3D printing, on demand: how 3DQue is leading the sustainability revolution in manufacturing
From evolution: a podcast by entrepreneurship@UBC
evolution is a podcast shining light on our ecosystem’s stories of innovation, impact and hustle throughout their venture building journey. Join us as we build community and knowledge related to entrepreneurship during the course of COVID-19.
This week, host and entrepreneurship@UBC’s Creative Specialist, MJ Araujo, speaks with Steph Sharp, Co Founder and CEO of 3DQue. 3DQue has created an automation suite for 3D printers to produce parts 24/7, on demand, rivalling current manufacturing systems dependent on outsourcing production at scale. Their team has been pivotal in helping deliver parts for PPE for frontline workers, keeping communities safe while broadening their operations to serve local businesses impacted by broken supply chains.
About Steph Sharp
A finance expert and serial entrepreneur, Steph Sharp founded 3DQue to disrupt the low volume manufacturing market. She is committed to establishing long-term relationships and business practices that are economically, socially and environmentally sustainable.
Headquartered in Vancouver, British Columbia, 3DQue offers an autonomous 3D printing service for the mass production of critical high resolution plastic components and parts. 24/7 on demand scheduling provides control over inventory and effectively eliminates the need for outsourcing. 3DQue is changing the way 3D printing is performed with innovative technology that delivers complex plastic parts at scale with speed, cost and quality not achievable with traditional 3D printing techniques.
3DQue is a venture currently a part of entrepreneurship@UBC’s Incubator program
To read a full transcript, see below:
MJ: Welcome Steph, and thank you for joining us. When did you first hear of 3D printing?
Steph: I actually was introduced to 3D printing way back in 1986. That's when the first machine came out to print dental crowns, and then I actually had clients with 3D printers along the way, one in jewelry, one in running shoes, and then I ultimately ended up at 3DQue.
MJ: It seems like it kept appearing in your life. What were some of your initial thoughts when the technology came out?
Steph: At first when I saw the dental crown I was like, whoa, how does that work? That is so cool! Because making crowns was a very, very tricky, time consuming process. Then, with this machine, they would just put the files into the machine and it would print out a crown. I was like, wow, that was crazy.
MJ: So tell us more about 3DQue. How did it all start?
Steph: So Mateo, who's my Co Founder, thought 3D printers were really cool and decided to buy one for himself and started making some really neat stuff. People heard about it and started asking him to make neat stuff for them and then all of a sudden he had so many things people wanted him to make, but he didn't have enough time to print them. The problem with 3D printers is a person has to go to the printer and remove the part before they can print the next part. So he would print a part, then it would sit on his printer all day while he was in school. Then he would come home and scrape the part off and get the printer ready to print another part.
Then he would be out for the evening or doing homework, and then the printer would just sit there. So it wasn't that the printer didn't have enough capacity to print what he wanted, he just didn't have enough time to run back and forth. He decided this was a waste of time and that he should be able to automate the part removal so the printer can just run and run and run while he’s doing other things. And so he did.
MJ: So how did you two come together and what makes 3DQue different and special from other 3D printing companies?
Steph: So Mateo went to school with my daughter. Of course, I knew the kids in her class. I was on the Parent Advisory Committee when Mateo came up with this idea of shredding plastic bottles to make filament for the school 3D printer, so they would have cheap filament and the advisory committee thought that was a good idea. So they backed him on that and then we just started chatting about some of his ideas and then realized there was a whole business around this automation that he developed, so we decided to start 3DQue.
It is the automation that makes us different: other printers you still need to go back and forth to take parts off the printer and you need to apply tape or glue. Whereas ours just go continuously 24/7. You don't really need somebody there to look after the printers. Once in a while you have to change the filament, you know, that kind of stuff. But I love seeing that entrepreneurial mindset of how can we improve an already existing system and make it more efficient and even increase the range of applications it can have.
“It is the automation that makes us different: other printers you still need to go back and forth to take parts off the printer...ours just go continuously 24/7.”
MJ: I'm curious to hear about the types of products you are printing?
Steph: So we were doing a lot of printing in plastic boxes and covers. 3D printing is really good for enclosures for sensors or Raspberry Pi's or electronics. You always want electronics in a plastic container so that it's protected from the rest of the machine, or from the outdoor elements. That's mostly what we were focusing on, the different kinds of enclosures, and storage boxes, for instance, for keyboard caps and that kind of thing. We are still doing those for our customers, they will need their enclosures made and that works really well for them.
But with COVID of course, we've moved over to the personal protective equipment, mostly face shields and ear savers right now. We've developed a couple of products for helping with testing for swabs. We're looking at working with some of the ventilator manufacturers on some of the new designs. So a lot of focus on that type of thing right now, while we're still working with our traditional customers.
MJ: That's amazing! From what I’ve observed in the ecosystem, a lot of companies have managed to pivot and temporarily adjust to the circumstances, which is great, but you have kept your normal operations and on top of that, have added a whole new layer of response to the world’s particular needs right now. There also seems like a good opportunity for the industry to grow and change. So some of the problems the 3D printing industry used to have was that the materials available couldn't be applied to certain fields. For example, in medicine, I imagine the plastics need to be antibacterial to some extent, correct?
