High-Voltage Innovation: Creating Tools and Training Models with a Utility Company

Here’s a question: when was the last time you thought about what happens when you flip on a light switch?

We take for granted this everyday miracle without much thought to what goes on behind the scenes to make the lights turn on. Only once the power goes out do people suddenly take notice of this invisible luxury that our daily lives rely on. Lighting our homes, charging our devices, refrigerating our food, powering hospitals and public transportation and the nation’s economy – life as we know it hinges on the seamless, invisible flow of electrons we call electricity.

But, perhaps, everyone once in a while, you have taken note – maybe while driving on the highway past towering transmission lines stretching as far as the eye can see – of the massive system around us that goes mostly unnoticed on a daily basis, and how little you know about how that system functions.

Today’s story may change that for you.

The electrical grid in this country is over a century old. The first commercial central power plant in the US – Pearl Street Station in Manhattan – opened in 1882 and served 82 customers.¹ Today, the US electrical grid is made up of over 7,300 power plants and 160,000 miles of high-voltage power lines, serving over 145 million customers.²

The focus of our story today is one of the largest of the roughly 3,000 utility companies keeping the lights on in the US. (Due to company policy they cannot disclose their name in external-company features and thus will remain nameless in this article).

Making safety a priority with hands-on training

Jim Patchen is a high voltage work methods specialist for said utility company. His job is to develop procedures on how to work safely around high voltage. His office is a veritable mini-museum of utility relics from a bygone era.

As equipment from the field has been retired over the years, he’s rescued treasures from a certain fate as scrap metal. Artifacts like ammeters, voltmeters, control switches, and molten and re-hardened piles of metal from errant tool mishaps start at the floor and line shelves up to the ceiling.

As for his collector’s habit, Patchen explains his motivation behind this essential preservation of history. “It is important to understand the legacy of this industry,” he says. “Early on, work methods and tools were quite primitive, but over time they have evolved. It’s good to know where you came from so that you know where you’re going.”

The job of every utility company is to generate electricity and transport it to customers. This is, of course, a highly simplified explanation, but the general flow is as such: electricity is created at a generator – taking the form of power plants, hydroelectric dams, solar panel arrays, or wind turbines – transported along transmission lines, and distributed to communities for end use.

Along the way are substations – the large, somewhat hectic-looking clusters of wires and electrical equipment you may notice while driving on the highway – which transform the electricity into high voltage for fast transport along transmission lines and into lower voltage for its final use in homes and businesses. Far from the chaos that they can appear to be to the untrained eye, substations are meticulously-organized, well-oiled machines that are crucial components of the electrical grid. And while designed for maximum safety of workers, they are also extremely high-voltage environments, which inherently pose a unique set of dangers to those in the vicinity.

“Working in a substation is difficult,” explains Patchen, “because it’s many, many circuits coming into one small location, so the high voltage environment is really concentrated. We have to work really [safely] around that to prevent injuries and incidents that could affect the grid.”

This particular utility company has over 1,000 substations in its service territory. As a work methods specialist, Patchen’s current role revolves around creating procedures to ensure the safety of workers in addition to the integrity of the grid and the power they’re providing to consumers. “If you make a mistake in a substation, you can impact thousands of customers,” he explains. “If I drop a screwdriver in a substation, I can take out 90,000 customers. So, everything we do is critical.”

Workers at the company go through a roughly three-year apprenticeship of rigorous training on how to work safely in such an environment. “Traditional training involves PowerPoints and lecturing,” explains Patchen. Unfortunately, he continues, the retention rate of knowledge taught in these sorts of settings tends to be abysmal. Their goal is to incorporate more tactile learning to keep students engaged throughout lessons.

There is always hands-on training out in the field for all students in the apprenticeship program, but the company wanted the ability to bring this type of learning into classrooms on a daily basis. They saw the value of using scale models of real-world equipment on which students could practice skills like protective grounding in a safe, unenergized environment. The models give students the opportunity to test their proficiency, and teachers the ability to confirm that their lessons are getting through and sticking. “They’re able to practice and prove their understanding of what they’re being taught,” explains Patchen, “and then you’re able to validate knowledge that way.”

Patchen began by building these training models by hand. He estimates that he created his first substation model in 1999, using components that he found at the hardware store. Cardboard tubes and spark plugs come together to form a miniature substation on which students can practice, with no danger of a deadly misstep.

