Does the list of applications in industry continue to grow?
Yes, constantly. As acceptance of this technology expands within industry, and people begin to realize the benefits it provides, we’re being approached by companies that want to learn more. We’re being pushed rather than having to pull. And we’re trying to meet this groundswell of interest by providing learning opportunities such as webinars and an e-newsletter. Lead times are slashed and the design process is simplified, which means we can get into production in a matter of weeks rather than months. The traditional process in metalworking often required new tooling and molds, both of which are very costly, and all of that is eliminated when you’re working with additive manufacturing. And we keep costs down by utilizing automation so that producing parts in whatever quantity is a seamless process. This is a fundamentally new paradigm in manufacturing.
Discuss the technology’s role in developing designs for products that can’t be produced otherwise, or would be cost prohibitive.
That’s another huge benefit. We have customers who’ve had ideas for new parts on the drawing board for years with no way to make them using traditional design and manufacturing methods, but were able to work with them on their concept and get it into production quickly, helping them to achieve a long-term goal. As an example, a manufacturer of firearms had an idea for a new design that would involve flanges and other features inside the barrel, but there was no way to manufacture it until we teamed up and worked our way through the design process. We were successful, and the company wound up patenting the new part.
Do you find that first-time customers return with fresh ideas about how they can further utilize 3D?
That happens pretty frequently. Once a customer has seen the quality of the parts, the ease of making design improvements, lower costs and shorter lead times, they start looking around at other ways they can harness additive manufacturing to their benefit. It’s not uncommon to see increases of as much as 10 times; from $50,000 in orders annually up to $500,000. It’s all about learning to see things differently, and once you’ve reached that point, the possibilities are endless.
What does it take for you to stay at the leading edge of 3D technology?
One of the most powerful services we offer is providing access to this process to people who are interested but don’t yet have the capital required to get into on their own. We have 31 printers in our facility – which we’re expanding to a total of 80,000 square feet. We are starting work on new materials and as we introduce new materials we need to dedicate infrastructure. So, as a 3D production facility, we provide a way for manufacturers to experience the process and benefit from it without having to go into the business themselves. So “continuous improvement” is our middle name. The more streamlined we can make our operations, and as the cost structure within additive manufacturing continues to decrease, the more competitive we can be. And we’re pleased with the business model we’ve developed, made evident by the fact that we’ve recently produced our 1 millionth part.
So it sounds like the prognosis for additive manufacturing is good.
We feel very positive about the future. We’ve built a platform that allows us to scale up very easily, so there’s really no cap on our production capacity. And we’ve yet to scratch the surface of so many markets where we could play a role. But we’ve reached the point where we have the bandwidth to begin refining our market outreach as well as our research activities in support of this technology.