Many of the Tiki brand torches lit in backyards around the country were designed at Lamplight in Menomonee Falls, WI.
The company, which has its natural bamboo, metal and ceramic lamps manufactured in China and India, creates CAD models of its new products at its local headquarters. Lamplight used to send the designs for its indoor and outdoor lamps to its overseas manufacturers for prototype creation, but the process could take months as engineers worked on scale and function adjustments, each requiring a new prototype.
"It sometimes looked like it came whittled by hand, so to speak," said Ron White, director of engineering at Lamplight. "More often than not, it took two to three, sometimes half a dozen times to get it right."
The company, a division of Columbus, Ga.-based W.C. Bradley Co. with about 100 employees, then tried creating prototypes with the help of a prototyping company in Milwaukee. That cut the development time in half, but the cost was much higher.
A few months ago, Lamplight purchased a 3-D printer, which revolutionized the process. The technology allowed for an expedited prototyping time of just two to three days. Designs could be sent straight to the printer and several hours later, Lamplight had a 3-D plastic model.
"It just enables us to get a better feel for what the product is going to look like—the size, dimensions, functionality," said Joel Borgardt, president of Lamplight. "If you can produce a prototype more quickly and do it accurately, it reduces the cycle time."
The 3-D prototype is not functional as a torch, since it needs to hold a flame, but it is useful for developing scale and appearance, marketing and creating packaging, White said.
"Our product is not overly complex. We typically just use it for visuals," White said.
Just three years ago, when Lamplight first looked into 3-D printing, the equipment cost was too high, he said.
"The demand was there, but we're a smaller company so it was hard to justify the cost," Borgardt said.
The machine that Lamplight purchased in January cost $22,000, down from about $50,000 about three years ago.
Menomonee Falls-based Graphics/Systems supplied the printer to Lamplight. While there are many kinds of 3-D printers on the market, the Fused Deposition Modeling technology that Lamplight uses works with a strong plastic suitable for testing and prints quietly, so it can be used in an office environment.
The Stratasys machines that Graphics/Systems sells have the potential to speed the time to market of manufactured products, including medical devices such as arm braces and windpipes, said Dave Pond, marketing manager at Graphics/Systems.
While the 3-D engineering company has been selling printers for about 10 years, Graphics/Systems has experienced 300 percent growth in 3-D printing sales over the last year.
"Companies know about 3-D printing as a technology, but more and more over the last few years, companies are thinking about how they could use them," Pond said. "A lot of competitive companies bring them on just because they can innovate quicker."
The spool of engineering grade plastic material fed into the printer to prototype each part at Lamplight costs between $50 and $75. Sending the design out for local prototyping costs about $2,000. The Chinese prototypes were inexpensive, but there were quality problems.
"We fully estimate that this machine will pay itself back before the end of the year," White said.
The machine that Lamplight has allows for finishing of the prototype. It can be primed and painted for marketing purposes, he said. The printer can also handle multi-piece parts, so engineers can evaluate how they fit together into the finished product.
Lamplight has hundreds of SKUs, and upward of 80 percent can be prototyped on its 3-D printer.
The company's products are slightly different in each of the major retailers it counts as customers — retailers such as Home Depot and Walmart.
The manufacturer, which makes the citronella oil and wax for its products in Menomonee Falls, counts its customers as its biggest competitors. Retailers sometimes work directly with overseas manufacturers to bring in a competing product for store brands, Borgardt said.
But Lamplight doesn't think any of them are using 3-D printing technology to drive innovation, White said. It has more than 50 percent of the market share in Tiki-style torches and fuel.
"We come out with three to four major new products every season and then most of our line gets revamped from an aesthetic standpoint," Borgardt said.
Several other local businesses use 3-D printing for everything from artwork to inventions.
Gateway Technical College offers 3-D printing for its students and for local inventors' prototyping needs at its Industrial Design Fab Lab on the Sturtevant campus.
The school has three 3-D printers: two utilize extruded plastic to create less costly parts, while a higher-end machine uses additive resin and UV light to create 3-D prototypes layer by layer, said Greg Herker, Fab Lab program coordinator.
The resin machine is accurate to a higher degree, but both create useful prototypes, Herker said. The plastic extruded parts cost between $5 and $20, while the additive parts can be up to $150 for material.
Engineering and technical design students often use the printers, but art students have also recently become interested in creative 3-D projects.
Herker sees the potential for the manufacturing industry, particularly at the entry point for entrepreneurs and for making replacement industrial parts on the spot.
John Thorson recently started working with Gateway to prototype a precast concrete forming system he has designed for his company, Milwaukee-based Thorkast LLC.
Herker produces a portion of the rails that are part of the forming system, and Thorson can check the structural integrity, the assembly fit and design. The prototype is useful to visualize the final product, he said.
"I'm not talking high precision, but like the last one I made, it looks like I've got some detail in there that is probably not quite big enough to be durable," Thorson said.
Each 3-D prototype has been under $100, while a traditional prototype would have cost about $1,000.
Midwest Composite Technologies Inc. provides rapid prototyping using 11 3-D printing machines at its 70,000-square-foot Hartland facility.
It uses four different technologies to form the prototypes, depending on the application, said Helmut Keidl, owner. For example, a screwdriver with a soft handle on the outside and the tool on the inside can be formed at the same time using a polyjet machine.
"Sometimes they want something that's more functional and some of the materials that come out of the different processes are more functional than others," Keidl said.
Midwest has been offering 3-D printing since 1994 and has acquired more machines over time to keep up with its customers' growth. These days, the machines are about eight times faster than in the 1990s.
The company also offers low-volume production, so it can combine CNC machined parts and smaller, more detailed 3-D printed parts to make a prototype.
Advantage Prototype Systems in Sheboygan Falls has five machines that use stereolithography to create prototypes for manufacturers.
The process allows companies to adjust the part before they build an expensive tool and injection mold press to begin production, said Tom Husting, vice president. SLA machines cost between $175,000 and $500,000.
"What they're calling 3-D printing now … typically it's a lower-cost machine that gives a lower resolution, lower functional part," he said. "You kind of get what you pay for. The more expensive processes give you more accuracy and more robust parts."
Advantage has made bike frames for a customer that needed to order the exact cable lengths for the bike before production began, for example.
"They're able to check fits and manufacturability and things of that nature," Husting said.
East Troy-based Wisconsin Precision Casting Corp. uses a differentw process, called investment casting, to create metal prototypes quickly.
The process builds upon a 3-D printed model to provide metal forming of the prototype in up to 150 different materials, said Cliff Fischer, co-owner.
"It became so popular once we were able to bridge the gap from a 3-D printed pattern to a metal component," Fischer said. "Our part will actually mimic the production part so they can really do some accurate testing."
The article was originally written by Molly Dill, a reporter for the BizTimes.
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