With Steve Grundahl, Founder of Midwest Prototyping
Steve Grundahl founded Midwest Prototyping back in 2001. Today they are one of the biggest private facilities in the United States for additive manufacturing of new physical products. Steve also just hosted the Kansas version of Make48 at their Wichita shop. Today Steve is going to share some valuable knowledge on how inventors, startups, and small manufacturers can use 3D printing and additive manufacturing to actually produce your first production runs, and the advantages of manufacturing this way.
Episode 83: Benefits of Additive Manufacturing for New Inventions
With Steve Grundahl, Founder of Midwest Prototyping
00:00 | Kevin Mako (KM): Hello product innovators today, we learn from the founder of one of the largest private additive manufacturing companies in America on how rapid manufacturing can be used to produce your new, physical product invention.
00:13 | Voice-over: You’re listening to the Product Startup podcast. The show that helps bring your product idea to life, by chatting with successful inventors, product developers, manufacturers, and hardware industry professionals. Our goal here is to get to the bottom of what makes a product successful, from initial idea to getting your product on store shelves. We’re taking you step by step to build a functional product and scale your product business. Hosted by Kevin Mako, one of North America’s leading experts on hardware development for small product businesses. Now, on to the show.
00:49 | KM: Welcome back, everyone. Today, I’m very excited to introduce Steve Grundahl to the show. Steve founded Midwest Prototyping back in 2001. Today, they are one of the biggest private facilities in the United States for additive manufacturing of new physical products. Steve is also hosting the Wisconsin version of Make48, right at their shop. Today, Steve is going to share some valuable knowledge on how inventors, startups, small manufacturers can use 3D printing and additive manufacturing to actually produce your first production runs, and of course, the advantages of manufacturing in this way. Now, onto the episode. Hey Steve, welcome to the show.
01:22 | Steve Grundahl (SG): Hey, good morning, Kevin.
01:23 | KM: Hey, looking forward to the chat today. I understand you just wrapped up filming Make48, at your facilities there.
01:29 | KM: I’m really excited to be collaborating with them this year. The live event will be here in August, in Madison and, my Marketing Director, Jason, is a huge fan of the show, and he jumped all over it when he heard they were coming to town. So we’re excited.
01:42 | KM: Oh, that’s great. Really happy to have you on board. We’ve been a part of it for many years, it’s Mako Design. I think they’ve got me queued up as a judge for the finale of this season. I guess when all the cities then compete for the grand prize or whatnot. So I’m looking forward to that as well, but it’s an amazing show. It’s on PBS, Amazon Prime, and you catch it on like airlines around the world, everything, right? So it’s great that you guys are a part of it because you’re a big part of the industry and good to help educate everybody on the world of inventing and product development and more importantly manufacturing. So on that note, just give everybody a bit of a background on, Midwest Prototyping and yourself, and then we’ll jump into additive manufacturing.
02:20 | SG: Sure. Yeah. Real quick. Midwest Prototyping, it’s a company I started back in 2001, so we were pretty early in the service bureau world, we set up to print parts for people. I started with stereolithography, SLA machine, from 3D Systems back then, and we have now grown to where we’re one of the larger privately held, service bureaus here in the United States. We have got operations here in Wisconsin, a facility in Westminster, Colorado, and I think we’re just over forty machines now, many many different materials, six different technologies. So we are very fortunate we get to interact with companies from across the globe, big companies, small companies, startups, researchers, inventors, you name it. Lots of creativity comes through our door every day, and that makes it a lot of fun.
03:15 | KM: Well, I mean, it’s a great operation that you’re on because I can tell you that, running a design firm, so many of our clients are such a valuable piece of the puzzle. We need to make these things real. We need to prototype them. And then, obviously, as we’re going to talk about today, we need to produce those things. So walk us through, what is additive manufacturing? How do you use 3D printing to actually do short production runs of your product beyond the prototyping phase? Just give us a high level of that, and then we’ll dive into the details.
