3D printing is an effective way of producing prototypes and parts quickly, on demand and in small series, and the logical next step would be to use the technology for production on an industrial scale. However, the most commonly used material for 3D printing, plastics, often does not have the properties required for functional parts. “You need composite materials to produce parts that are both strong, stiff and lightweight,” says Fedor Antonov, CEO of Anisoprint.

A unique technology

Dr Antonov’s company is developing a unique technology for 3D printing of composite materials reinforced with continuous fibres. “Our main challenge was to find a way for the plastics used in the printing process to not only cover the fibres on the outside, which they normally do, but actually impregnate them so that the two would become a single composite material,” he explains. “Using our patented dual metrics co-extrusion process, we first impregnate dry fibres with thermos-set polymer. These can then be combined for printing with any type of plastics and still get the right properties.”

The start-up’s desktop 3D printer, the Anisoprint Composer, has a patented print head with cutting mechanisms for fibres and channels for plastics and plastics draining. Currently available in A3 and A4 formats, the A2 version of the printer will be on the market before the end of the year. “We have already sold printers together with our fibres in Germany, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Luxembourg and Russia,” Dr Antonov confirms.

Luxembourg: welcoming start-ups

Anisoprint’s technology was first developed by Dr Antonov and his colleagues during their postdoc work at the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Moscow. Realising the potential of their findings, they created the company and became part of the start-up community of Skolkovo Foundation, with which Luxinnovation has a partnership to help companies expand to Europe via Luxembourg. After two and a half years of R&D work the first prototype was developed, and a year later the company was ready to start selling.

“We immediately saw that our market is global and that our technology is very competitive,” says Dr Antonov. “We also realised that we needed to go international from the very beginning as the Russian market would not be big enough for us to grow.” After deciding that Europe would be their first focus, he and his colleagues started to analyse what countries were most interesting. “Some European countries have jurisdictions that are particularly good for start-ups, so we contacted agencies in our top five locations to ask about support programmes and help available for moving the company. Luxinnovation was clearly the most responsive, open and supportive of the organisations contacted. So we decided to go where we were wanted and where people were ready to support us.”

Luxinnovation was clearly the most responsive, open and supportive of the organisations contacted.

After incorporating a subsidiary in Luxembourg, Anisoprint is now moving its global headquarters to the Technoport incubator in the south of the country. All European sales are already done through Luxembourg. Dr Antosov will shortly relocate here, and will be followed by the sales and aftersales teams as well as the materials R&D staff. “Being closer to our European clients is of course important, especially as our customer base increases. The Luxembourg jurisdiction is also highly suitable for venture capital investors. We expect that our fundraising will be considerably facilitated by us being here,” says Dr Antonov.

Strategic research partnership with LIST

So far, Anisoprint’s customers are mainly R&D centres, universities and industrial companies printing tools or small series of spare parts for light vehicles such as bikes and scooters. However, in order to reach the big industrial market of functional parts, further R&D is needed. “We must be able to guarantee specific properties and a certain repeatability of the production, and also be capable to certify and qualify the composite materials printed,” Dr Antonov explains.

In order to achieve this, the company has launched a three-year research project with the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST), co-funded by the Ministry of the Economy. The aim of the project is to develop and validate tailored material formulations of carbon-fibre reinforced polymer composites that meet the specific requirements for industrial applications. “I think that LIST is one of the best partners we could get for this work,” says Dr Antonov. “The necessary tests – microscope x-ray analysis, mechanical and chemical testing, temperature analysis, polymer synthesis and so on – require a wide range of equipment and expertise, and the institute has it all.”

I think that LIST is one of the best partners we could get for this work.

Anisoprint has big visions for the future. “We still believe that one day, we will have flying cars or space ships made with our technology. We are moving forward step by step with this picture in mind,” says Dr Antonov. He remains confident that using Luxembourg as the main base is the right decision. “It is very easy to get introductions to decision makers in every field that you need, and this helps a lot. Luxinnovation has given us access to its networks and helped us build the right connections. If you have a question, you just ask Luxinnovation and they immediately give you the right person. We are here to stay and grow.”

Photo credit: Anisoprint