When Patchen caught wind of the powers of 3D printing, its potential to be applied to his work was immediately apparent. “When 3D printing came into the picture, we thought, ‘Oh man, we could really make these models much more realistic.’” He also saw the opportunity to start reproducing models for other locations at a pace that just wasn’t feasible when he was building each one by hand.

“If I was gonna buy a printer, I wanted one with a big print platform,” Patchen recounts. Their size requirements are varied, he explains. Sometimes their prototyping needs are small-scale, but other times they want the ability to create large objects that would dwarf the average desktop printer. “We wanted…a single purchase that would best fit both those kinds of parameters,” he says.

He did his research and found re:3D. “The Gigabot was amazing because of its large platform and the ability to print small and large, no matter what our needs might be.” Patchen is now in the process of 3D modeling his original substation in CAD and printing out its 21st century cousin.

Patchen explains that the company recently invested in a state-of-the-art training facility, where he sees abundant opportunities to use their Gigabot for educational purposes. “Our goal as a utility is to be a leader in our industry,” he says. “In order for us to do that, we have to lead in safety, innovation, and technology. We believe that 3D printing is gonna help us get there.” 

Tool creation from then to now

One challenge of the work is that, between different eras of design and the wide range of equipment manufacturers, a single type of equipment may have several different designs out in the field.

Because of this, there is not necessarily a one-size-fits-all tool for every job and every company. This can leave utilities to do their own tool creation when needed, to make the job safer and more efficient for workers and keep power flowing to their customers. Oftentimes, workers see areas for improvement, opportunities for a new tool that doesn’t exist that would make their jobs easier.

“When I first hired on, I was a high-voltage substation electrician. I worked in the field for many years,” explains Patchen. “If you had an idea for a tool that you wanted to create, you would have to draw it on a piece of paper or a napkin and bring it down to a local machine shop, and then they would do their best to build it.” That process, Patchen recounts, could take weeks to months – and that was just to get an initial prototype.

Anyone who’s been through the development of a product knows that the back and forth of the process – when not done in-house – can be quite costly in both time and capital. The first iteration comes back – often after a lengthy lead time – and design flaws become apparent. Revisions are made and submitted, and the process is repeated. More waiting, more money.

“Today with 3D printing, you can take your ideas and concepts and prove them out,” Patchen explains. “The average person can change the industry.”

3D printing cuts down on the tool design process in both the time and cost departments. A design can be printed and reworked on repeat until all the kinks are ironed out. “Then,” Patchen explains, “I could go spend the money at the mill or the machine shop, and it’s actually effective spending at that point.”

It goes without saying that this also slashes a massive amount of time from the process. They can internally turn around dozens of 3D printed iterations and settle on a final design in less time than a machine shop could get a first version back to them. “It’s a very cost-efficient way to change the industry using the field employees’ input.”

The challenges of tool development

Nowadays, Patchen’s tool creation process typically involves a manufacturer, so that when a design is finalized it can be mass-produced and made available on the market to any utility company who may also have a need for it.

There are several challenges that Patchen is confronted with when he’s approached with a tool idea from a field employee.

The first is the broad range of equipment designs that they’re making these tools to service. “In these substations, there’s stuff that was built in 1920, there’s stuff that was built last month,” he explains. This means that the same device with the same function can take different forms depending on what era it’s from. “When we have to build something, we want to make it fit all of those,” he says. “We want to be able to make one product, one time, and do it right.”

The second challenge is their partner in tool creation: the manufacturers. Patchen starts the process by approaching a manufacturer with a tool concept, they come back with an initial design, and the utility workers trial it out in the field. This, Patchen explains, can be tricky with manufacturers who aren’t in their line of work. “A lot of times, when the manufacturer’s trying to understand what your needs are, they’re not in the field, they don’t work in your environment,” he says. “They make tools, [but] they don’t understand how you’re using them.”

This can result in tools that are inconvenient or awkward to use and therefore difficult to actually put into practice, defeating the purpose of creating them in the first place.

With 3D printing, Patchen found a solution to this flaw in their design process. “When you get an end-user involved in creating prototypes, you’re really closing the gap on the amount of time and the cost it takes to create useful tools.”

Now, he and his team handle the early stages of the process, modeling CAD files and printing initial prototypes in-house. By the time they approach a manufacturer with a tool concept, they have a 3D printed prototype that’s already been put through the ringer out in the field. This allows them to leapfrog several steps ahead in the production process. “3D printing has enabled us to improve our innovation when it comes to creating new tools or specialized tools across a very diverse line of equipment,” he explains. “We’re able to come up with concepts, print the prototypes, and trial them out in the field, so when we communicate back to our manufacturer, the data is more accurate.”

