Michael Cao has built IC3D Printers into a rare company selling the filament that runs 3D printers. The former Acura NSX project engineer started the enterprise in his basement.
If you walk into IC3D Printing’s production warehouse, you’ll first notice a sign on the door: “The Room of Manufesting.” It might be a new word, but as CMO Kimberly Gibson (that’s chief mischief officer) says, new is what’s called for in the modern age.
“Manufacturing is the old term, and that’s fine— but what we’re doing is pulling things out of your imagination and creating them three-dimensionally,” Gibson says. “That dance between man and machine, that’s what we do.”
What began in 2012 in the imagination of founder Michael Cao has since grown substantially—at first a one-man enterprise run out of Cao’s basement. Today IC3D Printers’ 18 employees take up a 10,000-square-foot facility on Columbus’ west side. And in an industry where rapid advancement is the norm, that growth has been a necessity, Cao says. “I think any business that’s involved with technology or doing something new, with the rapid improvement of software and hardware, it’s a challenge to keep up,” Cao says. “Obviously you need to keep tabs on what the industry is doing, but our other strategy has been to become more well-balanced as a company.”Stay up to date with the region’s thriving business scene. Subscribe to Columbus CEO’s weekly newsletter.
Cao says that balance has taken the form of vertically integrating the company. IC3D designs and builds its own printers, manufactures a variety of filaments for its own use and sale, performs printing services for clients and expects to begin selling large-format industrial printers. The company focuses primarily on B2B connections, Cao says, with an emphasis on automotive manufacturers.
Ron Myers, senior mechanical engineer at manufacturer Honeywell, says 3D printing technology has been advancing at such a fast pace that some aspects of the manufacturing process have been shortened from a few months to weeks or days. “Previously when we would injection mold something, it was about a 16-week process by the time the parts could be made, tested and adjusted,” he says. “With 3D printing, we can give someone a model and get a finished part back in a couple days. Then if changes are needed, we just send an updated CAD file, and it’s fixed.”
Gibson says offering more services to clients deepens those relationships and keeps IC3D ahead of a quickly evolving market.
“The idea is to be a turn-key solution for anyone interested in utilizing 3D printing,” she says. “It’s not just about having us do the printing, but having someone who truly understands how to tune your machine and custom-make the materials needed for the job. That’s the unique position Michael’s put together for all of us.”
Cao, an engineer who helped design the Acura NSX for Honda, says the Columbus area has proven to be fertile ground for the company in terms of potential manufacturing clients and access to mentoring resources like the nonprofit Score. When it was time to move out of the basement, IC3D was able to secure a sales office at the Idea Foundry, and when more space was needed to begin printing services in 2016, Ohio State University offered it space to grow in its Center for Design and Manufacturing Excellence.
“We were able to have a good space and access to talent, so it was a great time for us to be there,” he says. “But we were outgrowing it really fast.” In 2017, the company moved to its current location on Westbelt Drive. Since then, IC3D has been growing incrementally, trying to make a name for itself in an industry that still lacks any household names, Cao says.
While advances in the field are coming at a rapid pace, there is still room for growth. Myers said although new 3D printers are steadily improving in terms of precision, resolution and versatility, traditional methods are still more efficient for high-volume manufacturing—for the time being.
With plans to sell custom-designed commercial printers to clients, Cao says the ultimate goal is for IC3D to be a place where someone can start with an idea, no matter how abstract, and watch it be turned into reality.
“What we’ve built here, especially in the past few years, is a design-to-manufacturing ecosystem,” he says. “So we want to keep growing and expanding that. It’s going to be a place where someone can come with an idea to get one thing produced or 10,000 things produced.”
Lin Rice is a freelance writer for Columbus CEO.