By Eric Peterson / CompanyWeek | May 21, 2023
Large-format 3D printers
While 3D Platform manufactures 3D printers today, the company owes its origins to a totally different product from PBC Linear.
"PBC Linear was developing a new linear slide designed for the automated retail industry," says Schroeder. "That industry was really booming in the early 2010s, and manufacturers were looking for a more reliable mechatronic system."
PBC needed to demonstrate the new slide to potential customers, so the company built a 3D printer and brought it on the road. "We took it to a trade show in 2013, and we had people lined up three deep,” recalls Schroeder. “It was probably the busiest our booth had ever been in 30 years. We ended up having more people wanting to buy our demo than what we were actually trying to sell."
After the show, 3D Platform started as an internal skunkworks at PBC Linear before its spinoff as a standalone company in 2014. 3D Platform has a separate assembly area within PBC's 216,000-square-foot facility in Roscoe.
The company's printers have two key selling points: size and speed. "Our motto is: 'Think big. Print big. Save big,'" says Schroeder. "We focus on an area called FFF -- which is fused filament fabrication. That is really the most economical of all of the polymer-printing technologies. . . . This method of printing is generally faster and significantly less expensive than all of the other polymer-printing methods, but the tradeoff to that is the surface quality. The shapes are generally rougher."
Users have printed replicas of a prehistoric spider and shark for the Idaho Museum of Natural History, a 14-foot version of the FOX Sports Robot, and a wide range of industrial products and prototypes, including a train simulator for Alstom and Amtrak.
The commonality? "We pretty much just focus on big," says Schroder. "We focus on manufacturing printers that have a one-meter-by-one-meter and larger bed size."
When aesthetics and tight tolerances are not prerequisites, 3D Platform's printers offer the most bang for the buck, he adds, and can be used in mid-volume manufacturing operations. "If that's actually not important to the function of the part, you can achieve a lot more," says Schroeder.
The France-based Ridoret Group, for example, prints about 100,000 parts a year on two of 3D Platform's printers. "What they've found is they can increase their production by 20 or 25 percent by going faster and having a rougher finish, and it totally doesn't matter to the function of the part,” Schroeder explains.
He continues, "Our printers provide the fastest possible ROI to our users. There's not a lot of fluff. There's not a lot of pretty sheet metal around the outside. Ours is a stripped-down, bare-bones, super-reliable printer. In fact, our printer was selected by the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Naval Surface Warfare Center as a field-deployable printer, and ours was the only large-format 3D printer that survived the torture tests that they put the printers through."
When it comes to building the machines, 3D Platform leverages PBC Linear's core competencies in manufacturing linear motion components. "We are the most vertically integrated 3D printer manufacturer that I know of," says Schroeder. "The really critical parts are all the mechatronics and linear motion, and those are all made in-house."
3D Platform sold 500 printers -- which sell for $30,000 to more than $300,000 -- in its first three years, and the company has continued to grow. "Over the years, we have sold to most of the Fortune 500 that does manufacturing," says Schroeder. "We have sold products to every continent except for Antarctica."
3D Platform typically does not offer contract printing, he adds, but has done some in the past to help customers hit deadlines. "We do have a bunch of printers in our facility that we can do service bureau work. We don't normally do it, because it's not our core business and we promised our customers we weren't going to compete with them."
Challenges: "Like most of the companies here in the Midwest, finding staff is one of our biggest challenges," says Schroeder. "The labor shortage is very real in this area."
There's also the challenge of awareness of what 3D printing can do for potential customers. "One of the biggest challenges, especially with people who are not used to additive, is the mind shift,” Schroeder continues. “When people move from traditional manufacturing methods -- subtractive manufacturing or injection molding -- you have a very different-looking part. One of the worst things that has happened to the 3D-printing industry was using the word, 'printer,' or in the early days, there were a lot of comparisons to the Star Trek replicator. Really, what we should be doing as manufacturing professionals . . . is realize that additive manufacturing is its own unique manufacturing process that has its own unique rules."
He adds, "There are multiple different printers for multiple different applications, and most companies will need more than one type. Very seldom do you see a machine shop where all they have is just one type of machine."
Opportunities: Growing with manufacturing in general across sectors. "There are a lot of different areas we sell into, from prototyping to personalization, but the two big areas are what I would call artistic and manufacturing support," says Schroeder. "When you look at applications, I think the majority of our growth is going to come from manufacturing support."
Needs: 3D Platform needs more employees. "We are always looking to hire more people in engineering, sales -- pretty much every area of the business," says Schroeder. "We're looking for good, qualified candidates."