The small family-run firms, tool-and-die shops, used to be plentiful in Detroit. They manufactured specialized tools and gadgets in order to cut and shape metal in the automotive and other industries. Several such firms have gone out of business, however their modern equivalent is 3D printing, an industry that may perhaps thrive in Detroit with the metro area becoming a leader.
A company named EnvisionTEC is the Detroit area’s entry and is based in Dearborn. The firm creates printers ranging in price from $10,000 to $1 million and has been founded by Lebanese immigrant Al Siblani.
These printers are capable of making different products which are increasing day by day including hearing aids, dental crowns, custom jewellery, skin grafts, automotive parts, and even characters used in SciFi and fantasy movies. EnvisionTEC does not sell to the consumer 3D market that has had its problems, rather it sells into the commercial and industrial markets only.
Siblani, the holder of some 120 patents, is one of the next generation of Southeast Michigan entrepreneurs harnessing the latest technology to build a world-class business that remains under the radar in terms of public recognition.
Last week at his headquarters, Siblani told:
“We continue to grow. In the last 18 months, we’ve doubled our manufacturing in California, we’ve doubled our manufacturing in Germany, we’ve doubled our number of people here in this building, and I think pretty soon we’re going to be out of space here. So it’s a very flourishing and growing business and we’re very happy the way it’s been going.”
An Edgewood, Ky.-based industry consultant, Todd Grimm said that EnvisionTEC has progressed in numerous fields that could serve it well in years to come as this very young field continues to mature. According to him,
“It has moved beyond an entrepreneurial business style to become a sound, established player in the 3D printing market.”
Also labelled as additive manufacturing, rapid prototyping, desktop manufacturing, and on-demand manufacturing, 3D printing refers to processes developed over the past 20 years or so in which “printers” lay down thin layers of material, often a resinous liquid, according to a three-dimensional digital image file, gradually building up the product.
From trinkets for hobbyists to precision parts for jet fighters, the process is capable of creating anything. At times the product is ready to use, however every so often the output is used to create a mould into which other material, such as gold in the case of jewellery, is poured to produce the final outcome.
Benefits over the outmoded methods of machining parts and products like hearing aids and dental crowns are provided by 3D printing. Among these benefits, speed is one of them. For example, a 3D printer in a dentist’s office can create a dental crown while the patient waits instead of the dentist having to send out a rubberized mould to a shop that sends the finished crown back a week or more later.
In Dearborn, the master chemists experiment with new materials that could be used in many products at the EnvisionTEC’s headquarters. A training center sees EnvisionTEC staff training customers on the use of their machines. Additionally, prototypes that eventually will work their way into general production are being produced by a range of printers.
Siblani was born in Lebanon and came to metro Detroit when he was a teenager. He studied engineering at Lawrence Technological University and Wayne State University. While developing a process to avoid the blurring of colours, he began work with silk-screen printing. Later, he went to work for an early 3D printer and pitched its advantages to automakers. A key moment came in 1993. As he told:
“I went to GM and said, ‘You know that transmission case that takes you 18 weeks by hand to do? I can do it in 72 hours.’ They said, ‘No way.’ I said, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ Seventy-two hours later, everybody that is anybody at General Motors in design was standing there as I took out the part. That was my first install.”
A few years later, EnvisionTEC was unveiled by him, the name chosen to capture the sense of a forward-looking technology.
In 2003, EnvisionTEC entered the custom jewellery market. A jewellery designer would usually produce intricate custom pieces by hand in wax, and then the wax model would be used to cast the finished jewellery. Siblani’s much-faster 3D printers were used throughout the industry to create the plastic form within three years. He made a statement:
“We pretty much became like the Coca-Cola if you want a high precision 3D printer.”
After this, the other fields followed with hearing aids in 2005, and then in 2008 he entered the market for dental crowns. The dentists who used to order crowns from labs in China were capable of having one of Siblani’s printers in their own offices now.
A process that has never been done before by anyone is the most recent venture of the firm that is printing carbon fibre products for the aerospace industry. Currently, nearly 40 different 3D printers are being manufactured and sold by EnvisionTEC around the world to a wide variety of clients.
EnvisionTec, a privately held company, does not release revenue or profit figures. Behind two publicly held companies, Stratasys, which is based in Minneapolis and Rehovot, Israel, and 3D Systems, based on Rock Hill, S.C., the company ranks third in the industry at present. Those two companies have reported annual sales in the range of several hundred million dollars.
Well, you must know that when companies everywhere were shrinking in the middle of the Great Recession in 2008-09, Siblani kept on hiring new workers. This is due to the diversity in products.
This month, he said:
“We’re growing at a very healthy rate. We don’t have a cyclical business. We operate in 12 different verticals, in the medical space, consumer products, hearing aids, dental, sporting goods. We have so many verticals that we operate in that we can never take more than a 10% hit at any time. So we’re very stable and we’re constantly growing.”
Earlier this month at the automotive conference in Traverse City, the potential power of 3D printing in automotive manufacturing was among the topics creating a buzz among executives attending this conference.
In addition to this, Former Ford CEO and longtime former Boeing executive Alan Mulally also stated that 3D printing has what it takes to do things for manufacturing that were once inconceivable. Retired as CEO of Ford in 2014, Mulally is nowadays on the boards of tech giant Google and Carbon 3D in Redwood City, Calif.
“That we could actually make the parts off of the digital data set that is in the cloud and not have to have all of the tooling? So that’s been like just a dream come true to help (Carbon 3D) with that.”
Also, vice president of business development for parts supplier Magna, Ian Simmons said that in case of urgent manufacturing situations and to manufacture a smaller volume of parts in the future, 3D printing could be used. He said:
“If you’ve got a unique requirement for a part … we look at can we do that live? Can we do that on the plant floor? And then basically we can use that immediately?”
More and more, thanks to companies like EnvisionTEC, the answers are “yes.”