We were lucky enough that Steve Grundahl agreed to talk to us. Steve started Midwest Prototyping in 2001. Midwest Prototyping is a rapid prototyping/3d printing company. Keep in mind 2001 was way before 3d printing was all the rage. Steve provides a rich and educational perspective on this fast growing industry.
Near the end of the podcast, Steve talks about the impact 3d printing will have on the future of manufacturing and the design of physical products. It’s going to unleash new products most of us can’t imagine and unleash a new level of creativity. It’s going to change the world.
Midwest Prototyping has done rapid prototyping/3d manufacturing for small startups to very large and well-known companies. He shares one really interesting project they did in the medical field, a 3d print of a spine used for educational purposes during a surgery. I imagine this will be done more and more.
I hope you enjoy.
Dave: Hey! Welcome everyone. This is another podcast for Flyover Labs and today we are lucky enough to have Steve Grundahl, who is the President of Midwest Prototyping in the large metropolis of Blue Mounds, Wisconsin. Steve, thanks for joining us.
Steve: Oh, thank you Dave. This should be fun.
Dave: So, how do you originally locate in Blue Mounds?
Steve: So, for those people that don’t know Blue Mounds, it’s just a small town outside of Madison, about 25 minutes west of Madison. I grew up out in this area. I grew up on a dairy farm south of Mount Horeb, which is another adjacent village and you know eventually went into college, lived away for a while, but wanted to come back to this area and quite frankly there was some space available and eventually some land available to build out here, so this is where the company has been located.
Dave: So, for everyone out there, Midwest Prototyping is a 3D, which Steve can get into more details, a 3D printing company that has been around for, I think almost, is it 15 years?
Steve: Yeah, we started early in 2001, so..
Dave: Right now how many employees do you have ? and approximately what have your sales been?
Steve: We have, I think we at 30 employees right now and our sales are about $5 million annually.
Dave: Wow, okay. You were pretty young when you started it. How did you get going or what was kind of the promise behind or the idea or.. ?
Steve: Sure, so, well for one, I am not as young as I look, but I did go to school eventually at Milwaukee School of Engineering where I earned a degree in mechanical engineering, and at the time, this would have been in the early 90s, MSOE had a stereolithography machine or SLA machine as we call them today, and this was the first technology, you know, of what is now called 3D printing and I learned about it in college, I never physically touched the machine they had, but they were one of the first universities to have ones of these machines, it was pretty groundbreaking at the time to see one in that setting, and I just used it like our customers use us today, I would turn in a file from one of my design projects and you know a week or 10 days later, in that case get our part back.
Dave: Like a plastic card?
Steve: Yeah, just a plastic card. I am now making some parts we used for casting patterns and things like that, and it just sort of planted a seed in the back of my head that this was a very different way to develop products and make things and long story short, several years later I was looking to move back to the Madison area and did not see any jobs that interested me at the time, and I had sort of kept track of this technology along the way, so I looked into it, you know, to see where it was being accepted and how it was developing and I decided to buy a machine and start a company.
Dave: Interesting and how did you get going? Did you find a customer, did you have to go loan out?
Steve: Yeah, it’s a good question, and that took a while, so what I did, as I was investigating the technology and understanding, you know, what equipment was on the market and what the, you know, ancillary equipment requirements would be, all those sorts of things, in parallel with that I was sort of investigating who in this area could benefit from it, you know, who could my customers potentially be, and I did not have any customers first, but ultimately I became confident enough, you know, in my idea and rolled out a business plan and then spent a lot of time trying to convince the small town bankers what stereolithography was and why it made sense to, you know, keep someone who never done the process before and money to buy a machine.
Dave: And who did you finally convince?
Steve: Guys at the State Bank of Cross Plains took me up on it and, you know, we are still customers with them to this day.
Dave: Interesting. That was a good risk they took.
Steve: Well, I hope so.
Dave: At least so far, so do you disclose some of your clients, I know you have worked with some really interesting clients over the years. I don’t know how public those are, but.
