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March 9, 2015
Transformative technology

Two Maine companies embrace 3D printing in their product development processes

Photo / Tim Greenway
Photo / Tim Greenway
Patric Santerre (right), architect and industrial designer at ARCADIA designworks, and intern Anya Timchenko prepare data so a MakerGear M2 printer can create a window lock mechanism.
Photo / James McCarthy
RollEase Innovation Center in Brunswick uses a 3-D scanner to create a CAD blueprint used in making parts for window coverings.
Photo / Tim Greenway
The MakerGear M2 3D printer prints a component for a lock in Patric Santerre's, architect and industrial designer of ARCADIA designworks, Portland Studio.

A 2014 survey of 100 industrial manufacturers conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers, an international professional services network, reveals that 3D printing is revolutionizing the way products are manufactured. Citing as two extreme examples "jet engine parts" and "made-to-fit bikinis," the survey reports that the global 3D printer market is posed to hit $6 billion by 2017, an almost three-fold increase from $2.2 billion in 2012.

Manufacturers, both large and small, are finding that 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, offers opportunities to transform and accelerate the product development processes, cutting innovation costs by allowing manufacturers to design, make and test prototypes in days, rather than week or months. The PwC survey found that, of the 100 companies surveyed, 67% are currently using 3D printing in some way. Of those still on the sidelines, 25% say they plan to implement the technology in the near future.

The report concludes the technology "is on the cusp of being mainstreamed" and identifies a number of potential "disruptions and opportunities," including:

• Gains in speed and flexibility in research and development

• An opportunity to reimagine supply chains

• Savings in materials, labor and transportation costs, with some large manufacturers in the auto and aerospace industries considering "reshoring" manufacturing jobs back to the United States.

To see how 3D technology is being used by manufacturers and industrial designers here in Maine, Mainebiz took to the road, visiting the new RollEase Innovation Center at Brunswick Landing and Portland-based industrial designer and architect Patric Santerre of ARCADIA designworks to report their stories. Even that small sampling confirms much of what PwC highlights in its 18-page survey: 3D technology is already changing the face of manufacturing, and the pace of that transformation is likely to accelerate.

Arcadia Designworks: 'A means for getting to bigger ideas'

Patric Santerre describes his Portland-based architecture and industrial design firm, ARCADIA designworks, as a "creative think tank, a collective group of talented individuals who work hard and have fun producing products, buildings and artifacts that reflect a positive impression of the human experience, are economically prudent and appropriate for both present and future generations."

The operative word of that definition is "human." As much as he's embraced 3D technology as a useful tool, primarily in his industrial design work, Santerre is quick to point out that it still requires human creativity and skill to design a functional item. There's no special magic to the 3D printer he purchased two years ago.

"It's only a means for getting to bigger ideas," he says.

In his small second-floor office, lined with shelves of books on architecture and design, Santerre displays a current industrial design project he's working on for Duratherm Window Corp., a Vassalboro custom-window maker. The company is revamping the hardware for its casement and awning windows to improve its functioning and aesthetics.

Santerre started with hand-sketched designs, incorporating feedback from his client and taking advantage of existing product research. "As a designer, we start with a concept drawing to take a non-dimensional idea and make it dimensional," he says. "A two-dimensional drawing is the starting point."

From his discussions with Duratherm's production team, he knew the old-style hardware for opening and closing the windows was prone to scratching, and that they weren't fully satisfied with its locking mechanism. That defined the problem he was trying to solve. Not wanting to lock into a fixed concept too early in the process, he made numerous sketches and solicited further feedback.

He came up with a prototype drawing of a concealed fastener with a cleaner, more modern look and a push-bar mechanism that could lock the window at different degrees of opening. Duratherm liked his concept, which led to the next step of Santerre creating clay models for each component. He admits that using clay is a vestige of traditional industrial design — and that as 3D technology continues to improve and go down in price there will be a temptation to skip that step entirely. But he believes there's still merit to that old technology.

"This still is a valuable process," he says of his clay modeling. "It doesn't constrain your thinking. Your imagination is still closely tied to something you can make with your hands. It's still a human being guiding the tool and the process. That's where you get the 'Ah!' moment, the sensual feeling of the product's design. If you are working with clay, there is still a relationship to the material world … but with a computer, it's all in the head."

Santerre acknowledges that, once the concept is ready to be tested, there's no question 3D technology speeds up the product development process: Changes can be made to 3D printed prototypes rather than the actual mold of the product, saving a lot of time and money as changes are made to arrive at the best design.

"It's getting our models close to the actual material that it's eventually going to be," Santerre says, noting that he's now milled an aluminum prototype for Duratherm that's been installed in a window for extensive evaluation as a final step before going into full production.

