If you are a small business and you want to add 3D printing to your prototyping or manufacturing process, you have options:
- Design services such as ShapeWays, i.Materialise, and Sculpteo that can print your projects in just about any material.
- Local firms or enthusiasts that can print your design for you.
- Desktop 3D printers from MakerBot, Cube Systems, Ultimaker, etc.
Each involves compromising time, cost and control. No can do? The team at Acuity Designs has designed the Helix printer just for you. We had a chance to talk to Acuity co-Founder Ben Malouf about their product, their company, and how they got started.
Practical 3DP: What does Acuity Designs do?
Acuity Design: We started as a product design and development firm, helping people and companies design, engineer, and prototype new products. Products we worked on ranged from motorcycle components, to factory automation components, to high-end earthworm composting bins. Since July, however, we’ve been working full time on development of Helix.
P3DP: Who needs a Helix printer?
AD: Helix is a great option for any business or organization that wants to benefit from additive manufacturing. Our first customers have been other product engineering firms like us, a high school, and the University of Montana. We are also talking with several architectural firms and manufacturing companies. All are recognizing how bringing a 3d printer into their organization can transform the way they operate. Engineers and manufacturers can save money and attract new customers. Architects can win more projects with physical models of their designs. Schools have another tool for engaging and inspiring their students.
P3DP: Where can we get it?
AD: Helix is currently available on Kickstarter for a great introductory price. The campaign ends on November 21, so hurry! After the Kickstarter ends you can place a pre-order for Helix on our website helix-3d.com
P3DP: How much does it cost?
AD: MSRP for Helix is $6850. On Kickstarter it’s available for as little as $4750. Helix uses non-proprietary materials that average just $40 per kilogram vs. $200-400 for microchipped cartridges used by the so-called professional machines. Helix’s capability makes it more expensive than consumer level printers like Makerbot and Afinia, but far more affordable than any comparable machines offered by Stratasys or 3D Systems.
P3DP: Tell us more about those capabilities!
AD: The Helix printer has an all-metal chassis and is designed to operate for around 200 hours without maintenance. It has dual extruders with Bowden drive for faster printing, a large build volume, and enclosed+heated build platform. Our software has calibration profiles for a number of different types of materials. All of this helps keep small businesses focused on making their designs, instead of fiddling with the printer settings.
P3DP: What is your background?
AD: I was born and raised here in the Missoula, Montana area. I got into 3D printing while completing my MFA in Integrated Digital Media at The University of Montana and I also have a BFA in Ceramics. So my introduction to 3D printing was definitely based around artistic application of the technology. My partners, on the other hand, all have mechanical engineering degrees along with masters degrees in education and business, so together we have an extremely well rounded and qualified team.
P3DP: How has Montana’s startup ecosystem helped Acuity?
AD: Startup ecosystem? Just kidding, Montana actually does have a vibrant, if small, community of like-minded folks. We know a lot of talented web and marketing gurus who have made spreading the word about Helix a lot easier. Events like Startup Weekend and BarCamp have put us in touch with the right folks also. The cool thing about starting up here is that local enthusiasm is easy to come by and there are tons of underemployed smart people. The tough part is that investment capital is hard to come by.
P3DP: What’s next for Acuity?
AD: We don’t want to stop innovating. Helix was a great entry point for us because it’s the print that we wanted. Next we want to develop machines for specific markets. We also want to dig into new and different additive manufacturing technologies like selective laser sintering. In the nearer term, we will be feeding every new material we can to Helix to push the ever expanding library of print materials to the professional level.
P3DP: What’s the coolest thing you’ve been able to do with the Helix printer?
AD: Dual material printing is awesome. Being able to print soluble supports for models that would otherwise be unprintable is really exciting. It’s also just fun to print things bigger. Our largest print prior to Helix had a build volume of 432 cubic-inches. Helix’s volume is about 1728 cubic-inches which opens up so many new possibilities for functional and artistic prints.
P3DP: Where will Acuity have the biggest impact?
AD: We hope we can foster wider adoption of 3D printing in small businesses. That’s where additive manufacturing truly starts to be disruptive. Before Helix small businesses have either had to settle for consumer grade machines or take out loans to afford expensive machines that lock them into huge yearly consumable and service costs. As a result, most small businesses have yet to adopt 3d printing, despite the benefits it offers. If we can start to change that, we’ll have succeeded.
P3DP: How does your work make 3D printing more practical or usable?
AD: Helix is a no-compromises machine. It’s designed to run day-in and day-out reliably, with more material options for less money. Helix doesn’t reinvent the FFF wheel, it just makes it better in every way we knew how.
P3DP: What are you looking forward to being able to print someday?
AD: A new liver!
P3DP: What is the coolest thing you’ve ever seen printed?
AD: All the inexpensive printed prosthetics being reported on in the news are so inspiring. Personally, I’ve been blown away by everything I’ve printed in taulman t-glase filament. It’s easy to print with, doesn’t warp, is super tough, and looks amazing.
P3DP: What is needed to make 3D printing easily usable by everyone?
AD: Software. First, CAD and or scanning needs to be cheaper and more accessible. They’ve taken huge strides, but still have a long way to go. Secondly, getting those models to the printer needs to be simpler and more reliable. Slicers have improved as well but they still require way too much interaction and knowledge on the part of the user. Eventually, we’d love to be able to contribute to the advancement of additive manufacturing software by teaming up with software developers, but for now, hardware is what we’re best at.
P3DP: What materials would you like to print with one day that you cannot today? What would you build with it?
AD: Metals for sure. Right now metal printing is insanely expensive. When that changes control over manufacturing will truly be democratized.
P3DP: What is some of the interesting research that you are following in the 3DP space?
AD: We’re very interested in how we can contribute to the field of “industrial forging.” By rapidly printing solid approximations of parts with large nozzles and then machining the resulting parts, you can save tons of time and money vs. machining from larger blocks of material. Helix should be a perfect machine for contributing to this field.
Acuity Designs is an engineering firm that produces the Helix 3D printer, for architects and engineers needing reliability and versatility. You can find more information about Acuity Designs on their website, Facebook, and Kickstarter.