By Eric Peterson | Aug 28, 2014
3D metal printing
Faustson Tool is a contract manufacturer with such blue-chip clients as Ball Aerospace and Woodward. It's stayed ahead of the technological curve for more than 30 years, and has no intention of falling behind anytime soon.
"We continuously try to pioneer a new industry," says Alicia Svaldi, Faustson's founder and president. "We were the first one to master EDM [electrical discharge manufacturing] in the 1990s. In the 2000s, we were one of the first companies to go into five-axis milling. We're now excited to get into 3D metal printing."
Faustson will become the first manufacturer in the state to dive headfirst into 3D metal printing when it buys a pair of million-dollar machines later this year. There's a lot of anticipation, to say the least. "We looked at a machine in Chicago recently," says Svaldi. "It literally gave my machinist chills."
Why the goosebumps? "We've always been into reduction," she explains. In some cases, a 300-pound piece of metal becomes an eight-pound part and 292 pounds of scrap.
That's not the case with 3D printing. It's addition, not subtraction, using metallic powder and laser beams. "There's no scrap," says Svaldi. And the time to make a part often drops from weeks to days, making for major savings. This means that 3D printing won't be used just for prototyping, but for mass production as well.
Faustson VP Heidi Hostetter says that the move into 3D printing does not mean the company is moving away from its specialties of EDM, or "spark machining," and five-axis milling.
A recent marketing study led the company to make a serious investment in EDM. "We went ahead and procured the best of the best," she says.
Five-axis milling isn't going anywhere, either, as it can hit the unusual angles and tolerances required by the aeronautics, aerospace, defense, and medical markets Faustson targets, she adds.
Regardless of the industry, one thing has remained the same. "In order to be profitable, you have to be innovative," says Hostetter. "There's no choice. If you're not constantly innovating, you're not going to make it. You get to the point where you can bitch and moan about it, but the reality is, your customer is being held to it, too."
Like many aerospace-oriented contract manufacturers, Faustson experienced a slowdown with the most recent recession, but the company has seen solid growth in each of the last three years, says Hostetter, and was recently was named a "Platinum Supplier” by Ball by exceeding expectations eight months in a row.
The latest big news came in late 2015: A $2.4 million grant from the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade will fund 3D-printing infrastructure initiative led by Faustson and Manufacturer's Edge.
Challenges: The learning curve associated with 3D metal printing. "We have to learn to manufacture with it and in parallel [our customers] are learning how to design with it," Hostetter says.
Colorado as a state is behind the curve when it comes to 3D metal printing, she adds, so Faustson will partner with the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade, Colorado School of Mines, University of Colorado, and Colorado State University to foster the industry and develop an educational curriculum.
"We'll be the guinea pig of the industry," says Hostetter. "We'll eventually be a learning center for the state."
Opportunities: Once again, 3D metal printing. "It opens up tons of different markets," says Hostetter. "As a small business, you look to innovate to create more profit. That's the bottom line."
Needs: Skilled blue-collar labor. "Unfortunately, our school system stopped educating the blue-collar worker 15 years ago," says Svaldi. "The industry as a whole” is limited by the dearth of manufacturing talent.
Svaldi is hopeful the $25 million injected into community colleges and other schools via the Colorado Helps Advanced Manufacturing Program (CHAMP) will turn the tide, but notes, "It'll still be a year or two before we see more educated workers."