Until you can reach into a computer screen and pull out a working model, John Calhoun may have the next best thing.
Calhoun is president of xlaFORM, a Charlotte company that specializes in high speed and high performance rapid prototyping. If that sounds technical, think of it this way: xlaFORM takes a computer-aided design and prints a three-dimensional part – layering and linking successive cross sections – that's ready to use in equipment.
A Florida native, Calhoun moved to the Charlotte region in 2000 and worked with the Robert Yates Racing team, designing components for valve trains. There, he “became really passionate about rapid prototyping technology,” in which he could design a part, make it on another machine and see if it worked.
Calhoun, now 39, left the team in 2004 and worked with a company that resold 3D printers. While such printers produce full-color models quickly and inexpensively, Calhoun said, there was no real strength to the models. He wanted to find a way to use 3D printing to produce the same ready-to-use parts as million-dollar rapid prototyping.
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“I saw an opening to make it better,” he said.
Along with making parts, xlaFORM has found a big customer in Figure Prints, which recently added a second infusion system to make more “World of Warcraft” figurines, derived from the popular online role-playing game. As for future growth, Calhoun said xlaFORM is working on medical parts, such as custom-fitted plates and implants.
Founded in 2006, xlaFORM (pronounced accel-a-form) now has eight employees and is nearing $1 million in total sales since it started production, said Calhoun, who lives near Cramerton with his wife and three children. The company's main location is off Sam Wilson Road is western Mecklenburg County, and resin is made at a facility in Salisbury.
Comments have been edited for brevity and clarity
Q: Where did the idea for your business come from?
To this point, 3D printing had pretty much been excluded from rapid manufacturing disciplines due to low part strength and no real way to automate the process of curing or hardening the part after it is printed in a plaster-like powder.
I was blessed in meeting some really smart people. A chemist, plastics engineer and a product distributor all with the experience and knowledge necessary to help me get this business launched.
Q: Why did you think you could start your own business?
I really felt there was going to be a huge demand to increase capabilities of parts created on 3D printers. According to industry experts, the average yearly growth in 3D printer sales from 1996 through 2007 was 40 percent.
Q: What did it take to get this effort going?
We had a team of people – each knowing his strength and contributing everything he could. Financially, there was about $150,000 in research and development, equipment, marketing, legal and salaries.
Q: How did you reach your first customers? Who are your oldest and biggest customers?
Knowing the market and customers of 3D printing helped us jumpstart the business. Spirax Sarco of Blythewood, S.C., is one of our oldest customers. Using our product has assisted in hundreds of thousands of dollars in new business by creating models of their complex steam valve geometry for shows and sales calls.
Q: What has been the biggest challenge?
Expanding global markets along with global sales of 3D printers requires new certifications on equipment, costly and time-consuming travel, and partners.
Q: What has been the biggest surprise?
That a company using this technology for rapid manufacturing of figurines for a video game is our biggest customer so far.
Q: How much growth potential is there for your company?
Unlimited. Soon every FedEx Kinko's could have a 3D printer, so someone can get a 3D model of their kids, their pet or even a new house made quickly and cheaply. It will eventually become as common as a 2D printer. Eventually every home will have 3D printing technology. Think replacement parts, toys, custom anything.
Q: What advice would you give to other people starting a business?
Do your research, build a team and go after it.