Rather than discovering a design flaw after something has been expensively injection-molded, Patchen and his team can work out the kinks on their end and ensure the design they send to a manufacturer is accurate from the get-go. All that’s left to do at that point is create the tooling to mass produce it. Says Patchen, “It saves [the manufacturer] money, it saves us money in the long run, and lots and lots of time.”

At the 2019 ICUEE conference in Louisville, Kentucky – the largest utility and construction trade show in North America – four tools Patchen and his team helped design were on display. It’s a big honor at such a lauded industry event, but his focus remains on safety and sharing innovation so that other utilities across the nation can benefit. “I’m not trying to make money,” says Patchen. “I’m just trying to make it better for the employees in the field.”

Sparking industry innovation through new tool creation

Where taking a tool from concept to a purchasable physical product used to be a months- to years-long process, Patchen explains that 3D printing has given them the ability to slash that development time down into the weeks. “That’s huge when it comes to our type of work where we’re in such a high-voltage, dangerous environment.”

Much of the challenge and danger of the job stems from the simple fact that a utility company’s singular focus is keeping the lights on.

When equipment needs maintenance, they do what they can to keep the power flowing. This means that workers are almost always working near energized, high-voltage equipment – hence the necessity of Patchen’s job. And although there is always an inherent level of risk to a job which necessitates working in close proximity to high voltage, Patchen’s aim is to protect workers through the development of new tools, training, and work methods.

“Technology is changing our industry,” says Patchen. “Every six months, there is something new.” The blistering pace of innovation lifts the industry as a whole, but the challenge, Patchen explains, is staying on the forefront of that.

“We don’t want to sit back and just watch that happen. We want to be a leader in that,” he explains. “3D printing gives us the ability to be part of that process – to lead innovation.”

One ubiquitous tool used in the field is a live line stick, commonly known in the business as a hot stick. The lengthy, fiberglass poles allow utility workers to perform a variety of tasks on energized equipment, insulating them from the electricity and keeping them at a distance from machinery in the case of a malfunction or electrical arcing. The end of the stick operates as a mount for a variety of different accessories that serve a wide range of purposes, like pulling fuse and operating switches. 

One hot stick variation that Patchen’s team uses is a switch lubricator. Workers were struggling to open sticky switches, often having to use a stick to forcibly hit at a switch five or six times. They remedied this with a hot stick that dispenses lubricant onto a switch so that it can be opened easily with one knock.

Part of the design is a control unit, mounted on the opposite end of the hot stick, with a button for the user to dispense the lubricant. The unit the manufacturer sent was large and clunky: a worker had to remove a hand from the stick in order to get to the button, sacrificing dexterity.

Patchen designed a new mount with a slim profile – probably a quarter of the size of the original unit – enabling the stick operator to keep both hands on the pole and simply move a thumb to hit the button. “We were able to use our 3D printer to create this new prototype that’s much more ergonomic and gives the end user more control when working in an energized, high-voltage environment.” Printed on their Gigabot and mounted to the pole with velcro straps, the new unit Patchen created is being adopted by the manufacturer as an option on new purchases.

Gigabot has opened a door for Patchen and his team, and the tool requests are streaming in.

There was the gas cap to attach a generator to an extended time fuel tank, out of stock when they desperately needed it during a widespread emergency and power outage. Patchen 3D printed it.

There was the camera mount hot stick used to inspect energized equipment that carried a price tag of nearly $500. Patchen printed it. Their 3D printed version of the mount attaches to other sticks they already have, at a grand total of $1.67 apiece.

The list goes on.

“We were recently approached by several field crews to create a special plastic cover that would protect them in high voltage environments,” Patchen says. There was no product on the market that fit the bill, so he got to work on a design with a manufacturer.

The equipment that needed to be covered took a wide range of forms in the field, complicating the product development process. Patchen gave the manufacturer drawings of the equipment and their product idea. Eight months later they still didn’t have a workable prototype.

Patchen stepped in. “I used my 3D printer, made a prototype, and got the product finished within three weeks. Now it’s actually purchasable on the market.”

But perhaps Patchen’s most impressive project of all is a small, unassuming plastic hook.