Steve: Yeah. Certainly we can talk about who some of our clients are, and they range from, you know, small independent inventors and researchers at universities, you know, small start-ups like that that you have never heard of up to, you know, very significant companies. We do a lot of work for Sub-Zero for example, truck, bicycle; GE Healthcare. Who else? We do a lot of work that ends up at Boeing, for example, through one of their vendors and design firms, so we touched big companies and very recognizable projects and then we touch a lot of people and products you have never heard of and likely will never interact with.
Dave: Interesting. And so let’s go back to when you started out. When you started out, what was the first machine you bought and how is that machine compared to the present day machines that you have?
Steve: Yeah, so what I bought was sort of the standard entry point for the industry at the time and that was, 3D systems was still one of the major players in the printing world and they had a stereolithography machine called the SLA 250 and that’s what I purchased at a 10 x10 x 10 inch cube build area, so that was the maximum single part size, it had a gas laser, a helium cadmium laser that was painfully slow compared to our current machines, but at the time of course it was pretty amazing, so oddly enough the technology is still very much the same today, the principles are the same, but of course there has been, you know, tremendous gains in laser technology, everything is solid state now. The software of course has improved, the computer power, so the physical process is still very much the same but the control and speed is much, much higher today.
Dave: Gotcha, okay, and the size?
Steve: The size now today, we still have some machines that are in that 10 x 10 x 10 category, but our largest SLA machines now are 25 x 29 x 21 inches.
Dave: Wow, okay.
Steve: Considerably larger and faster.
Dave: Interesting. How much faster are they? Do you remember how long it took for…
Steve: Yeah. You know, you would have to build an equivalent part on both machines, and I know that we have done that side by side test, but as an example, the gas laser in our SLA 250 would operate at about 40 millivolts, you know, when things were going well and the power was kind of variable. Our state lasers in some of our bigger machines now operate at about 1000 millivolts, so far more curing power, the scan speeds are much, much higher and, you know, of course time is money, so everybody wants it to be faster.
Dave: Interesting. And one last question on the start of Midwest Prototyping. What was the first project that you worked on and how did you get it? If you remember it.
Steve: So, you know, I remember building first parts in the first day or two that when we had the machine and those were simply calibration parts and things like that, that we needed to get the machine dialed in and prove things out and learn as I got comfortable with the machine. The first customer project, I don’t honestly remember the exact parts, but I do remember the customer and they are still our customer today and have become pretty good friends honestly, so that’s very gratifying. The company does a lot of electronic components, so I am sure it was an enclosure for some of their electronic components that we have done many times for them in the years since.
Dave: Interesting. I always like the story when first starts off his business and then becomes friends over the years.
Steve: Yeah, we have developed a lot of great relationships with some of our clients and clearly that’s one of the more gratifying parts of all this, so.
Dave: Makes sense. So probably a lot of projects you can’t disclose, but I am curious what are one or two kind of the more interesting projects you worked on?
Steve: Yeah. Well, that’s a good question. You are right, you know, we are under a nondisclosure confidentiality agreement with the vast majority of our customers but, you know, I get the question a lot about what is sort of the coolest or most interesting project, and honestly I have never been able to provide a good answer, and part of the reason is because of the confidentiality; number one, but also the number of different projects we see and the variety of customers we meet. It is really the fun part of all this and that’s constantly turning over, so your favorite project in some ways is, you know, is may be the last one and the project itself may not be that interesting, but when you hear the, you know, the process that the customer went through or what they are trying to accomplish with it or what their hopes are for the market, you know, we become a little bit invested in what they are doing and, you know, we are just a service, we are an outside vendor, but we become a partner in some way in their journey so, you know, we are constantly learning, we are constantly seeing new things and that makes it very interesting.
One recent project that comes to mind we did for the Nemours Children’s Hospital in Wilmington, Delaware, and we printed a copy of the spine of a young girl that had a severe deformity, I assume it was scoliosis or something, along those lines, and the chief surgeon told us that the model of her spine was going to be used as a teaching aid during her live surgery. They had 12 attending surgeons that were there to learn and observe, and the idea that technology is being used to directly improve quality of life of people and, you know, educate surgeons and doctors is incredibly gratifying and, you know, those are projects we make sure to show everybody in the shop and, you know, make sure that all of our employees understand the impact that this technology can have.
