In the early days of 3-D printing, MakerGear founder Rick Pollack bootstrapped a small business making components in his Shaker Heights garage.
“When we started out, we made our machines out of laser-cut plywood,” Pollack recalls. “I was making printer parts one at a time in my garage.”
In 2008, a friend introduced him to the Fab Lab at Lorain County Community College’s Nord Advanced Technologies Center. The lab had a much better laser-cutting machine, so Pollack quickly jumped on the opportunity to use it to augment his own equipment.
“The lab gave us access to a $25,000 piece of cutting and fabricating machinery for basically no cost,” Pollack says. “It was really a visionary thing for the college to do. They saw how manufacturing companies like ours needed access to advanced machinery that required too large of an investment for a startup.”
Eight years later, MakerGear is a thriving manufacturer selling thousands of 3-D printers a year to companies via its website, www.makergear.com, and an Amazon reseller.
Printing in three dimensions
3-D printing – also called additive manufacturing – is still a relatively young technology, but it’s fast becoming a key aspect of advanced manufacturing. Once the exclusive domain of research and development, 3-D printers have expanded beyond their R&D roots of modeling and prototyping to the production of end-use products.
“The applications of additive manufacturing are expected to grow significantly as advancement in materials and technologies continue,” says R. Scott Zitek, Assistant Professor, Automation and Fab Lab Coordinator at LCCC. “The ability to print objects with various combinations of mechanical, optical and thermal properties will expand the possible applications.”
Improvements in the speed and accuracy of 3-D printers are creating a world in which plastic or metal parts can be printed instead of formed in tooling molds, eliminating the time-consuming process of creating a mold. That allows the manufacturing process to jump from raw material to product fabrication, resulting in less scrap and waste.
“As the technology evolves it will be able to produce increasingly more capable parts by integrating materials that offer a range of properties from flexible to rigid, transparent to opaque, and conductive to isolating,” Zitek says. “In addition to prototyping, this technology will be used for the creation of rapid tooling and flexible production.”
3-D printing can potentially allow for a made-to-order production system in which products can be fabricated quickly and shipped in smaller batches, allowing distributors, wholesalers and retailers to more closely manage their inventories.
LCCC opened the Fab Lab in 2005, making it the first of its kind in the country outside of Boston. When Pollack heard about it three years later, he decided to augment MakerGear’s production operations.
He quickly set to work using the machinery to build a better product, hiring an LCCC student to run the Fab Lab’s cutter. He even took a course on how to use the lab’s advanced equipment.
“So many technology businesses are out there looking for a way to bootstrap, and LCCC is one of the local entities that has provided a facility that can help deliver that,” Pollack says. “And outside of the class fee, it’s available for no cost – a huge factor for a company just starting out.”
With access to the Fab Lab’s more advanced machinery, MakerGear’s business began to take off. Pollack was able to spend less time focused on the manufacturing process and more time focused on building his business.
“We were really able to bootstrap the business with that increased level of efficiency, as well as build a commercially viable business with the capacity to grow even more,” Pollack says. “We could devote time to refining the product, refining our business plan and developing strategies to take our products to market.”
MakerGear has continued to grow along with the rapidly expanding market for 3-D printing. It has purchased specialized machinery to outfit its production facility in Beachwood and it is preparing to open a second location in Northeast Ohio to serve as an R&D and production facility. MakerGear will produce parts for existing products as well as develop new products at the new location, which will house multiple production CNC centers.
As a way to thank the college for its help in getting MakerGear off the ground, the company last year donated one of its 3-D printers to the Fab Lab.
“You think about the fact that I paid $100 for a course on how to use the Fab Lab equipment at LCCC, and the benefits our company has received from it, many times over,” Pollack says. “It wasn’t a cheap investment for a local college to make, but my business, and so many others, have benefited from it.”