Ferndale company has invested big in 3D metal printing
Most of us don’t give much thought to where all the little metal parts in our lives are manufactured, or even how they’re made. Many are made right here in the United States, including in Whatcom County. From medical devices, marine and aircraft parts, food service and military machinery, metal parts are the foundation of most every machine or process in our homes, businesses and government.
“Our world and economy wouldn’t function without them,” said Roger Janssen, president of 3DX Industries, the Ferndale-based precision machine shop and manufacturer of three-dimensional metal printed and composite printed products.
Their process also includes in-house design support, rapid prototyping, production and assembly services.
“3D metal printing is a newer technology,” Janssen said. “It’s exciting, and there’s a clear need for it to help with our national industrial base. We’re getting support for it from this administration, and it’s a job that a lot of young people are interested in.”
According to Rob Errera of Toner Buzz, the global 3D printing market reached a value of $13.8 billion in 2021, with $5.72 billion of that in North America.
“Various analysts predict that the 3D printing industry will grow at staggering speeds — between 18% and 27% per year,” Errera posted on the Toner Buzz website in 2022.
From humble beginnings
Janssen, who considers himself a motorcycle nut, works on the pit crew with a group that’s trying to break the motorcycle land speed record.
“That’s what got me into machining, actually,” Janssen said. “I started the machine shop in Snohomish County in 1984, Key Manufacturing, and moved it here to Ferndale right after 9/11. A lot of our work was originally for Boeing, and we were right there on Mukilteo Speedway next to a lot of little machine shops. After 9/11, those purchase orders dried up, and so we decided to diversify.”
Janssen chose to relocate to Ferndale because of its convenient proximity to Interstate 5 and Canada.
“I love Whatcom County, and about 10 years ago I merged my company with 3DX, which is a publicly traded entity, and that enabled us to expand and buy the metal printers,” he said.
Additive versus subtractive manufacturing and the benefits of 3D printing
Metal manufacturing can be additive or subtractive, but many parts use both types of machining to achieve a precision finished product.
Additive manufacturing is what you think of as classic 3D printing, with each new layer built on the last. 3DX currently prints using a range of 3D printers capable of printing in picoliter drops of stainless steel or nickel powder.
Subtractive manufacturing is what you might imagine when you think of typical metal machining. A wide variety of tools and processes are used to remove pieces of metal systematically until the final part is all that’s left.
“The different metals have different hardnesses, and when the hardness changes, all your cutting parameters change,” Janssen said. “You might need to use different tools or slow the tool down or speed it up. It makes machining extremely important, and it’s still a growing field, a very skilled trade.”
Janssen says most don’t know how many steps can go into making a single part, and many think of 3D printing as just the push of a button. In fact, each part goes through a variety of steps and processes.
The process almost always starts with a precision design made in a computer program. The design is then plotted in three-dimensional space, generating thousands of X, Y and Z coordinates (G-code). Those coordinates are then loaded into the computer brain of the metal printer so the design can be printed and tested over and over in order to improve and perfect it.
“In binder jet printing, a fine metal powder is laid down very accurately out of the printer head,” Janssen said. “We add a binding agent that sort of glues the metal particles together when it’s cured at a high temperature over several hours. The binding agent burns off, and all those particles become one.”
Before they have cured, any defective parts can be pulverized and reused with no waste generated.
3DX doesn’t yet use the other two main types of 3D metal printing — selective laser sintering and electron beam melting — because they are much more involved and expensive and require more troubleshooting and maintenance.
Most 3D metal printed parts must go through some additional subtractive machining steps after they are printed.
“You can’t 3D metal print super accurately yet,” Janssen said. “Some parts need to be perfectly flat. Others will need holes drilled and tapped. Many threads are super precision, so we can make adjustments that are less than the thickness of a hair to get them exactly right.”
Additive manufacturing has a number of advantages over subtractive alone.
“The beauty of the additive process is that you only use what you need, so there is less waste,” Janssen said. “3D metal printing allows you to make complex parts without additional costs. But on the subtractive side, if you need to machine that complex part, it can be very costly, because they need tooling, meaning you might need to make a new vice or tool in order to hold or orient a part to withstand the force of the subtractive process. That’s more labor intensive. So for printed parts, tooling costs are almost nil.”
3D printing also allows you to make complex parts more affordably than with subtractive methods.
