We try and accommodate customer visits and plant tours as often as time permits. A while back we had Ben visit and pick up some filament (he was a local), and he was nice enough to chronicle his experience you see below.
A few months ago, I went to a 3d Hubs meetup and found out there is a filament company called MakeShaper that’s located in Sanford NC, just a few towns over from where I live. Naturally, I was interested – I’ve been on the hunt on-and-off for a quality American-made filament source, and if that place happens to be right next door – that’s a bonus!
One of the gentlemen I met at the meetup who worked for MakeShaper provided me a filament sample and was also kind enough to offer me a tour of the facility (his name is Bob). I definitely wanted to take him up on that, but to be honest, I wasn’t expecting much. My inner skeptic was saying loudly that “this is just going to be ten guys renting space in some dirty warehouse with an oversized Filastruder, don’t get your hopes up.”
…Little did I know.
As it turns out, MakeShaper’s parent company is Static Control Components and they are, for lack of more precise details, a pretty big deal. From what I understand, they’re one of the biggest companies making aftermarket laser and inkjet printer parts and toners in the world. I’m skipping ahead a bit, but I learned on the tour that they were involved in a precedent-setting lawsuit against Lexmark whose outcome determined that manufacturing printer cartridges with an aftermarket DRM chip was not a violation of the DMCA. There’s even a Wikipedia article on it! (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lexmark_I … nents,_Inc.) So, definitely not the small fries I was expecting.
Back to my story, my wife and I are driving along and the GPS tells us we’re getting close and I’m still expecting ten guys in a dirty warehouse. I’m keeping my eyes peeled for a sign that’s obscured by some overgrown bushes or something when suddenly, we realize we’re driving toward this huge industrial campus. My wife and I both say, no way can this place be the place we’re looking for, but yep! It wound up that that’s the place!
Here’s what it looked like when they GPS says we’re close – definitely “sign behind an overgrown bush” territory:
https://email@example.com, … 312!8i6656
And then suddenly we burst onto this – quite a difference!
https://firstname.lastname@example.org,- … 312!8i6656
We go inside after having picked the most likely-looking parking lot – we had at least 5 to choose from and I’m sure more if we kept driving – and get signed in and we meet Bob and a lovely lady from Sales named Erica. Bob asks us “did you have any trouble finding the place?” with a poorly-masked grin. Har har, Bob! I learned that SCC has 12 factories on that campus and employs 800 people. I realize very quickly that I’m totally out of my league, but darn it I’m going to make the best of things anyway while I try not to sound like a complete dunce.
Bob also tells me that they’re still in the middle of moving their filament-making equipment into a different building, so we won’t get a chance to see any of that today – BUMMER – but we can come back later after they’re finished! (You bet your behind I’m taking him up on that offer at the next opportunity.)
The first stop on the tour is something of a memorial. About five years back, some severe tornadoes came through the area and caused a lot of damage, *especially* in Sanford. A few of SCC’s buildings were heavily damaged, and a couple were completely destroyed. They got a call from someone who lived 50 miles away because they found some SCC-labeled microprocessors on their front lawn! Fifty miles! Luckily, since the storms came on the weekend, no one was working and no one was injured. The scrap metal sculpture was a tribute to their employees’ dedication to rebuilding, and I’m sure glad they did rebuild, because otherwise I wouldn’t have been on that awesome tour!
Next was their R&D area. Essentially, it was a cubicle farm with one or two 3d printers on each person’s desk – and they were tasked with running OEM and competitors’ filaments through each machine and making observations on print quality. They had a pretty good representation there – I saw machines ranging from a low-end Da Vinci machine to a big Stratasys uPrint. I met another gentleman named Stephen (who was also at the 3d Hubs meetup I mentioned earlier) who showed me a Marvin printed on the Da Vinci with some XYZprinting PLA. It was a neat print because it was pretty clear – but it also had some stringing, which honestly I was glad to see, because it made me feel pretty good knowing my printer could do a better job.
(Side note: I asked Bob if I could take a picture of the R&D area, because I didn’t want to accidentally capture something sensitive on someone’s desk. We decided to play it safe and not take a picture, but then I found that one in MakeShaper’s own twitter feed! Ha! So now Wake Tech is on the hook instead of me!)
