Minnesota entrepreneurs get creative with 3D printing

Whether working on facial prostheses, guitar accessories, or high-end office chairs, small businesses are putting additive manufacturing to good (and often unexpected) use

By Nora Clos
Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Minnesota is no stranger to the world of 3D printing technology. Home to the headquarters of Stratasys, a world leader in the manufacturing of 3D printing equipment, the Land of 10,000 Lakes has been a hub for the industry since the early stages of its development nearly 30 years ago.
In the past five years, a growing number of entrepreneurs and small businesses have been exploring 3D printing as an alternative to more traditional manufacturing processes. For those operating on a smaller scale, 3D printing offers a level of flexibility, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness that’s often hard to match. Following, we share the stories of some Minnesota entrepreneurs pushing the boundaries of today’s technology in hopes of growing tomorrow’s business.

Health care

Gillian Duncan (left) and Michaela Calhoun of
Graphica Medica in Rochester

Gillian Duncan and Michaela Calhoun are clinical anaplastologists. The two make up Graphica Medica, a Rochester-based company founded by Duncan in 1991 that specializes in creating craniofacial protheses for patients missing part of their face due to accident, trauma, disease, or congenital birth defects. Their work is a delicate balance of art and science.
The business was started as a medical illustration company by Duncan in 1981. At the time, Duncan was based in Germany, but moved to Minnesota in 1991, at which time she expanded her business to include making craniofacial prostheses.
“Michaela and I both have backgrounds as medical illustrators,” Duncan explains. “Our training, which combines skills in medicine, technology, and art, made us perfect candidates for working with craniofacial prostheses.” It was a question of transitioning their work from a two-dimensional to a three-dimensional form.
In the past five years, the women have explored the possibilities of using 3D printing to aid in the process of designing prostheses for patients. According to Calhoun, the advantage to 3D printing for anaplastologists, like in many fields, is its time-saving potential.
“Say for example that a patient has lost an ear,” Calhoun explains. “Rather than sculpting a physical model of an ear from scratch, we can create a model of the existing ear in a computer program and then print it off as a mirror image.” Although the final silicone prosthesis is still crafted by hand based on this model, 3D printing the model cuts out a significant amount of time.
“The technology is used in small ways,” Calhoun says, “But they end up saving time in the long run.”
3D printing is also used extensively for surgical planning purposes, she explains. For example, it is possible to print a model of a patient’s bone based on a CT scan. “This allows us to very specifically plan a surgery to put in craniofacial implants,” says Calhoun, “which in turn helps us to better design the prosthesis based on the patient’s existing anatomy. We can see, based on a 3D-printed model, exactly where we want to position the implants, whereas before it was something we had to use our best knowledge to determine.”
Calhoun says that 3D printing is not appropriate or necessary for every case, and so Graphica Medica has not invested in its own 3D printer. Instead, when a model is necessary, the women work with an Eden Prairie–based service bureau, 3D Printing Ally.
“There are cases that are relatively standard, where we are very comfortable working off our experience,” she says, “but in the event that we have a patient with an anomaly, or whose anatomy differs from what we’re used to, that’s when it’s extremely beneficial to be able to have the level of detail available with a printed model.”
According to Tyler Pope, the bureau’s co-founder, 3D Printing Ally is ideally suited to small, highly specialized businesses such as Graphica Medica because of its willingness to work across industries. “Larger service bureaus tend to be industry-specific and more geared toward large production runs,” says Pope. “At 3D Printing Ally, we work to provide a full range of options in terms of the technology and services clients can access.”
Calhoun says that since Graphica Medica first worked with Pope and his company about a year ago, they’ve used his services for three projects. “3D Printing Ally has been really easy for us to work with,” she says. “Especially with our low volume, it would be difficult for us to have access to this technology otherwise.”


Kent George with one of his guitars

Kent George, owner of Minneapolis-based Rosette Guitar Products, has studied classical guitar for 40 years. George founded Rosette in 2008 to cater to the niche market of classical guitar players, developing his own line of products ranging from a bamboo fiber cleaning cloth to tuning machines to dry-transfer fret marking dots.

