Exothermic Molding Inc. is a reaction injection molding company founded in 1972 that initially served the medical, electronics, and lab instruments market. Since then, it has expanded into many other applications and sectors. President Paul Steck attributes a large part of the company’s success to a culture that prioritizes research and development and investment in skilled personnel and training. In recent years, 3D printing has played an increasingly important role in Exothermic Molding’s R&D program. In this Q&A, Steck explains how 3D printing has helped his company stay ahead of the competition and take advantage of new opportunities.
PlasticsToday: How has 3D printing benefited Exothermic Molding?
Paul Steck: With our focus on 3D printing, we have been able to attract incremental business from our existing customers. It also builds on our core competency of finishing and machining. In our market, which is low-volume manufacturing of large-format parts, it is likely that as we progress, we will become more sought-after not just for prototyping, but also low-volume production. I should add that the pace of technological change in 3D printing is head-spinning, making it hard to keep up. What was groundbreaking just a year ago is now available at half the price with even better performance. For example, our new large-format 3D printer now has upgraded software available for a nominal charge, tripling the speed and improving resolution. It's like having a whole new printer for a fraction of the cost!
Doing what conventional tooling can't
PlasticsToday: How are your customers responding?
Steck: One thing we are seeing is increased demand for 3D printing of parts that cannot be conventionally tooled, even in quantities. We are incorporating more and more printed parts into our assemblies to meet customer requests. We have also discovered new materials that are UL 94 certified, meaning they are fire retardant or can stop flame spread. Our customers appreciate this innovation, and we are constantly on the lookout for new developments to expand our offerings. We have already introduced our customers to UL-certified materials that they were previously unaware of. We are on our third generation of 3D printers, moving toward our fourth, and expanding our capabilities with each new upgrade.
PlasticsToday: Has expanding your 3D-printing capabilities allowed you to enter new markets?
Steck: By increasing our build space from 20 inches to over 40 inches, we can now create larger parts and take advantage of new opportunities in markets where larger parts are in demand. In the past, we focused mainly on medical instrument housings and test equipment, but now we can expand into other verticals and offer sub-assemblies for our current customers.
PlasticsToday: I imagine this expansion has required an investment not only in equipment but also in personnel?
Steck: Yes, we've had to train our staff and even hire new engineers with more CAD experience. But it's been a worthwhile investment, as we can take advantage of the investment tax credit for purchasing new equipment and increasing our competency in new technologies. We're also making room for more 3D-printing machines by getting rid of old technologies that require more floor space and replacing them with newer, more efficient machines.
3D-printed diamonds in the rough
PlasticsToday: Although progress has been exponential, as you say, you would agree that 3D printing still has some limitations?
Steck: Yes, parts still come out somewhat rough and require finishing. However, this opens up opportunities for us to offer finishing services for others. We're also exploring the possibility of hybridizing our 3D printing by printing faster at a lower resolution and then machining the parts for higher tolerances than what can be achieved through printing alone. With our expertise in machining and mold making, we can offer inventive solutions for large-format 3D printing.
But, there are so many other options now. They're actually making injection molds out of 3D-printed materials; they're doing carbon-fiber composites that are post cured and are very strong structurally and resilient; and, of course, they're printing metals. Jet engine parts are now being printed that couldn't be made that way in the past. The whole manufacturing industry is being modernized by 3D printing. The US Navy and military are deploying 3D printers now to reduce their inventory of consumables.
PlasticsToday: I understand that you have introduced some efficiencies into your operations. Can you explain?
Steck: Our company has invested in higher density racks and storage and eliminated mezzanines, which were not as efficient. We have also added more people to the building and continuously tweaked the operation to increase efficiency. This has resulted in a busier shop with more sales, but it appears more organized and open due to our efficiency improvements. Additionally, we are exploring the possibility of a deployable operation that would be convenient for the customer and eliminate the need for big heavy mold presses and expensive molds. By renting a space nearby or even setting up within our customers’ factories, we would be a more valuable supplier.
PlasticsToday: The concept of setting up a shop within a store, like cosmetics counters, has been done in retail. Could it work in manufacturing?
Steck: Yes, it's a model used by hardware suppliers who have a store within the manufacturing facility to manage inventory. We could use this model for components instead.
PlasticsToday: How does it work exactly?
Steck: They stock up shelves with an assortment of hardware like screws, nuts, and washers, and the supplier comes in once a week to do inventory and replace what's needed.
PlasticsToday: There's a small company called Tyber Medical that's growing by supplying missing orthopedic parts in a supplier’s product line. Could this be a market for 3D printing?
Steck: Absolutely, it's a market that anyone with a printer could get into, not just insiders. It's a matter of having the vision to try something new.
3D printing levels the playing field
PlasticsToday: Overall, would you say that 3D printing has made it easier for small businesses to compete with larger ones?
Steck: Yes. Lower barriers to entry have allowed small businesses to compete with larger ones in the manufacturing industry. 3D printing, aka additive manufacturing, has made it easier and more cost-efficient to create and develop products. This technology allows for shorter research and development cycles, eliminating the need for expensive molds and lengthy development time. Additionally, this technology has the potential to disrupt the entire distribution network, as it allows for print-on-demand services, eliminating the need for physical inventory and warehousing.
PlasticsToday: If you could give feedback to the makers of this technology, what would you tell them?
Steck: I would suggest that they provide more support for small businesses looking to build a print farm, such as discounting continued purchases and helping them find the right materials. Additionally, there is a need for support with finishing and painting for smaller businesses. Leveraging a larger company's research and development capabilities and exposure to different markets would be beneficial.