Steph: So 3D printing wasn't used in industry very much at all in the past at scale. It was used for small prototypes, if you wanted 1 or 10, because people have to keep running to the machine to take parts off.
It is true that there are certain medical applications that the plastics used to not be available for 3D printing. But what's happened is with the improvement in 3D printing, the number of materials have doubled. So now there are actually materials available for a lot of applications that used to not be materials available for. For instance, one that's been developed in Europe is an antibacterial plastic that's used for artificial joints and braces and things that sit against the skin.
A lot of people for the head shields and the ear savers are using a particular kind of plastic that you can sterilize over and over again. So the materials have really changed and the cost of 3D printing has come down even as the printing itself has improved, because of better components. Like the development of the design science. Because more people are using 3D printers, designers are finding new and innovative ways to make parts stronger and more durable. So we haven't really pivoted, we have expanded our production. We are accelerating our collaborations and we're designing a lot of solutions for COVID that are more economic going forward to work with the healthcare system on securing the supply chain because these supply chain break downs have caused a lot of problems.
MJ: So with 3D printing technology, you can transition outsource parts to be produced in house, therefore making your supply chain more reliable, correct?
Steph: The unique thing with our system is that with the automation, we can provide 24 hours of automation for less than an hour of an engineer's time. So that starts making the parts very cost competitive with injection molding and traditional production. The problem has been that you don't have enough capacity to put high volumes through 3D printers at a cost effective rate. So it's not like we don't have millions of 3D printers, we have millions of 3D printers, but they're not cost effective, like the healthcare system can afford the pricing. So that's why a lot of makers are actually printing stuff for free right now. But of course, that's not a long term solution. Long term you need to be able to take those printers and automate them so that you can get costs down to a reasonable level for the healthcare system.
“Long term you need to be able to take those printers and automate them so that you can get costs down to a reasonable level for the healthcare system.”
MJ: There is a saying that goes, necessity is the mother of invention. I'm wondering, from your perspective, how does the current COVID crisis impact the future of 3D printing? What was that journey looking like before all of this started, and in terms of manufacturing in general?
Steph: Digital distributed manufacturing has been something that industry has been talking about as additive manufacturing, and in general, it has been getting more sophisticated. I think what happens at a time like this is that everything accelerates and compresses. People say, oh, sometime in the next 10 years becomes no, we have to do this next month. So I think when you're looking at the future of manufacturing in general, we have relied on these large scale outsourced business models. What we're finding is that breaks down because of the concentration of supply in our particular location, we need to be a bit more resilient and flexible. We need systems that we can reconfigure for different things. So, the auto manufacturers are trying to get up to speed to do ventilator manufacturing, but it takes a long time to build new steel molds to be able to transfer your injection molding over to medical devices. Whereas the 3D printer, you upload the digital file for a new part, and you print it.
So the technology is really there to get that distributed manufacturing model and I think that's the future. We're going to be looking not so much at the scale economies having massive injection molding factories in one location, more so a whole bunch of 3D printing production units all over the world that are all tied together in a network that can be reconfigured pretty much instantly. You can share the digital file and everybody can now print the same part.
MJ: That's pretty revolutionary and I imagine it makes it way more accessible for people around the world to manufacture items. Especially in situations like this, where time is of such importance, just being able to tweak a file and completely change the product that you're printing is pretty impactful.
Steph: With some of the PPE, like the face shields and the ear savers, people have been sharing their files, and then as people use them, they tweak them and then they share the new upgraded designs and they can be changed instantly. We don't have to make a whole new mold to make a new headband. We can just do a new digital model and then everybody goes oh, that's a better headband...let's print that one. And then they just change their production. It's a completely different mindset.
MJ: So my last question for you is, where do you see 3DQue going in the future? And what's in store for you?
Steph: We're growing, that's for sure. We would ultimately love to see our type of 3D printing being fully automated on all printers. So we'd like to be at the center of that, where our automation technology is used by a whole bunch of different printer manufacturers to automate our type of 3D printing. Then what we would see is then a lot of plastic production would then be done with 3D printers which use less material, then there's less waste, and you wouldn't be shipping all around the world, so there would be a much lower carbon footprint.
You would also be able to just print what you need when you need it. So if you need 1000 throat swabs today, you can just print it today, you don't have to buy 50,000 and store it somewhere and ship it from somewhere etc. And if you need to change a design, you change it, you're not stuck with thousands of units of inventory that you have to throw out. You also are not having to manufacture these big molds that once you don't need them anymore, what do you do with them?
We see ourselves at the leading edge of a sustainability revolution in manufacturing. And along with sustainability, there's also a real economic change because it brings jobs back into companies rather than overseas. So it helps local communities build and it helps us be more innovative. It's interesting because I think even as production shifts into becoming more centralized, the design will be more distributed. So what will happen and what we're seeing already is, we'll use a design from the Czech Republic or from the UK, and maybe we'll add a tweak to it, and then somebody in the US will use it. So we see that as being a very big change. And that's what we want to be part of, that innovation, the sustainability and more global collaboration.
“We see ourselves at the leading edge of a sustainability revolution in manufacturing. And along with sustainability, there's also a real economic change because it brings jobs back into companies rather than overseas.”
MJ: Thank you so much for your time today, Steph.
Read more about 3DQue's impact during COVID-19, here