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Engineered Careers: 3D Printing Entrepreneur

April 23, 2013

3D printing is a much-hyped technology, with applications ranging from manufactured organs to home production of Print-On-Demand consumer goods purchased over the Internet.

Speculation is endlessly entertaining, but setting up shop in an emerging industry takes an engineer. Ed Hebel of Free Thought Designs walks us through why and how he became a 3D printing entrepreneur.

Ed Hebel began his career in manufacturing engineering after earning a BS in industrial engineering from the University of Central Florida at Orlando. He worked in the field for five years, at Hausmann Industries (jobs) and RBC Bearings (jobs), before striking out on his own as an entrepreneur. Currently, Hebel is sole proprietor of Free Thought Designs, winner of the Orange County Business Accelerator Challenge for innovative, promising new companies.


A (Very) Brief Overview of 3D Printing

Ed isn’t the first to see radical promise in 3D printing technologies. Leaving aside the nanotech compilers of Stephenson’s Diamond Age, or the replicators of Star Trek, additive manufacturing offers a number of very real, very exciting possibilities to manufacturing and biomedical engineers.

The first widespread application of additive manufacturing technology, rapid prototyping, opened up new approaches for manufacturing and product design. Rather than reconfigure an entire tool path to produce small runs or one-off designs for testing, a single apparatus manufactured prototypes for review and criticism. Identifying and correcting design flaws early in a project’s lifetime, even with the expense of early additive manufacturing technologies, realized major savings against prototyping and testing products through traditional means.

Many of the core technologies of 3D printing have been in use since the mid 1980s. Stereolithography, usually considered the first rapid prototyping technology, was patented in 1986 by Charles Hull, who founded 3D Systems Inc. later that year. At the time, stereolithography used a laser to trace designs on the surface of a liquid UV-reactive photopolymer resin; as progressive layers hardened under the laser, the emerging prototype was lowered via elevator into a vat of resin. The final part, after chemical finishing and curing in a UV oven, was strong enough for machining or application in injection molding or metal casting processes.

At nearly the same time, S. Scott Crump developed and patented fused deposition modeling, the technology Ed Hebel uses at Free Thought Designs. (Mr. Crump’s company, Stratasys Ltd., technically owns the trademark to the phrase “fused deposition modeling”, though it is in widespread use. The term “fused filament fabrication” was proposed by the RepRap community as a replacement.) In fused deposition modeling, thermoplastic filaments such as ABS, PPSF, PC, or Ultem 9085 are melted and passed through a moving extrusion head, building the finished product from the bottom up.

Over the last three decades, several alternative technologies for 3D printing reduced up-front costs to the point where adoption and experimentation became widespread. Selective laser sintering reduced the input costs of stereolithography by replacing its expensive (anywhere from $80 – $120 per liter) photoresins with a range of powdered alternatives, such as nylon, metal, or glass and ceramics.

Related: 3D Printing Jobs

Mature iterations of fused deposition modeling created a market for inexpensive 3D printing and rapid prototyping applications due to their low equipment and materials costs (hobbyist models are available for as low as $500, but many commercial-scale devices are less than $10,000). “The equipment and ABS plastic filament are very cheap compared to what they used to be,” Hebel explains, “and there is such a variety of colors that you can please almost anybody.”

Currently, applications range from pragmatic manufacturing solutions, such as artificial hips with the ball machined inside of its socket, to the radical, as when the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine uses Ink Jet printing techniques for human tissue engineering. Additionally, a number of consumer-targeted prototyping businesses use fused deposition modeling to produce limited runs of customized consumer goods, based on user-submitted designs or customizations.

Despite proving itself valuable for rapid prototyping, biomedical engineering, and small production runs of custom pieces, effectively scaling additive manufacturing for mass production remains an unsolved problem. That’s where Ed Hebel comes in.


Adapting FDM to Mass Production

For many years, Hebel followed developments in 3D printing with interest. As a manufacturing engineer, he was quick to see the possibilities of large-scale application, but the expense of early approaches effectively ruled out cost-effective mass production. At the same time, independent, smaller-scale operations were hampered by set-up costs until quite recently.

“I always had grand visions for the technology for mass producing parts,” Hebel recalls. “Within the past couple years, I realized that equipment and supplies were cheap enough to actually make profit.” Still, even among manufacturing professionals, there seemed little push to scale up the technology to replace traditional mass production.

“I went to the SME Rapid convention in Atlanta last year (2012) and was very disappointed to see nobody there mentioning mass production. Since then, I’ve sought to fill the need for mass production via 3D printing.”

The successful adaption of fused deposition modeling to mass production will begin with reducing the lead time on component design and developing automation techniques to increase volume. Extrusion and fusing speed may essentially be capped by the physical properties of whichever thermoplastic is in use (Free Thought Designs appears to work mostly in ABS), but efficiency gains through process automation may prove enough to offset this.

While beginning with consumer goods and promotional items, Hebel hopes to develop techniques applicable anywhere bulk plastic components are required.

“I am approaching every single plastics industry with the question: how can I do this better than it’s being done now? There aren’t any companies doing mass production using FDM, but that doesn’t mean I have no competitors. I look at every other supplier or manufacturer as a competitor.”


Learning the Ropes

Training yourself to work in the emerging field of additive manufacturing starts with mastering the same basics as many other fields. The tool paths I use are typical of an engineer,” Hebel explains. “Learning to use 3D CAD, I think, is one of the most important skills to have.

Experimentation, curiosity, and a solid grasp of basic engineering skills will get you started. With such a strong independent streak in the industry, how you move beyond that point is a function of learning style and where you want to take your training.

For access to metal, glass, or ceramic printing, an academic or internship program may prove the easiest way to access the required equipment. If you learn best in an academic setting, many universities and colleges offer additive manufacturing  degree programs and new innovation centers open monthly. Just this April, for example, the University of Connecticut and Pratt & Whitney (jobs) opened the Pratt & Whitney Additive Manufacturing Innovation Center, the first such facility in the Northeast to focus on metal fabrication through laser sintering. Your local university, college, or technical school is a good starting point to tracking down training programs to fit your level of interest and existing skills.

The only potential drawback to an independent approach is that you’ll likely be limited to fused deposition technologies, as the buy-in for other fabrication technologies is prohibitive. Entrepreneurs and independent tinkerers can avail themselves of educational and technical resources through the Maker and RepRap communities, at least to begin. There, you’ll find spirited discussions on everything from making your own 3D printing equipment to sample projects and tutorials. The talent pools accessible in these communities are significant and may prove the ideal resource to set you on your way.


Do you work in additive manufacturing or within the independent 3D printing culture? Have any advice for curious newcomers? Leave it here in the comments or on Twitter @EngineerJobs.

Photo Credit: Andrea Schwalm