“I’ve seen some crazy rocket nozzle designs at trade shows with cooling channels all over the place so they can run it super hot to burn your fuel hot and fast, and that lowers your payload; it’s lighter and runs more efficiently,” Janssen said. “That part would be so costly and difficult to produce using only subtractive methods.”
Some 3D printed parts can also be made with properties that result in a longer lifetime compared to their subtractive counterparts.
Giving a tour of the facility, Janssen showed an incredible range of manufactured parts made to stringent specifications — medical device prototypes used in knee and hip replacements, parts that help make clean drinking water, saxophone mouthpieces, turbine rotors to help make electricity, nonstructural airplane parts, parts for heavy-lift drones that can deliver packages, parts for deep oil exploration and parts for steaming in industrial coffee machines. 3DX is collaborating with several businesses in Whatcom County that have been profiled by Business Pulse, including Corvus Energy, Vicinity Motor Corp. and Samson Rope.
Although robots are gradually being added to the process, Janssen says it will be a long while before the human worker is replaced.
“Without the guy that has the knowledge, the robot can only do what you tell it to do,” he said. “You can go away and come back and find that the robot has made a whole pile of stuff that you’ll have to throw out.”
A small but mighty crew
3DX runs with an efficient crew of about eight people who work mostly independently. Several workers in the subtractive area attended industrial technology programs at Bellingham Technical College.
“On the additive side, our workers are usually somebody that may or may not have been to engineering school,” Janssen said. “But more importantly, if they are excited and want to do this type of work, those are the people that are successful here.”
3DX also trains its workers.
“More and more of the trade shows are focused on education,” Janssen said. “Sometimes there are 50 classrooms, and they’re bringing in some of the best instructors from around the world.”
Whatcom Community College has added some new additive machines that are used by students in its many engineering-related transfer degree programs, Janssen said.
Considered an essential business, 3DX wasn’t too impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic; like many other businesses, however, it has been affected by supply chain issues, worker illness and career shifting.
“We’re always working on a positive work culture here,” Janssen said. “I want people to want to be here. There’s the option to participate on the stock side as well, if someone is really engaged in what we do.”
Janssen says the choice to work four 10-hour days each week was a group decision among the workers.
Janssen’s team includes his mother, Marsha, who has been popping in since the 1980s to help with billing and accounting whenever there is a need.
Janssen is also active in the Society of Manufacturing Engineers in Seattle, which is starting a group in the Pacific Northwest for women in 3D printing. Janssen grew up in 4-H, so he has a soft spot for its programs, using his business to support local groups each year. The company also has built a truck for the local demolition derby.
Staying on the cutting edge of technology and business
The pace of technological innovation, especially within the field of manufacturing, is evolving and progressing so rapidly that it’s hard to keep up. But that’s what Janssen finds most exciting.
“I love to hit all the trade shows,” he said. “I’m always knee deep in all the latest and greatest. Metal printing is becoming more standard, and there are a lot of people chasing it down. We’re still considered an early adopter as far as west of the Mississippi; there aren’t a lot of shops that are metal printing and machining the way we are, especially the binder jet.”
Past Western Washington University students have investigated the feasibility of recycling more of the waste from subtractive manufacturing and the parts themselves.
Although many parts are still made using a subtractive process, as the technology improves, more and more are gradually converting to an additive process.
“We plan to buy more additive machines, because we see that as the future,” Janssen said.
The company has an open-door policy, he said.
“Fridays are the best day to reach us to discuss your project,” Janssen said. “We also have an annual shareholder meeting with tours so future shareholders can understand what we do.”
Janssen said he believes additive manufacturing will change the way we live, help humanity and make the world a better place, on a scale similar to the invention of the automobile, the airplane or the computer.
“For a strong economy, any country that has a good manufacturing industrial base historically does well,” he said. “Our government knows that and is investing in that security by putting 3D printers in schools and making sure there are tech school programs to train those workers.”
3DX plans to expand aggressively in the coming years.
“We’re looking at additional locations besides Ferndale, either Eastern Washington or even out of the state,” Janssen said. “There’s so much more work coming at us we’re not even worried about competition right now. There are a lot of small shops like us. I’ve seen the stats; there’s 26,000 shops in North America that average 15 to 20 employees, and they’re responsible for making 76% of the parts that we use. It’s not all big business. It’s a lot of small businesses making what we need in our everyday lives with this innovative technology.” ■