One of the things Bob mentioned while on the tour was that they have researchers responsible for reverse-engineering OEM lockout chips. In my head I’m thinking, how on earth do you reverse engineer something that’s made up of about a billion tiny transistors? So I try to ask an intelligent-sounding question to that effect, figuring that if I use the words “electron microscope,” I might sound at least a little bit informed. Bob tells me that the traditional method was to peel back the chips layer by layer and just examine the traces that you found, but nowadays you’ll often see protective measures like specially-designed structures that effectively self-destruct the chip if you try and peel them apart. That was news to me! I figured that reverse-engineering a chip like that would be hard enough by itself, but no, apparently you need physical countermeasures to make it even harder. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised in retrospect, but at the time it blew my mind. Oh and yes, to my question, they also do have their own electron microscope on site. (Bob told me that so casually that I was wondering if that was actually as big of a deal as I thought it was…)
While we were on the topic of chips, Bob mentioned that he sees the 3d printing industry today looking a lot like what the paper printing industry looked like 25-30 years ago. Lots of new players entering the market, and some manufacturers responding by trying to lock down their machines. I think this is the point in the tour where I learned about the DMCA decision, and Bob mentioned that since MakeShaper has the full resources of SCC behind them, they are uniquely positioned to become a significant player in the 3d print market. I hope they succeed – my thoughts at the time wandered to the Da Vinci machines. I didn’t bring it up, but I remember reading that if you want to use aftermarket filament in a Da Vinci machine, you have to reflash its firmware – but that also voids the warranty of the machine. It would be great to have a third option; a third party chipped filament cartridge that was compatible would be a welcome offering to those customers, I’m sure.
Anyway after that, we walked to an area of their testing facility. I can only describe it as an inkjet/laserjet printer farm – rows and rows of desks upon which sat as many printers as would fit, and as we walked among them I caught some more 3d printers sprinkled in as well. We learned that in that building, there were around 2000 printers available for immediate testing, and about 7500 more in storage “just in case.” Basically any printer that was marketed in a significant quantity, SCC picked up at least one of them to test with.
While we were talking numbers, Bob also mentioned that they go through an enormous amount of paper – I forgot the exact number, but I want to say it was 1,000,000 sheets per week? A MILLION! (per WEEK!!) – so recycling is very important to them. (This also won a huge amount of brownie points with me)! They print on both sides of every sheet, BUT of course it’s not such a simple matter as I would naively assume. After a sheet of paper has been printed on, Bob explains, its properties have changed – it’s dirtier, its moisture content is different, for example – and it needs to be reconditioned before its other side can be used for a second test. My take on that is that I’d hate to be the guy whose job it was to clean an endless mountain of paper, but on the other hand they’re clearly serious about making sure their products work as advertised, and I’ll buy the heck out of their filament based on that alone eight days a week.
We continue on and before long we pass by some windows that look into what resembles (to me) a clean room you might see at a hospital. Bob points at the labels in the corner of the windows and tells us that they’re environmentally-controlled rooms – both temperature and humidity. One is set up at around 60F and 15% humidity; the other is at 85F and 80% humidity – I might’ve gotten the numbers a bit off, but one was supposed to be winter conditions (indoors, obviously) while the other was supposed to emulate the tropics. Anyway I’m sure you can guess, they had printers set up in those rooms too making sure that everything still worked to spec under non-ideal conditions.
As if that weren’t enough, the next thing we saw as we walked by were some big electrical panels. They weren’t too visually engaging – just some metal boxes with conduit coming out of them – but Bob shared that their function was to generate 220v power, and that each desk in the testing lab had both 120v and 220v outlets. They would test all their printers on both, because it exposes quirks in the internal mechanics – the difference in voltage and frequency has an impact on the behavior of the corona wire, the fuser, the drum, as well as a bunch of other parts that I hadn’t heard of before. I did my best to keep everything straight, but the entire tour was filled with so much information that it was like drinking from a firehose, and this was certainly no exception!
My mind wandered back to the paper recycling Bob mentioned earlier and I asked whether or not they did the same sort of recycling/reconditioning with their plastic filaments – and since I was trying to sound smart, I mentioned that I’d heard mixed opinions on filament recyclers because of the extra “stress” the process puts on the filament’s “polymers.” I don’t know if I used all the right words there, but hey! Even if I completely messed it up, I got the spirit of the question across successfully, so score one for me! Bob said I was basically on the right track and took the opportunity to teach us a bit about “heats and heat signature.” He said if you get material from a quality supplier, that filament has only been through 2 heats. You then print with the material and your printer counts as another heat, so that’s 3 heats total. That’s generally the ideal case. If you buy pellets and extrude them yourself, you also wind up with 3 heats in the end – one heat from the supplier to turn the material into pellets, once through your extrusion machine, and then lastly through the printer. And if you’re into recycling prints, then you can mix recycled material with virgin material and wind up with fractional heats for the overall blend. MakeShaper, for one, avoids the issue entirely by only testing with virgin material – afterward, the prints are recycled into bottles for the toner part of their business. Smart, I like it!