03:46 | SG: Yeah, that’s a great question. And a little bit of a tricky one, because you can get a different definition for additive manufacturing, wherever you go. The way I’ve always thought about it is that 3D printing is a technology and 3D printing can allow you to do rapid prototyping or additive manufacturing. So you can print one or two prototypes, refine your design, iterate back and forth, and then that’s fine. That’s, obviously, very proper use of the technology. Additive manufacturing is when you are making that same part or something like it, a revision of it, that has a useful life out in the world, and as a production part. So you’re manufacturing something for end-use and using additive technologies like 3D printing. I don’t know if that cleared anything up, but that’s how I think of it.
04:36 | SG: Yeah. You know what, that’s great because obviously traditionally we would do design and engineering. When 3D printing and all that came out, we would use those for prototyping, which was great, right? Getting quick, cheap, easy-to-use parts. And we still use them a lot. Like at a design firm, we’re using 3D printed parts and other additive manufactured parts constantly. But the big key here is there’s, I would call it a revolution happening where the companies like yourselves, especially you at kind of the forefront of this, you’re now using this technology to be able to produce actual units, which our clients or companies, or whatever else can then start actually selling. It’s an amazing tool because traditionally it was prototype first, then you go to tooling, which is very expensive, you get your steel molds made, and you actually produce your parts either locally or overseas or whatnot, very time-consuming. Upfront, very capitally intensive in terms of costs. But now, with all these technologies coming out and continuing to improve, almost on a monthly basis, users have the ability literally to print parts and create products that they can sell, and that’s amazing.
05:48 | SG: Yep. It has really changed the dynamic and the challenge now is around education and teaching people. The technology part, people can latch onto that pretty quickly and understand what the printers are capable of. But looking at the sort of the global value proposition for making something via additive manufacturing versus maybe more traditional methods is the challenge right now. People are trying to digest it and figure out how, and when, this makes sense.
06:17 | KM: And yeah, so let’s dive into that. When does it make sense, and when doesn’t it make sense? It’s actually manufactured locally. What are the key thoughts to start? And then I really want to dive into that today, to give some kind of best practices on, if you’re a startup or even if you’re not, you’re a company, and you’re developing your next hot product how can you think about, and be very strategic about using this new technology potentially in, either your development cycle or even in your manufacturing cycle? Even if you plan to go to production, you may still want to be thinking about this and understanding that this is potentially even a stepping stone in that process. So Steve, why don’t you break it down a bit in terms of cost-benefit analysis.
07:00 | SG: Yeah. To reflect on what you said about the traditional process, right, where you do some prototypes, you refine your design, you do design freeze at some point and say, okay, this is locked, we’re going to tooling, and then you have that expensive tool made. And that typically takes several weeks. And then you have got an investment, many times tens of thousands of dollars at least, invested in this tool that has a lifetime where it can make 250,000 or 500,000, or a million parts or whatever it might be. So to really get the value out of that tool, you have to expect to make that kind of run. And that’s a huge gamble for anyone developing a new product. We all have hopes and dreams, but you never know how your product will be accepted in the market and what kind of sell-through you’ll have.
07:53 | SG: So taking that gamble works for big companies where they can absorb it, but smaller companies, startups, nimble companies can’t take that risk. Don’t want to take that risk. And one of the things we’ve seen in product design across the board is that things change more quickly than they used to. So your product might be great this year, but next year they want it a little different. They want it later, they want it faster, they want it stronger, whatever. So even though your product is still functional, your tooling is obsolete because you need to make some changes. And so that tool that you were hoping to get millions of parts out of you maybe only got a 100,000 out of, and that cost model of advertising that tool that is sort of gone out the window.
08:44 | SG: One of the things we see with additive is, I’ve used this term, pop-up manufacturing, just like Times Square where they do pop-up retail stores for the holiday season, we see this with manufacturing. We see this being possible with manufacturing where someone recognizes a need in the market, they can very quickly then deploy some iterative design and some 3D printing, get the parts out in the market, and capitalize on the market while it’s hot. And as the consumer tastes shift or the need goes away, they can also wrap it up very quickly. And you’re not stuck with this expensive tooling investment and having to pay storage and maintenance on tools, and sort of the long tail of manufacturing that comes with traditional methods.