He and his team were confronted with a scenario in which they needed to perform maintenance on a 500 kV substation. “In our system, the highest voltage that we have – and one of our most critical circuits – is the 500 kV,” he explains. “To clear that equipment or take it out of service, we’d have to de-energize the whole grid, which can be quite costly – tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

A teammate came to him with an idea to circumvent the clearance with the help of a specially-designed plastic barrier which would allow them to safely perform maintenance without shutting down the system.

The solution came in the form of a rectangular-shaped, high-voltage plastic cover, which would enclose each of the 13.8 kV circuits that connect to the main 500 kV bank. The covers would be mounted from below and secured in place with rubber rope and plastic hooks. The hooks that the manufacturer sent with the covers, however, posed a problem.

Maneuvering from the ground at the end of a 14 foot hot stick, a worker had to insert one end of the hook into the eyelet of the plastic cover in order to fasten it. Workers were finding the hook’s design difficult to navigate into place at such an angle.

Patchen took the feedback from the field employees, reworked the hook’s design, and printed out a new version on their Gigabot. The slight tweaks to the hook’s form were a game-changer. Where workers previously had to fight the old hook into the eyelet at an awkward angle, the new design naturally wants to snap into place.

“This small, plastic hook took about three hours to print, and it cost around five dollars.” Patchen can’t underscore its value enough. “We were able to take that [3D printed] hook and share it with other crews, and we avoided many, many 500 kV clearances because of it. This small, five dollar device saved us hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

He smiles and gestures towards their Gigabot. “That’s paid for the printer quite a few times.”

Monumental Sculpture Bronze Casting with Deep in the Heart


 

It’s a sweltering, sunny July day in the small Texas town of Bastrop, and two men in what appear to be suits that you might wear to descend into a volcano are pouring what looks like lava from a cauldron.

I’m at Deep in the Heart, the largest fine art foundry in Texas, and I’m witnessing a bronze pour.

Clint Howard bought the foundry in 1999 and has grown it from five employees and 1,200 square feet to a team of 34 and about 22,000 square feet. “We’re like a publishing house,” he explains. They work with 165 artists around the world and turn their work into bronze or stainless steel monumental sculpture.

The bronze casting process – called lost-wax casting – is a 5,000+ year old art still being done in the same fashion as it was millennia ago.

“It’s a five generation process,” Clint explains. They start by creating the original sculpture, then making a mold on that sculpture, and then making a wax copy of the sculpture. A ceramic mold is made on the wax copy and flash-fired at 1,700 degrees to melt the wax out – hence the name lost-wax casting. With the wax gone, they’re left with a ceramic vessel that they can pour molten metal into, leaving them with the final sculpture.

Ten years ago, Clint decided that the business needed to start embracing technology.

“At the time, my focus was on 3D laser scanning and CNC milling,” he explains. “We got into the industry by buying a scanner and a huge CNC mill.” They would scan the sculpture and mill it piece by piece out of styrofoam.

“We did a lot of work for a lot of different artists in this technique,” he recounts, but, as he explained, “you still have to sculpt the whole piece full-size.” Clint describes the process as a huge “paint by numbers.” The styrofoam model gives them the outline and where the detail should be, but they still have to do all the fingerprint detail by hand with clay on top of the styrofoam form.

3D printing really wasn’t on their radar, Clint explains, until several years later.

 

Life Sized Dinosaurs

Clint got the fateful phone call four years ago from a dinosaur museum in Australia with a project proposal. “They wanted us to produce a herd of dinosaurs and they wanted to prove that it could be done all digitally,” Clint recounts.

The sculptures of the dinosaurs had been modeled in CAD, and the museum wanted Deep in the Heart to 3D print them in a material that could be direct-cast, circumventing “a whole lot of steps” in the casting process, in Clint’s words.

“Of course we had no idea what they were talking about or even where to start,” says Clint, “but they had done the research.” The museum had found Gigabot through Kickstarter and thought it would be an ideal fit given the proximity of the re:3D office to the foundry. “They basically said, ‘We want to do this – how many dinosaurs will this much money get us?’”

Deep in the Heart got their first Gigabot and quickly started experimenting how to best integrate 3D prints into their casting process. They ended up with 14 life-size dinosaurs – a nine-foot-tall, 13-foot-long velociraptor chasing a herd of smaller dinos – which now reside outside the Australian Age of Dinosaurs in Queensland, Australia.

The cost-savings of the project using the new 3D printing method were dramatic.