In his industrial design work, Santerre says he's designing objects to be "the most appropriate solution" for the given problem. Although he envisions a day when every home will have its own 3D printer, enabling homeowners to make simple replacement parts for household items that have broken, he believes there will still be a need for skilled designers. In a well-designed product, he says, there's always an aesthetic quality that transcends its function.

"They go hand-in-hand," Santerre says, well aware that his metaphor goes back to his initial point that computers and 3D printers, when they're designing products for people, are ultimately guided by a living, thinking and feeling person.

"Each project is an adventure in which we focus on both understanding the needs of our clients and the impact our designs will have on the Earth," he says. "Our responsibility as both industrial designers and architects is to design and make lasting artifacts in the present, with an insightful understanding of the past, in support of a healthy, peaceful future."

RollEase Innovation Center: Testing form, fit and function

Greg Farr, senior vice president and chief innovation officer for RollEase Inc., doesn't mince words in describing the impact 3D technology is having on the Stamford, Conn.-based company's development of new window-covering products at its Innovation Center in Brunswick.

"It's a huge time-saver," he says. "It used to take several days — a week, two weeks, even a month — before we could see the actual component we had designed. Now, our engineers have the ability to create a design during the day, print it at night and, while the concept is fresh in their mind, test it the next morning."

Farr joined the company in January 2011, bringing to his dual role more than 23 years of experience in the industry, including senior management positions with Springs Window Fashions and Hunter Douglas, the window-covering industry's two largest companies. He scouted potential sites in several states before persuading the company's board of directors that the 1,700-acre Brunswick Landing would be the best location for RollEase to set up a research and development facility to lead the next wave of innovation in the window-covering industry.

"We wanted to be around like-minded businesses who are using new technologies," he says, citing as two examples Brunswick Landing's TechPlace, a business incubator for technology companies that opened in January, and the Composites Engineering Research Laboratory, owned and managed by the Maine Composites Alliance at Southern Maine Community College's Midcoast campus. "For us, we couldn't think of a better place to be located."

Located inside the former headquarters of the Navy survival school in Maine, the 11,200-square-foot building underwent a multi-million renovation before opening last spring as the R&D hub for RollEase, which, in addition to its headquarters Stamford, has distribution warehouses in Lenoir, N.C., and Phoenix, Ariz. The heart of the innovation center is the "measure and model" room, which is equipped with machines for testing the tensile strength of materials, as well as their susceptibility to fading and degrading under sunlight. Two 3D printers and a scanner line one wall of the room.

"There's nothing newer. That's about as new as you can get," Farr says of the smaller printer that happened to be printing a dozen window-covering components of different shapes and sizes at the same time. The larger unit can print as many as 60 parts simultaneously. At least two more printers will be added to the array in the months ahead.

The 3D printers use a "fused deposition modeling" technology that can create layers as thin as a human hair and production-grade thermoplastics suitable for making everything from concept models to functional prototypes and end-use parts. The center's 3D scanner — originally developed for jewelers and dentists — uses a "white light" system and a base that swings and rotates to create the precise detailed CAD digital blueprints that guide the printing process.

Form, fit and function are the guiding principles for the innovation center's team of 12 design engineers, technicians and project managers. Printed prototypes, as well as revisions of existing RollEase components, undergo further testing in an adjacent room, where "life cycle" machinery mechanically lower and lift shades thousands of times to simulate 10 years of daily usage.

"Any component we make has a lifetime warranty," Farr says, underscoring the importance of giving prototypes intense rigorous testing and validation before launching them in the marketplace.

RollEase customers play an important role in that process, he adds, noting that the innovation center was designed to encourage easy collaborations in which ideas for improvements can be explored quickly and effectively by using 3D technology. In one example, he pointed to a wall with several competitors' shades installed next to a new RollEase prototype recently made at the center, whose performance against the competition could be easily tested … not only by his design team, but also by potential customers visiting the center.

"Here, our engineers handle everything from start to finish," he says. "It's a huge motivator for our engineers to see a project through — from market research, product design and testing all the way through to delivering a 'manufactureable' product."

And if something doesn't work just right, he says, with 3D technology it's a simple matter to modify the design, print out a new prototype and see if there's any improvement.

Much of the workflow, Farr says, is geared to making continuous process improvements — the equivalent of hitting singles to move a runner eventually to home plate. But RollEase Innovation Center is also going for the long ball in its R&D efforts — the window-covering equivalent of Big Papi hitting a home run at Fenway Park.

"For us and the industry, we want to really excel in new product development," he says. "We're a company that's made a significant investment in innovation. We could have located anywhere, but we chose to be right here in Maine."

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