Meet Terabot

Since the release of Gigabot in 2013, we’ve continued to push the build envelope: first Gigabot XL, then the XLT. Now there’s a new machine to add to the portfolio, one that dwarfs its predecessors: Terabot.

Terabot is the latest addition to our fleet of large-format, industrial, fused filament fabrication printers.

Terabot was conceived out of a customer’s desire to go bigger than what we offered at the time – much bigger. As more and more customers asked about build volumes up to 1m cubed, we decided it might be time to make this solution a regular offering in the re:3D lineup.

With a build platform of 915x915x1000mm, Terabot boasts 8,372,250 cubic centimeters of volume – over 20 times more than its closest relative (the Gigabot XLT, which stands at 590x760x900mm).

The size jump was done with those customers who had outgrown Gigabot’s build volume in mind: the people who found themselves needing to break extra large prints into multiple sections and attach them post-printing. As Head of Engineering Matthew Fiedler puts it, “Face it, we don’t want to gluing or bonding together all of our small 3D prints. We really need a machine that can print the full piece at one time.” Terabot allows for the printing of massive parts without the need for any messy post-processing with glue or bondo.

As Terabot was modeled off the existing Gigabot platform, all the functionality our current customers already enjoy is built into this machine. With such a jump in size, however, our engineers made some critical design changes to allow it to run smoothly and reliably on massive prints.

The main new features on Terabot are as follows:

  • Linear guides on the X, Y, and Z axes
  • NEMA 23 X and Y stepper motors with closed loop control
  • Cast aluminum build plate with rigid nine point bed leveling

The reasons for these changes are several fold. The linear rails – compared with the v-groove wheels of the standard Gigabot – provide high rigidity, accurate and smooth motion on this extra large machine, coupled with a minimal need for maintenance. We sized up the NEMA 17 motors of the Gigabot 3+ to NEMA 23 on Terabot, to take advantage of their higher current and added power for the size of this build platform. They are also a closed loop system, meaning that the printer always knows the position of the print head. Lastly, the thick ½” blanchard ground cast aluminum build plate features a nine point bed leveling system for more precise leveling control on the increased surface area.

There are other slight changes to the machine to add to its performance, including new leveling casters and a beefier, 20-inch, 14 gauge solid steel electrical box which houses a higher 500 watt power supply as well as new closed-loop drivers for the motors. Situated above the electrical box on the rear of the machine are the main power disconnect, and the same Viki control panel as is used on Gigabot. There are also all the same features you may recognize from Gigabot, like dual extrusion and ditto printing, out-of-filament detection, and a heated bed. As with Gigabot, the aluminum frame of the machine is machined in-house to tolerances of less than .005 inches, and the ½ inch-thick aluminum bed plate is precision blanchard ground to within .003-.005 inches. All the moving cables of the machine are routed through the same cable carriers seen on Gigabot and are rated for over one million cycles of flexing. 

Every Terabot comes standard with a passively heated build chamber – equipped with removable, polycarbonate panels with magnetic closures and large access doors in the front – which can reach an internal temperature of 60ºC to enable the printing of high-temperature thermoplastics. The machine prints with the same 2.85mm filament as Gigabot, with an extrusion temperature up to 320ºC. Terabot is equipped with a high flow Mondo hot end with a 0.4mm nozzle, but also has the ability to print with 0.25mm and 0.8mm, all at a full speed of 60mm/s.

At $34,400, Terabot is an industrial machine that sits comfortably below the average industrial 3D printer price point. From our inception, we have strived for an intersection of cost and scale that opens the door to industries that have a need for the technology but maybe not the budget. Terabot enables huge printing at a cost that is affordable enough to add several machines to the factory floor. The Terabot community includes customers in manufacturing, art, aerospace, and design who have multiple Terabots in their production workflow, and we work to keep our prices at a level that enables just this.

We built this machine for the people like you whose eyes have been opened to the power of large-scale 3D printing and are ready for more. As we have done since 2013, we will continue to push the envelope so that you can continue to dream big and print huge.

You can purchase your Terabot on the re:3D store here, or email our sales team at sales@re3d.org to get more information.

A Look at the Largest Makerspace in Puerto Rico

Our interview with Luis has been translated from Spanish into English for the purpose of this article.

Roughly a 20 minute drive from the bustle of Old San Juan is an old civil defense base which houses the largest makerspace in Puerto Rico. Engine-4 has been there for nearly four years, operating as a mecca for hardware and IoT startups on the island. 

Cofounder Luis Torres has a background in hardware development and wanted to create a space in his own backyard to encourage these types of startups, which tend to have less places to go for support in Puerto Rico. “We created a space where university students, professors, and tech companies are all working together under the same roof developing their ideas flexibly and inexpensively so that they can become future startups in the community.”

The building houses a lineup of tools well-suited for hardware fanatics: soldering stations, printed circuit board milling machines, laser cutters, oscilloscopes, and an array of 3D printers.

“Spaces like this encourage community relationships, creation, and innovation,” Torres says. “They send a message that – with the few tools we’ve been able to acquire – we’re able to create ideas that are making it out of Puerto Rico.”

The Meeting in a Storm

Engine-4’s Gigabot story starts, as many stories in Puerto Rico do these days, with Maria. 

As the hurricane battered the island, nearby Parallel18 moved their Gigabot to Engine-4’s more secure facility for safekeeping. Torres quickly sized up the machine, and the wheels began turning. “I saw the capacity of the printer and realized that, without a printer like Gigabot, there are a lot of prototypes we wouldn’t be able to make.”

As the resident companies at Engine-4 include a fair number of IoT developers, 3D printed housing for components is a common need. But they also house other companies with larger requirements, Torres says, like architectural firms working in urban development and startups building custom drones. These sorts of prototypes often dwarf the average desktop printer. He explains, “A printer like [Gigabot] gives us the capacity to print really large things that other, smaller printers just can’t.”

Hardware development necessitates quick, agile development. As one local startup put it, “Prototyping is a daily activity.” Third party contract machining often means hefty price tags and long turnaround times, which simply aren’t an option for these companies as they move quickly from iteration to iteration. This is where the in-house fabrication equipment of a makerspace can play such a crucial role. 

Torres understands that there aren’t many machines out there that rival 3D printing in the world of rapid prototyping. “This is a part of our growth, and I understand that it’s an essential tool for the team,” he says. “To create prototypes, there really isn’t another device that you can use that’s not a 3D printer, and Gigabot’s capacity is more than any other machine.”

He’s been very satisfied with their decision to invest in such a large printer. “[The goal] was achieved since the first day we opened it,” he said.

Favorite Projects

A common thread for many Puerto Rican entrepreneurs is the influence that Hurricane Maria has had on their business ventures, often spurring the creation of a company aimed at solving a problem laid bare by the storm.

True to form, some of Torres’s favorite projects that have come out of Engine-4 happen to be those associated with disaster response.

One such example is WATRIC Energy Resources, a company featured in a recent Gigabot story, who used the Engine-4 Gigabot to prototype a product which condenses drinkable water from moisture in the air. Their goal is to create units for homes and public spaces to reduce the reliance on the water grid in the event of another catastrophic disruption to the system similar to the aftermath of Maria.

Another favorite of Torres’s is a project involving mini weather stations in which Gigabot was used to 3D print the housing for a bundle of internal electronics. This was a part of Engine-4’s work on IBM’s Call for Code challenge, a competition to develop hardware prototypes for natural disaster aid. The units have been installed in different locations along the coast of Puerto Rico as well as atop Engine-4’s roof.

