BLUE MOUNDS — Steve Grundahl honed his mechanical abilities while growing up on his parent’s dairy farm south of Mount Horeb, but his skills have moved far beyond tractor and equipment repairs.
Since 2001, Grundahl has immersed himself in the world of 3-D printing, something he discovered while a student at the Milwaukee School of Engineering in the mid-1990s. His business, Midwest Prototyping in the Blue Mounds Industrial Park, specializes in custom prototype parts made from different types of plastics, epoxy resins, nylon powders and nylon blended with aluminum. His company also does small runs of niche parts but primarily serves companies that are at the end of the design stage on a product and want to quickly and economically begin building a prototype.
Grundahl uses five types of 3-D printing processes but his primary method is stereolithography, where a laser is used to build a 3-D structure in layers that are each about the thickness of a piece of paper. The process occurs in a vat of liquid photopolymer that is cured upon contact with computer-controlled blasts of ultraviolet laser light. Depending on the size and shape of a part, the process can take 45 minutes to two to three days.
Parts can include housings for appliances, scissor handles, the backs of chairs, window frames for aircraft and the grill for the front of a riding lawn mower. Among the more unique pieces are housings that can hold multiple Go-Pro cameras and replicas of bone, that include simulated marrow on the inside.
The company, located in two buildings spanning 30,000 square feet, has 3-D printing machines ranging from $50,000 to $850,000, including some that can print in multiple colors. But expansion is likely in the company’s future. In 2013, revenue grew 30 percent over the previous year and by 41 percent in 2014.
Grundahl was a featured speaker in Brussels, Belgium, in April at a world design conference; is on the advisory board for Madison Area Technical College’s mechanical design program and provides guidance to the prototype and design program at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in Green Bay. He also races vintage cars at Road America in Elkhart Lake and occasionally casts for muskie.
QUESTION: How did your company start?
ANSWER: I had been working for Marquip, traveling as a field engineer for them, and I wanted to come back to this area. So I re-engaged myself with the (3-D) technology and realized there were a few companies around that had these machines and were making a go of it, so I decided to start another one in an office of my brother’s construction company.
Q: So your timing was pretty good based on how new the technology was in the industry?
A: Yes and no. I bought my first machine six months before 9/11. Luckily, I was a small one-man operation when that happened and was able to survive but it grew quickly from there and I really started building up a nice client base.
Q: Is it difficult to keep up with the changing technologies?
A: Certainly, there have been changes, but the basic process hasn’t changed all that much. Of course, materials have gotten much better, computers have gotten much better and lasers have gotten much better. All of the operating components have improved and gotten faster and more reliable but the process is still the same. What I think the last 10 years have been about is developing new materials and finding the applications to make sure they’re viable. I think there’s been sort of a catch-up curve on the application side, so we’re filling that bucket. But the next five years are probably going to be far more exciting on the technology side.
Q: Who are your customers?
A: Our customers are product development and design firms. They use us as a subcontractor in their process. The other category would be manufacturing companies like Spectrum Brands, Sub Zero, Fiskars, Springs Window Fashions, lots of good local companies that are making products and, in many cases, have their own internal capacity to some level and we augment that.
Q: Are you worried about those companies no longer needing your services as the costs of 3-D printing drop?
A: That was a concern six or seven years ago but with many of the projects we do, customers order it today, we build it overnight and we ship it or deliver it tomorrow, so they’re in our hands less than 24 hours. Now that’s happening at (those companies) but ultimately it leads to more projects for them and more iterations, and at some point they run into a restriction on their end where they don’t have the right material, their machine can’t build big enough or fast enough and that’s where we come in. If it’s getting cheaper for them, it’s getting cheaper for us.
Q: But what about the niche part business?
A: In that case, we’re manufacturing real end-use parts with these machines. So we may be making 20, 50, 100, 200 parts. We’re never making 50,000 of something. It’s still more expensive to manufacture this way, the advantage is we’re printing directly from a CAD (computer-aided design) file so there’s never been an investment in a mold or a form or a tool. By doing these small batches, we’re looking for niche products and in Madison there are all sorts of creative designers and the biotech industry. They may only sell 50 machines in a year so we can print parts on demand and they don’t have to have any inventory, they can order as needed from us. They may pay $200 for a part that out of an injection mold tool would cost $20 but they didn’t spend the $40,000 or $50,000 to get the cheap part.
Q: Your company has experienced remarkable growth and you’ve been on the INC 5000 list of the nation’s fastest-growing companies. What are the challenges that come with the enviable situation?
A: The challenge would be finding your workforce. We’ve been very aggressive about working with NWTC in Green Bay, Madison College, UW-Platteville and with Mount Horeb High School. We bring classes out, and we employ several kids throughout the year. This (3-D printing) is not something that goes on in every small town so we recognized the need to develop our own workforce over time. Workflow planning is also a challenge. We don’t get a lot of notice. Luckily, we have a very flexible group of employees.
Q: What does your company look like 10 years from now?
A: I think there will be a lot of niche manufacturing. I think there will be a lot of medical applications that already are coming out of this but will become commonplace once insurance companies and the medical community fully understands the value.
Q: How would it be used in the medical industry?
A: There’s just so much more you can do. It’s a completely different way of thinking and approaching diagnostics, patient education and the education of the providers. If we have a CT or MRI of your heart, we can print your heart or your lung or your femur with what ever maladies you may have. This would be a physical object you could look at, hold and examine and it can be made overnight.
‘I think there will be a lot of medical applications that already are coming out of this but will become commonplace once insurance companies and the medical community fully understands the value.’ STeve Grundahl