Company Adds Layers and Layers of Complexity

By Joel Russell – San Fernando Valley Business Journal – Monday, August 11, 2014

3-D printing isn’t new – the earliest version dates to the mid-1980s – but in the last few years it has become the biggest buzz in manufacturing as the technology has made huge leaps.

That means Solid Concepts Inc., one of the country’s leading 3-D manufacturers, is now able to churn out high-value parts for jet engines but not necessarily in mass numbers.

“The biggest challenge in my job is to help people understand the difference between the hype and what we can really do,” said Chuck Alexander, the company’s production manager. “But because of the hype, there are more and more companies interested in additive manufacturing.”

The Valencia company, which has five offices in the western U.S., was acquired earlier this year by Stratasys Ltd., a former competitor in Eden Prairie, Minn., for $295 million. Alexander said the combined company is the biggest contract 3-D manufacturing company in the world.

Last year, Solid Concepts had revenue of $63 million, evenly split between the 3-D work, also called “additive” manufacturing, and traditional manufacturing with CNC machines, molds and stamping technologies.

In 3-D printing, a machine lays down a thin layer of plastic that quickly hardens. As the printer head goes back and forth, the layers build up to create the manufactured piece. An older technology called stereo lithography uses the same process with a clear liquid that an ultraviolet laser hardens. They are called “additive” technologies in contrast to traditional manufacturing, which starts with a block of solid material that is cut away to create a piece.

It’s not cost-effective to mass produce simple items using 3-D printing, Alexander acknowledged, so he has to find customers who need high-value parts.

“We have to find those niches to cost-justify the process itself,” he said. “The equipment for 3-D printing on an industrial scale is not cheap.”

As a result, more than half of Solid Concept’s 3-D work comes from making prototypes. Designers like 3-D because they can make changes to the digital blueprint of a piece in the computer, “print” a copy of their design, and then make further adjustments. It’s also easy to make multiple versions of a part.

Once the design is finalized, 3-D can produce pieces for trade show exhibits or sales samples. For example, Chrysler recently wanted some new car models as showpieces for dealerships, but the assembly line wasn’t ready. The automaker contracted with Solid Concepts to make plastic parts for about 250 cars.

Another application of 3-D is to make molds using a modern version of the “lost wax” method.

In this process, a precise copy of a complex part is produced in plastic by 3-D. The part is then coated with ceramic clay and baked at 1400 degrees. The heat hardens the clay and burns away the plastic, leaving a mold. Metal is then poured into the mold, which is broken to reveal the final piece.

It can be used to produce upgraded replacement jet engine parts, and because each mold only yields one piece, the work provides consistent business for Solid Concepts.

“It’s used for really complex designs where die-casting or machining won’t work,” Alexander said. “It’s high-value manufacturing.”

How high? Alexander said Solid Concepts has produced parts that cost as much as $50,000 each, and it regularly makes molds in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Custom manufacturing

All the different types of work have resulted in steady revenue growth, more than 20 percent annually for some time. Solid Concepts currently has 450 employees with 200 in Valencia. And now that it’s owned by a big-money parent company, Alexander expects growth to accelerate.

Still, there are real limitations with 3-D manufacturing: complexity isn’t an issue, but there are size limits. For example, the largest 3-D printer made by Stratasys has a bed 39 inches by 31 inches, so it can’t produce parts larger than those dimensions.

Diego Tamburini, manufacturing industry strategist at Autodesk Inc., a 3-D software firm in San Francisco, said 3-D printing faces other technical challenges too.

“The accuracy is still not enough for some applications, and capacity is an issue – the size of the parts is still small,” he said. “In materials, metals are more difficult and the cost of the machines jumps significantly.”

Solid Concepts

Valencia

3-D and traditional contract manufacturing

Annual Revenue: $63 million

Employees: 450

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