09:36 | KM: Yeah, this is so valuable too because you mentioned three major things here that I took out of that. Upfront cost, it’s very expensive to tool. Time to market, it generally takes a lot longer by the time you’ve cut your tools and all that sort of stuff, get your production, get it out. And then changes, your tool is a one-stop-shop for that specific product. There are no changes or if there are some options, it’s very limited to what you can do to modify a tool, and it’s very difficult and expensive as well. So you really are kind of stuck with what you’ve made, which I really like the fact that you brought up about the big companies. And I think that’s very important, we have a lot of hardware startups that listen to the show.
10:19 | KM: I think it’s important to think about that a lot of the stuff you read in textbooks, a lot of the stuff that you see on best practices of traditional industrial design, leads to injection mold. In fact, it’s designed for injection molding, a lot of the schooling that industrial designers and mechanical engineers, go through, keep in mind, additive manufacturing wasn’t even around when a lot of these textbooks were written. So it’s important to understand that this is very new and fresh technology and can be you’ll have all kinds of advantages. And I want to break down that cost a bit further because I think that’s very important when you’re talking about the first production run of a completely new product. So again, a lot of our listeners, are either first-time, product developers or developing a new product.
11:09 | SG: And in some regard, feedback is one of your most critical things. And this comes back to what you’re talking about changes. So one of the easiest ways to get feedback is to have real users using your product and telling you what they like and what they don’t like. You’re always going to find out stuff that you really didn’t see, both in opportunities and in challenges. So one of the great things here, when you’re talking about additive manufacturing, is if you can do five hundred units that give five hundred real people using your product, and then you can decide, okay, you know what, maybe this is sustainable, we’re going to continue with additive manufacturing. Or maybe now that we really have well fleshed out our product, and maybe now have much bigger orders, we’re going to decide to pay that major capital cost for your tooling. So I don’t know if you’ve seen anything around or any tips around how to make those decisions or what kind you’ve seen best practices, but I’d love to hear your insight on that, Steve.
12:05 | SG: Yeah, that’s a great point. And that’s something we’ve been doing probably at least fifteen years. We’ve been making parts via 3D printing, early prototypes, and sometimes going into a secondary process, we call urethane casting, but regardless, it’s all driven by additive technologies, and we’ve made many copies of parts that are used for focus groups and consumer studies, sometimes being done at a very professional level where there are agencies or firms hired to run focus groups. A lot of these parts would go in for in-home testing of consumer products, and people were contracted essentially to use these parts for a month and then write feedback reports and answer questions and surveys. So that’s a very, well-established use of this sort of quick turn rapid prototyping kind of mentality where the last thing you want is to get a warehouse full of parts and then find out that you missed an important feature or that you’re providing x and the market wants x plus one, right? So that is a huge opportunity to spend a little money up front and eliminate a lot of risks before you really dive in with both feet.
13:29 | KM: I like the fact there that if you’re looking at your first production, as well, like you said bigger companies do this, so you’re mentioning focus groups and whatnot. But as a startup, you can basically have that same value, actually selling units, and there are lots of platforms to do that now that never existed before Shopify, Amazon, Kickstarter, Indiegogo all the rest. And so you can have real users buying your product and getting that feedback without having to break the bank as a big company would do, and actually just pay for somebody to do this. As you said, a one-month use or whatever, that’s expensive. But I think it’s important to look at it that if you’re making a small number of units that don’t look to be profitable on them, right? Even if it breaks even, that’s great because now you have free feedback. So if you’re selling the thing for fifty bucks, and it’s costing you fifty bucks to deliver, don’t stress out about that because essentially you have that feedback for no cost. And that feedback’s invaluable because these are real people who decided to purchase your product and are now giving you feedback on what they liked or didn’t like. So that is of tremendous value to allow you to push it to the next position where you do your revisions and then push the market and obviously even an additive with scale, the price per unit comes down as well.
