As we enter the RedEye headquarters in Eden Prairie, we are greeted with warm Minnesota friendliness by the receptionist, Melissa. Since we are early for our appointment, she invites us to look around at the cool displays that were 3D printed onsite and shares some of the stories behind them.
A picture of the first 3D printed car, the URBEE, a media sensation, triggers a quick backstory about how, just recently, the bumper was damaged in transit to a car show, and after a quick phone call to RedEye, where the original was first produced, a second one was printed and sent on its way just in time for the opening of the show. In a matter of days. Not what you’d expect when you put in an order for a custom car part, but typical in the world of 3D printing.
We are introduced to the General Manager, Jim Bartel, another thoughtful individual, who while being very articulate and knowledgeable, was unassuming. Plus, he was very open and patient to the questioning of not only me, but also my inquisitive 10-year old son.
Before taking us on the tour, he gave us background on RedEye—which started in response to requests from potential customers of Stratasys, their parent company and a maker of 3D printers, to print parts as a test of the technology before investing in the purchase of a Stratasys machines.
“The factory of the future,” shares Bartel, as he points out the long lines of tall box-like machines quietly humming as we enter the large room beyond the lobby. I note that you can barely hear the machines running and I don’t see any workers wearing ear protection – a testament to the differences in at least one type of factory of the future.
A couple of employees walk purposefully by, but there is no one stationed at a particular machine or seen doing any manual production work, as in a typical factory, either. Employees are greeted by name, giving a small shop vibe. But goods being produced here are not small shop wares. With a growing list of customers spanning the gamut of aerospace, medical, automotive and military & defense, the quantity and variety of output far outpaces the norm for a company of just 80 employees. As another unique aside, Bartel notes that for the printer models we see, there are a fair number of parts that the machines print for themselves – a machinery circle of life.
3D printing conjures up all kinds of great, epigrammatic slogans:
- The new industrial revolution
- Factory in a box
- Future of manufacturing
- The new face of manufacturing (as I like to call it)
All communicate the fact that 3D printing is a true paradigm shift. Gone are the days where a new product line requires a whole host of new machinery, tooling, production line training, and all the costs and months (years?) of time associated with getting it up and running smoothly. If you can design it in 3D, chances are, you can build it in a matter of weeks or less. But the reality is most parts can be printed in hours if there is not a long queue ahead of your order. If you are local, you could probably pick up the part on the same day if your timing is good. I didn't ask RedEye if this was possible, so don't hold me or them to it!
The use of the word “print” is sometimes hard to get your head around if you are new to this technology. It invokes images of paper printed into posters, reports, photographs and the like. However, when you add the “3D” in front of the word “print,” you move from paper printing to the world of manufacturing. It is a process that uses inkjet-like technology to lay melted plastic material in layers in whatever design is required. The material instantly hardens and with each layer, the “building” of the product evolves.
As most readers here know, this technology is called additive manufacturing since you are “adding” layers of material instead of cutting out a pattern (subtractive) from a larger piece of material. This in itself saves material costs, storage costs and waste. But when you factor in that one 3D printer can “make” a mind-boggling array of products – well, it is mind-boggling.
Most people are surprised to find out that this is not new technology. It has been in existence for 30 years, older than the college grads being sought out, courted and rapidly hired by Stratasys. However, it is just recently that business factors have aligned to make 3D printing the hottest “new” technology in the stock market. While 3D printers have gone mainstream in the last few years with the introduction of small personal printers like Makerbot, large Fortune 500 companies have been buying and using the 3D printers for decades to build prototypes and parts to create cars, turbines, and large architectural models, such as one of the city of Stockholm, Sweden.
Since the introduction of 3D printing, it has been embraced by medical field. This fact surprises many in the older demographic brackets who are some of the biggest end-users of 3D technology, albeit unknowingly.
Over 10,000,000 hearing aids have been 3D printed across the world. The process is simple: lab technicians 3D scan your ear, which is then used to 3D print the hearing aid, ensuring a better, more comfortable fit. What used to take more than a week to make, now takes just a day. Similarly, many dental labs around the country are using 3D printers to make dental crowns, bridges and components that keep your teeth and mouth in good shape.
Back on the tour, Bartel explains that they currently have about 160 printers, but that is scheduled to more than triple, along with their employee base, when their acquisitions of Solid Concepts Inc and Harvest Technologies close within the next month. The 3D services industry is growing quickly as companies and consumers realize the huge potential in time and cost savings available to them.
We continue our walkthrough and watch quotes and orders tracked real-time, on computer screen dashboards placed around the facility. Metrics for accuracy and production deadlines are posted on the walls. A quick glance shows they are handily meeting their monthly targets so far for 2014. All signs point to a shop being run effectively and efficiently.
At the end of our tour, we come to the conference room where a table of just-produced parts are on display. Bartel picks up one and explains that the tooling for just that part would have been $100,000 in the past. With 3D printing, it is designed on a computer using 3D software such as Autodesk Inventor, ordered online and printed in a matter of days. If an update to the design is needed, the design is tweaked in the software, sent over online, and printed again. Yes, you guessed it, in a matter of days. No wonder interest and demand for this service has quickly grown in the past few years. We part ways with a deep respect for the company and the friendly, knowledgeable employees we’ve met.
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