We’d been walking while we were chatting and right around this point, we wandered up to another of their Stratasys machines. Bob said he’s been noticing a trend where more and more industrial machines like the Stratasys in front of us were starting to show up on 3d Hubs – and I might be fuzzing on the details here, (drinking from a firehose, remember!) but what basically happens is the lease on the machine expires, and the leasing company then sells the machine, where naturally the employees get first dibs. I thought to myself, hmm, might it be neat to own a Stratasys machine? I wonder how much they cost in that scenario… but before I had a chance to ask, Bob shows me a spool of Stratasys filament. It looked like a half kg maybe, and it’s then I learn that the cartridge costs A HUNDRED AND EIGHTY DOLLARS! ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME?! And I know those machines aren’t cheap to begin with either, but then they get you on the filament too?! I swear, if those guys at Stratasys aren’t swimming in money like Scrooge McDuck and lighting their cigars with hundred dollar bills like in the movies, they are doing something seriously wrong.
So I don’t think I’m interested in owning a Stratasys machine anymore. Then again, MakeShaper IS working on coming up with their own compatible filament, so maybe it wouldn’t be that bad after all…
Afterward, we headed down to the shipping area. It was neat-looking to me, someone who doesn’t get to see that kind of thing every day, but I would imagine it looks like your typical warehouse operation (although probably a lot cleaner). Lots of boxes stacked on lots of forklift shelving units. Bob told us that the forklifts were semi-automated – I didn’t fully understand, but he said there were wires run through the floor and somehow the forklift operator has to only do half the work. I think he said that they just drive it to the right aisle and then the system automatically gets the right box from the right shelf location? And I think each space on each shelf was labeled with a barcode so the machine could make sure it was picking from the correct spot. That was definitely something that scratched my high-tech itch, so that’s a gold star in my book!
That just about wrapped up the tour. We walked past a photo studio where they had a bunch of professional-looking lighting and equipment and a green screen, but I know nothing about photography at all so it was all lost on me. But I sure did notice the filament sitting in the middle of the room! (They had just taken some pictures of it in preparation for their web store). Bob told us that they do all their own product photos, instructional materials and video editing in-house. It seemed like a small detail, but I think having such a nice studio is one more thing that goes to show these guys are really invested in their work.
After that, we sat down in a conference room where we chit-chatted for a bit and I finally bought the spools I had came for! What really struck me though was the labeling on the filament boxes. I immediately noticed that A.) the label sealed the box, so it would be tamper-evident, and B.) there’s a field for Pantone color. Maybe I just haven’t bought filament from the right places yet, but I hadn’t yet seen anything similar until then. Even before you open the box, the filament feels like a premium product. And then on the backside of the package, the MakeShaper logo is watermarked (maybe that’s not the right term… inlaid maybe?) into the cardboard – a nice touch.
Afterward, we said our goodbyes, and my wife and I thanked Bob and Erica for taking time out of their day to show us around. I realized after we left and got into the car that we’d spent an hour and a half walking around their facilities, and that was without even seeing the actual extrusion machines! Time flies when you’re having fun I guess! Before we arrived, I was expecting the tour to take 30 minutes, tops. After all, how much can you possibly expect to see from 10 guys in the corner of a dirty old warehouse…
My closing thoughts are that I was completely blown away by the experience (at least that much should be obvious by now). Even my wife, whose involvement with 3d printing extends only to tolerating my addiction to it, really enjoyed seeing all the equipment and learning about the business! My only criticism is that for now, MakeShaper’s color selection is very basic – red, green, blue, white, black, and natural are the only colors on offer at the moment. (Although if you’ve got deep pockets and want to order 18kg of filament, they’ll make any color you want!) Otherwise, their filament prints extremely well and is reasonably priced, and I’ve seen first-hand how dedicated and enthusiastic they are about their product. It’s one thing to put a blurb on a website about quality, it’s another thing entirely to invite your customers in and bathe them in it.
I know I’ve probably come across as a cheerleader in this review but I swear I’m not affiliated with them and they didn’t pay me to write this. I just had a really fantastic experience, and from now on I’m going to satisfy my filament needs with MakeShaper plastic whenever possible. I think everyone should try at least one of their spools, you won’t be disappointed.