“To get 14 dinosaurs produced and installed for, let’s say, $120,000,” Clint says, “to do that traditionally – to have sculpted them full scale, to have molded them full-scale, and gone through the traditional lost-wax casting – we would’ve gone triple budget.”

“Unforeseen Benefits”

The dinosaur project was four years ago now, and Clint has since added two more Gigabots to their arsenal. “We bought the second one almost immediately and eventually decided we needed a third one,” he recounts.

Deep in the Heart’s specialty is monumental sculpture: their business is making really large pieces of art. “By having three [Gigabots],” Clint explains, “I can be printing three simultaneously, run them 24 hours a day, and it allows us the capacity to move a bigger piece through quicker.” They could do the job with one machine, he explains, but they want to move faster.

The benefits of incorporating 3D prints into their casting process have been unexpected and multitudinous.

“One of the unforeseen benefits of 3D printing that I really didn’t expect in the beginning is the consistency and thickness that we can generate in the computer is far superior to anything that we can do by by hand,” Clint muses.

The traditional method is less precise: pouring molten wax into a mold and pouring it out, or painting liquid wax onto the surface of a mold. “We’re trying to gauge that thickness by experience; which direction the wind’s blowing that day,” Clint remarks. “I mean, we’re trying and we can get fairly close, but we have variances within our thicknesses.”

This means they’re often using more bronze in a sculpture than is actually necessary – yielding costlier pieces – simply because the wax mold is made by the imperfect human hand.

Replace the wax mold with a 3D printed one, and the thickness is now precisely and uniformly set in the computer. “It’s going to be exactly that consistency through every fold, every detail,” says Clint.

That really allows us to control our costs,” he comments. It also unexpectedly increased the quality of their casting, because with the 3D prints – as opposed to wax molds – “there’s no movement.”

“Wax is innately flexible,” Clint explains. Large sculptures are cast in many different sections – the massive buffalo they’re currently working on will be 30 or 40 separate pieces – and “each of those sections has the potential to warp slightly.” That means they’re often hammering and muscling the different pieces into alignment when it comes to assembling the final sculpture.

“With the 3D prints, they don’t move. At all.” Clint estimates that the assembly time of a monument that’s been 3D printed is about half that of one cast using wax molds.

 

The Rule of Three

“Most of the time when a commissioning party is asking for a monument to be made, they’re asking it to be a unique one-of-a-kind,” says Clint.

He explains that 99% of large sculptures out there start their life as a maquette – a miniature version of the big one. “That small maquette is where all the design work happens. It’s where all the artistic creativity happens.” The full-size sculpture is then just a mathematical formula of duplicating the miniature.

“Where 3D printing comes into play,” he explains, “is you don’t have to sculpt it big.”

They can take the small model, whether they sculpted it traditionally and then 3D scanned it, or whether they modeled it directly in the computer using CAD software, and they can print that model full-scale. This cuts out multiple parts of the process: they no longer have to sculpt full-scale, rubber mold full-scale, or make a a full-scale wax copy.

“I mean, you can literally just go straight from the printer into the ceramic shell process, and then you can cast.” The PLA material they print with burns out almost identically to wax, he explains.

It’s a huge time, energy, and cost-savings for them as a foundry. And for the artists, as Clint puts it, it allows them to go big faster. “It also allows artists to be more competitive because there’s not all those steps they’re having to pay for.”

Clint describes the cost savings rule of thumb as a “rule of three.” If a certain piece is going to be produced more than three times, “it might be cost-effective to do it the traditional method of actually sculpting the piece full-scale and making a mold on it,” he says.

“But if it’s going to be produced three times or less,” he explains, “the 3D printing route is cheaper.”

 

Where History and Technology Melt Together

“The cool thing about what we do is there’s always some historical significance,” explains Clint. “There’s always some story. What we’re doing is more than just an object.”

He’s referring specifically to the foundry’s focus at the time of this visit: a piece called The Splash, which is now installed in Dublin, California.

The sculpture pays homage to the role that a natural spring has played in the growth of the city, dating back to a Native American tribe. “The water is a very integral part of the city’s history,” explains Clint. “It’s also a very integral part of the native Americans that still live there, because the whole reason that this area was settled was because of this spring.”

The piece is 150 feet long: a large fluid-looking figure from which seven splashes emanate. Clint walks through the design: a water spirit has skipped a stone, causing these seven splashes. Each splash has a harmonic frequency superimposed into its face, which, Clint explains, is a “very specific part of the story.”

