DETROIT — When Matt Hlavin took over Thogus Products Co. in 2008, he had his eye on changing the company’s direction. At the time the company manufactured custom injection molded products out of a facility in Avon Lake, Ohio.
A third-generation CEO — his grandfather founded the company as a tool-and-die business in the 1950s — Hlavin expanded Thogus into a family of companies with a range of specialties including medical and additive manufacturing.
He discussed the evolution of Rapid Prototype + Manufacturing Inc., which launched as an offshoot of Thogus and is now its own company, at the Rapid 2014 Conference and Exhibition, held June 9-12 in Detroit.
Hlavin credits RP+M’s roots in injection molding for helping give the company an edge in additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing.
“We’re the first company in the world to really integrate traditional manufacturing with additive manufacturing and software,” he said at the show, adding that he’s inspired by the Silicon Valley culture of technology-driven innovation.
“It’s about a willingness to get on the edge, it’s a willingness to fail and learn from failure, celebrate success,” he said. “Why can’t we create that here, for manufacturing in the Midwest?”
Branching into additive manufacturing was a natural extension of Thogus’s work in injection molding, said Chief Technology Officer Anthony Hughes, who joined RP+M in 2012.
“It sort of grew out of a need that was developing in the industry around people wanting to see their parts real quick. So it was prototyping, it was tooling development … and so it was a nice segue for the business,” he said. “Because there was a deep knowledge around process and manufacturing from injection molding, we wanted to apply those same principles to additive [manufacturing].”
Many of the same materials are used in both additive manufacturing and injection molding, Hughes added.
“How does the material behave when you heat it, stretch it, push it through a sprue, shoot it into a mold — all that sort of process work helps us establish a baseline of what the material is going to do when it’s in a [3-D printing] machine getting heated and extruded out through a nozzle. … Even though they’re separate technologies, the fact that we understand that actually helps us do the material development and innovation,” he said
RP+M uses materials from Stratasys Ltd., a major supplier of 3-D printing machines and materials, and is working with the company to develop new materials, Hughes said. At the Rapid show, the company displayed a 3-D printed injection mold made with Stratasys Digital ABS material.
Though a 3-D printed ABS mold won’t last as long as an aluminum or steel mold — about 100 to 1,000 shots, Hughes said it saves time and money for short-run production.
“We can get to real materials faster, prove our designs, it helps us design the tool better,” Hughes said.
Having that capability and the ability to produce prototypes quickly gives RP+M more flexibility in their design process. In addition to working with polymers, RP+M has added metals capabilities and is also expanding into ceramics. The company has grown from an initial two employees to a staff of 23.
Although 3-D printing has exploded in popularity over the past few years due to the introduction of desktop printers like the MakerBot, many in the manufacturing industry still have to be taught how they can use the technology in their business, Hlavin said.
“The media has really hyped it because of the whole MakerBot revolution. … It’s great, because it brought attention to it, but you’re not going to just buy one and use it to print everything,” Hlavin said. “You have to know how to drive it.”