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3D Printing Adds Dimension to Manufacturing
Published Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Later this year Solidscape will release a new 3D printer intended to build its industrial client base. The Merrimack-based designer of 3D printers and software has experienced double-digit growth annually for the past several years and expects to increase its workforce by 20 percent by the end of this year. It’s part of the 3D boom that is transforming manufacturing and other industries.

While 3D printing—creating a physical object from a digital model one thin layer at a time—has been around for more than a decade, the industry has been growing exponentially in recent years. Globally, the value of 3D products and services grew 29 percent between 2011 and 2012, from $1.7 billion to $2.2 billion, and is expected to grow to $6 billion by 2017, according to Wohlers Associates, a Colorado consultant specializing in trends in 3D printing.

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, has primarily been used to create prototypes from plastic. It is increasingly used to produce finished parts as well since some of today’s 3D printers can also print using metal. Wohlers reports that final part production using 3D printing has grown from 3.9 percent of industry revenue in 2003 to 28.3 percent of revenue in 2012.

Solidscape focuses on precision wax patterns for investment casting that are small, up to 6 inches by 6 inches by 4 inches. It uses a wax material it claims is unique in the 3D printing market. Solidscape’s printers are used in numerous industries including aerospace, medical, dental, automotive and advanced research. “Ultimately the products revolve around the customers’ needs,” says Fabio Esposito, president of Solidscape, of his company’s move to increase its market share in aerospace and other industrial areas. “This is a natural progression.”

Transforming Prototypes

Before 3D printing, creating prototypes took weeks or months depending on the complexity of the part, and involved molding and tooling using CNC machining. Now design shops and rapid prototyping operations like JAM's Mechanical Advantage LLC in Rochester can create a prototype in a few days, and for significantly less, using printers that create parts by printing hundreds of thousands of thin layers on top of each other using a CAD computer model as a guide.

John Mersereau, president of JAM Mechanical Advantage LLC, a one-man mechanical design shop, says since investing in a 3D printer a year and a half ago, he has been able to substantially grow his business, as he previously had to outsource the machining, which cut into profits. “The opportunities have opened tenfold,” he says. “I’m working on a project now where we would have had to send it out to tooling and molding, and now I can just do it.”

Also among those using the technology is Helix, a product design firm in Manchester. It has created numerous prototypes for clients including a machine used in mines, parts for a Segway model, the binding system for Tubbs Snowshoes, and an iPad and iPod case for Contour. The company invested about $150,000 in a 3D printer the size of a large backyard grill that can print plastic objects up to 13 inches by 13 inches by 8 inches in height. Once they are done, Helix can paint them to client specifications.

Company Principal and Founder Joe Schappler says the 3D printer is accurate to 4,000th of an inch, the same or better than production level tolerances. That accuracy leads to a better, more exact final product. “We like to show that when it leaves our facility, it’s ready to go,” Schappler says. That accuracy, combined with a quick turnaround, allows for a more interactive process with clients, he says, and a better result, as tweaks do not require long waiting periods.

Helix now has eight employees and one 3D printer, but Schappler says the technology is moving quickly and opening new opportunities, and he expects to buy a few smaller machines in the next few years. Right now, 3D printing makes up about 25 percent of his business with consulting accounting for the rest.

Timing is Critical

While 3D printing is on the rise, it has not been a boon for everyone. The market does involve some timing. Prototek Precision Machining in Hooksett invested $520,000 in three 3D printers in 2008 to create plastic prototypes. The problem was the technology was new at that time and it was hard convincing clients to get on board.

The company ended up selling those machines and returning to its core business, rapid prototyping (within a day) machined from steel. “I tried to tap into it to reclaim my turf and lost,” says Bruce Isabelle, who retired as CEO in January. (His wife now runs the business.) “If I had waited until 2010, who knows what would have happened.” As with most technologies, costs are dropping. In 2008, when Isabelle bought the 3D printers, the plastic used to print cost about $6,000 for a 10-inch cube. Now, Schappler pays $1,200 for the plastic for his printer.

Isabelle says speed is important, but he claims printers can’t match the precision sheet metal machining his firm provides. Isabelle says while 3D printing dominates plastic prototypes, when it comes to metal, “I can’t see how it would ever trump a machine center.”

Only time will reveal that. “The next five years will be telling,” says Mersereau of JAM Mechanical Advantage. “The market has changed tremendously in recent years. I see it as a window of opportunity to me. It will become more prevalent in manufacturing.”

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