By Brad Smith | Jan 27, 2020
3D-printing services and prototyping
Industry: Contract Manufacturing
Products: 3D-printing services and prototyping
Wilcox became interested in 3D printing when she worked at Bye Aerospace in Englewood, which used the manufacturing process for parts to convert a Cessna 172 into an all-electric airplane. She and former partner Kenton Kuhn started the 3D Printing Store even though "at the time, I couldn’t buy a 3D printer [in the Denver area]. We literally hired people in New York City who could buy a printer and FedEx it to us."
When the 3D Printing Store first opened in late 2012, it was one of the country's first brick-and-mortar 3D stores. It acquired partners, purchased an industrial Stratasys machine, and held an open house at its facility in February 2013 that drew 400 people.
"We were shocked there was that much interest," Wilcox says. More partners led to more product development and prototyping. The company has experienced year-over-year growth since its formation and invested in equipment based on what its customers need, she says.
Although revenues were growing, one of the company's failures was expanding into new locations. By 2014, the 3D Printing Store had several locations in Colorado and Texas, but the new locations closed because the owners of those facilities "didn't pursue the business. We didn't have good, reliable business partners. This year, we probably will revisit that and see if there are other opportunities to redo those locations," Wilcox says.
The 3D Printing Store did add a location, in the Dallas suburb of Richardson, when it merged in 2019 with Accucode 3D, the 3D-printing and scanning division of technology integrator Accucode. The merged company reincorporated as The 3D Printing Store powered by Accucode LLC, with Wilcox remaining as CEO.
"We share a vision for the present and future of 3D technology and together we will serve both the product development and multiple industry sectors with better service and better solutions for prototyping and manufacturing with additive technologies," Wilcox says. The company uses Accucode's collaborative software tools to help its customers streamline management of ordering printed parts, printers, supplies and tools.
"Doing services is our model," she says, "so that businesses understand the value [of 3D printing] and if it helps their bottom line."
Although 3D printing is being used in a number of industries, Wilcox thinks using the technology to print electronics will have a big impact globally. That's especially true as wireless networks implement the next generation technology, 5G, and the Internet of Things (IoT) becomes more widespread.
Accucode sealed a deal in 2019 with Israel's Nano Dimension to open the world's first service bureau for 3D printing of electronics, focusing on end-to-end prototyping and low-volume additive manufacturing services for electronics. The service bureau, operated by The 3D Printing Store, uses the multi-material Nano DragonFly system to print electronic circuits around the clock.
The Nano system prints electronics with a single machine. "Those are end-use parts," Wilcox says. "We're seeing a great deal of interest in that technology. It can make things from the design through the manufacturing that can't be done with traditional methods. Different things can be inserted into the layers that traditional manufacturing can't do."
Challenges: "We are on the cutting edge of the technology and the equipment. We are still learning it; determining what [the equipment] does best, its reliability, and how it works. We are in partnership with technology companies that make the equipment to make it more reliable. We are trying to understand some things that are so new that we don't know how they perform."
Opportunities: 3D printing has expanded into the manufacturing of shoes, structured-carbon bicycle seats and helmets, musical instruments, aerospace, and automobile interiors. "There are so many [opportunities]," says Wilcox. "People are still learning about this. On a weekly basis we can be in touch with three, six, or seven literally new industries that are thinking about bringing additive manufacturing into what they do. And the materials are both a challenge and an opportunity. There are new materials coming out regularly."
Wohlers Associates, a Fort Collins-based analyst group that watches the field closely, said in its 2019 industry report that companies producing industrial additive manufacturing (AM) systems had increased about 30 percent in the previous year, growing from 135 system manufacturers to 177. The global AM industry generated about $10 billion in revenue in 2018.
Needs: "To a large degree we are still trying to build a skilled labor force in this area," says Wicox. "Some programs in colleges and universities are looking at this. We have a pretty good need for people who are technically competent for this kind of advanced manufacturing."