The company was founded almost by accident, George says: “I knew there were a number of products missing from the market, and so I started developing products I myself could use based on a lifetime of playing.”
One of Rosette’s (rosetteguitarproducts.com) most popular offerings is the Diamond BridgeBead, a three-holed plastic rectangle that secures a string on a guitar. The product offers an alternative to the traditional method of tying a string down, George explains, holding it at an angle more consistent with the body of the guitar, resulting in a more uniform sound.
Originally, George purchased rectangular bone beads from an Indian manufacturer. “The problem was the consistency of the product,” he says. “There was so much variation that I’d have to throw half of them away before I could even start the process of drilling them to our specifications.” 
He then tried using wooden beads, hoping for improved consistency. He met with little success after working with several suppliers in both India and China; the wooden beads proved just as inconsistent as the bone version. Adding insult to injury, the ordering process took weeks. All told, it was cumbersome and expensive process.
During the summer of 2013, an article about 3D printing piqued his interest. Since 3D printing works off computer-designed models, he figured, it might provide him with more consistency than handmade wood or bone beads. “I figured that what I had already tried wasn’t working very well,” he says, “so there would be no harm in experimenting a little.” 
George began researching 3D printing resources in the Twin Cities area and eventually connected with Marcus Ritland of then-Minneapolis-based Denali 3D Design (since relocated to Green Bay, Wisc.). George was impressed by Ritland giving a lot of free seminars on 3D printing and asked him about using the technology to improve Rosette’s Diamond BridgeBeads.
Denali 3D Design operates as a consultancy for those interested in using 3D printing, particularly small businesses and entrepreneurs. Ritland works with clients to determine their needs and then uses computer-aided design (CAD) software to model the clients’ products.
“3D printing is a great resource for those on a limited budget, particularly for use in rapid prototyping or limited-output manufacturing,” Ritland explains. For a small niche business like Rosette, he explains, 3D printing is ideal for saving time and money.
George says he and Ritland worked together on four or five designs before settling on one. Although George looked into acquiring his own 3D printer, he eventually chose to work with Shapeways, a New York–based 3D printing company, to manufacture the Diamond BridgeBeads.
By working through Shapeways, George says, he has access to a higher-quality 3D printer than he would acquire on his own. Plus, Shapeways has his design in-house, so George simply places orders as needed and has a finished product on his doorstep in under 10 days. “They’ve been great to work with,” he says. 
In many cases, 3D printing is not actually used to manufacture a finished product, but rather to create a prototype from which a mold is made. For Rosette, however, 3D printing a finished product is a more flexible and cost-effective option.
“I looked into investing in an injection mold, and would have had to invest a minimum of $10,000,” George says. “My business is small and that option just wasn’t financially available to me, so 3D printing has been a wonderful alternative.”
The benefits are not merely financial. “There are so many advantages to going the route I did with 3D printing,” he explains. “I don’t have to manufacture the part myself. Not only that, it’s consistent, it’s strong, I’ve saved a tremendous amount of labor, and I have the product within 10 days of ordering it.”

Industrial design

Jeff Weber, principal at Studio Weber + Associates

Jason Holt is a designer at Studio Weber + Associates, an industrial design studio in the North Loop neighborhood of downtown Minneapolis. Studio Weber is known for its work for Herman Miller, a Michigan-based manufacturer of office chairs and other workplace furniture.

