By Eric Peterson | Jan 09, 2023
Contract additive manufacturing
The snarled global supply chain proved a catalyst for Merit3D in 2022. "It's growing like crazy," says Loveless of his contract additive manufacturer. "We're really trying to show companies that there's a different way to do manufacturing than what people have traditionally experienced with injection molding and casting."
Born in part to supply Dustless -- Loveless' family's vacuum manufacturer -- "to skip injection molding, skip China," Merit3D spun off as a standalone contract manufacturer in 2020.
"I thought, 'Maybe 3D printing is the future of manufacturing,'" says Loveless. "We found some ways we could start 3D printing for ourselves, for Dustless, and then other companies started coming to us and saying, 'Hey, you're mass-producing stuff for yourselves? Can you do it for us as well?'"
While the per-unit cost can be 3X (minus the expense of mold-making) that of injection molding, additive's benefits in design, reliability, and turnaround time outweigh the line item's increase, says Loveless.
About 60 percent of Merit3D's business stems from replacing injection molding, says Loveless. Orders are coming from a diverse set of industries, ranging from medical devices and cropduster nozzles to bike mounts and bobbleheads. Customers include Phone Skope, EZ-Level, and promotional products suppliers.
Prototyping is the exception: Merit3D has handled orders in excess of 100,000 units from a few customers, but the average is "1,000 to 5,000," says Loveless.
In 2022, Merit3D printed more than 60,000 binocular tethers for a customer in a single day. "We started at 8 o'clock in the morning. At 4:30 in the afternoon, we had printed 62,700 of these brackets that we delivered to the customer that day."
Most projects include new product development or ground-up redesigns, as additive manufacturing brings a different playbook to the drafting desk. "Design is king, I'll tell you that," says Loveless. "Obviously, you have to have the manufacturing process perfected on the back end to be able to accept that design, but design is king. That is one real big industry hurdle."
"There are different things in molding that you design for -- it's the exact same with 3D printing. If we design it so we can print it 100 percent supportless, you're going to get a much better part than if you give me a garbage in thing, then it's garbage out."
He adds, "DFM is big, when people understand it. You can have a part that you've designed for additive, and as soon as you print it five, six, seven times, there's little changs you can make on it to make it even better. It just keeps evolving -- the part gets better as you go on."
Merit3D's revenue grew by 300 percent in both 2021 and 2022 as Merit3D grew its arsenal of 3D printers to about 60 machines from Photocentric, Titan Robotics, and other suppliers. To accommodate the equipment, the company moved out of Dustless' facility to an adjacent 6,000-square-foot building in 2021.
Workforce is not expected to be an issue. Carbon County, where Price is the county seat, has lost numerous jobs in the coal industry in recent years, and Loveless is looking to tap some of that talent as Merit3D grows.
"The war on coal has been very tough for this community," he says. "The coal plants are shutting down in 2038 when the EPA is scheduled to shut them down. That's going to eliminate about 1,700 jobs in the country, and our goal is to replace those 1,700 jobs with tech manufacturing jobs."
Revenue and headcount aren't the only hockey-stick metrics. Production is also on a meteoric rise: "A year and a half ago when we got an order for 1,000 pieces, it took us 30 days to print those 1,000 pieces. Now it takes us hours to print 1,000 pieces."
"More machines is part of it. Learning the printing process is a big part of it. Learning how to speed up your prints, learning how to design better parts so your post-processing goes faster, learning how to get your part into your digital system faster."
Challenges: "No one has really done this before," says Loveless. "There's a bunch of people trying to do it -- and I think we're even still trying to do it -- but there isn't a secret recipe for saying this is how we do it. The book on mass-production 3D printing doesn't exist."
Migrating design to additive is an outsized pain point: "Everybody's used to designing for prototypes, but people aren't used to designing for mass production with additive manufacturing. That just makes post-processing so much easier."
Opportunities: Loveless points to outdoor gear, medical devices, and promotional products (including a $2 pen) as potential catalysts. More broadly, reshoring is a big opportunity. A case study for this point, Florida-based EZ-Level "had molds in China, and they were tired of China," says Loveless. "They ditched their molds, and now they're 3D printing their part here."
Needs: Loveless is exploring the idea of a large, purpose-built additive factory in Price. "We have 60 acres," he says. "We want to build a really big manufacturing facility."