3D printed parts
While 3D printing isn't a brand-new technology, the way in which Accelerate3D is moving it forward is. Knox says, "Our whole thing is using large-size, high-speed 3D printers to fill the gap between prototype and mass production." Simply put, the company is using its own patented 3D printers to create parts for its customers in a fast, efficient manner that saves time and money over more traditional manufacturing methods.
Knox's mechanical engineering background led him to begin researching the state-of-the-art in 3D printing back in 2014, and what he found inspired him to forge ahead with his own ideas. While looking at videos on YouTube about the subject, he came upon the launch of a new printer in Germany. He thought their concept of large-format 3D printers and potential markets made sense, but he says, "Then they showed the machine, and I thought everything about it was wrong. I thought, 'I could definitely build something better than this,' but I was working at another company at the time, so it was just a back-of-the-mind fun thing to think about. After a while, I ended up coming up with what is now our fully patented new machine design."
Although he had never personally used a 3D printer before, Knox managed to bring his ideas to reality by building the new machine in his garage. When he started Accelerate3D, the original plan was to sell the machines to others. But early on, after talking with a number of potential customers, the goal changed substantially. Knox says, "We pivoted to this 'production as a service' model of just building our own machines from scratch, based on our own technology, and then using them in-house to provide production as a service to other companies. This way, they don't have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a machine, then invest lots of time and effort in running the machine."
The change in course also made a great deal of sense for Accelerate3D. "It makes sense on every single front," Knox says, "because the amount of effort and engineering that goes into making something that's ready for anybody to use, and is ready to sell, versus something that's just good enough for us to use, is a savings of hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars. We don't have to worry about warranty or service or any of that. We can fully streamline and optimize our system and operations for doing production as a service."
That business plan also greatly helps the bottom line, as the company is able to earn from a small number of its machines without having to build and sell hundreds of machines in order to realize similar profits. The long-term goal for Accelerate3D is to set up a network of production fulfillment centers across the country, with each of these "micro factories" having 20 to 50 3D printers doing work for local businesses.
Much of the process is intended to be automated, using proprietary software to control robotic operation of the printers rather than human operators working at each machine. Knox anticipates having approximately six to 12 skilled people at each facility, with each person performing a variety of tasks to keep the work flowing. Because the company is creating both the hardware and the software for the equipment, they will also be able to monitor maintenance and inventory needs to circumvent production disruptions before they occur.
One factor that has helped the company move forward with its development and expansion is the availability and cost of the raw materials needed for production. Rather than suffering through the shortages and price spikes that so many other industries have had to endure, Knox says they have no problems with nearly immediate delivery of what they need and have also seen substantial price reductions. Economy of scale has come into play for the types of plastic stock used in 3D printing, and domestic suppliers, including one right in Austin, have been able to easily meet the increased demand.
Despite a year-long slowdown in development because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Accelerate3D is now back on track toward meeting their expansion goals. More and more customers, from a very wide variety of industries, are now seeing the tremendous cost-saving and time-saving benefits of 3D printing over conventional manufacturing methods for prototype and short-run parts to meet their needs.
Instead of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, and waiting six to 12 months, Knox says, "If they have their designs ready to go, we can start printing out parts the next day. They can do one, they can do a hundred, or they can do a thousand. They can scale up as it makes sense on their side."
An important further benefit of this form of 3D manufacturing is that customers can make immediate changes and improvements to parts without costly, time-consuming tooling changes. Beyond all that, an often overlooked aspect of the concept is that locally producing 3D parts is far more environmentally friendly than building parts overseas and shipping them back to the United States.
The company can also act as a "digital warehouse" for its customers by maintaining 3D printable versions of parts that can be produced at a moment's notice when needed, without having to store a stock of unused parts.
Challenges: Bringing Knox's vision of an interconnected network manufacturing system to fruition. He says, "That hasn't really been built before as we envision it. We're building what really doesn't exist right now. The closest example would be Amazon, with their network of fulfillment centers, but they're not actually doing the manufacturing."
Opportunities: Knox sees his entire concept as an opportunity. "This idea of using distributed 3D printing and distributed manufacturing is going to be, in the long term, how things get built here in the U.S. Being the ones to actually build that is a huge opportunity, and that's what we're going after."
Needs: After fully completing the set-up of the Austin facility, the company will then tackle the expansion to other areas of the country to create the network.