Innovation Spotlight

Printing with Plastic

By
From the September 2013 issue of Columbus CEO
  • Photos by Ryan M.L. Young
    Michael Cao
  • Photos by Ryan M.L. Young

An automotive engineer aims to grow his startup with help from a crowdfunding campaign.

As a young engineer at Honda, Michael Cao was awestruck when he first saw a room filled with massive machines printing out 3-D prototypes of car parts. The technology both fascinated and empowered him.

“It just kind of blew my mind,” Cao says. “I was like, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’ I just stared at those machines printing. … I thought it was like magic.”

During the past decade, those machines have brought Cao’s ideas to life at Honda R&D Americas Inc. in Raymond, Ohio, where senior engineer develop and design vehicle interiors. Cao’s experience with 3-D printers at work eventually led him to build his own desktop model at home. Cao cobbled together existing designs to create his own variation and bought enough material to make two machines. He kept one for himself and sold the second on eBay.

“I guess there was demand for it,” Cao says. “Then several people had asked me if I was building more machines and so I said, ‘Sure.’ A few dozen later, he we are. This is what I do in my spare time.”

Cao runs his company, IC3D Printers, out of his Dublin home. He spends nights and weekends working in his basement, which has been converted into a office and workshop.

When Cao started selling his printers in June 2012, he built them one at a time. As the business took off online, he subcontracted much of the assembly to an Ohio-based factory. Cao and his business partner, Larry Knopp, test and tune each printer before shipping to customers scattered around the world.

3-D printing technology, once intended for design firms to make prototypes, is intriguing to small-scale inventors and hobbyists, says Blaine Lilly, an associate professor in the College of Engineering at Ohio State University.

“You’re in the era of the early adopters,” Lilly says. “It’s not yet mainstream, but it’s getting there. I can easily see in another five or 10 years that people like Kinko’s will have these machines. It wouldn’t surprise me if they don’t do that already in places like Silicon Valley.”

Cao estimates that about three-fourths of his customers run small businesses—engineering firms, for example—while the rest are tinkerers.

The printers, which require computer-aided design software and plastic filament, cost $1,700 each. Cao and Knopp offer tech support via email, phone or web conferencing, along with a year-long warranty.

IC3D’s printers allow more user control than competing models and have impressive resolution and speed, says Alex Bandar, who runs the Columbus Idea Foundry and purchased an IC3D printer for the workshop.

“I liken it to the beginning of the computer industry in the mid ’70s,” Bandar says of 3-D printing. “There are machines you can buy in SkyMall now. They’re still kind of quite simple. The ones that Michael and Larry are building are quite complex.”

Cao, who earned a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from the University of Oklahoma before landing his first job at Honda, works at a dizzying pace. He puts in 40-plus hours a week at Honda and devotes another 30 hours to his own business

“That’s one of the reasons Mike and I hit it off so well,” says Knopp. “Our work ethic, in general, is just a lot of go, go, go all the time. … He does a good job of balancing it all out.”

Cao and Knopp are working to expand IC3D to include the manufacturing of plastic filament formulated specifically for 3-D printing. This spring, crowdfunding campaign through Indiegogo surpass their $20,000 goal.

“I’m going to be one of the first to make the material with a 3-D printing spec and cater exclusively to the 3-D printing market,” Cao says. “My goal is to have the filament business support [research and development] so I can then build a better machine and see where that goes.”

Dana Wilson is a freelance writer.