 

He goes on to recount that in the 1960s or 70s, the only surviving members of the tribe who still spoke the native tongue passed away. The tribe had lost their language.

In the 90s, anthropologists visited the area with wax cylinder recordings taken by anthropologists in the 1910s and 1920s who visited and recorded their language. “Luckily enough,” Clint goes on, “the elders in the community remembered their grandparents speaking the language enough to be able to help the anthropologists pull the language out of all of these recordings.”

Since this visit in the 90s, the tribe has now rediscovered their native language, and the sound waves on the surface of the bronze splashes pay homage to this.

What we’ve got in all of these splashes is seven generations of members of the tribe saying ‘Thank you’ to the water spirit,” Clint explains. “That harmonic pattern is their voice frequency that was taken by technology, and then visualized in technology, and then superimposed on this sculpted splash in the computer, and then 3D printed so that each one of those splashes has the fingerprint of the voice of a [generation] of this tribe saying thank you.”

The impact of technology is woven throughout the story, from the rediscovery of the tribe’s native language to the creation of the sculpture to commemorate the role of water in the city’s history.

“It’s amazing,” Clint remarks. “Technology allowed it all to be created in the computer. The piece was 100% sculpted in 3D software and the monument has been 100% 3D printed and cast using the technology.”

Blending Old and New

It’s hard not to draw parallels between Clint’s commentary about the future of bronze casting and The Splash piece which his team produced.

The role of technology is steeped in both narratives. It’s been a tool, an enabler, a key to unlock a language and make a commemoration of that feat come to life.

And yet there can be pushback within the industry, resistance to the introduction of new technology that some see as a threat to the art’s centuries-old roots. “It’s a fine line to keep all of the ancient technology and the ancient techniques, and marry them with all this new stuff,” Clint comments.

But the basic process as the industry knows it is not going away, Clint explains.  “We’re still going to have to go through casting the same way,” he says. “What I’m starting to realize in the industry is that the traditional method will probably never die.”

Yes, several steps of the process are replaced by a single 3D print, but the piece still must be sculpted – whether physically or digitally – the bronze still must be poured, the sculpture still assembled and given its artistic hand-touch. The heart of the casting process is still very much there.

“But,” he goes on, “right now, I have probably 6,000 square feet of mold storage. Those molds are susceptible to handling, they’re susceptible to human error, they’re susceptible to just degradation over time.”

He sees a not-so-distance future where molds are obsolete, where a quarter of his floor space suddenly and miraculously becomes free for other use.

“What the technology is leading me to believe is that very shortly, we’re going to have cloud based servers holding 3D files that represent the mold of the part,” he explains. “And now we can make that part any size we want. We can make it a little tiny miniature for a role playing game, or we can make it a 25-foot-tall monument to go in front of a casino in Vegas.” There’s no need to make a new mold for each varying size of a sculpture – it’s all done digitally – and the only storage space being used is on a hard drive.

Clint’s sights are set on the future, on the next generation of bronze casters.

“The artists that that are coming up and the artists that are going to be doing these monuments in 50 years, they’re all sculpting in the computer right now and they’re playing video games right now and they’re going to embrace that technology and that process.”

Clint has a profound respect for the age-old casting tradition, and he’s also a businessman. It’s his forward-thinking vision and willingness to dive into unknown territory that has helped him grow Deep in the Heart over the last nearly two decades.

“It is an amazing shift, and I definitely think that for the art foundries in the country to stay on top of it, they’re going to have to be embracing this technology and watching what’s happening and paying attention to all of these changes.”

 

Learn more about Deep in the Heart and their work on their website: http://deepintheheart.net/

 

The Mannequin Challenge

The Greneker office strikes me as a place you wouldn’t want to be stuck wandering at night, what with the bodies lurking around each corner. I scheduled my visit for early afternoon.

Greneker is a mannequin manufacturer based in Los Angeles, California. They’ve worked to stay cutting-edge in their industry since they started in 1934, always keeping pace with the latest groundbreaking materials and manufacturing methods, like moving from plaster to fiberglass around World War II.

They’re proving that even an entrenched player in the game isn’t too old to learn new tricks: their latest foray is into the worlds of digital and 3D printing.

Steve Beckman is President & COO at Greneker, and he’s been a part of the evolution of the company over the last 2+ decades as they’ve set themselves apart in their industry.

