The speed and flexibility of 3D printing has manufacturing companies excited — 70 percent of those surveyed in a global 3D printing study increased their related investments in 2018, versus 49 percent in 2017.
But it’s still much more common to use 3D printing for initial prototyping or proof of concepts, with mass production often switching back to traditional manufacturing.
Two startup co-founders think they can start to change that with a unique material they developed specifically with 3D printing in mind.
“3D printing has historically been focused on prototyping and very small-scale manufacturing, but we’re at the point to where we’re transitioning our first customers to start doing higher volume,” says Thomas Bougher, CTO of materials and 3D printing services startup TCPoly.
“We’re proving out that because the products that we make have higher value than products that are traditionally manufactured, it actually changes the economics and you can justify higher production volume.”
So what is this magic material? Bougher and TCPoly CEO Matt Smith collaborated on the first stages of the product while doing materials research as engineering PhD candidates at Georgia Tech.
“This was in 2015 when there was that whole controversy with Samsung’s exploding phones,” Smith tells Hypepotamus. ”So our grad school focus became this growing and emerging trend of fixing these overheating electronic devices.”
They developed a plastic with extremely high thermal conductivity, a property that allows the material to sit next to and inside electronics, lightbulbs, or other high-heat devices and remain cool.
Bougher and Smith joined NSF I-Corps, a government-funded program that Smith describes as a “startup bootcamp for PhDs,” to explore the commercialization potential for their technology. I-Corps comes with a $50,000 grant, which the team used for product development and customer discovery, speaking with hundreds of engineers and manufacturing managers across a range of industries.
While they had originally conceived of the material in the context of traditional manufacturing, they realized how much more flexible and fast 3D printing was, as well as the upward trajectory of the market.
In 2017, TCPoly pivoted to focus solely on developing their patent-pending material for the purposes of 3D printing.
The filament they now produce and sell is the world’s highest thermal conductivity 3D printing plastic, capable of conducting heat 50 times higher than traditional plastics.
“There’s so many cool materials that you can make it in petri dish or on a lab slide, but the processes will never work at scale,” says Bougher. “Instead, we used the fundamental understanding of the material to actually create it with 3D printing in mind.”
With additional funding from a few more government grants and a Georgia Research Alliance investment, TCPoly has established an office in Atlanta as well as a manufacturing facility at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Knoxville, Tennessee.
They have three distinct ways to work with manufacturers: they sell the plastic filaments in raw form directly from their website, along with a few additional products made with the TCPoly materials, for companies who have their own 3D printing operations.
TCPoly will also do custom design and prototyping for those who might not have much experience with 3D printing yet or don’t have the capability in house. Their manufacturing facility has over a dozen types of 3D printers to prototype and test products.
Soon, the team is solidifying a contract with a larger 3D printing facility to offer clients higher-scale volume manufacturing, essentially serving as an outsourced manufacturer.
Lastly, the team will help companies do custom thermal design and modeling to assess whether a product can be 3D printed and, if so, how the design should be modified.
All in all, the team calls it an “end-to-end 3D printing solutions company.”
TCPoly is exploring the above solutions with clients ranging from startup young companies to Fortune 100s, working on devices ranging from LED lights to smart IoT products to batteries.
And while they’ve been lucky to collect mostly non-dilutive funding thus far, the team is currently raising a seed equity round to power up production and marketing and sales efforts.
With the market for 3D printing devices and materials set to surge as we enter the 2020s, the entrepreneurs are confident that they’ve chosen the right path.