Prototypes, Parts and More Embraces 3D
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – More than four years ago, Ted Webb, the owner of Meridian Arts & Graphics Inc. in Liberty Township, seized upon an idea that leveraged some of the latest manufacturing technology to complement his print business of more than 20 years.
One issue his company faced was the high costs to produce prototypes that would demonstrate how labels and graphics of Meridian Arts would reproduce on containers. The other alternative was to show customers a 3D digital model on a laptop or other device that would illustrate how the product would look.
Big box retailers have moved toward demanding a physical product that they can assess before they decide whether to carry a brand on their shelves, Webb explains.
The answer was to create a separate company that uses additive manufacturing to produce prototypes themselves out of the same building. Once the idea was in place, Webb brought in a new business partner, Paul Palovich, and Prototypes, Parts and More was was born.
“It took us about 16 months to verify and go through the entire process to find out what equipment best suits the packaging industry,” he says. “This business marries well with Meridian Arts.”
Prototypes, Parts and More manufactures plastic prototype containers on which Meridian graphics are printed for clients all over the country, Palovich says. “The real invention here is how we’ve combined all of the materials and properties,” he says. The business has branched off into manufacturing other components such as replacement parts for classic automobiles or plastic gears for customers.
But to produce the best prototype, the company had to first decide on which printers made the most sense for the company, Palovich recalls.
To reproduce the sleek, smooth surface of an aluminum container, the company opted to buy a large Projet 3D printer with Multi-Jet Printing, or MJP, capabilities. The Projet, Palovich says, can read a digital file of the product and build the component, layer-by-layer, as a nozzle deposits a liquid polymer that hardens as ultraviolet rays cure the surface. As the nozzles pass along a pre-programmed path, they also deposit a support material – in this case, wax – in which the part is to be encased. Once the build is finished, the wax “brick” is placed into an oven heated to about 150 degrees and melted, revealing the plastic cured prototype.
“Once it’s printed, we’ll use a process that gives it a brush aluminum effect,” Palovich says. The smooth surface produced by the Projet enables the company to then affix its printed artwork on the prototype.
The result is a sleek design that allows the customer to visualize what the final package will look like. It also gives the customer the ability to show retailers a physical demonstration model of the package so these companies can address questions such as quantity and shelf space.
“The buyer can actually look at it, and get the shape, size and feel of it,” he says. “More retailers today want to see a physical model rather than a 3D computer image.”
Before 3D printing technology, developing such a prototype would have taken 12 to 16 weeks and commanded a minimum run of 25,000 items at a cost of $100,000, Webb says. “We can get you to this point within two weeks at a cost of $1,000,” he says.
In addition to from manufacturing prototypes, adding 3D printing capabilities has opened other revenue streams for the company, Palovich says. “A secondary market we’ve moved into involves the restoration of auto parts, prototypes for machine shops, and any other things that come before us,” he says.
The company bought a second, smaller 3D printer – an Ultimaker 2 – that uses fused deposition modeling to create parts.
“FDM technology often leaves a grainy surface,” Webb says, and is useful to manufacture components that aren’t purposed for visual demonstrations. As such, the Ultimaker is not used often for container prototypes of, for example, an aluminum bottle or canister.
Yet it’s perfect to produce low-cost components for clients who otherwise would have to source their products from other manufacturers. One customer, Webb notes, was spending about $75 apiece for a small replacement plastic gear from a company in Germany. By using a hand-held 3D scanner, Prototypes, Parts and More could simply scan the part and then create a digital 3D file. The file is then imported to the FDM printer and the component is produced in a matter of hours.
“The client was spending about $75 per gear, and we’re able to produce the same gear for about $4,” Webb says. “They’re now able to get a dozen gears for what it cost to buy just one.”
Another customer was looking for a replacement part for a 1988 Jaguar, Palovich says. The component in question was a “squirrel cage” fan for a twin turbine V12. Since the part is unavailable, the company used a hand-held 3D scanner to scan the broken component and transferred the image to a digital file.
Employee Bill Hallewell re-engineered the part by using 3D imaging software, which at first presented a learning curve that the company has since overcome.
“It took a little while to learn, but now that we can do it, we can do this relatively quickly,” Hallewell says. “This fan took a few hours. If we were to try this a few years ago, it would’ve taken days – and given us headaches.”
The squirrel cage was printed with FDM technology since the type of polymer used is generally more flexible to impact than tougher surfaces produced on the Projet.
And, it costs far less to produce the replacement part on the Ultimaker, Palovich says.
Prototypes, Parts and More – a portfolio company of the Youngstown Business Incubator – represents a small but growing fraternity of firms in the Mahoning Valley that are embracing additive manufacturing as a viable part of their business plan. And these companies rely on one another since many of them possess applications that the others lack.
As an example, Palovich says the company received a call from Pamton, a Youngstown-based 3D printing company that was engaged in a project for the Oh Wow! The Roger & Gloria Jones Children’s Center for Science & Technology. While the company had the printing capability, it lacked the necessary scanning equipment and used Prototypes’ hand-held scanner.
“This is just one way in which we work together,” he says, noting the company has worked with other portfolio companies at Youngstown Business Incubator such as Fresmade 3D.
“It’s really turning into a good network,” Palovich says. “There are seven or eight 3D printing technologies out there and not one company has all of them. So, we have to work with other companies.”
Pictured: Ted Webb and Paul Palovich hold sample items produced by Prototypes, Parts and More.
Copyright 2023 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.