How can a 3D printing service bureau become a manufacturer?
Ask Corey and Donovan Weber, half-brothers who founded Forecast 3D in 1994. In 2018 their 60,000 ft2 (55,740 m2) manufacturing shop printed about two million parts on 45 industrial additive machines. When the Webers started 3D printing, stereolithography was their only option. Looking back on the 25-year history of Forecast 3D, Carlsbad, Calif., it can seem as though the siblings, who started the company with a $5,000 loan from their Grandpa Bud, knew how to grow into a manufacturing center from the start.
In the years since, they’ve been methodical about investing in additive technology and earning manufacturing credentials. The Webers added other additive technologies to their stereolithography machines as they became commercially available; selective laser sintering in 2001, direct metal laser sintering in 2007, fused deposition modeling in 2011, PolyJet in 2013 and multi-jet fusion in 2016. Among subtractive technologies, they added CNC machining in 1998 while still doing urethane casting, their original service.
Among their credentials are AS9100D, ISO 9001:2015, ITAR, REACH, and RoHS. The company is a partner in the SAP Distributed Manufacturing program, the HP Digital Manufacturing Network and is a Certified Tier 1 Stratasys Parts Provider. Forecast 3D is working on certifications for automotive and medical.
“We’re trying to be smart about how those things are implemented,” said Ken Burns, technical sales director. “Typically, the road to (being certified for) medical applications is not fast. The setup comes first, before any business.”
Burns’ story about being audited by a large medical OEM illustrates the Catch-22 nature of certification in the medical industry. The OEM had only one AM company subcontractor, was looking for more, and Forecast 3D looked promising.
“They posed the question to us, ‘What are you willing to do?’” said Burns. “And we said, ‘What work are you willing to give us?’”
To add medical, along with other key industries, to its production portfolio, Forecast 3D invested in an additional facility in Carlsbad and hired 15 people in its quality and engineering departments. There have been other hires. About five years ago, the company focused on the talent required for manufacturing, not just prototyping services, when adding quality, sales and operations managers and started adding more structure to the organization. In the last two years, all managers went through Lean Six Sigma training.
The manufacturing operation speaks volumes, but also raises several questions. Is the company an acquisition target? “Continually,” said Burns. “What that means in the future I don’t know. There’s a lot of things we love about being independent. But it’s harder to quickly scale with a very capital-intensive business.”
Will they expand geographically, beyond Southern California? “I think it’s a necessity,” said Burns, adding that an additional U.S. location closer to a Midwest or Southeast shipping or manufacturing hub makes sense. “We understand the value of it, but it’s difficult to duplicate the technology everywhere, and we’d need to determine which technologies make the most sense in other locations.”
Then there’s the big unknown—scale. “A big challenge in scaling up to production is that most additive technologies have not ever [been used in] high-volume manufacturing,” he said. “The things we don’t know today [may] hurt some opportunities with clients out there. For instance, there are costs, and the question is who’s going to absorb those costs. Our most successful programs are collaborative. The ones where we’ve struggled is where they’ve (customers) expected us to absorb all the costs.”