Inside The Technologies Of The Technology House
I visited contract manufacturer The Technology House for a look inside production operations.
The Technology House (TTH) is based in Streetsboro, Ohio, with another manufacturing facility in nearby Solon. Founded in 1996, the company has grown greatly to embrace newer production technologies. Along with sister company Sea Air Space formed upon the 2008 acquisition of a job shop, the team at TTH offers a variety of options to prototype and produce projects for a variety of industries.
I’ve spoken to the team before, but this was my first visit to their site. My initial introduction to their name came about a few years ago when TTH became one of the earliest Carbon customers. They’ve worked with Carbon’s technology since 2015, building upon their growing offerings in 3D printing.
Going back to the beginnings, it all started with a single SLA 3D printer.
Founder and CEO Chip Gear explained that the team “splurged on the machines and was frugal everywhere else.” He meant it: the team used the crate that first machine came in as a desk (and the rest of it went into building a playhouse for Gear’s daughters, who now run Sea Air Space). The rest of the office furniture was sourced from auctions, as priority remains on the machines.
Growing from that initial SLA machine, which is still in use today, TTH has since brought on additional 3D printing technologies. They house four SLA machines now, with another to come next week, working with six resins in regularly-changed vats; one FDM machine; one SLS system installed about six months ago; and a slew of Carbon’s DLS systems.
“We’ve gone to a lot of trade shows, where we kiss a lot of frogs to see who’s the prince of princes,” Gear told me. “Our guide now for looking at new processes is: what can be production?”
As of right now, TTH houses only polymer technologies, but is looking into bringing metal in-house as well. They currently source metal “through friendly competitors,” Gear added, noting that “we’ll probably install in the next year; there’s an empty room in the Solon facility I call the DMLS room.”
Focus for 3D printing usage has been evolving at TTH, as it has in the industry at large. What began as a solution for rapid prototyping is now moving squarely into production.
It was really the work with Carbon that lit the production flame for TTH. Lauren Good, Vice President of Finance, is the resident go-to for DLS expertise.
“3D printing, cast urethane, injection molding; they’re all tools in the toolbox,” Good said. “How do you work all those tools together? Additive is a way to help customers get where they need faster. It’s taking the time down and helping them get to market before their competitors.”
TTH works with both additive and subtractive technologies at its two locations. The 3D printing equipment is currently all installed in the 50,000-square-foot Streetsboro facility, while the 35,000-square-foot Solon facility is dedicated to machining. The latter will eventually, though, house metal 3D printing systems, as additive and subtractive increasingly find themselves sharing manufacturing floor space.
During a walkthrough of the Streetsboro facility, the team discussed some of their major customer uses for each technology.
“We have a pretty diverse customer base,” Vice President of Business Development Mark Horner noted.
First in sight when entering from the main office area is the Carbon setup. TTH works with all of Carbon’s commercially available materials, with most usage seen for RPU and EPU and rising demand for epoxy and medical-grade materials. As use has been evolving, so too has been the setup.
“This area has been changing to find the best process flow,” Good explained while we stood in front of the DLS setup. “It’s still very labor-intensive, though has improved significantly in the last three years. There’s still support removal, still a post-cure oven that tends to need fixtures for support. We’ve worked closely with Carbon on their wash station, meter mix machine, and materials, offering feedback from our customers and our experiences.”
We spoke for a bit about materials certifications, as Good mentioned that Carbon is putting investment into this area — which is very necessary from a customer perspective.
“Medical, aerospace, automotive, and even consumer industries need UL certifications as a minimum,” she noted.
Also in sight are medical (FDA) and aerospace regulations. The “moving process” of additive manufacturing offers an interesting consideration from a validation standpoint, Good said. We’ve been seeing rising FDA approvals concerning 3D printing, and there will certainly be much more regulatory focus yet to come.
Moving into the next 3D printing room, we were confronted with the team’s original SLA machine, which is still running alongside three others. These are updated SLA500 machines; a 7000 is soon to join them. Also in the room was a Fortus 400 mc, with which the team uses production materials.
This room, Gear noted, is set up to run seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day. A few interesting use cases included a skull model — as 3D printing can help with reconstruction surgeries — and a piece for the Library of Congress that went through a long series of SLA iterations to find the perfect design for final injection molding.
“Even in SLA, we have some production work,” Good noted. “It’s not as robust as the Carbon process, but we do still find some production uses.”
SLA is also used often for master patterns for castings, as well as for fit and function prototyping, Horner added. The variety in uses requires a good deal of versatility from the team — as well as a good deal of communication with customers.
“We have more human touch than some of the bigger companies,” Horner said. “Our growth was organic from the very beginning. We do now have one full-time salesperson on the West Coast. Our website was set up about ten years ago, and we’re redoing it this year.”
In a change from what we’ve been hearing more about lately, the quoting process at TTH is manual — and they like it that way. They may turn to more automation for internal use, but prefer to stay away from full online quoting while 3D printing is still such a new and largely unfamiliar technology.
“A lot of engineers still don’t understand all the differences, even with one technology, before getting into materials,” Horner said.
“We want to help them find the right solution,” Good added. “They might find a different technology or material meets their requirements better.”
Adding to those materials is of course the final touch: finishing. Many of the finishes (e.g., plating) are outsourced, while painting and other final touches are done in-house.
Moving into additional processes, we took a look into the cast urethane room, where projects are about a solid 50/50 split between prototyping and production usage. Some examples were low-volume production work done for the Navy. Cast urethane is really TTH’s second department to grow into production, and represents the company’s step toward contract manufacturing.
“We’re a contract manufacturer more than a service bureau,” Horner said. “We’re intentionally rebranding that way.”
After a visit to the team’s eleven injection mold presses, and a look at some MRI and aircraft components, we moved into the last of the additive processes: SLS. The single in-house SLS machine is currently in a temporary room all on its own, as the powders make for rather a messy process. The company has seen a great deal of interest in SLS, hence the recent move to bring the technology in-house. It seems this single machine is a point of entry: Gear noted the team “want to be very familiar before investing in a $1 million machine.”
As capabilities continue to expand, so do the services TTH offers. They are now getting into assembly work, adding to injection molding offerings, which can ease the quality control process. The paint area came in-house about 15 years ago, and the team developed expertise with color matching. A new addition to the QC room is a clean room area. When finished, it will be a Class 8 clean room, to be used for a Carbon customer.
“In this facility, we have mostly visual inspections now; that’s growing with the clean room,” said HR and Payroll Manager Nicky Gear.
Following our walk through, the team and I sat down for another chat — they brought up some interesting points about the business of 3D printing for production. Stay tuned for part two.
On the whole, I’m very glad to be better acquainted with this family-owned business. They offer solid views into the realities of the business and technical sides of 3D printing and its growth toward production, incorporation with traditional technologies, and realistic applications.