The Engine-4 Gigabot has also been put to work 3D printing custom components for drones to be used in a disaster-response format. In one example, drones carry and drop custom units from the air via remote control, transmitting an SOS signal to emergency responders. The idea is to use the drones to summon for aid in areas that may be impassable due to storm damage. 

 

Youth Program

One topic that Torres is particularly passionate about is his mentorship of the local youth.

In 2019 he started a free program called IoTeen ECO Bootcamp wherein he works with students from age 10-17 on tech skills, using cases involving sustainability and the environment. Over the course of the program, the group works with electronics like Raspberry Pi and Arduino, learns how to program in Python, and gets experience using 3D printers on projects like solar panels and smart farming. The whole program culminates in a hackathon.

“They don’t teach this in the schools here,” explains Torres.

He gives his students all the equipment they need to learn real-world technology skills and create functional products, guiding them along a path that may hopefully spark an idea of what they want to study in university. “They don’t have to wait until they’re in their final year of school to decide what it is they’re going to do,” he says.

The Importance of Community and Unity

When we spoke in late 2019, Torres had clear visions of growth for the future. His youth tech program was slated to double in size in 2020, Engine-4 was in the process of expanding into a new wing of the building, and he hoped to get more Gigabots for the space.

And then, as it has for countless others around the globe, COVID-19 entered the picture and made everything a little murkier. In many ways the island is still reeling from Hurricane Maria, and its healthcare system is in a vulnerable position due to persistent underfunding.

But in another sense, the crisis brought Engine-4’s sense of purpose as a hub for creation and innovation into sharp focus.

Torres and his team jumped immediately into action, putting their tools to use creating PPE for healthcare workers across the island. They began printing components to assemble face shields, and were able to fit up to 12 face shield prints on their Gigabot bed at one time. In the first wave of the pandemic in the spring, they were using nine printers to crank out 475 face shields a day. They have since donated 14,000.

The words that he ended our November conversation with now seem to take on new meaning. 

“For the community, we need more unity between us. We need to take off our protagonist hats and focus ourselves on the same North Star, so that those who come after us can replicate [these spaces] and the community can grow like it’s grown in other parts of the world. This is my advice and my words for the community.”

Puerto Rican Accelerator Encouraging Local Entrepreneurship

It’s a formula followed in different hotspots around the world: Silicon Valley’s Y Combinator, Santiago’s Start-Up Chile, San Juan’s Parallel18. Invite local and international startups to a centralized headquarters for a several month-long period, offer them capital and mentorship, and allow the creative energy and innovation to spill over into the local economy.

We ourselves have been a part of two of these programs, the first being our 2013 inception within Start-Up Chile, and most recently a member of the fifth generation of Parallel18 in 2017. The Parallel18 accelerator – commonly called by its nickname, “P18” – got its start in 2015 as a government-supported economic development initiative from the Puerto Rico, Science, Technology, and Research Trust.

“This program has a mission to promote innovative entrepreneurship in Puerto Rico,” explains Wanda Fraguada, P18’s marketing manager, “and we do that through now two programs: Parallel18, which focuses on startups that have traction and are looking to scale from Puerto Rico to international markets, and pre18, which focuses on local startups that are trying to get to market.”

Where the pre18 program focuses on only local, pre-launch startups, the Parallel18 track hosts a mix of Puerto Rican as well as international companies, and requires that participants relocate some of their team to the island for the five month duration. “In both programs,” says Fraguada, “we’re looking for innovative companies that can scale easily, that attend to global needs…and [are] easy to scale and reproduce in other markets.”

Puerto Rico’s Past

“During most of its industrial history, Puerto Rico’s economy has been leaning into manufacturing or pharmaceuticals,” Fraguada explains. “And maybe that’s why so [many] of our students and our young people think about physical products when they think about ideas for companies.”

Contrary to the oft-typical software-heavy cohorts of Silicon Valley accelerators, many P18 companies are working on physical products, like Parknet, which had to design physical scanning ports for their electronic controlled access systems, or WATRIC Energy Resources which is focusing on systems that condense water from the air.

“But,” Fraguada continues, “physical products come with a risk – well, they come with a lot of risks – but one of the biggest is, ‘How do I prototype it, how do I prove that this actually works without spending a bunch of money?’”

As many entrepreneurs are acutely familiar, prototyping a new product is no easy feat. It typically involves outsourcing the process to a third party, exchanging CAD files for machined mockups, oftentimes in a loop that can span many months as small tweaks are made to the form with each new model.

“In terms of entrepreneurship, that’s where I see 3D printing being super valuable,” says Fraguada.

When the technology became accessible to the masses with the popularization of desktop 3D printers, the prototyping door was kicked wide open. Rather than wait for a contracted machine shop to produce expensive, machine-milled pieces with weeks-long lead times, companies could buy their own 3D printers – sometimes for the price of a single machined model – and go through the iteration process themselves. Large format 3D printers like Gigabot further scale up that creation power to full-sized objects that may otherwise max out the typical desktop build platform.

For the resident P18 startups, this benefit became available through the Parallel18 giveback program, which encourages veteran startups of the accelerator to aid the new cohorts in the form of workshops. “re:3D was pretty active in our giveback program, and they started spreading the word about 3D printing and how to prototype,” recounts Fraguada. Long after our graduation from the program, local re:3D teammate and graphic design Alessandra Montaño continues to help other founders with CAD designs and tutorials on Gigabot.

The Maria Factor

As often happens with stories told by Puerto Ricans, at some point a familiar character enters the story: Maria. In this case, she came into the picture during our time on the island.

“Suddenly, September 20th came, and the hurricane hit.” Fraguada recounts Hurricane Maria’s toll on the island, and the subsequent pause on P18’s fifth generation in the aftermath.

“re:3D got into action really fast because they had been through previous experiences with hurricanes that same year,” Fraguada explains, referring to our Houston run-in with Harvey. “They started looking for ways in which they could impact the community and which they could help.”

We began working with Engine-4, a huge coworking and maker space near San Juan which focuses on hardware and Internet of Things devices. We continue to work with founder Luis Torres to host meetups and workshops in their space, acting as a 3D printing guide for the local hardware community as well as directly assisting with 3D printing items for relief efforts.

Plugging up the Brain Drain

Once the island was back on its feet and P18 had picked operations back up, they ended up launching their pre18 pre-accelerator program, which is where Fraguada believes re:3D has has been the most influential.

“I think [that] is where re:3D has had the biggest impact…helping our young Puerto Rican companies to prototype their products in a fast and cost-efficient way,” she says. “To help them see that idea that they had, that they had no clue how they were gonna do that prototype, re:3D has helped them to do that prototyping fast and in ways that will not break their banks.”

The motivation of having a physical prototype in-hand also does wonders for founders’ morale, she explains. “They’ve seen that their technology actually works, and someone’s giving them that hope that, ‘Hey, keep working at it because your idea is actually a thing in your hand now.’”

For the Puerto Rican team which manages P18 operations, seeing entrepreneurs succeed and grow into operating companies in the local community is the ultimate reward of the job.

“One of the things that made me decide to work in Parallel18 was knowing that in some way I was affecting positively the economy in the island,” explains Fraguada. “Knowing that this program would help a lot of people who were thinking of leaving the island or felt hopeless because they were starting their business and there was no help…and suddenly they found out that they could start a business and they would get support.”

Puerto Rico suffers from a lot of brain drain, she explains, when entrepreneurs and engineers leave to the mainland to pursue business ideas. P18 is incentivizing these innovators to stay local – or to at least start there before expanding to the broader US market – and showing them that there is a support system for them in Puerto Rico. “We’re affecting future generations in seeing entrepreneurship as a goal, not as an alternative – even if entrepreneurship is a crazy roller coaster. It still is your journey and you know that you are affecting your island in a positive way.”