According to Holt, the designers at Studio Weber have been using 3D printing as part of the product development process for everything from prototypes of individual furniture components to scale models of whole chairs used to evaluate the products’ overall form. The advantage of 3D printing in an industrial design setting, he says, is the speed with which prototypes can be made. “It’s rapid,” he explains, “and the results can be fastened onto existing parts right out of the printer.”
“By 3D printing a model of a part,” Holt continues, “you essentially get a working piece that you can screw right onto the rest of the model and experience how the user would interact with it.” Without the option to 3D print, such prototypes would have to be machined out of metal, adding a significant amount of time to the product development process.
Studio Weber + Associates has worked with several 3D printing resources over the years, including companies both local and further afield. The studio has worked locally with VistaTek, based in Stillwater, and RedEye, a service bureau subsidiary of 3D printing giant Stratasys.
Since June, however, the team at Studio Weber has been using a 3D printing resource even closer to home. PostNet North Loop, a franchise of the Denver-based PostNet Corporation, was opened by Dave Thorsen with the goal of offering access to 3D printing technology to small businesses in the area, in addition to the more traditional office resources such as printing, copying, and design services that the company is known for.
Thorsen says he approached the corporate leadership of PostNet last year after first encountering 3D printing technology while working as an architect. “It seemed like a whole tidal wave of new technology was coming down the line,” Thorsen says. “As an architect, I had spent my entire career working in two dimensions, sketching designs out on paper.” Suddenly, he says, there was the possibility of translating ideas directly into three-dimensional designs using computer technology.
“This was really a game changer,” he explains. “I thought this technology was something that could really benefit small business is so many ways.”
Holt and his fellow designers at Studio Weber were among the first to take advantage of the 3D printing services at Thorsen’s PostNet. Thorsen had reached out to the firm prior to opening his doors, while making rounds through the neighborhood and letting local businesses know about the services PostNet would offer. 
About a month after the franchise opened, Holt says the team decided to give the 3D printing technology there a try. 
The studio was working on product development for a height-adjustable office stool at the time, and they reached out to Thorsen in hopes that he could quickly print a prototype of a hand grip for the mechanism used to change the height of the seat.
“Being in the neighborhood, [PostNet] potentially offered a quicker way to obtain a prototype of the part we needed to test,” Holt says, the advantage being that once the design team got rolling on a development project, they wouldn’t have to shift gears and work on something else while the prototype was produced.
Holt says that while PostNet is certainly a convenient addition to the neighborhood, the technology there isn’t suited for every project Studio Weber does. The firm will continue using the 3D printing services it has used in the past as well.
“PostNet’s technology creates a product that is structurally sound enough to do physical tests with, but has a relatively low-quality surface finish,” he explains.
The major advantage is being able to access the whole range of available 3D printing technology, says Holt: “Each process has its merits, all of which play a crucial part in how we develop products.”


Anne Burdakin

In today’s jewelry industry, CAD modeling and 3D printing are already widely used for designing custom pieces, as well as creating models and molds.

“Jewelry making is a very old-line, traditional art form that uses a lot of traditional techniques,” says Anne Burdakin, an Edina-based gemologist graduate and jewelry designer. “The digital solutions being used today help make those processes more efficient in terms of saving time and money.”
But Burdakin wants to take 3D printing in her industry to the next step. She is currently working with 3D printing companies on developing a method for direct metal printing, a 3D printing process in which jewelry would be printed using precious or semi-precious metals, as opposed to first printing a mold or model used to cast the final product.
“Currently, gold can be used to print jewelry using a process called direct metal sintering,” Burdakin says, “but the finish and quality are nowhere near where it needs to be yet, and there are a lot of challenges in the process.”
The main difficulty, she says, is that the process is wasteful. Direct metal sintering involves using gold in powder form, which is then hit with a laser to liquefy it. A significant amount of the powder tends to be displaced during the process, she explains, and since gold is such an expensive material, it ends up being costly and inefficient.
“Although it’s not quite ready yet,” Burdakin says, “There are people working to make this process a reality for the industry. I think the technology will be ready in the next year or so.”
When it is, Burdakin will be ready, too. For the past year, she has been making use of the 3D printing equipment offered at Nordeast Makers, a maker space collective in Northeast Minneapolis, to experiment with the possibilities of 3D printing and jewelry design.
“My goal right now is to explore how much detail I can achieve using 3D printing in terms of clasps or chains or other finely detailed pieces,” Burdakin says. She has been using the 3D printer at Nordeast Makers to print in resin in hopes of determining exactly what level of detail can be reached before attempting similar designs with direct metal printing.
“The implications [of direct metal printing technology] could be huge for the jewelry industry, once it comes into common use,” she explains. Like CAD technology before it, direct metal printing would save time, money, and labor all down the line, from manufacturers to small locally owned stores.
Burdakin notes that when CAD technology was introduced to the industry a decade ago, it was mainly used by large manufacturers because it was expensive and took time to learn how to use. Today, however, almost all jewelers use CAD in some capacity.
“Over the past 10 years or so the technology has trickled down even to smaller mom-and-pop-type stores because people have realized the time and money saving benefits of it,” Burdakin explains. 
She envisions direct metal printing going through the same process. “I think that this technology [3D printing with metals] will also come down the line,” she says, “and when it does, jewelers and jewelry store owners are going to need someone to guide them.”
Burdakin aims to be that person. She hopes the work she’s doing now will lead to future business opportunities. “It could be anything from training jewelers in direct metal printing technology to operating a service bureau specifically catering to the jewelry industry,” she says.
Many companies already own CAD technology, she notes, so when direct metal printing becomes more efficient and accessible over the next several years, there will already be a large segment of the industry positioned to make use of it. “I think there’s going to be a lot of opportunity for business very soon,” she says. “The technology is quite amazing even at this point, and it’s only going to advance further.”