“When I started with this business, we would get together as a group, we would look at the trends in the marketplace, and we would develop a line based on what we saw happening in the marketplace at that time.” It was a big gamble – the process was both costly and time-intensive – but that was just business as usual for them. “That was done with clay sculpting, so we would start with armatures and clay, go through the process ourselves, create an entire line of mannequins, and really just kind of rolled the dice and hope that it would sell to that market.”

Whereas they began by working independently from apparel manufacturers, Greneker found themselves doing more and more custom work for specific clients. They found their niches in the athletic wear and plus size markets, and working with big-name clients like Under Armour and Adidas in the clay design process provided its own set of challenges.

“It was a very long process to develop a line of custom mannequins,” Steve explains. “We would have to spend a great deal of time upfront with a client trying to figure out what they were looking for, what the poses were, what the dimensions were, what sizes these pieces were. The armatures would be set up by hand, the sculpting would be done by hand in clay. It would require several visits of the client on premises before we got an approval to move into the molding process to begin production.”

When working with athletic apparel clients, the challenges multiplied. As they started to get into sports-specific activities, posing came to be of utmost importance. “The poses are either accurate or they’re inaccurate,” Steve says. “If you try and put a golf mannequin in a golf shop and he is not in the proper position, the mannequin will be ripped apart by patrons.”

If you want to talk with someone about whether Greneker is in fact a creepy place to be stuck at night, Daniel Stocks is your man. As Senior Sculptor at Greneker – or Sculptor Extraordinaire, as Steve tended to refer to him – he’s the one responsible for following through on all those client requests.

“A lot of the time I would work late at night making all these adjustments and changes while the people are in town so that they [could] see it the next day,” Daniel recounts. And that was after starting from scratch on the figure: constructing a metal armature and building up the clay by hand.

 

True to their trailblazing past, Greneker began searching for ways to update their process and make themselves more efficient.

“We started to look at digital as a way of creating these pieces, and creating them precisely and accurately,” Steve recounts. “We’ve now moved from clay sculpting to everything being 3D printed, which has helped us in a myriad of ways.”

 

The 3D Printed Mannequin Challenge

Greneker dipped their toe into 3D printing with a smaller-scale CubeX and quickly realized the potential of the technology.

“We felt as a company that this was the direction that we needed to take, and we needed to go full steam ahead before some of our competitors became aware of the technology and started utilizing it,” Steve shares. They wanted to gain the competitive advantage before others caught wind of what they were doing. “And that’s one of the things we have done, we’ve positioned ourselves as the experts in this type of mannequin design.”

They purchased a few other small 3D printers, and then Daniel began the hunt for a large-scale printer with the right price tag. He came across Gigabot.

“Well, there was really nothing else on the market within a reasonable price point that would make pieces big enough for a full body,” Daniel muses.

“We selected the printer based on, again, the human body,” Steve explains. “We’re a mannequin manufacturer. We wanted larger printers to be able to print torsos and legs.” Their 3D printer arsenal includes a range of machines, from small-scale printers good for the details on hands and faces, up to the large size of Gigabot for cranking out large pieces.

“The challenge for us and my challenge to Daniel was to get a full-sized mannequin printed in one day,” Steve smiles. “It takes about 250 hours of print time to print a mannequin. In order to print it in one day, it was going to take a bunch of machines.”

Take a stroll through their office and you’ll come across the realization of this dream: a separate room tucked within their main sculpting area which they built specifically for 3D printing. “The Gigabots work fantastic for large-sized pieces, so we bought a bunch of them,” Steve recounts. Greneker is now up to four Gigabots – stacked two-by-two and suspended from the ceiling – which they house in this room along with their smaller-scale machines so they can run 24 hours a day.

“Before 3D printing, it would’ve been just unthinkable to make a mannequin in a day,” Daniel muses. “Now it’s actually possible.”

 

“A Myriad of Benefits”

Steve explained that the benefits that came with moving from clay design to digital and 3D printing have been numerous. The biggest savings may be from a time standpoint – they’re cutting from every aspect of the preproduction process.

“We save time throughout the entire process,” he shares.

Because everything is now digital, they no longer have to bring clients in to see mock-ups in person during the design process. “Instead of having clients visit, we can have video conferencing now, which accelerates the initial consultation period greatly,” Steve explains. “The client can sit on the other end – whether they’re across the country or across the world – and in real time we can make those changes and those tweaks to make these pieces exactly what they’re looking for.”

Daniel is particularly happy about this aspect as well. He still sometimes has to work on a time crunch, he explains, but “it’s less physical and it allows a lot more flexibility,” he explains. “If I have to, I can work from home on the computer and makes adjustments. It’s a lot quicker.”

