The company that makes synthetic cadavers didn’t plan to expand into building 3D printers, but it’s a strong business move for the long haul, says the CEO.
I spoke this week with Dr. Christopher Sakezles, the Founder and CEO of Florida-based SynDaver, which has really only come onto our radars in the last couple of months. While Sakezles founded the company a decade and a half ago, it wasn’t until May that we first encountered SynDaver as a local Loveland newspaper covered the upcoming launch of their first 3D printer.
Loveland, Colorado is best known in the 3D printing industry as the home of LulzBot — the former home, that is, when the operation was run by Aleph Objects. It is now home instead to SynDaver West, which this month fully introduced its Axi 3D printer.
If the Axi looks a bit familiar, there’s good reason; about ten members of the SynDaver West team were former LulzBot employees who have since put their experience, expertise, and open source files to use in building the new 3D printer. Lest you think, though, that SynDaver West is out “to become LulzBot 2” fear not: Sakezles says “we’re not interested in that at all; that’s not what we’re about.”
In this two-part interview, we delve into the history of SynDaver and where they are planning to take new 3D printing strategies.
Let’s back up to the story of SynDaver and their tech background.
As of this coming September, the company will have been in business for 16 years, Sakezles told me. He explains more of the genesis of SynDaver in his LinkedIn bio:
“I founded SynDaver in 2004 to develop synthetic human tissues for medical device testing and surgical training applications and my first five years were spent alone in a garage developing materials and filing patents. These days as CEO I am responsible for directing a growing number of SynDaver divisions, but the best part of my job is still tinkering in the ‘garage’ developing new technologies at SynDaverX.”
Synthetic tissues and cadavers are invaluable tools for training and testing. These days, we often hear of such devices having been 3D printed as especially multi-material capabilities can create remarkably realistic models used, for example, in surgical and other medical training, forestalling the traditional use of real bodies. Use of SynDaver’s offerings also extends to other applications, as the website details:
“Our ultra-high-fidelity tissues and body parts are used in the medical device industry to generate clinical study performance data, by medical professionals to simulate procedures that would normally require a live patient or expensive virtual reality, in trauma simulation scenarios, and by developers of new armor and weapons systems.”
Sakezles himself got his start in the medical device industry, working as “the guy that was designing devices and doing animal studies,” as he told me. At the start of his medical device career, stereolithography was around, rapid prototyping was developing — but “it was all in the province of giant companies who could afford it.”
“When I started SynDaver, I couldn’t really afford to do that; it was still too expensive,” he said. “So everything we’d model was kind of artsy by nature. There was a lot of hand drawing and clay sculpting. We did our first and second generation human models that way, basically all hand-sculpted, handmade with tools.”
It was when they turned efforts to creating a synthetic canine that they “made the jump to designing everything in CAD and using 3D printers” to make tools and prototypes from those design files.
“That’s how we got into it, as an aid to prototyping — kind of what everyone still does, more of a prototyping aid than a manufacturing aid,” Sakezles explained.
SynDaver Engineering Kits
Then about two years ago, SynDaver launched a series of engineering project products designed for middle and high school students.
The team didn’t know it at the time, but these kits would open up doorways that would eventually lead to a totally new business segment.
In January 2019, SynDaver announced the launch of this new STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) educational tool:
“The engineering kit enables students to build a SynDaver Advanced Modular Mannequin (SAMM), a customizable modular simulation tool, and focuses on facilitating hands-on learning experiences centered around engineering, technology and science.
With SAMM’s applied approach to STEM studies broken down into four essential kits, students will learn fundamentals in 3D technologies in conjunction with engineering for pneumatic, hydraulic and electronic systems to create an entry-level healthcare mannequin for basic clinical learning capabilities. Upon completion of the project, students will be capable of assessing and troubleshooting these systems while enjoying the process of assembling a fully functioning product from start to finish.”
As noted in that announcement, a big part of the kit entailed learning 3D technologies — deepening not only SynDaver’s commitment to 3D printing, but establishing a route of supply.
The kits “introduce students to the concepts of design systems integrations,” Sakezles told me, as the students build SAMM. The androgynous body, he continued, is “all printed” and includes “cabling and hosing manifolds, computer boards, pneumatic and hydraul pumps to actually build a mannequin. It’s a kit to introduce students to engineering, basically.”
Importantly, along with the kit, SynDaver was packaging 3D printers. After trying out a few models, they settled on the LulzBot TAZ 6 — “that’s the unit we primarily had in our print farms at that point,” Sakezles noted, adding that they “still have a lot of those running.”
“We’ve had really good results — I think everyone has — with the TAZ 5 and TAZ 6,” he said. “We were actually talking with LulzBot about incorporating their printer into our engineering kits when they exploded. That takes us pretty much to the end of last year.”
The groundwork had been laid for offering 3D printers alongside their products, and things were moving along nicely through 2019. Until suddenly SynDaver stopped hearing from LulzBot late in the year.
We follow up with what happens next, and how SynDaver got to the point of 3D printer development, in part two of this interview.