14:53 | KM: So I really encourage, especially earlier-stage companies when they’re getting out, not to look at your first production run as your moneymaker and I know so many people look at that as kind of the moment where they’re switching from spending money on research and design and now making money. But you’ve got to look at it just one step further where you say, okay, well, this is a point where I’m not spending as much money, maybe it’s breaking even, but this is probably your most valuable step in the process. Then, after you used all that, now you can start, as we talked about all the time on the show, your sales power. Once you’ve actually had five hundred units out there, and you have people saying, hey, I love this. And maybe you’ve even made some tweaks to it just for problems or opportunities, now you can get into much bigger conversations with much bigger buyers. Start potentially talking about those tens or hundreds of thousands of units and sales to make your decision better. But it all comes down to looking at additive as a planned stepping stone before you plan to go into the big production and the big money parts of your project.
15:52 | SG: Yeah. To your point, if you can be breaking even or even close to breaking even on your early units, you’re doing it way better than the big companies, so…
16:00 | KM: Definitely.
16:01 | SG: …that’s a win for sure. To expand a little more on that pop-up manufacturing idea earlier, we had a customer that made accessories for GoPro cameras, this was several years ago. Everybody knows what a GoPro is and how that kind of revolutionized that part of the industry, but they made these brackets that would hold multiple cameras, so you could get spherical content and did some really revolutionary, cool stuff at the time. And we would make these parts for them on demand. Some months we’d make fifty parts. Some months we’d make two hundred and fifty. And this idea that we could flex our production simply with an email or a phone call was great for them because they didn’t have to commit to a minimum order quantity, via injection molding or something like that. And they also had a very complex design. This was a really cool bracket that there was no way the geometry could have been manufactured via CNC machining, or injection molding, or any traditional process. So they had really leveraged this idea of designing for additive manufacturing. And we provided these parts at the pace that they needed them.
17:16 | SG: And then of course the GoPro camera like the iPhone, like anything else, changes every year, every six months, whatever the current schedule is. So when the camera changed, they changed their design, and we just started printing from that design the next day. So it wasn’t a big disruption to their business model. GoPro had a new model and then over time, of course, more technology came in and instead of using multiple GoPros to gather spherical content, now there were cameras that could do this and essentially obsoleted what they were doing. So they just stopped printing them. And we were probably left with a dozen of them sitting in inventory, as opposed to having a warehouse full of hundreds of thousands of dollars of inventory. So that’s a little more of a direct example of that pop-up manufacturing. They saw the opportunity, they capitalized well while they could, and when they couldn’t, they could exit cleanly and move on to their next design or their next idea.
18:29 | KM: That’s an amazing story. And it just goes to highlight a number of the advantages of this additive manufacturing. One of the big ones there that is very interesting, especially for us as a design firm, we’ve opened up a whole new world of possibilities for what we can actually produce. And I want to highlight that because I think if you haven’t worked in-depth with injection molding and with additive manufacturing, you don’t understand that there are many variables, elements of physics, that allow a bunch of different types of things to not occur in injection molding. You look around your room, you see dozens of products you’ve grown up around, seen thousands of different things that you assume, especially if you haven’t been in the manufacturing space, you said, well, basically anything can get made, but what you don’t see is all the effort that goes in behind the scenes to work around all these crazy limitations of injection molding. Now, when you bring in additive manufacturing, it changes all that entirely. And Steve, I’d like to hear it from you, can you break down the technology of why that occurs, and why you can make so many types of parts with additive manufacturing as opposed to tooling?
19:46 | SG: Yeah, I can take a swing at it. This is always much easier if we’re standing in our facility and looking at the equipment, but because some of it’s a little abstract. Basically, to go back to the fundamental definition of additive manufacturing, you’re adding material. So a layer at a time, we’re adding material to create something. When you think back, what’s the opposite, or what came before, and that was subtractive manufacturing, right? And this goes all the way back to the ancient Romans taking a giant block of marble or granite and chiseling out a statue, right? They were subtracting material to get their end product. The same thing happens today with CNC machining, and many of the processes we’ve been using for a long time, woodworking is the same way.