Andrey Rudenko’s backyard castle, constructed 
using a 3D printer that layers concrete

For the past two years, Andrey Rudenko has made it his goal to 3D print houses. He isn’t there quite yet, but in August his efforts culminated in the successful construction of a playhouse-sized model castle using a 3D printer of his own design.

Rudenko is an architect and engineer with 25 years of experience in the construction field. Based in Shorewood, Minn., he has done work on everything from museums to restaurants to custom housing projects. Five years ago, he started his own contracting company, Total Kustom and has since been focusing on residential design and construction projects.
Although 3D printing technology had been on Rudenko’s radar for the past two decades, it wasn’t until 2012 that he began seriously considering using the technology in construction.
“My interest in 3D printing dates back 25 years, but at that point, the computers and software available were not yet suited to the type of technology I envisioned,” he explains.
With the seed of an idea already latent in his mind, Rudenko came across the RepRap project, a British open-design initiative launched in 2005 to create a 3D printer capable of replicating its own components. The open-source nature of the technology and programming used by the RepRap developers provided Rudenko with the inspiration and reference needed to begin work on his own 3D printer.
“When I started out,” he says, “a lot of people struggled to believe that this project would get beyond the idea stage. But I was lucky to have input and support from the RepRap community.”
Rudenko knew that for a 3D printer to be of use in the construction industry, it would have to be lightweight and portable, allowing it to be easily transported between sites. In 2012, he constructed a small 3D printer. Like most 3D printers, it printed in plastic. He used it to model his work on a smaller scale. Over the next year, Rudenko experimented with creating a larger printer based on his original small-scale design. He worked with different cement mixes, with varying levels of success.
“Layering cement was an extremely difficult task,” he notes. “It required extensive tuning of the printer on a programming level.” He also had to create a cement mix of the correct consistency to pass easily through the printer’s extruder but still retain its shape.
Once Rudenko had found a cement mix compatible with his printer, he tested the technology by creating a castle-inspired play house. Since the construction industry lacked codes regarding standards for 3D-printed structures, he had to build the structure in the backyard of his Shorewood home.
“That was the only place I could legally print at the time,” he says. “Since concrete printing is a new technology, it will take some time for changes to be made in the world of codes and permits.”
Rudenko worked with Minneapolis-based designer and engineer Mikhail Tikh on the CAD model of the castle. The structure would be printed in layers 10 millimeters high and 30 millimeters wide, with a final height of 3.5 meters. The pair estimated that the printer was capable of printing about 50 centimeters worth of layers per day.
“It turned out that the machine was actually able to print between 75 and 100 centimeters in warm weather without issue,” Rudenko says. The warmer and dryer the weather, he explains, the more quickly the cement dries and the more layers can be printed at one time.
The castle was printed during the summer and completed on Aug. 25. The main problem with the process, Rudenko says, is that he printed the castle in pieces which then had to be lifted into place. That, along with inclement weather and zoning permit complications, drew out the project from the weeks he projected to several months.
“The parts ended up being extremely heavy,” he says. Moving forward, he plans to design the structures so they can be printed as one piece.
After the success of the model castle, Rudenko says he plans to design and print a full-scale, livable two-story house. He’s looking for someone to commission the project. “I’m currently evaluating options for the house’s location,” he says. He’s also looking to collaborate with a team of architects, designers, and software engineers in hopes they’ll bring their own expertise and a fresh perspective to what he’s developed.
“A new era of architecture is inevitable,” Rudenko says. “I’m excited to see where the next few years will lead in terms of construction and design.” 
Before printing the castle, he says, he was theoretically confident that 3D printing could be used effectively in residential construction. “Having finished the castle,” he says, “now I have proof that the technology is ready.”
Rudenko’s long-term goal is to go into production of the 3D construction printer he’s designed. That’s a ways down the road, however, and meanwhile he has plenty of challenges to overcome. “Weather has been my greatest enemy,” he says. “Heavy rain is very inhibiting since it keeps the cement from drying, and printing in winter conditions isn’t possible yet.”