Dave: Interesting. Yeah. That helps you get up each day when you have projects like that.
Steve: Yeah, absolutely.
Dave: And I am sure you have helped lots of, but no, that’s a good answer, so I think you do have a good answer now.
Steve: Well, it will be different next time.
Dave: That’s right. Now you have a go to answer. So how many machines, so I am going to ask some questions about your current machines, how many machines do you currently have and what do they do and I am also, this is probably too many questions, I am also curious how they compare to, you know, the three machines you see like in hacker spaces or you can buy them for home.
Steve: We currently have 15 different machines.
Steve: And those all fall under the umbrella of 3D printing, but those 15 different machines are spread across 5 different technologies, so when someone says 3D printing or a 3D printer, that’s a very generic term, at least the way it’s used today, so there are at least 7 different categories identified of types of 3D printers and in those 7 different official categories, you know, there are dozens and dozens, if not hundreds of different manufactures and types of machines, so you may go to your local high school, or go to local tech college and see a bench top 3D printer or may be a friend has one in their basement or in a hacker space like you mentioned. Typically, those are small, relatively inexpensive filament-based printers, and they work great for certain applications. We don’t make our living with those. They are not fast enough. The resolution isn’t high enough and they are not reliable enough, but they are great and we love them for the fact that people are getting exposure to 3D printing, they are understanding the value of it, they are coming in with some basic knowledge of how it works, so, you know, they are entry level hundreds or a couple of $1000-type machines and they are fantastic. We are a couple of steps up from that where we are buying industrial quality machines; anywhere from $50,000 would be our cheapest machine, our most expensive is over $800,000, so big investment, you know, we need to keep them running, we need to keep them maintained well, and that’s kind of where we are at, so if you come here for a tour, you’ll see all these different machines being called 3D printers, but all doing very different things. Some use a laser to solidify a liquid, some use a laser to sinter or melt the plastic together, some use a filament deposition like I talked about, kind of like the bench top machines, just the industrial version. Others use a photopolymer gel that’s jetted out and then cleared with an ultraviolet light and our final one uses a powder bed and prints a binder to bind the powder together and hold it in a solid form.
Dave: Wow, yeah, I did not know you had 15 machines, that’s a lot. How do know what type of machine to use for whatever projects you are working on?
Steve: Yeah. So that’s a good question, and it is a little different with each customer. Some customers, you know, have been with us for a while, have come here, spent some time, understand the materials, understand the processes, will simply request what they think they need. Other customers come to us saying, hey! I don’t know much about this, can you give me some guidance and certainly that’s a very big part of what we do here on a daily basis, so we would ask questions about what’s their intended use, you know, what are the critical considerations, is this about a cosmetic finish and it needs to look perfect for a trade show or for an executive presentation or is this something that they are making and they want to field test on a piece of agricultural equipment or recreational vehicle for 30 days or 60 days and ultimately durability is the real concern and cosmetics don’t matter because it’s going to get messy anyway, so we are trying to understand where in the used spectrum their expectations are, and from there we can guide them to different processes, different materials, different surface finishes and, you know, come up with a suitable solution.
Dave: Interesting. We could have a whole interview just on probably all that right there, but we don’t want to get too much into details right now, but I love to learn more about that. So with your machines, let’s go back to the spine example you gave. What can you do with your machines versus; let’s say the one at the hacker space, you know, what would the difference be printing off that spine on your machines versus one at hacker space.
Steve: Well, one of the biggest difference is, most of the bench top-type consumer grade machines have relatively small build areas 5 x 5 inch or may be 10 x 10 inch build areas, and the spine itself that we made was probably 22 inches long, so one, physical size, you know, they would not be able to make it in one piece, would have to section it together, which still works in some cases. The other is the speed with which we are able to make it that’s the kind of thing where, you know, in our work flow that part comes in, goes into our system, it’s printed overnight and, you know, sometime to cool down the next day and it is ready to go out the door, so very quick turnaround and, you know, in a case like a surgery that obviously has to be there on time or it’s of no value, and then the surface finish, the resolution of the surface would be better on the equipment we have versus a typical bench top kind of machine.