20:31 | SG: So this mindset, this flip from subtractive to additive manufacturing means that we are now adding material and only depositing it or only hardening it or fusing it depending on the technology, where we need it, and where we want to keep it. So the ship in a bottle thing, right? People used to do that as a major challenge. We can print the ship in a bottle overnight, it’s not a challenge anymore because I used to tell people that it’s like building a dollhouse, one of those big model dollhouses, but instead of working through the doors and the windows, you’re kind of laying the bricks or building it vertically as you go up, and you can do everything on the inside as you’re building the outside because you’re always working in one plane. And as you advance, you can get away with anything internally.
21:24 | KM: And it’s got so advanced now, and there are so many methods. One of the things that we are always excited about when it came in was all the dissolving fluids that you could use. So you could literally print something hovering, like imagine a marble in the middle of a mesh ball, the marble can’t get out the mesh ball, but you could print that in there with essentially two layers. One layer is the material that you want to remain. The other layer can get dissolved out with the dissolvent. So after you’ve printed this thing, you dip it in a bucket, pop it out, now you have got this marble rattling around inside your mesh ball. And you imagine you’ve all these different technologies now available, think of the future of innovation and inventions. There are going to be so many things that every day people are going to look around and say, hey, I wonder if this could be done or that my life would improve by that way?
22:13 | KM: Traditionally, they’d call an engineering design firm like ours, and we’d say, that’s impossible. Now we’ve got all these new tools, we may look at all of these innovations that up until maybe let’s say ten to twenty years ago were impossible. Nowadays, it can be done, and not only can it be done, but it can be done on a production scale, which I think is really the major winning ticket here. I think that’s going to be the future. When we look at the next twenty to thirty years, I’m a big believer that an additive, it’s just like the printer, right? As the technology improves for printing, the cost per unit comes down, the speed of execution, the quality improves, all that sort of stuff.
22:52 | KM: So I think right now, not only is it a viable option as a stepping stone or potentially for a number of different products to actually, as you mentioned that GoPro housing, very functional, very profitable business if looked at that way. But I think it’s going to come even further up the value chain where many products are being injectable that today could be done in additive. And then you add all of these advantages that we talked about on this call, and you really are looking at the future of design here. And Steve, you guys are at the forefront of this. So it’s great to hear your insight on all of that. Is there any other kind of benefits that you really see in terms of additive or stuff that people should know when they’re thinking about additive for their upcoming product?
23:42 | SG: Well I thinkI don’t want to give the impression that we believe additives are going to displace or supplant injection molding, injection moldings are here to stay. It’s a very mature process, it works amazing, it’s highly developed. The additive, it’s going to chip away at the edges where injection molding, maybe, is being misapplied, right? The low volume where you’re having to pay too much money to get a small number of parts, or where we can take an injection molding we had to mold part A and part B and part C in separate tools just because of some of those geometry limitations and the realities of injection molding. If we can combine that CAD into one part and print it we’re saving the assembly time, we’re saving the QC time, we’re saving the multiple pieces of tooling. So really those are some of the advantages of additive where we need to assess where it works and where it doesn’t. It’s not a one-size-fits-all thing, right?
24:49 | SG: You can make anything with additive, it just doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. So, having some guidance from a design firm that’s experienced in additive, or from a service bureau like ours that’s doing this digital manufacturing can really help. We tell a lot of people don’t spend the money, don’t waste the money, you’re not ready yet, or let’s look at this a different way because we want to bring value to people, right? I mean, if it’s a bunch of hype, and it’s misapplied, it will damage us all in the long run. So we’re trying to make sure that we’re picking and choosing the right applications and adding value wherever we can.
25:35 | KM: But I think that brings a key discussion that needs to be had with your design team early on in the process. It’s looking at this and understanding if it’s right for your product, either as you mentioned for the GoPro cameras, is this something that will just work forever, or can you use it as a stepping stone? You’re going to first do additive, maybe for five hundred, a thousand units test, refine, go to market, then maybe step up to injection molding, or are you going to use additive for your prototyping? Maybe you really are intending your first orders massive, or you do intend once you have your fixed part that is going to be the part for a few years? Well you can still use additive for the early development stuff, as it’s very common at a design firm.
