A small family-run firm in Detroit had created specialized tools and gadgets. These tools cut and shaped metal in automotive industries.

The 3D printers they produce offered a varied and growing list of products — hearing aids, dental crowns, custom jewelry, skin grafts, automotive parts, and even characters used in SciFi and fantasy movies.

edentEnvisionTEC started out small and has become on of the biggest 3D printing industries worldwide, they sell into the commercial and industrial markets only, not to the consumer 3D market as that has had its problems.

Siblani is an example of the next generation of Southeast Michigan entrepreneurs, who is the holder of some 120 patents. They harness the latest technology to develop a world-class business that remain under the radar in terms of public recognition.

“We continue to grow,” Siblani said last week at his headquarters. “In the last 18 months, we’ve doubled our manufacturing in California, we’ve doubled our manufacturing in Germany, we’ve doubled our number of people here in this building, and I think pretty soon we’re going to be out of space here. So it’s a very flourishing and growing business and we’re very happy the way it’s been going.”

Todd Grimm (an Edgewood, Ky.-based industry consultant) said EnvisionTEC has made progress in multiple areas, but this is still a growing field that will continue to mature.

“It has moved beyond an entrepreneurial business style to become a sound, established player in the 3D printing market,” he said.

3D printing is also associated with other meanings – additive manufacturing, rapid prototyping, desktop manufacturing, and on-demand manufacturing.

EC3000These refer to a process that’s been developed over 20 years or so, the 3D printers lay down a thin layer of particular material (often a resinous liquid or filament), the layers go according to a digital 3D image file and gradually build the product.

The process of 3D printing has the ability to produce anything from gadgets for hobbyists to precision parts for jet fighters. Sometimes a complete printed product is ready to use, and often the output is used to create a mold into which other materials are poured into to produce the final result.

There are many advantages 3D printing holds over the older methods of machining parts and products like hearing aids and dental crowns.

Speed is one advantage for any industry looking at 3D technologies.

A 3D printer in a dentist’s office can produce a dental crown while the patient waits, rather than the dentist sending it out a rubberized mold to a shop. The original methods to receive the finished crown took a week or more.

EnvisionTEC’s headquarters is in Dearborn and the expert technicians test new materials regularly which could be used in various other products.

EnvisionTEC has a staff training center that trains customers on the use of their machines, a range of printers regularly manufacture prototypes that ultimately work their way into general production.

Siblani (Born in Lebanon) came to metro Detroit as a teen and studied engineering at Lawrence Technological University and Wayne State University. He began working with silk-screen printing and started developing a process so colours wouldn’t blur. Then he went to work for an early 3D printer company and pitched its benefits to automakers.

A key moment came in 1993.

“I went to GM and said, ‘You know that transmission case that takes you 18 weeks by hand to do? I can do it in 72 hours.’ They said, ‘No way.’ I said, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ Seventy-two hours later, everybody that is anybody at General Motors in design was standing there as I took out the part. That was my first install.”

e-shell-300-series-materialHe had then launched EnvisionTEC a few years following, the name was chosen to capture the sense of a forward-looking technology.

EnvisionTEC started to develop in the custom jewelry market in 2003.

Originally a jewellery designer would create elaborate pieces by hand-crafting designs in wax with little freedom to experiment, and once the carving was done, the wax model would be used to cast the finished jewellery. Within three years, Siblani’s much-faster 3D printers were used throughout the jewellery industry to create custom designs in a plastic form.

“We pretty much became like the Coca-Cola if you want a high precision 3D printer,” he said.

Other fields followed — hearing aids in 2005, and then in 2008 he entered the market for dental crowns. Dentists who used to order crowns from labs in China now could have one of Siblani’s printers in their own offices.

Printing carbon fiber products for the aerospace industry is the firm’s newest experiment – a process that no one has ever done before.

EnvisionTEC now makes and sells about 40 different 3D printers around the world.

EnvisionTec does not release revenue or profit figures as they are a privately owned company. But the company itself does rank third in the industry and is now behind two publicly held companies – Stratasys, which is based in Minneapolis and Rehovot, Israel, and 3D Systems, based on Rock Hill, S.C. Those two companies have reported annual sales in the range of several hundred million dollars.

Variety in product lines has definately paid off, in the middle of the Great Recession (2008-09 when companies everywhere were shrinking) Siblani continued to hire new workers.

“We’re growing at a very healthy rate,” he said this month. “We don’t have a cyclical business. We operate in 12 different verticals, in the medical space, consumer products, hearing aids, dental, sporting goods. We have so many verticals that we operate in that we can never take more than a 10% hit at any time. So we’re very stable and we’re constantly growing.”

In automotive manufacturing industry the potential of 3D printing was amongst the topics creating a buzz with executives attending an automotive conference in Traverse City earlier this month.

Former Ford CEO and longtime former Boeing executive Alan Mulally also said 3D printing has the potential to do things for manufacturing that were once unthinkable. Mulally, who retired as CEO of Ford in 2014, is now on the boards of tech giant Google and Carbon 3D in Redwood City, Calif.

“That we could actually make the parts off of the digital data set that is in the cloud and not have to have all of the tooling? So that’s been like just a dream come true to help (Carbon 3D) with that.”

And Ian Simmons, vice president of business development for parts supplier Magna, said 3D printing could be used in the future when it needs to produce a smaller volume of parts and in urgent manufacturing situations.

“If you’ve got a unique requirement for a part … we look at can we do that live?” he said. “Can we do that on the plant floor? And then basically we can use that immediately?”

Thanks to companies like EnvisionTEC, the answers are “yes.”

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