Gigabot X Supported by the National Science Foundation

You may already be familiar with Gigabot X, our 3D pellet printer. A ton of work hours, research, and testing have gone into this machine, and we wanted to call out one of the reasons this has been possible: the National Science Foundation.

Our Gigabot X work is supported by America’s Seed Fund, a $200 million per year NSF program that awards research and development grants to small businesses and startups, transforming scientific discovery into products and services with commercial and societal impact.

The NSF awarded us an SBIR Phase II to fund our research into 3D printing with reclaimed plastic using direct drive pellet extrusion on Gigabot X. This work quite literally wouldn’t have been possible without them.

Additional information about real-world applications of this project can be seen on our website here: https://re3d.org/gbx-puerto-rico/

Inside NASA’s Pandemic Response Campaigns

The following is a repost of an article written by Mike DiCicco which can originally be seen on NASA’s site here.

In mid-March, as much of the country shut down in response to the rapidly spreading novel coronavirus (COVID-19), a team of engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California got to work.

Doctors nearby needed ventilators, so the team set out to design an inexpensive version that wouldn’t use any of the same parts as traditional ventilators, so as not to compete for supplies.

Patrick Degrosse, engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, shows the guts of the ventilator that a team of NASA engineers designed in just over five weeks. The machine uses none of the parts used in traditional ventilators, so as not to compete for supply lines. Credits: NASA

Unsure where to begin and knowing that whatever they came up with would need rapid approval, they reached out to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Leon Alkalai, head of strategic partnerships for JPL, connected with the regulator’s assistant director in charge of respiratory devices. “I said, ‘We have no idea what we’re doing, but we have a great team and we’re enthusiastic and we need help,’” Alkalai recalled, “and he said, ‘We’re in.’”

The FDA official noted that ventilator design is essentially “a physics and fluidic problem,” Alkalai said. That was when he knew the team would succeed. “When the problem is translated to physics, we know what to do.”

Across NASA, other centers also found ways to refocus their skills and technologies to address the pandemic. As rates of infection and hospitalization again tick upward in many states, several of the solutions NASA field centers came up with in the spring now teeter on the verge of widespread application.

At NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, home of the Human Health and Performance Center, the Technology Transfer Office combed through more than 2,000 technologies and software programs created in the last decade, looking for anything that might be useful in confronting the health crisis. The center submitted a portfolio of 34 open source technologies to the United Nations and is also helping a handful of groups update and manufacture a simple, human-powered ventilator originally designed for the space program.

Meanwhile, NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California, joined a local public-private task force with a hospital and college, a neighboring city, and two spaceflight companies and ended up patenting an improvement to an oxygen helmet for COVID-19 patients.

And when NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland heard that a familiar company was working to update a device for sterilizing medical equipment and spaces, the center jumped in to help.

In all these cases, NASA and its partners found that, with a little guidance, aerospace engineers also make pretty good medical engineers.

If It Helps Save One Life

For JPL, quick turnaround of a viable emergency ventilator meant reaching out to many partners, said Alkalai, who initiated and managed all these relationships. These included two local hospitals, several federal agencies, the University of California Los Angeles, and medical device giant Medtronic.

After just 37 days of working around the clock, they had a prototype, called Ventilator Intervention Technology Accessible Locally, or VITAL for short. “There were issues of exhaustion, but we were on a mission,” Alkalai said.

Almost as quickly, the FDA granted the device a ventilator emergency use authorization. The next trick was to get it out into the world. This required a new approach to licensing.

“Normally, we’re happy if just one company comes to us saying they’re interested in a license,” said Daniel Broderick, manager of JPL’s Technology Transfer Office. In this case, the response was much bigger. Over 300 companies registered on the JPL website to learn more about the ventilator, and more than 100 applied for a license. Now the challenge was to determine who was capable of producing the machine. “We’ve never seen this much licensing demand for a technology,” Broderick said.

One of those applicants was Pro-Dex Inc., a design and manufacturing company in Irvine, California. Working with NASA on the ventilator was an opportunity to learn new things, grow the company, and “be part of the solution,” said Pro-Dex CEO Rick Van Kirk.

In late June, the company was working on sourcing parts, determining distribution channels, and laying out the assembly line. And NASA is still supporting the effort, having put together documentation, 3D renderings, and videos to assist licensees, including a video about the assembly process. “They did a great job of teeing it up for everybody,” said Van Kirk.

Pro-Dex was one of 29 companies granted licenses, including seven other U.S. businesses.

“If half of them end up delivering the devices, that would be amazing,” said Alkalai. “We would be just thrilled if at least one unit makes it into a hospital and helps save a life.”

Other teams at JPL have designed protective respirator masks and a necklace that vibrates when wearers start to touch their faces. The masks and necklace can be 3D printed, and the design files and instructions are available for open source licensing on GitHub.

About 30 entities have licensed the low-cost Ventilator Intervention Technology Accessible Locally, or VITAL, that NASA engineers designed and patented. Licenses are free of charge. Credits: NASA

Human-Powered Solutions

Engineers at Johnson are offering a simpler ventilator solution, primarily for use in developing countries. As the pandemic unfolded, engineers who had developed a ventilator for use on the Orion spacecraft started updating it. The device is similar to human-powered ventilator bags used in ambulances, but those are squeezed by hand, which becomes tiring quickly. Johnson’s ventilator is powered by larger muscle groups in the arms or even legs. It can be used to keep a patient alive for hours, perhaps while waiting for a bed to open up, said Kris Romig, technology transfer officer at Johnson.

“The technical team came to us and said, ‘We think this could help, and we don’t know how to get it out into the world,” he said. The center is now offering the ventilator as an open source technology.

It didn’t take long for Matthew Fiedler and the other founders of 3D printing company re:3D, all former Johnson employees, to hear about the ventilator, which the company is helping to refine.

A team at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston designed a 3D-printable ventilator that can be powered with both hands for use in the Orion capsule. The center has repurposed it for use on COVID-19 patients and is working with companies around the world to get it out to hospitals. Only a few parts, such as the accordion-like bellows, can’t be 3D printed. Credits: re:3D

The Johnson team had computer-aided design files for the ventilator parts but had never manufactured them. “They sent us the file, and we printed it,” Fiedler said. “We’re helping them bring the product to life and figure out how to make it better.”

Once the design is finalized, re:3D, whose manufacturing facility is close by Johnson in Houston, could start producing ventilators, working with federal and international organizations to get them into the hands of those who need them, he said.

Anheuser-Busch InBev (ABI), whose global technical headquarters is in St. Louis, is also working to get Johnson’s manual ventilator out into developing countries. “We deliver beer to places you wouldn’t believe all over the world,” said Lucas Steinle, global director of industrial digital transformation at ABI, noting the company could use that infrastructure to help deliver the ventilators almost anywhere.

The engineering group of ABI’s subsidiary in South America, known as Ambev, is working with Johnson engineers to finalize a prototype, which it plans to bring to the United Nations to see how the company can partner with other groups to get it into manufacturing and distribution. Steinle added that ABI has the facilities to manufacture it through 3D printing if need be.

Meanwhile, Leviathan Space Industries is building partnerships to introduce the human-powered ventilator in Ecuador. The company has been working to build a private spaceport in the Ecuadorian city of Guayaquil, which was ravaged by one of the world’s worst outbreaks of the virus.

“Due to its ease of use and how cheap it is, this can definitely help provide emergency relief when hospitals have overflow capacity,” said Robert Aillon, founder of Leviathan.

The Pompano Beach, Florida-based company has partnered with the University of Kentucky for help with testing and FDA approval and is working with Ecuadorian company Pica Plasticos Industriales on manufacturing. And Leviathan is working with the Ecuadorian school Universidad Espiritu Santo to help with that country’s regulatory approval process, Aillon said.