26:24 | KM: So, from our perspective, one of the things that we love to do early on with the client is really looking at what they’re planning, how they’re planning to sell the product when they first release it to market. Because if this is where if you’re looking at it, and you say, okay, we’re going to do a crowdfunding campaign, we’re hoping to sell five hundred to a thousand units. And we’ve now added all this value to the product, timeliness is important to us, we think we may be making changes. Well, based on the discussion we had today, it starts to paint the picture that additive may very well be the best option for your product.
26:58 | KM: Now, I would take that one step further, and it’s something again that we’re doing with our clients quite on a regular basis when we’re designing, we’d be working with a firm like yours to actually produce this stuff, what we want to do is then if we are going to look at additive manufacturing for the early production runs, we want to be thinking about that when we start, even in our sketching, our industrial design, as we’re doing some of our mechanical engineering, even as we go into rough prototyping and refined prototyping, we want to be looking at the methodologies and tools that make it very easy and cost-effective to actually produce those parts. Because if you’ve designed for injection molding, it’s going to be very different from if you’ve designed for additive. And if you’ve thought about it as additive from the beginning, you can really, like you said, pull on a bunch of those levers to maximize the value you’re going to get out of those early production runs, both from a cost perspective, but also from a value perspective to the customer, right? What does the customer need, and what are the options available to them by using an additive to fulfill those orders?
27:57 | SG: Yeah. You touched on something there, Kevin, about considering this from the beginning of the design process. And we need to get the old guys like me out of the system and all these youngsters that are coming up using 3D printing from an early age and understand the idea of designing for functionality and designing for the sake of the design and accomplishing what they want with the design, versus having to work around this list of rules or this sort of box of constraints that comes with more traditional manufacturing technologies. That’s what people, my generation and older, sort of have been burdened with, right? You can think up the greatest thing in the world, but if you can’t make it, and traditionally that was a challenge, then it kind of wasn’t worth the effort. And now we can focus more on designing for that functionality, that optimum performance, and we can probably figure out a way to make it now that we didn’t have available to us in the past.
28:59 | KM: Yeah, it’s amazing. Very excited. Steve, really appreciate having you on a show. If people want to learn more, of course, we’ll have all the show notes, but what is the exact website address for those that are listening in?
29:12 | SG: Yeah, you can find us at Midwest Proto, Midwest P-R-O-T-O .com. And we’ve got a pretty good description there of the different technologies, the materials, obviously, it’s changing every day, we do our best to keep up. This is a really dynamic space, but that’s what makes it fun. So thank you very much for having us on.
29:33 | KM: Much appreciated, Steve. Thanks again.
29:34 | SG: Alright, take care, Kevin.
29:37 | Voice-over: Thanks for tuning in to this episode of the Product Startup podcast. The show that teaches you what it really takes to bring your product to market and turn it into a big success. This podcast series is brought to you by MAKO Design + Invent, the original and leading firm in North America to provide global caliber end-to-end physical consumer product development to startups, inventors, and small product business clients. If you’re looking for product development help on your invention, head over to makodesign.com. That’s M-A-K-O design.com, for a free consultation from one of MAKO Design’s, four design studios from coast to coast. Thanks for listening and see you next time.
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About: MAKO Design + Invent is the original firm providing world-class consumer product development services tailored to startups, small manufacturers, and inventors. Simply put, we are the leading one-stop-shop for developing your physical product from idea to store shelves, all in a high-quality, cost-effective, and timely manner. We operate as one powerhouse 30-person product design team spread across 4 offices to serve you (Austin, Miami, San Francisco, & Toronto). We have full-stack in-house industrial design, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, patent referral, prototyping, and manufacturing services. To assist our startup and inventor clients, in addition to above, we help with business strategy, product strategy, marketing, and sales/distribution for all consumer product categories. Also, our founder Kevin Mako hosts The Product Startup Podcast, the industry's leading hardware podcast. Check it out for tips, interviews, and best practices for hardware startups, inventors, and product developers. Click HERE to learn more about MAKO Design + Invent!