Creating something from nothing: Di Labs of Spicer uses first multi-jet fusion 3D printer in the state
SPICER — A couple of weeks ago Di Labs in Spicer got a call from a company that needed a heavy-duty tool that would cut a specific size of pipe.
Within 24 hours, the three Douglass brothers, who own and operate the innovative design and manufacturing company, used their engineering skills, a dose of creativity and their new multi-jet fusion 3-dimensional printer to produce a finished product made of nylon.
An hour later it was in the mail.
The process is a game-changer for their business and the entire manufacturing realm, said Carl Douglass, president of the company that started five years ago in his garage and has expanded every 12 months with more employees, equipment and space.
Douglass and his brothers, Brian and Sean, started using the new multi-jet fusion printer a few weeks ago at their current location in Spicer.
It's the first 3D printer of its kind in Minnesota, Douglass said.
"This is where the magic happens," he said, pointing to the coffin-sized printer that has a print cartridge so large it's moved into place on wheels.
The process is called "additive manufacturing" because 3D components are "built" in the printer from the bottom up as layer after layer of nylon is added to create a product.
"It builds something from nothing," Douglass said.
The brothers, who grew up in Ohio and are all engineers, have a three-pronged business plan of creating functional prototypes, providing design support for companies and using their new multi-jet fusion printer to produce finished pieces.
"We're gearheads and we're designers," said Douglass, who is the oldest and started the company with Brian. Sean joined two years ago.
Growing up and watching their dad run his company, the brothers always thought they would eventually run a business together. They made the commitment after their father died in 2013 and they realized life was short.
Since Carl had previously moved here from Ohio for a job, his brothers left their homes and joined him here to start their business.
Much of their design work takes place around the coffee table and the pool table and in front of white boards scattered around the facility, which is a blend of eclectic collaborative work spaces and a production lab.
Working at Di Labs has "given us the opportunity to expand our minds and do something just out of this world," said Brian Douglass. "We can make anything happen."
Their work centers on responding to customers' by listening to their needs and creating the product to meet that need, he said.
Most of the products made in the multi-jet fusion printer are small, with a maximum size of 16 inches.
They can print one — or thousands — of a specific item at a fraction of the cost it would take to create a tool and die mechanism to make the items in a traditional manufacturing facility, said Carl Douglass.
The new technology is ten times faster than any previous additive manufacturing machines, he said.
In the past, it could take weeks to make a product with traditional manufacturing. Now it can take days or even hours, he said. "I think it will change the face of manufacturing," he said.
Being able to deliver products to customers on such a short turnaround time is "huge," said Sean Douglass. "It's just exciting to think about all the avenues that we have."
Although they are experiencing business growth now, there have been challenges along the way.
Working together as a family keeps them motivated to work through those challenges, said Brian Douglass. "Lots of grit," he said. "There's no giving up."
The brothers expect to expand again sometime next year, which will likely mean a move to a new location somewhere in the county. They're considering technology that will allow them to print 3D items made of metal, including aluminum and stainless steel.
Carl Douglass said they currently work with a number of local businesses, but many are not aware of the new technology that's now available here.
Di Labs is hosting an event starting at 5 p.m. Thursday for area businesses and manufacturers to see how the new equipment works at their facility, 6333, 113th Ave. NE, Spicer.