Back at Johnson, the center’s simultaneous effort to dig up any technology that might help – whether or not it’s patented – has led the Technology Transfer Office to consider making it possible for the public to search broad categories of unpatented technology. “These can be useful without a license, just open source,” Romig said.

A Second-Generation Sterilizer

While others work on ways to mitigate the effects of the virus, the company Emergency Products and Research (EP+R) is working with Glenn engineers to destroy it.

The Kent, Ohio-based company’s AMBUstat fogger system creates an aerosol of water, peracetic acid, and hydrogen peroxide to eliminate all pathogens in the air or on surfaces. It was originally developed after consultation with a Glenn research engineer in 2015 and was intended for use in ambulances.

“We were working on a new design that would let us deal with the limitations of the original,” said Jason Thompson, who handles business development for EP+R and drove the original device’s creation. The company wanted it to better address airborne contaminants, treat different-sized spaces more efficiently, and be more cost-effective.

With help from NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, the company Emergency Products and Research (EP+R) improved its AMBUstat sterilant. Jason Thompson of EP+R tests a new system that lets the AMBUstat G2 device quickly sterilize small spaces, like the inside of a police car. Credits: Emergency Products and Research

When Glenn heard about the new work, the center wanted to help again, so it put an aerosol science and instrumentation specialist on the case, and JPL was tapped for additional consulting. The resulting device, known as the AMBUstat G2, creates smaller aerosol droplets to better attack airborne viruses. Improved flow control and the ability to control the process from outside of the targeted space allow it to treat spaces faster and more effectively. In a pilot project with the Ohio State Highway Patrol, the company found it could disinfect 10 to 12 police cars in the time the original fogger treated just one.

Following about a month and a half of cooperation, Glenn is testing the new device, after which it will go to a proving ground for testing against the novel coronavirus.

With the sterilant already approved by the Environmental Protection Agency, Thompson said, the company is ready to move into production of the AMBUstat G2 as soon as testing is complete.

Meanwhile, the Glenn researcher who helped refine the original AMBUstat teamed up with researchers from University Hospitals Health System in Cleveland to develop another device that uses atomic oxygen to decontaminate N95 facemasks for reuse. Initial results indicate effectiveness; however, more testing is needed to confirm the effect of multiple decontamination cycles on the integrity of the masks.

Over at Armstrong, the Technology Transfer Office was hard at work pursuing FDA approval and a company to build an improved oxygen-supplying device the center’s engineers came up with.

The positive-pressure oxygen helmet resulted from a task force that included Armstrong, spaceflight company Virgin Galactic and its sister The Spaceship Company, the city of Lancaster, Antelope Valley Hospital, and Antelope Valley College, bringing together resources, medical professionals, and engineers.

“Completely Outside of Our Comfort Zone”

Engineer at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California, Mike Buttigieg (left) led a team that came up with a low-cost oxygen helmet for COVID-19 patients. The design includes a magnetically sealed port, which the center has licensed out. Here, Dr. Daniel Khodabakhsh of Antelope Valley Hospital tries one on. The hospital was part of a task force that helped with the effort. Credits: NASA

Oxygen helmet manufacturers have been unable to meet the surge in demand in response to COVID-19, which often deprives patients of oxygen. A team led by Armstrong engineer Mike Buttigieg was charged with developing a low-cost, easily made assisted breathing helmet that could withstand pressures that off-the-shelf units weren’t designed for, without impacting the supply chain. Through conversations with the team’s lead doctor, Buttigieg had the idea to install a magnetic port, allowing access to the wearer’s face. “Having a helmet on without face access makes it hard to check vitals or take a drink of water,” said Samantha Hull, licensing manager and outreach coordinator at Armstrong.

The task force produced hundreds of the modified helmets for use at local hospitals, but Armstrong wanted to get them produced at greater scale. Final FDA approval also required a commercial manufacturer, meaning NASA had to find a company to license the technology without regulatory approval, said Benjamin Tomlinson, technology transfer officer at Armstrong.

In early July, the brand-new company Medify Products LLC signed a nonexclusive license to use the magnetic access port in oxygen helmets.

Tom Ryder, president and CEO of Genesis Plastics Welding, started Medify Products after he saw video of oxygen helmets being used in Italian hospitals early in the crisis. Genesis, his original company, had been producing similar helmets for more than 25 years.

“This is a product that utilizes all of our expertise,” he said. “We want to put that talent to use in fighting the virus.”

Ryder said Medify, located in Fortville, Indiana, will likely incorporate Armstrong’s magnetic port into more than one helmet design. A major advantage of working with NASA, he said, is that Armstrong is working with its contacts to get prototypes into formal testing and working with the FDA to secure emergency authorization for the helmets.

Much of this is new territory for Armstrong, which specializes in aeronautical research. “Medical applications are completely outside of our comfort zone,” said Tomlinson, noting that his team is figuring out how to navigate the approval process.

“This is something you can produce without a lot of expense, and it can save lives,” said Tomlinson. “Its elegance and simplicity is the beauty of it.”

Ryder said he wouldn’t previously have associated NASA with projects like this. “How they’re working with businesses like mine, a small business, gives me hope for the country.”

To learn more about NASA’s response to coronavirus, visit: https://www.nasa.gov/coronavirus

 

By Mike DiCicco

GBX Case Study: Coffee Picking Baskets in Puerto Rico

With the development of our Gigabot X pellet printer came our engineers’ need to trial it in different applications and settings. We settled on Sandra Farms – the coffee farm at the center of our latest story about chocolate cigar molds – as a case study to determine the practicality of using recycled plastic to create real-world, functional objects.

“Good coffee is picked by hand.” Israel Gonzalez is a second-generation coffee farmer who started Sandra Farms in the early 90’s. He explains that coffee pickers around the world are historically underpaid, typically placed at the bottom of the coffee farming ladder.

Sandra Farms is trying to break this mold.

“The main focus here is trying to use Sandra Farms as a model. We want to support an agricultural, agrarian way of life in Puerto Rico.” Domenico Celli came to the farm as part of a graduate school project with a focus on implementing sustainability practices, and several years later finds himself still working with them and more attached to their mission of specialty agriculture. “The people that we have in mind are the farm workers and families and communities here in some of the most rural and remote areas of Puerto Rico that have traditionally been dependent on agriculture as their main source of income, and culturally, their way of life.”

Sandra Farms is trying to set an example for other farms, paying their pickers two to three times the average in Puerto Rico. Says Celli, “That is because above all, we are committed to making this a viable way of life for these people and their families.”

The basket opportunity

In working with Gonzalez and Celli on their chocolate cigar mold concept, a potential case study opportunity for Gigabot X presented itself.

“Most agricultural workers in Puerto Rico traditionally are the forgotten people here, and that’s reinforced through what they use to pick coffee with,” explains Celli, “which is mostly just fertilizer bags, or really uncomfortable, five-gallon buckets that are not at all made for coffee picking.”

“The five-gallon plastic bucket…” Gonzalez shows one off that has been strung with a simple rope handle. “It’s functional, it works, cheap – but not ideal, not ergonomic.”

Our local team in Puerto Rico took the opportunity to investigate 3D printed solutions that could provide a superior substitute for the farm’s pickers, with the ultimate goal of using Gigabot X to print a design using recycled plastic.

The choice of an application in Puerto Rico was no accident. Gigabot X has the ability to print from pelletized plastic as well as recycled plastic regrind; our team saw immense potential for a machine that could create a closed-loop system on an island, using waste as input material to create functional objects that may be expensive to import.