Dave: Interesting. Alright, that makes sense. So can you describe one of your most advanced machines? I mean, you mentioned one that goes up to $800,000, I don’t know if that’s the most advanced, sounds like it’s the most expensive, but just what can it do and what type of projects do you typically use it for?
Steve: Yeah, so, it is hard to think of what is the most advanced, because they all do the same thing in different ways, you know, you are always adding layer upon layer in some fashion, so it is all different approaches to printing. Certainly that machine I referenced is a laser sintering machine and, you know, it’s advantage is its remarkably consistent, very proven sort of result, so we know that we are going to get parts of, you know, X quality dimensions within these tolerances, it’s going to build, you know, in this amount of time and it’s just sort of a very robust and proven platform. Still it’s about the speed, it’s about the consistency, it’s about the repeatability and, you know, having a real industrial asset that we can count on time after time versus sort of an experimental or hobbyist-type machine which is, you know, how some of this industry could have been described over the years as this technology developed so …
Dave: I probably should have asked this question at the beginning, but for those who are not sure how 3D printing works, can you describe the process, like may be the laser sintering, just how it adds layers and how the machine essentially works?
Steve: Yeah. So, 3D printing, I kind of alluded to it always uses a layered process, so one analogy I give to people sometimes is that if you took a sliced loaf of bread and you stood it up on end, you would have all those slices of bread stacked on top of each other, and that’s kind of what we do. We take your CAD model that you would email to us and we inspect it, we determine which orientation we are going to create it in and then our software slices that model into slices just like the loaf of bread, and then the printer creates one slice, there is typically a build platform or a bed of some sort that lowers and then some more material is added on top of that first slice that’s already created, solidified or hardened or whatever the process may be, could be deposited but somehow we have got an object there, the beginning of an object, we put more material on top and we solidify or create that second layer and bond it to the first layer, so you are adding the second slice of bread, you are adding the third slice of bread to recreate that loaf and that’s sort of a basic explanation of what happens in the process. We take a virtual representation of that loaf of bread, we create imaginary slices, we go to the machine, and then we make real slices and stack them back up.
Dave: I have never heard the sliced bread analogy, that’s good. I like it. I am going to use that one and how thin are those slices?
Steve: It depends on the machine, but a number of the machines we run have 4000th of an inch, so about the thickness of a sheet of paper or the thickness of a human hair is another reference point that’s often given, so quite thin.
Dave: Yeah, super thin.
Steve: And we do have some machines that can go even finer that that, so…
Dave: Wow. Interesting. While I guess it probably depends upon what you are actually printing, but does it say how long it takes to put down a layer, but probably it completely depends upon the volume of material you are putting down.
Steve: Yeah. So, it depends on the volume of material, it depends on the particular technology we are using. Just to give a rough idea, you know, much of what we do here we interface with our customers, we collect orders throughout the day, we program the machines in the afternoon, start them in the evening before we go home, let them run overnight and typically by the next morning the builds are done and we got parts created overnight and then we start to clean up in the post processing and the QC measuring, all those protocols and then they go off to shipping. So much of what we do is in and out of our hands in less than 24 hours.
Dave: Wow. That’s a fast turnaround.
Steve: Now, the flipside is, you know, sometimes we have builds that will take 5, 6, 7 days where the machines will run continuously and that’s typically a very large batch of parts, that’s one interesting thing about 3D printing is as long as there is room on the platform or in the build chamber, you can keep adding and nesting parts, so we can build parts from multiple customers in one run or in one batch, and that’s very different from traditional manufacturing like CNC or injection molding or castings, things like that, so that adds a whole new dynamic to work flow planning and just sort of keeping everything moving in the right direction.
Dave: So, we are getting towards the end of the interview here, so let’s talk a little about the future. You have been a part of this 3D printing industry for a long time, a very broad question, where do you see it headed? Do you see, I imagine there is always going to be a big need for very advanced machines, but then I guess, they could also be more home use as well.
