On the one hand, the two-year-old startup Zero Barrier Labs has a vision that’s pretty old-school: open up a factory in Madison specializing in metals manufacturing.
Less old-school is the technology under the hood: Zero Barrier has developed a 3D printer intended to drastically reduce the time and cost involved in the creation of metal prototypes, making it possible for entrepreneurs and businesses to test out products or equipment without breaking the bank.
“There are lots of companies out there that aren’t able to easily prototype, before they get an idea of whether they’ll be able to make a lot of money in the market,” said Evan Wolfenden, the company’s co-founder and CEO. “By having a technology that is able to allow mass production on such a large basis, and make it affordable...I’m opening up the field to all kinds of products to enter the market.”
Wolfenden is a mechanical engineer with deep experience working on complex engineering projects. Before graduating from the UW-Madison two years ago, he helped design the braking system on a Hyperloop pod prototype as part of the university’s BadgerLoop team. He also helped design wind turbines for the student group WiscWind, as part of another inter-collegiate engineering competition.
Whenever it became necessary to create metal components for his projects — be it bearings for the blades of a turbine, or for the braking system of the Hyperloop pod — Wolfenden said he found existing 3D printing prototyping services to be prohibitively expensive. A recent quote he got from one company amounted to around $2,600 for a 1-kilogram object.
Wolfenden said he often had to resort to fabricating parts he needed by hand, a labor-intensive and error-prone endeavor.
After graduating, he said he decided to try to solve the problem and try his hand at entrepreneurship as a way of “giving back.”
“I’ve been really blessed in my life," he said. "I’ve had a world-class education at a world-class university. I have all these things available to me. So I feel like I have an obligation to do the best I can, so that I can give back to others, and build a foundation for others to follow in."
The use of 3D printing — the building of three-dimensional objects, layer by layer, using computer-generated models —- for prototyping is nothing new, with facilities like the makerspace Sector67 and the Blue Mounds-based Midwest Prototyping offering 3D printing services. What makes Zero Barriers different is its specialization in metals, as opposed to plastics, as well its printer’s unconventional technological foundation.
Most metal 3D printers use lasers to effectively bake metal powder into solid layers. The machine that Zero Barriers has created uses a metal powder with photosensitive plastics mixed into it, that can be baked into layers using flashes of ultraviolet light.
The UV light-based approach saves time and money, said Wolfenden. When a laser prints a layer of an object, it’s comparable to an illustrator using a pencil to slowly shade in a drawing. The UV light is more like a stamp, creating a layer “in just one motion,” he said. Plus, said Wolfenden, the powder his machine uses is far cheaper to buy than the powder laser printers use.
All told, Zero Barriers has estimated that its 3D printing services will be 60 times faster and 17 times cheaper than existing services, said Wolfenden.
The company is still in its early stages: Right now, Wolfenden and the three other engineers working on the team are operating out of the UW-Madison Makerspace in the school’s Engineering Building. He said the team is still working on the fine-tuning of the machine, and validating the structural integrity of the objects they create.
Eventually, the goal is to move out of the university and open a facility of its own in an industrial neighborhood in the Madison area, said Wolfenden, where he would be able to service established manufacturers and budding startups alike.
“My future customers are going to be the smaller guys,” he said. “Students, researchers, people working out of their garage.”
The company is currently financed by Wolfenden’s own savings, as well as funding from friends and family. The company is also finalist in the upcoming Governor’s Business Plan Competition, which advertises around $150,000 worth in prizes to participating companies.