By Eric Peterson | May 24, 2020
Salt Lake City, Utah
Lighting, furniture, and drinkware
Before founding binary, Suttton worked in R&D at architectural products manufacturer 3form for eight years, and found a tantalizing prospect in 3D printing. At the time, additive manufacturing "was a technology I was interested in, but not familiar with at all," he says.
In 2013, Sutton bought himself a basic 3D printer to learn about the technology. "It lived on my desk [at 3form]," he says. "It ended up getting a lot of use doing little concept pieces and prototypes, but it was my own personal machine."
Sutton ultimately couldn't get the requisite buy-in for its use in production at 3form, which predicated the startup of binary. "In parallel to my interest and work on additive, I started becoming more aware of work that was being done in the field of additive incorporating robotic arms as a tool to break free of these constraints around scale."
It turned out that 3form had an old robotic arm that had more or less been mothballed. "It never really found any use," says Sutton. "I ended up making them an offer for the arm and taking it off on my own."
Sutton launched binary to manufacture various products "leveraging low to lower-impact materials that are abundantly available," or recycled content. "Additive as a process was attractive to me for a number of reasons," he says. "One of those reasons was the ability to go from a very unrefined, commoditized raw material state to a finished product in this one step. I saw an opportunity with binary to address an underrepresentation of recycled plastics in this market."
To fulfill his vision, he first needed an extruder to mount on the end of the arm, and found the right one from Vermont-based Filabot. Then he moved towards launch with product development.
"I'd identified lighting products and furniture products as the lower-hanging fruit, if you will," he says. "These are products that are a little bit more approachable from a cost perspective. They're big for 3D printing, but they're not big like a wall panel."
binary subsequently went into production in 2019 with three lines: strata (ceramic pendant lights), spectra (colorful plastic pendant lights), and re/made. Sutton describes the spectra manufacturing model as "bringing a craft approach to plastics that hasn't really existed before," and re/made as a selection of "very simple furniture pieces." Next up: a drinkware line made in conjunction with Millimok that's set to launch in June 2020.
Sutton leverages local suppliers and partners for wooden components and other needs, as he sources raw materials from two Utah recyclers, Reaction Polymers and Pro Recycling Group. "What I work with predominately is PETG plastic," says Sutton. "It's used a lot in the signage industry. It's used quite a bit in medical packaging applications."
binary's PETG is waste from a local manufacturer of medical packaging that's shredded by recyclers and sold as a commodity. Ceramics are a secondary material, and Sutton says the company's ability to work with them is uncommon.
The marriage of recycled content and additive manufacturing has proven apt, he adds. "With additive, it's a fairly materially economic process. It's a fairly efficient process from a material use perspective." It follows that scaling by a factor of 100 times or more would be possible with the current supply chain, he adds.
binary's production bottleneck is the extruder, with a capacity of about two pounds of plastic per hour. A light typically takes about 45 minutes to make, and side tables require about three hours. He says he's eagerly awaiting a new Filabot product that will be able to extrude about 10 pounds per hour, allowing him to lower his prices.
"Especially for the furniture objects, these bigger pieces, the price points are not as approachable as I'd like them to be, "says Sutton. "As I'm able to speed up, that's certainly going to allow me to bring these price points down and bring this within the reach of more people."
After starting with a B2B model targeting architects, hotels, and offices, binary has pivoted to a direct-to-consumer strategy. "Qualitatively, it's been quite positive," says Sutton of the initial market reaction. "There's been quite a bit of enthusiasm for the product."
With additive manufacturing slowly but surely moving from prototyping to production, Sutton says it's a matter of finding the categories that are primed for the shift. "I think the big question with 3D printing still is: How does it replace other production techniques?" he adds. "That's still an open question. Some people are having success with it because additive is giving them the ability to do products they could do easily."
Challenges: Educating the market. "There's tremendous potential in this low-volume, high-mix scenario, but not a lot of designers and specifiers -- or even consumers -- are used to having all these choices of designs," says Sutton. "What I've found challenging is enabling people with those choices without overwhelming them."
Opportunities: Sutton says the upcoming Millimok drinkware line could potentially take off in a big way. With a limited need for inventory and no tooling required, he sees a market for premium two-cup sets priced around $40 to $50.
The big benefit is "the ability to break into this market with very little investment," he adds. "One approach to bringing ceramic wares to market is you'd have a designer, you'd contract with a manufacturer in China, then you're buying 1,000 or 5,000 pieces and shipping them, so there's all those startup costs, there's all that lead time, and we're eliminating all of that, because we're working with an additive technology. . . . That's a huge opportunity. Hopefully, we can capitalize on it."
Sutton also sees opportunities in custom projects. "The shapes and sizes and things that I come up aren't the limit of what it can do. It's great to be able to apply towards someone else's needs."
Needs: "I'd say the biggest need for binary is awareness in the market," says Sutton. "Compared to the other ways of manufacturing things, furniture pieces especially, nobody's thinking 3D printing. It's just not top of mind. [Manufacturers] are biased toward old technologies. Once people are more aware of their opportunities and more aware of additive as an option, it's going to be required to have companies like binary to make it."