“Unfortunately, our recycling systems here in Puerto Rico are very outdated, not very efficient, and in reality, not much – if anything at all – is recycled,” says Celli. “A much better alternative would be able to actually have a way to repurpose and use that waste, and know that it’s going to some sort of practical application.”

The design process

Our San Juan-based designer Alessandra Montaño began the process with a CAD sketch. “The design process was very interactive,” she recounts.

Over the course of the project, she visited the farm four times, working with Gonzalez in person and talking directly with workers trialing the design in the fields. “I did one prototype, sent it to them, they made some changes like widening the design, changing the height of the basket…”

re:3D Mechanical Engineer Helen Little describes the trial and error process of testing, and the balance of modifying the basket design for the specific application while understanding the unique nature of a pellet printer. “We wanted to focus on quick production and cheaper cost-per-unit, so we chose to use a larger nozzle,” Little explains. “But there are many issues that come with that: a lot of oozing, lower quality prints…So we had to do a lot of optimization of print settings to get a higher-quality print.”

Little decided to experiment with printing in vase mode, which involves extruding in a continuous stream rather than a lot of stopping points where the nozzle has the opportunity to ooze plastic. “For that, we had to actually redesign the part itself so that the perimeter was only one layer thick,” she says.

Together, Little and Montaño incorporated user feedback from Sandra Farms into incremental tweaks to the design and new prototypes. They increased the basket depth to allow for a larger haul to be carried at one time, refined the shape to better hug the wearer’s waist, and added a brim to which a picker could attach shoulder straps.

“The way that a part is designed and printed has a huge effect on how long it takes to print, how much material it is, and at the end of the day, the bottom line for the cost,” explains Little. “I think it’s really important to get these real-world case studies and get that user feedback so that we can assess how viable of a solution this is for them and how much we can help improve over the current solution they’re using, using Gigabot X, 3D printing, and recycled materials.”

By the culmination of the testing process there had been twelve iterations of the basket, with the final design clocking in at around three and a half hours of print time.

Putting it to the test in the field

The crescent moon design on which they settled curves around the front of the waist, with a wide profile so a picker’s hands don’t have to travel far to drop in coffee cherries. It’s manageable enough to strap over one’s shoulders and carry through the field, yet sturdy enough to haul over fifteen pounds of coffee.

“We had wondered whether they could take the beating on the job, at the farm. ‘Can the bottom hold?’” Gonzalez initially pondered. “Yeah, they do,” he smiles. “Very well.”

Explains Celli, “The way that we designed them with re:3D was so that the opening would be wide so that a picker going through the field on uneven terrain is able to quickly pick coffee and kind of dump it into the bucket without it falling.”

He recounts the difficulties that came with the old-school fertilizer sack picking method. “It’s hard to keep it open with one hand, put coffee into it in the other, and then be efficient in a day where you’re trying to optimize how quickly you can get through the fields.” Seasonal coffee pickers, Celli explains, are paid by the pound. A vessel that allows for faster picking and movement through a field – not to mention fewer coffee cherries dropped – equals more money in a picker’s pocket. 

The comfort of having the basket contour to the hip is an obvious added bonus, Celli continues, allowing workers to pick more comfortably and later into the day.

There were more unforeseen positives of the custom basket design which Gonzalez and Celli didn’t fully comprehend before embarking on the project with re:3D.

“The reaction of such joy and excitement from the coffee pickers seeing these baskets that were actually made for them and thoughtfully designed to be comfortable for them was amazing to see,” recounts Celli.

The impact on the pickers’ morale was an unexpected and uplifting side effect of the project for both Celli and Gonzalez. They seemed unaccustomed and touched to be the focus of a project with a specific goal of creating a product to make their job easier and more comfortable.

The joy in the fields was visibly apparent, with pickers jockeying to get a chance with the new baskets: a promising sign for both the basket project and Sandra Farms’ own internal case study of running a sustainable, ethical farm prioritizing workers’ livelihoods.

In the meantime, both Gigabot X research and Sandra Farms’ exploration into sustainability continues. 

This project was made possible thanks to the support of the Puerto Rico Science, Technology & Research Trust and the National Science Foundation, who helped fund our research into Gigabot X.

Designing Chocolate Molds for a Puerto Rican Farm

Nestled in the green mountains of Adjuntas, Puerto Rico – about a two hour, winding drive from San Juan – is a boutique coffee grower by the name of Sandra Farms.

Owner Israel Gonzalez grew up on a coffee farm in Oriente, Cuba, a childhood that greatly influenced his ambition to carry on the tradition. At 15 years of age he moved to New York City. The next several decades in the States were spent completing undergrad and grad school, meeting his future wife and farm namesake, Sandra, and starting a family. Throughout, the dream of a farm remained, a plan that was ultimately put into action in Puerto Rico in the early ‘90s.

The setting is idyllic. “It is beautiful, I know,” Gonzalez muses. “But you know, some people don’t like living out here. They’d rather have Fifth Avenue – which is wonderful, I love Manhattan – but I’d rather be here, of course.”

It was nearly three years ago that re:3D cofounder Samantha Snabes met Gonzalez on a tour of the farm. The topic of 3D printing arose. Perhaps there was an opportunity to print some tools for use in their line of work?

Sandra Farms would later serve as a test kitchen for proof-of-concept work using recycled plastic to create functional tools on the new pellet printer, Gigabot X. There was also a second opportunity that Gonzalez saw for 3D printing on the farm.

In addition to acres of coffee, Sandra Farms boasts a collection of other crops, including citrus, turmeric, and cacao. With their chocolatier Bajari in Mayagüez, they created a line of chocolate products – among them, cigar-shaped chocolates. The path to create the lifelike, cylindrical cigars Gonzalez envisioned, however, proved to be more difficult than anticipated.

“We had searched – both myself and the chocolatier – all over online, everywhere, and we never had found a totally cylindrical mold,” says Gonzalez.

Sandra Farms employee Domenico Celli echoes this challenge. “There wasn’t really any solution that we could easily find out there, especially for a relatively small scale production like we have.” Their method in the interim was imperfect: a mold fashioned from a piece of ½” PVC pipe. Says Celli, “It wasn’t very practical, it was a pain to use, you could only do a few at a time.”

The band-aid solution worked in the beginning when they were only making a few pieces at a time for themselves or gifts. Celli continues, “But now that they’re trying to gradually increase their production they weren’t able to scale the way that they had wanted to with that product, because our chocolatier was not able to pump out what we needed with the molds that we had.”

When Gonzalez and Snabes met, a lightbulb went off for him. “I said, ‘Ah, 3D printing might save the day.’ Bingo.”

In conjunction with re:3D designer Alessandra Montaño, they worked on the design of a cylindrical mold into which molten chocolate could be poured, and then snapped apart to remove the chocolate pieces once hardened. Gigabot was used to 3D print prototypes as they refined the features.

“Designing cigar molds are not that complicated – cigars are just a cylinder shape,” explains Montaño. “So, instead of focusing on that aspect of the design, I was focusing on how to make this practical for them.”

As a small, boutique coffee farm, their needs weren’t dramatic – they were just starting out with this idea and interested in producing batch quantities in the dozens or low hundreds, not thousands.

“They aren’t making a million chocolate cigars,” says Montaño. “I wanted to design something that they could use to scale up, if they wanted to. So, the interesting part of the design is that it’s modular, and you can just keep adding more modules as you go.”

The design is simple to use: new rows of the mold simply snap in place next to the previous sections. This will allow the farm to start small and increase their capabilities as demand grows, keeping any initial investment small as they gauge interest.

