The vice president of RedEye explains additive manufacturing and how his company became the world's largest provider of rapid prototyping and direct digital manufacturing services
Row upon row of large metal boxes hum quietly at the RedEye production facility in Eden Prairie. A handful of attendants on rotating 24-hour shifts walk slowly up and down the aisles checking the progress of the machines, but for the most part the large space is clean, quiet, and empty. It may not look like a typical factory floor, but this operation is at the heart of a revolution in manufacturing. RedEye On Demand is a forerunner in additive manufacturing, whereby an object is created by laying down successive layers of material. Traditional techniques, by contrast, rely on the removal of material by subtractive processes such as cutting and drilling. Together with its parent company Stratasys, which makes the machines that make the parts and products, RedEye has become one of the largest providers of rapid prototyping and direct digital manufacturing services in the world since its founding in 2005. It's evolved from being a one-off prototyping production shop to a full-scale manufacturing operation with six facilities and more than 140 production systems around the world. Minnesota Business spoke with Jim Bartel, vice president of RedEye, about his company's rapid evolution.
How was additive technology initially developed?
Bartel: Back in 1989, our founder, Scott Crump, an engineer himself, lost a competitive opportunity because his design couldn't get to market fast enough. In that frustration, he noticed his two-year-old rolling up little sticks of Play-Doh and bending them into 3D shapes. What he realized is that his son was building an object, a little clay building, out of stacked layers. He took that concept and started experimenting in his garage with a process called extruding that's now at the core of our additive manufacturing process. After he knew it worked, Scott wrapped some patents around it and started Stratasys.
How does your additive technology work?
Think of trying to caulk the bathroom sink; you squeeze out a line of liquid material that dries to form a hard surface. In basic terms, that's what this technology does in a more controlled setting. It's just a computer-controlled caulk gun on a movable x/y gantry. We take high-quality plastic - the kind used in injection molding - and turn it into a wire that is heated to a molten state such that it can be extruded, or forced out of a small nozzle. Our machine puts out a layer of this molten plastic on a table, the layer hardens, the table drops, and after you repeat this process many times, you have a solid 3D object built layer upon layer.
How has the RedEye business model evolved?
When we launched RedEye, it was a prototyping service. We got into larger-scale manufacturing once we started noticing patterns in orders. A client whom we supplied one part to would come back in a few weeks and want 10. We'd sell them 10 and a month later they wanted 150. Over time we realized that our sample parts were being used to build entire projects for these clients.
This sort of thing happened because our clients would put the test part we made for them into their machine and see that it worked so well they didn't have to go through the cost and delay of injection molding. Our method of manufacturing was not only quicker and cheaper, it met the durability standards of traditionally manufactured parts. Eventually when we pulled the reins back on these sample parts, customers said that they'd be willing to pay for it as a standard service, and that's really how the RedEye business model came about.
What makes this technology revolutionary?
The first 3D modeling developed 250,000 years ago by early humans still exists in modern manufacturing today as the subtractive method - taking a hunk of material and cutting away what you don't need. The next big breakthrough, which came about 4,500 years ago, was when humans noticed molten metal could be shaped in a form, and this too is still in use as molding. These two ways were how everything gets made until this today, where we are adding material up layer by layer, without the restrictions and waste of the other methods.
Additive manufacturing makes the whole process more efficient. If I'm a company and I need to build 250,000 iterations of a certain design, you have to make sure to test it. What happens traditionally is that you'd make a large capital investment in an injection-molding form - 10 to 50 to 100,000 dollars - just to get the tool to get that data. But when you're in this pilot-testing phase, you're at high risk for design change. You come back from testing and all of a sudden you realize you have to move parts, adjust wall thickness, and modify the shape due to frequency interference. You can modify the tool, but that's an expense and a time delay because it's really only made for producing that one prototype.
That modification takes time delay and extra cost. These expenses keep products from advancing and, in my experience, are the cause of a common conversation between engineering and accounting which is ‘Hey, we'll have to live with this because we're not spending any more money on new tools.' When you have to do that, you become static in your design.
RedEye's production methods allow for modifications of a product in a snap. Because there's no mold, we can adjust a certain aspect of a design as quickly as the engineers can give us the design files. This leads to more agile, less expensive production that doesn't have to cut corners.
Another game-changing aspect of this technology is the quoting process. Not only can engineers get their part faster because of the technology, but also the whole manufacturing process from concept to build is shorter because of our simple process. Designers can make their widget, upload it to our website, pick the material/quantity and they get a price immediately.
This system allows designers to experiment more and get design iterations out more quickly. That speed is a revolutionary process in manufacturing and a great competitive advantage for our technology.
RedEye On Demand
Description: Rapid prototyping and direct digital manufacturing
Headquarters: Eden Prairie
Leadership: David Reis, CEO (of parent company Stratasys); Jim Bartel, vice president
Revenue: Not disclosed