“What,” you may ask, “does he mean by ‘physical?’” Miniature, scaled-down models of a mannequin to show clients weren’t possible before 3D printing, because the mini and full-scale versions can differ so much when working by hand in clay. So, as Steve recounts, the sculptors had to work in full-size clay as they went through the tweaking process, often while the clients were there in person. He explains, “We would bring the client in and then the sculptors would wrestle with the clay in front of the client until we got it to where it needed to be.”

No more mannequin manhandling. “With 3D printing, we take the digital model and we’ll produce a scaled model, usually about 18 inches tall, and then we can send that to the clients,” says Steve. “They can make sure that all the measurements fit where they like and that the posing is what it needs to be in. Once we get the sign-off at that point, then we produce a full-scale 3D print.”

Greneker will print a full-size version of the mannequin, which, with a little sanding and painting, will function exactly like the final mannequin, albeit not in the final material. That gets shipped to the client where the stakeholders can review the piece exactly as it will look in production.

This is immensely helpful for another portion of the process: the sign-offs. In the past, Greneker had struggled to get all of a client’s decision-makers in the room at once. “We would have a group of people come visit us that may or may not represent all of the stakeholders involved in the development,” Steve explains. “Ultimately, whatever approvals or opinions we received at that point could be superseded by someone else that hadn’t been here.”

That frustrating portion of the process is completely removed now. “With this new process,” Steve says, “the model goes in front of everybody, so it’s there for everyone to look at. You get a much, much tighter buy-in much more quickly.”

And of course, in the actual design process itself, the digital realm has also proven itself to be a clear winner over clay. “If you do something in clay, you do it by hand,” says Steve. “You can’t necessarily repeat that.”

No one is likely a bigger fan than Daniel. “It opens up a lot of new tools,” he explains. When designing a head, for example, he can take advantage of the symmetry tool in CAD. The work he’s done on one side of a face is automatically mirrored to the other. “Before, working in clay, we would have to try to make adjustments – ‘Which ear is higher? Are the eyes straight?’ Things like that it makes much simpler.”

It also aids with consistency and continuity if different sculptors are working on the same body. “If I have a large project and I have three sculptors working on it, because it’s three sets of hands, it may not look identical,” Steve explains. “With the digital design, we don’t have to worry about that. The design is the design and you can move it, change it, scale it, but it’s always the base design and it’s always obvious what it is, no question.”

The slashing of time from every part of the preproduction process goes hand-in-hand with cost-cutting. “Internally for the business, the change has been much more cost-effective,” Steve shares. “When I started, we would create lines based on – when it’s all said and done – it’s spaghetti on the wall. It’s our best guess of what was going to sell. We don’t have to do that any longer.”

That gamble used to be a risky one.

“When we did it in clay, you had to commit to it. Clay’s only got a very limited shelf life,” Steve explains. With CAD replacing clay at Greneker, there’s no more wasted effort and materials going into a design that doesn’t sell. Now, Steve says, “We can put a design that we think is cool together digitally and it can sit there as a model until there’s a market and a place for it.”

 

An Industry in Flux

“The apparel retail industry is in a great deal of flux right now,” Steve explains. “Online sales have really started to affect their brick and mortar sales. I don’t foresee some of the large scale roll-outs in malls in the near future, but what we do see is the need for smaller runs of more specific posing.”

And this – thanks to their calculated research and work – is where Greneker excels.

“What we see going forward is we need to be much more nimble, much faster, and much more cost-effective on the development side so that the retailers can afford to bring in specific mannequins for specific markets,” says Steve.

Greneker’s hard work to modernize and streamline their mannequin production process has paid off. “The marketplace is requiring speed to market. Everything has got to be done sooner rather than later,” Steve explains. “When we would sculpt and create a new line by hand, the process could take upwards of six months in preproduction. In 3D printing, now we’ve reduced that process to where it can be as short as just a few weeks.”

The tedious parts of their old process -the gambles on trends, the risk of botched posing, building up new armatures and clay bodies by hand, the endless on-site client visits to make tweaks and get approval – all of that is now off their plate.

“Right now, we’ve just finished realizing our first set of goals with 3D printing,” says Steve. “Our future goals: we’re going to bring in as many printers as it takes to be the absolute fastest to market as we can be. We want to stay ahead of our competition.”

 

Learn more about Greneker: greneker.com