“As we continue to expand, we can literally just add more units to that and increase production without having to build a whole new way of doing things,” says Celli. “We are very excited to work on this mold with re:3D, and so far we’ve been able to start increasing our production and getting it out there into the market.”

The out-of-the-ordinary setting for such 21st century technology is not lost on the Sandra Farms team. “I think obviously all over the world, 3D printing is really becoming more mainstream, and people are starting to fully realize the potential on all different types of industries,” says Celli. “Here in Puerto Rico, on a coffee and cacao farm, it’s amazing to see how many different applications that there are in such an unlikely place.”

* Disclaimer: The 3D prints used in this application were for prototyping and testing purposes. Experts recommend proper material use and post-processing when creating 3D prints for use in direct food-contact applications. Please see Formlabs’ Essential Guide to Food Safe 3D Printing for guidance: https://formlabs.com/blog/guide-to-food-safe-3d-printing/

Creating Custom Architectural Features with māk studio

The māk studio building is a rather nondescript structure in an industrial area just east of downtown Houston. It may not look like much from the outside, but the innards are a different story. This, in a way, is what they have the power to do for their clients, transforming a space that otherwise might pass by unnoticed into one that demands attention.

māk studio’s tagline is simple and to the point: “Make design possible.” They design, build, and manufacture beautiful spaces, functional objects, furniture, and surfaces tailored to commercial brands. The design doesn’t just stop with the structural design, as mentioned more below, interior design is a factor too. The use of such designs as Fine Art America posters, wall art, paintings, eye-catching color, etc. is very important and can give a certain feel to an area.

The founders, Liz Cordill and José Aguilar, met while practicing architecture in 2013, and have spent nearly three decades between the two of them as practicing architects. They began hitting roadblocks, however, when it came to actually fabricating some of their more complex ideas.

“There was this disconnect between the design industry and the construction industry where the design industry was developing these really cool concepts and the construction industry was not quite keeping up,” explains Aguilar. “We found an opportunity there to really focus on that niche and just offer that as a design and fabrication service.”

māk was their answer to this hurdle.

“We started this business – José and I – because as practicing architects we were finding that some of the things that we were designing, the technology wasn’t there to fabricate it,” says Cordill.

Cordill and Aguilar started with one machine and grew into the 16,000 square foot facility they occupy today. A massive fin wall separates their production floor from the front portion of the office and showroom where the design and prototyping happens. They can take a concept directly from CAD file to physical form using the array of tools at their disposal – from CNC routers to thermoformers – without leaving the building.

Gigabot enters the building

māk studio is a team of architects, industrial designers, interior designers, carpenters, and fabricators; conceiving and creating custom concepts is their specialty. Sometimes, the toughest part of the process can actually be the sale.

The architecture industry used to rely on line drawings to communicate building concepts – a format that Cordill said could be exceptionally difficult to wrap one’s head around. The industry was quick to jump on the 3D train, taking their work into the realm of CAD. But for as photorealistic as these architectural renderings can be, these too are subject to interpretation, says Cordill.

This was something the architecture industry had remedied with hand-built models. “We used to actually build physical models, with cardboard and chipboard and things like that,” recounts Cordill. And while māk wanted a medium that would allow their clients to accurately understand how a particular feature would look and feel in their space, the time sink of laboring over a cardboard model for hours or days didn’t make sense.

The same issues apply to the custom furniture that māk creates today. In order to solve this issue, they turned their sights to 3D printing and ended up getting a Gigabot.

“Having the 3D printer is much more valuable because it’s a faster tool,” says Cordill. “We can set it to work and we don’t have a person sitting there cutting cardboard – and themselves – with an Exacto.”

A custom wall for the re:3D factory

“The Gigabot is really core to how we do things here,” says Aguilar. “From our sales efforts, to our marketing efforts, to actually solving problems for our clients.”

One of Mak’s recent customers was none other than the re:3D Houston factory.

“Designing these walls is a lot of fun.” Polli Bush is Mak’s Project Manager. She walked the re:3D team through the māk design portal user interface, aiding us in the design of several iterations of a logo fin wall.

Once we created three versions, we were able to export STL files of each option and print them in-house on Gigabot. The final decision was put up to a company-wide vote, and with the winner chosen, māk got to fabricating.

The install took no more than an hour: the māk team put together the mounting system of the wall and showed our group how to slide the wooden fins into place. The rippling design took shape before our eyes as each unique slat was added.

Bush explains how the design process has evolved from the pre-3D printer days at Mak, highlighting their ability to rapidly prototype and create accurate scale models of designs. “The technology of 3D printing makes it a lot easier for people to believe in what they’re going to get,” says Bush. “It’s proof of concept in our industry.”

Using 3D printing to solve complex problems

“At the end of the day, we’re problem-solvers for our clients,” says Aguilar.

māk does everything in their power to make their clients visions into reality, using the arsenal of cutting-edge production tools at their disposal. Gigabot fits into this lineup of problem-solving machinery, but Aguilar explains that it can also serve as a check for them.

“We’ve got clients that come up with some really cool stuff, and sometimes it’s very complicated to build,” he says. “If we can’t 3D print something, most likely it’s gonna be really, really hard to actually make it in bigger components. So it actually keeps us in check. If we can 3D print it, that means that we have the logic to actually build it.”

On the other hand, he remarks, if they have major issues with 3D printing scale models, it can serve as an initial sign that perhaps the design needs to be reworked.

Gigabot can also bridge the gap where other production tools may falter. Aguilar tells the story of a custom light fixture they’re working on with a client, where 3D printing is serving a role in producing the final piece. “We’re studying the idea of doing this faceted light that would be really hard to do without printing,” he says. “It would be very, very time-consuming and it would make the project unattainable.”

Camilo Reinales is a Designer and Fabrication Assistant at māk working on the light project. “This custom light opened the idea of ‘maybe we don’t need to use the traditional fabrication methods, maybe we could start exploring additive manufacturing alternatives.’”

They’re experimenting with printing the pyramidal structure of the fixture in PLA and casting in metal. “For the geometry that it has, it would have taken a lot of time and skill for a craftsman to create,” explains Reinales. “But with 3D printing, the cool thing about it is that if you can model and print it, like 75% of the job is done.”

They printed a functional scale model at 75% infill – a 37 hour print – so they could actually hang items from the structure as they go through testing. The final light will be twelve by fight feet.

Bigger, faster

Aguilar muses about his journey from small, desktop printing in architecture school to where they are now at māk . “I always want to print a little bigger, a little faster. This was a really great aspect of Gigabot.”

The technology is now so enmeshed in their process Aguilar can hardly picture a time before 3D printing. “[Gigabot] is kind of core to our DNA how we do things here,” he reiterates. “It’s just part of the process. Every project is somewhat touched by [it] right now.”

Cordill reflects on how 3D printing has enabled them to offer products and services to a wider swath of clients. “You can see some of these sort of fancy designs and people think, ‘Oh, that’s really, really expensive. I can never have that in my space,’” she muses. “But our goal is to really make it more accessible to everyone, so that you’ve got access to creating something unique that’s your own, using these design tools.”

It’s clear that at the core of māk is a desire to continue pushing the boundaries of what is possible in their field – after all, that is how the company came to be in the first place. They accomplish this with a pioneering mentality and a pursuit of new tools and technologies that enable the creation of ideas that would otherwise remain unmakeable.

On the relatively recent addition of 3D printing to their production floor lineup, Aguilar muses, “It really has helped us keep up with where the industry is going, where the technology is going, and how do we invest in this technology in the future?”

Learn more about māk studio: https://www.makstudio.us/

Creating Water from Air: WATRIC Energy Resources

Karlos Miranda was in his first year at University Of Puerto Rico Mayagüez Campus when Hurricane Maria hit.

