By Eric Peterson | Apr 12, 2021
Metal injection molding (MIM) production and prototyping
The company takes its name from the Neota Wilderness Area north of Rocky Mountain National Park, where Osborne went on a snowshoeing trip with a friend during the winter of 2014-15 and told him of his business plan.
The idea had sprung from Osborne's experience as an engineer for a major metal injection molding (MIM) company, which illuminated a "void" in the market. "Constantly, I had these smaller things come across my desk that were either not enough annual revenue to consider or really long development cycles for medical or aerospace, for instance," he says.
Most of these projects would require "a lot of engineering resources but without a clear path to production -- or a very long path to production," he says. "There just was no real good resource in the industry for these companies to go to for lower-volume production or prototyping work."
Osborne explained these market dynamics to his friend in the wintry wilderness. "After about eight hours of talking, he said, 'You need to do this,'" says Osborne.
Back in civilized Loveland, Osborne subsequently struck on his own as a consultant under the Neota moniker, but found that engineering, product development, and design for manufacturability services only got clients halfway to production. "Metal injection molding is a tricky manufacturing process," he notes."When it came time to actually make parts, I was still relying on the resources of the manufacturers, which is where all the inefficiency comes from in the first place. It became clear to me I was going to need to develop a supply chain of my own to actually make parts."
Osborne subsequently taught himself to design molds and developed a proprietary tool to make them, and partnered with vendors for sintering and other processes. By mid-2018, he'd transitioned Neota from consulting to manufacturing.
One of his first manufacturing customers wanted 50 to 100 prototype parts for proof-of-concept testing. "When your parts are slated for metal injection molding, when you're doing your product evaluation testing and cycle testing and things like that, it's really important to use the manufacturing method you plan to use," Osborne says. "If you're evaluating a MIM part and you're using CNC-machined or metal 3D-printed components, you can kind of test form, fit, and function, but there's a lot of benefit to evaluating MIM parts as MIM parts in your prototyping phase."
In this case, the customer was able to make a critical design change before going into production, validating Neota's pivot to manufacturing. "This works," says Osborne. "This is definitely viable, so let's go."
In 2019, Neota brought on an investor to boost the company's capabilities. "That's when we decided to grow the company to become a full-fledged manufacturing company, soup to nuts, and still maintain our competitive advantage and our ability to focus on engineering, new product development, prototyping, and low-volume manufacturing, but we also have multiple product lines that run well over 100,000 pieces a year," says Osborne. "So at this point, we kind of do it all."
And Neota is quickly winning a wide range of customers. "Metal injection molding has a place in just about every industrial market out there, from consumer goods to automotive to medical to aerospace, you name it," says Osborne.
But it also "has a stigma in the industry," he adds. "It's a black art type of thing. . . . We are really trying to change that stigma."
Not only is the process complex, it has traditionally required a sizable capital investment for both the manufacturing equipment as well as the tooling. Minimums and lead times are also notably high at established MIM companies.
"We're completely flipping that on its head," says Osborne. "We take a totally unique tooling approach, and try to get tooling costs down as low as possible. We are built by engineers, so the people you're going to talk to immediately are engineers who have 10 to 15 years of experience in product development. One of our slogans is: 'Whether you want five parts or 500,000 parts, we have an approach that can work for you.'"
Delivery time is typically four weeks or less, he adds. "Really it's as fast and as effective as metal 3D printing, but I really believe that with the in-house capabilities we are developing here, we will be a better option than metal 3D printing for a lot of reasons. A MIM part, it's better mechanical properties, it's better tolerances, it's better surface finishes -- it's just an all-around better part."
Leveraging off-the shelf feedstock and MIM equipment, Neota's differentiators are "industry experience and our staging," he adds. "We design and fabricate all of our own custom sintering furniture. That's something very few MIM companies in the world do."
Noting that MIM parts contract by about 20 percent during sintering, Osborne says it's all about attention to detail. "During that time, there is movement happening -- the part is shrinking, the part is densifying," he explains. "Having what we call 'custom furniture' -- or ceramic staging trays -- is absolutely vital. A lot of big MIM companies totally miss that part of it. It's totally mind-blowing to me that they don't focus on those details. Every single part we develop, we put a lot of energy into: How exactly are we going to make this thing?"
He continues, "It's really about how we approach product development and our experience in the industry -- and also the willingness to think differently."
The market is responding. As of early 2021, Neota "is really starting to heat up," says Osborne. "There's stuff coming in from every angle. We're on an exponential growth cycle right now."
Challenges: "There's a lot of product engineers and mechanical engineers that don't even know that MIM exists," says Osborne."Educating technical professionals in mechanical engineering, mechanical, industrial engineering, and things like that to understand that metal injection molding exists and it's a technology they take advantage of and not be afraid of."
Opportunities: Osborne says the sky's the limit for Neota, and MIM is a great fit for industries with rapid development cycles as well as prototyping. "I'm not sure exactly where we're going to go, but I definitely know the future's bright," says Osborne. "I hope that Neota can start to introduce the concept of prototyping with metal injection molding to the rest of the industrial world."
Needs: "Really what we need is just time to continue to grow," says Osborne. "We're positioned really well."