Steve: Yes. The vision for the industry is a little bit of a moving target. Honestly, it is almost a full-time job just trying to keep up with daily developments and equipment, software materials, and then applications is the most interesting part, you know, finding out how people are using these technologies. Everybody is seeing, you know, various news clips about everything from, you know, 3D printed drones to 3D printing clothes to 3D printed chocolate, and you know it’s sort of overwhelming. The flipside of that is then, you know, from my perspective, I am very interested in the business changes, the mergers, the acquisitions, and who the new entrants are into the market and what the new technologies are. So, it’s pretty hard to predict where the industry will go, you know, in some respects it is going everywhere and that sounds, you know, it sounds a little crazy, but I am pretty confident saying that over time 3D printing will have an impact in almost all areas of our lives, whether we know it or not. I do feel that we are a generation or two away from really capitalizing on this technology and the reason being is that as children now learn how to design with complete freedom of design, that’s one of the things that 3D printing offers that we haven’t really talked about, but you not constrained by the restrictions of traditional manufacturing where, you know, you have to get a cutting bit from this angle or a drill bit in from the side, or you can’t cast it, or you can’t machine it, or can’t do whatever, there is always some restriction and 3D printing, because we are doing this layered vertical construction, this additive construction versus a subtractive process we can do things that just physically weren’t possible in the past, and as children now learn how to design without the burden of these restrictions like guys my age have been taught all through, you know, high school and college and learning how to make things, I think we will really see the power of their imaginations blend with the ability of these amazing technologies.
Dave: Well, that’s interesting. I never thought about that. That makes a lot of sense. You probably see examples of that all the time, new ideas come in, and…
Steve: Yeah, we know, we print parts and you just sort of look at it and think I would not have thought of doing it that way, and again I believe we are just scratching the surface of that, you know, by the time I am retired and hopefully have grandchildren someday, I can’t wait to see what, you know, what they are doing and what they are creating.
Dave: And may be you know some of the machines coming down the pipeline, but what are some of the machines coming down the pipeline, or what would a machine that you’re excited for, that’s not out there yet, but you wish was. Is there any anything?
Steve: Yeah, that’s a good question. I mean, there is a lot of stuff coming and a lot of it is just variations on, you know, some would seem a little bit faster, a little bit more precise, a little bit better resolution, things like that and that makes sense, that is typical progression, but you know, we need faster machines, there is no question that everybody wants it faster and that makes sense, but honestly many of my desires are around the materials. I think the significant gains are to be made in the materials area. When the day comes that we are able to 3D print with some of the, you know, the super materials, the composites, nano materials, graphing, things like that, the possibilities will be hard to comprehend, you know, unheard of material properties and strengths combine with complete freedom of design will change the world in ways that I can’t even imagine.
Steve: So, I look at, you know, 3D printing works, the process is proven, there is a number of different ways to do it. There will continue to be new ways, but until we are printing with really game-changing materials, you know, we are making just basic progress. That will be the real leap.
Dave: What materials do you print in with now?
Steve: So we print with a number of different plastics. Between the 15 machines we have, I think we have somewhere in the range of 40 different materials we can choose from. Almost, all of them are plastic-based in some manner, some being real thermal plastics like nylon, like ABS plastic; others being epoxy resins that are intended to simulate the properties of typical engineering thermal plastics still, we do have one metal and plastic hybrid. We run an aluminum and nylon filled material. We don’t, as a company, personally have a metal printing machine yet, but they do make metal 3D printers, so you can print in titanium, you can print in cobalt chrome, or in stainless steel or things like that. That’s certainly something we are and have been watching very closely. It is just determining the right entry point for us as a company.
Dave: Gotcha. That makes sense. Well, I think we are about out of time here, but definitely really appreciate you coming on the podcast for Flyover Labs. This is quite interesting that I knew a little bit about your background Midwest Prototyping, but I definitely want to go out, so…
Steve: Good. Thanks for having me on. I know I feel like my answers are all over the map, but that’s quite honestly kind of where the industry is right now and, you know, there is a million tangents we can go off on, but I try to keep it as focused as possible.
Dave: No, that’s been great. I think that’s the interviewer who is probably all over the place, so that’s how I roll. So everyone can blame me for that, but…
Steve: No problem.
Dave: Alright. I appreciate it, thanks Steve.
Steve: Thank you so much Dave. Take care.