By John Gallagher
Detroit Free Press
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, rapid prototyping, desktop manufacturing, and on-demand manufacturing, refers to processes developed over the past 20 years or so in which “printers” lay down thin layers of material, often a resinous liquid, according to a three-dimensional digital image file, gradually building up the product.
Detroit Free Press
Detroit used to be rich in tool-and-die shops, the small family-run firms that created specialized tools and gadgets to cut and shape metal in the automotive and other industries. Many of the hundreds of such small tool shops have gone out of business, but their modern equivalent is 3D printing, an industry that could thrive in Detroit with the metro area becoming a leader.
The Detroit area’s entry is a company called EnvisionTEC, based in Dearborn. Founded by Lebanese immigrant Al Siblani, the firm makes printers ranging in price from $10,000 to $1 million.
Those printers produce a varied and growing list of products — hearing aids, dental crowns, custom jewelry, skin grafts, automotive parts, and even characters used in SciFi and fantasy movies. EnvisionTEC sells into the commercial and industrial markets only, not to the consumer 3D market that has had its problems.
The holder of some 120 patents, Siblani is one of the next generation of Southeast Michigan entrepreneurs harnessing the latest technology to build a world-class business that remains under the radar in terms of public recognition.
“We continue to grow,” Siblani said last week at his headquarters. “In the last 18 months, we’ve doubled our manufacturing in California, we’ve doubled our manufacturing in Germany, we’ve doubled our number of people here in this building, and I think pretty soon we’re going to be out of space here. So it’s a very flourishing and growing business and we’re very happy the way it’s been going.”
Todd Grimm, an Edgewood, Ky.-based industry consultant, said EnvisionTEC has made advances in multiple fields that could serve it well in years to come as this very young field continues to mature.
“It has moved beyond an entrepreneurial business style to become a sound, established player in the 3D printing market,” he said.
3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, rapid prototyping, desktop manufacturing, and on-demand manufacturing, refers to processes developed over the past 20 years or so in which “printers” lay down thin layers of material, often a resinous liquid, according to a three-dimensional digital image file, gradually building up the product.
The process can produce anything from trinkets for hobbyists to precision parts for jet fighters. Sometimes the product is ready to use, and often the output is used to create a mold into which other material, such as gold in the case of jewelry, is poured to produce the final outcome.
3D printing offers advantages over the older methods of machining parts and products like hearing aids and dental crowns.
Speed is one advantage. A 3D printer in a dentist’s office can produce a dental crown while the patient waits instead of the dentist having to send out a rubberized mold to a shop that sends the finished crown back a week or more later.
At EnvisionTEC’s headquarters in Dearborn, master chemists experiment with new materials that could be used in various products. A training center sees EnvisionTEC staff training customers on the use of their machines. And a range of printers produce prototypes that eventually will work their way into general production.
Born in Lebanon, Siblani came to metro Detroit as a teen, studying engineering at Lawrence Technological University and Wayne State University. He started working with silk-screen printing, developing a process so colors wouldn’t blur. Then he went to work for an early 3D printer and pitched its advantages to automakers. A key moment came in 1993.
“I went to GM and said, ‘You know that transmission case that takes you 18 weeks by hand to do? I can do it in 72 hours.’ They said, ‘No way.’ I said, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ Seventy-two hours later, everybody that is anybody at General Motors in design was standing there as I took out the part. That was my first install.”
He launched EnvisionTEC a few years later, the name chosen to capture the sense of a forward-looking technology.
EnvisionTEC entered the custom jewelry market in 2003. Normally a jewelry designer would create intricate custom pieces by hand in wax, and then the wax model would be used to cast the finished jewelry. Within three years, Siblani’s much-faster 3D printers were used throughout the industry to create the plastic form.
“We pretty much became like the Coca-Cola if you want a high precision 3D printer,” he said.
Other fields followed — hearing aids in 2005, and then in 2008 he entered the market for dental crowns.
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Dentists who used to order crowns from labs in China now could have one of Siblani’s printers in their own offices.
The firm’s latest venture involves printing carbon fiber products for the aerospace industry — a process that no one has ever done before. EnvisionTEC now makes and sells about 40 different 3D printers around the world to a wide variety of clients.
A privately held company, EnvisionTec does not release revenue or profit figures. But the company ranks third in the industry now behind two publicly held companies, Stratasys, which is based in Minneapolis and Rehovot, Israel, and 3D Systems, based on Rock Hill, S.C. Those two companies have reported annual sales in the range of several hundred million dollars.
Diversity in products lines has paid off. In the middle of the Great Recession in 2008-09 when companies everywhere were shrinking, Siblani continued to hire new workers.
“We’re growing at a very healthy rate,” he said this month. “We don’t have a cyclical business. We operate in 12 different verticals, in the medical space, consumer products, hearing aids, dental, sporting goods. We have so many verticals that we operate in that we can never take more than a 10% hit at any time. So we’re very stable and we’re constantly growing.”
The potential power of 3D printing in automotive manufacturing was among the topics creating a buzz among executives attending an automotive conference in Traverse City earlier this month.
Former Ford CEO and longtime former Boeing executive Alan Mulally also said 3D printing has the potential to do things for manufacturing that were once unimaginable. Mulally, who retired as CEO of Ford in 2014, is now on the boards of tech giant Google and Carbon 3D in Redwood City, Calif.
“That we could actually make the parts off of the digital data set that is in the cloud and not have to have all of the tooling? So that’s been like just a dream come true to help (Carbon 3D) with that.”
And Ian Simmons, vice president of business development for parts supplier Magna, said 3D printing could be used in the future when it needs to produce a smaller volume of parts and in urgent manufacturing situations.
“If you’ve got a unique requirement for a part … we look at can we do that live?” he said. “Can we do that on the plant floor? And then basically we can use that immediately?”
More and more, thanks to companies like EnvisionTEC, the answers are “yes.”