Bringing with it 150 mile-an-hour winds and several feet of rainfall, the storm devastated Puerto Rico, destroying homes and wiping out power across the island. But it was the destruction of the water system that made the biggest impression on Miranda, spurring him to action.

“I remember the first time I went out looking for water and saw the lines of people waiting for an oasis truck. It was a never-ending line of people desperate to fill their containers with water,” he recounts. “All these people – me included – were lucky to live in a place where water trucks were able to come, because there were others in more isolated areas or places with blocked roads who did not have access to water for a longer time.”

It jolted him that even the people who were seemingly well-equipped for such a natural disaster – homes with solar panels and backup generators – were crippled by the loss of running water. “After Maria, many Puerto Ricans started buying electric generators or moving to renewable energy to decrease the impact of a blackout, but when it comes to water there is not much to do in order to be more resilient.”

The relief effort was also woefully botched: who can forget the image of thousands of water bottle pallets left to expire on a hot runway in Ceiba?

“We saw a need after the hurricane: a need in water transportation, a need of micro-grids, and a gap in home-sustainability products,” Miranda says. “The need for an alternative water source – it was very obvious in that moment.”

 

Finding Solutions to Problems Exposed by Maria

As a student in the mechanical engineering program with a penchant for tinkering, Miranda often attended on-campus workshops for startups. One such event was put on by a local organization, Parallel18, which hosts a five-month program in San Juan that provides grants and mentorship to young companies in an accelerator-like format. Under the Parallel18 umbrella is Pre18, a program for even earlier-stage startups that may still be in the prototype phase.

Miranda pitched his idea and was accepted into Pre18’s second cohort.

That idea is now WATRIC Energy Resources, Miranda’s answer to the lack of off-the-grid systems for use in the event of a natural disaster, or simply to improve one’s carbon footprint. WATRIC’s mission is to develop home solutions, accessible to the average Puerto Rican, to extract potable water from the surroundings so that water security is never a concern.

“[Maria] has been in my mind since, and is what motivated me to start looking for future solutions in water access because…I am aware that this same situation could happen again to Puerto Rico, and any place prone to natural disasters like hurricanes.”

Miranda is working towards this solution through the creation of WALT, a wall-mounted device that condenses naturally-occurring moisture in the air, turning it into liquid water. Using the surrounding air, the technology makes use of the Peltier effect – in conjunction with software to allow the system to adapt in a wide range of environments – to generate one to two gallons of drinkable water a day.

“A technology like WALT could mean relief in a natural disaster that causes a water blackout,” Miranda explains. “We also think about WALT as part of the effort for achieving independence from the grid. We want to bring the same relief that people have when they can generate their own energy at home, but with water, and a future in which total home independence from the grid is a possibility.”

A Growing Startup Community in Puerto Rico

Over the course of about six months, Miranda was able to move rapidly from idea stage to workable prototype thanks to the help of a growing startup community in Puerto Rico, one which has blossomed from the rubble of Maria as local entrepreneurs sprang to action to create solutions to problems left exposed in the wake of the storm.

“Here in the island, this is – I would say – the first time that the startup community is really having growth,” Miranda muses. 

One such entrepreneurial hub fueling this renaissance is Engine-4, which, at 24,000 square feet, is the largest coworking space in Puerto Rico. Housed in an old civil defense base, its mixed-use facilities are home to an array of equipment like soldering tools, oscilloscopes, and 3D printers. Miranda found himself at the space by way of Parallel18, where he met a fellow member – also part of the Engine-4 world – who introduced him.

He was blown away by the facility. “I didn’t know that they had so much resources in there for hardware prototyping and for hardware start-ups,” Miranda recollects. He was more accustomed to seeing young, software-focused companies, both in Puerto Rico and in the news in general. “Hardware start-ups are more difficult and less common in the island…so I was impressed that [Engine-4] had all these resources, 3D printing, everything.”

Both Parallel18 and Engine-4 host Gigabots for their members to use as a prototyping and design resource. Miranda took advantage of the two locations during the creation of WALT, printing full-scale models that dwarved the build volume of his desktop 3D printer at home.

“With these kinds of programs, we not only have the funds, we have an alternative to use resources directly,” he explains. Pre18 provided them with monetary grants, and, equally as beneficial, Engine-4 offered them access to machinery that would have otherwise been prohibitively expensive.

Miranda doesn’t know how WATRIC would have gotten to a final design without 3D printing.

He describes the early design stages, modeling the unit using CAD. “We thought that it was functional in that moment,” he recounts, “but it wasn’t until we had the physical prototype actually printed that we were able to improve it and to see what needed to be changed.” The phenomenon is all too common for product designers. A 3D design that seems watertight on a screen immediately gives up its flaws once its form enters the physical realm.

“Prototyping is our daily activity,” Miranda says. “3D printing is helping us to iterate. When we make our prototype, we see where we need to improve.”

The model they printed at Engine-4 clocked in at around 26 hours, designed specifically to allow them to move seamlessly from 3D printing into injection molding.

While WATRIC Energy Resources finishes the development and scaling of their drinking water product, they have created a smaller, spinoff version to get people a taste of their technology’s capabilities: a smart indoor plant watering system called WALTY. They will be launching a Kickstarter for this product, using funds raised to move forward with their larger mission of potable water-producing systems.

Follow WATRIC’s progress and get notified when their Kickstarter launches, at https://watricer.com/support-us

Pamton 3D: Advice from a Contract 3D Print Business Veteran

“If the house catches fire, screw the diamonds – I gotta bring my steps.”

The stairs leading to the basement of Pamela Szmara’s house are what she’s referring to, and it’s what’s on them that’s so valuable. The treasure trove is visible only once you reach the bottom and look up. Covering the exposed wooden portions of the staircase are pen marks: WiFi networks and passwords, login information to unnamed accounts. It’s a physical password manager.

It may seem like an odd solution, but it fits neatly into the package that is Pam, owner of 3D printing service bureau Pamton 3D.

The basement is home to an ensemble of 3D printers, among them two Gigabot XLT’s, to whom Pam affectionately refers as “the girls.”

“Our Gigabots are named,” she explains. “They’re Gigi One and Gigi Two.” Spelled G-i-g-i, she clarifies, but pronounced GG.

“And when the third one gets here,” she continues, “she’ll be Gigi Three.”

The Start

Pam and her husband Tony got their start in 3D printing roughly two decades ago by way of teeth.

“I’m a Certified Dental Technician,” explains Pam. “And dentistry embraced additive manufacturing.”

The introduction happened early in Pam’s career, working with Great Lakes Orthodontics, which paved the path of additive manufacturing in her life. She learned the ropes on PolyJet printers; dentistry requires ultra-high resolution that is not doable on most filament-fed, or FFF, machines. After working with Great Lakes Orthodontics for nearly 30 years, Pam ended up forging her own path, starting Pamton 3D almost ten years ago. She credits her first non-dental 3D printing job to JollyPets, a name that remains special to her in the company’s history.

As business grew while the Pamton production capacity remained the same, Pam realized something needed to change. “With the PolyJet printers, we were limited in size and materials,” she explains. “That was the big push for us to branch out into other areas of additive manufacturing.”

The Pamton production bunker lies beneath a house on a quiet residential street in Youngstown, Ohio. Pam talks of the struggles of the Rust Belt city, and praises the revitalization that Youngstown-based America Makes, a national accelerator for additive manufacturing, has brought to the landscape.

It was at an America Makes convention that Pam crossed paths with re:3D cofounder Matthew Fiedler. She bought Gigi One on the spot.

The build volume of Gigabot allowed them to better keep up with the demand of their growing contract print business by offering not only options for people looking to do larger prints, but also by doing small production batches for clients. It wasn’t long before they again found themselves pushed to their limits of production capacity, and Gigi Two entered the picture.

