"For us it started out as a hobby really," says Piotr Lipert, CEO and co-founder of Pirx. "We have been building robots, but when we tried our hand at 3D printing, we thought this might actually be a viable business."

Over six months on since it was founding, Pirx claims to be selling around 100 devices each month, mostly to domestic buyers. "We sell around 70 percent to customers in Poland," Lipert says. Like traditional printing manufacturers, however, most of Pirx's revenue comes not from selling the printers, but from selling the 'ink': plastic filament, which a local materials manufacturer produces for the company.

While Lipert finds it hard to explain what makes Poland such a viable 3D printing market, he does point out that the favourable conditions are at least partly due to the splintering of the manufacturing industry.

When Poland was still a communist country, production was mainly carried out by so-called zaklady, enormous enterprises that sometimes employed entire cities. One such zaklad was the steel works in Nowa Huta on the edge of Krakow, where Pirx is now located. Since privatisation, most of the zaklady have been bought up piecemeal by private companies.

Being based in an area full of small manufacturers means getting the materials needed to produce the 3D printers is easier (beside the filament, Lipert says Pirx was able to get a nozzle that allowed for sturdier prints custom-made locally).

It also gives the company a potential client base of small manufacturers who may themselves need specialised kit made — which is where 3D printing can come in. "Many very small manufacturing companies have appeared in our area and they are all in need of small equipment and tools," Lipert says. "Because internet sales haven't really taken off in Poland yet, you still need to build local ties."

He claims it took Pirx about two months to bring down the costs of the printers to the levels to convince such small companies of the cost effectiveness of having one of these machines.

Other companies in Poland take a less local approach, however. While Olsztyn-based Zortrax does dabble in the Kickstarter sphere, it stepped into the spotlight proper with the sale of 5,000 of its M200 printers to Dell.

That doesn't mean however that the market is fully mature however, especially not on the sales end, says Tomasz Drosio, business development manager at Zortrax. The biggest challenge for 3D printer vendors can be a lack of awareness among potential customers on how the printers can be used in their particular company.

While the benefits may be clear to staff immediately, they'll still need specialist skills to configure the hardware and put it to work in their own industry. "There is no problem with ordering a 3D printer, but [it's different when it comes developing it for] your own business to use," Drosio says.

Therefore, both Drozio and Lipert see the key in further development of the 3D printing market in integrated product offerings. "[Our clients chose] Zortrax because of environment we deliver. Not only hardware, Z-Suite — our software is our own creation, no open source, no errors," Drosio says. "It is key to having high quality prints."

Lipert says that Pirx is pretty much going the same route. "We have been hiring software developers over the last two months to create our own design environment. Just as with desktop computers one needs peripherals like mice and monitors, you need a working environment with 3D printers."

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