Added dimension: Business profits from revolution in 3-D printing

Bruce Strong, owner of Apex CAD Products
Bruce Strong, owner of Apex CAD Products in Grand Junction, runs a business that sells and repairs three-dimensional printers. The business also uses its own 3-D printers to create prototypes, molds and a variety of other products. (Business Times photo by Phil Castle)

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Bruce Strong has enjoyed a front-row seat to the development and increasing use of three-dimensional printers — equipment he says has the potential to revolutionize the way products are manufactured.

It’s no longer so much a question of where and how 3-D  printing technology is used, Strong says. “Where isn’t it used is probably a better question.”

By applying resins, powdered metals and other materials one thin layer at a time, 3-D printers can create everything from detailed product prototypes and architectural models to molds for custom jewelry to the characters featured in stop-motion animation, Strong says. There’s speculation 3-D printers could one day be used to assemble human cells into organs for transplants, create new chemical compounds or construct houses or even airplanes.

Strong owns Apex CAD Products, a Grand Junction-based business that sells and repairs 3-D printers and also uses 3-D printers to create prototypes, molds and other products.

Strong launched the firm in 2006 after working for 10 years for 3D Systems, a manufacturer of 3D printers and other rapid prototyping equipment. The company operated in Grand Junction until it relocated to South Carolina. Three other former employees of 3D Systems joined Strong at Apex.

Strong has continued his relationship with 3D Systems as an authorized reseller of that company’s new and used equipment.

Apex operates a Grand Junction office out of the Business Incubator Center and operates a second office in Louisville on the Front Range of Colorado.

Three-dimensional printing offers what’s called an additive manufacturing process, Strong says, in that products are created by building up a succession of layers. That differs from subtractive processes in which material is removed from a piece of metal, wood or other substance through cutting and drilling.

With 3-D printing, information from computer aided design (CAD) or animation modeling software is used to create a succession of cross sections. In effect, virtual designs are sliced into thin layers. A 3-D printer then applies layers of liquids, powders or other materials to build the physical design.

Strong says 3-D printing offers a number of advantages, including the ability to create nearly any shape or geometric feature to exacting detail.

One of the other advantages, he says, is the ability to manufacture a single item as cheaply as it is to produce thousands of items. That makes it possible to simply print replacement parts as they’re needed rather than build thousands of parts and stockpile them.

While 3-D printers long have been used to quickly create inexpensive prototypes of products to see how they look and work, the applications for the process have substantially expanded. As the cost of 3-D printers and sophisticated computer aided design software have come down, more businesses and even individuals are using them, Strong says. Comparatively inexpensive machines are available for hobbyists.

Apex has provided 3-D printing services to create not only prototypes, but also molds for custom jewelry, surgical tools and action figures.

Apex Prototypes
Two prototypes pictured below demonstrate what can be done with 3-D printers using colored powders. (Business Times photo by Phil Castle)

Strong says he’s most excited about evolving technology pairing three-dimensional scanning equipment and 3-D printers, particularly for medical and dental applications.

It will be possible to use the information from magnetic resonance imaging and other three-dimensional imaging techniques to manufacture joints and other medical devices that precisely fit individual patients.

A dentist will be able to use a wand that scans the inside of a patient’s mouth. That information then can be used in 3-D printers to create crowns, implants and other devices that exactly replicate the original dimensions.

“The potential is really big,” Strong says.

It’s a revolution in manufacturing in which Strong long has participated and plans to remain involved.