“We needed it. The workload…” Pam pauses. “It was amazing. You never turn down an opportunity to be involved in a project. And what was happening is that the deadlines were coming too close. And that’s a great problem to have.”

Having two Gigabots has taken a lot of stress off their plate: they’re able to run multiple projects at one time, break batches between the printers, and offer large-scale capabilities to their clients. “The advantage of the Gigabot has always been size. The companies are able to come to us with these large parts,” she says. Their longest print clocks in at over three weeks.

“The size is the thing that really sells a lot of the clients,” Pam says. “‘Woah, you can print it this large?’ ‘You can print that many pieces?’ Well yes, we can. And once companies hear about this, the work will continue to follow.”

And follow it has. Pam recounts the early days of their jump into large-scale filament printers, musing that life has never been the same since. The trajectory of their workload has been trending upwards ever since. “We had grown to where we needed the second printer,” she says, “and where we’re at right now, we will need a third.”

The Work

“From soup to nuts” is how Pam describes the Pamton 3D business model. “If it fits, we’re gonna print it,” she says.

They have done projects for large manufacturing facilities and for students, steel mills and environmentalists, construction companies and building restoration teams, for entrepreneurs who want to prototype as they bring a physical product to market. Pam recalls a job producing models for an environmental organization working to educate the public about how water should flow away from their homes and into reservoirs in order to better control pollution.

They’ve helped old industries threatened with obsolescence to replicate parts they need that are no longer being manufactured, components with no drawings or STL files. “We’re breaking new ground for them, and that’s the really exciting area of additive,” Pam muses.

The darling of their client list is NASA Glenn, who approached them at a large additive manufacturing show in Cleveland looking to produce batches of prototypes of the new Compass Satellite.

Pam realizes that it might not make sense why one of the foremost scientific research institutions in the nation turned to a basement production facility to fulfill an order that they surely must have the capability to do themselves. Yes, NASA is doing 3D printing, Pam confirms. But – “The volume of parts that they needed,” she pauses, “they never would have been able to keep up with it.” 

The beauty of Pamton 3D is that the task no longer falls on the business owner’s shoulders, whether a budding entrepreneur or a behemoth like NASA.

The Advice

“These are not plug-and-play instruments, they’re not plug-and-play toys,” Pam says, of 3D printers.

“You’re watching these four-year-olds on YouTube with the printer that their parents bought them…and it shows this four-year-old put the filament in and – whiz bang – there’s the part.” Pamton steps in to fill the chasm that lies between the internet persona of 3D printers as magical creation boxes and the reality of technology that takes time and dedication to master.

“With Pamton being a service bureau, we take the stress and the frustration away,” Pam explains. “It’s our job to make sure everything is running smoothly when the business owners are going to sleep at night.”

She means this quite literally.

The analogy of her Gigabots as “her girls” is more than just cutesy anthropomorphizing: the time the printers take up in her life and the attention she gives them is somewhat akin to children. “It’s like having a baby in the house or a new puppy in the house: you have to just get up and check on these things,” she explains. “It’s just a little bit of reassurance when you wake up in the middle of the night and just take a look at it and say, ‘Yep, everything’s running good,’ and you go back to sleep.” For bigger jobs or ultra-time-sensitive projects, she and Tony will take turns babysitting the printers practically around the clock.

They’ve gotten much unsolicited advice on the topic of their basement as company headquarters, and Pam can agree that there are drawbacks. “But,” she says, “there are more pros than cons.” The ability to simply pop downstairs in the wee hours to check on a print – this is their advantage. “At 2 o’clock in the morning when the filament needs to be changed, it’s being changed.”

With this all-hours accessibility, she explains, they can quote clients ultra-competitive turnaround times on projects. There is no way to speed up a print beyond its inherent print time, of course, but their down-time between batches and jobs is slim to none. Says Pam, “We lose no time.”

Of course there are disadvantages to living with your work, she acknowledges. “It’s always there,” she explains. “They take maintenance. It just isn’t something that’s a walk through the park.”

For anyone toying with the idea of bringing a 3D printer home to start a business, she’s quick to jump to advice. “Try it,” she says. “If it doesn’t work out, you can always move it to another facility, but it’s something to consider.” But, she stresses, don’t underestimate the work this will entail. “It is time-consuming, and if you’re not willing to invest the time and the money into this, it will not succeed.”

Pam has more words of wisdom where this came from, and with over twenty years in the additive space – both with PolyJet and FFF printers – she’s a good person to give it.

She gives herself a dose of her own advice every day in the form of helpful reminders stuck to the side of each printer. They range from technical prompting – Clean gear after filament rethread – to attitude checks – Be patient.

“Be patient,” Pam says. “I cannot stress that enough.”

This mantra becomes all the more important when a deadline is rapidly approaching and she has a customer breathing down her neck. When something unexpected goes awry, calm amidst the chaos is what allows her to maintain a cool head as she works her way down the checklist of what could be causing the problem.

As far as other advice for people new to 3D printing, Pam stresses not skimping on quality, both of equipment and of materials. “Filament will make or break you,” she says. She understands it can be tempting to go with the budget option. Don’t, she says. “It will catch up with you in the end.” She found a filament she likes and has stuck with the manufacturer, maintaining a close relationship with John Hosbach of Village Plastics. “John knows his filament,” she says. “It’s unbelievable. Our prints look like spun silk when we get finished with them.” 

Pam has come to understand that 3D printing is never an exact science, and that with so many factors playing into print quality – from filament source to the weather that day – even experienced additive manufacturing veterans can wake up to a spaghetti bowl. Starting with a level playing field in the form of reliable equipment and materials rules out preventable problems that will save valuable sanity in the troubleshooting process. “That’s a great starting point, to have good equipment and good filament,” she stresses.

“But,” she goes on, “patience is by far the most important thing you need to have.”

The Lessons

“Oh, the printers will teach you lessons every day.”

The past twenty years of additive manufacturing have been a journey of learning for Pam. “You have to be teachable,” she says. “Once you realize that, then the sky’s the limit. But if you always feel that you know it all, then you’ll never grow, you’ll never advance.”

It helps, Pam says, that the 3D printing community is so supportive and eager to assist their peers. “With this particular community of individuals that we’ve met, everyone is very helpful,” she muses. “YouTube videos, directions – people are willing to talk and willing to help you, which is a huge asset. And when you have a support team like that, it makes you want to grow.”

The pace of the industry can sometimes be overwhelming, she says: technology changes at such a clip that it’s hard to stay at the forefront of it all. “But yet, at the same time, everyone’s been so helpful,” she says. “Like, ‘Hey, did you hear about this new material on the market?” Or, ‘What’s the temp on your extruder? What’s your speed?’ It’s an incredible community to work with.”

The payoff is reflected in the work they do. A 500+ hour print under their belt. NASA on their client list. Fluency in a wide lineup of materials, from flexible filament, to Nylons, to Teflon. “None of this was ever dreamt of when we bought the first printer,” Pam says.

It’s clear that the journey has held its fair share of ups and downs, but it seems that the right attitude is at the core of it all. “Additive will teach you patience,” she reiterates. “Additive will teach you persistence. Additive will keep you on your toes 24/7.”

She maintains a very even head about it all, and recognizes that things could change at any moment for her. “It’s terrifying and at the same time it’s exhilarating. When things are rolling, life is great.”

When I asked what advice she would give to a new 3D printer owner who was thinking about starting a business like hers, her response was quick.

“Make sure you have a lot of liquor in the facility.”

Learn more about Pamton 3D: https://pamton3d.com/