Walking into the Thogus products plant in its quiet business park on the west side of Cleveland, one finds what appears to be a typical – albeit thriving – plastic molding shop, filled with all the typical tools of the trade.
Thogus has been in business here for over 60 years, carving out a neat plastic market since it opened in 1950. Today's shop, while more automated and certainly cleaner and more efficient that it was in those early days, at first glance appears to reflect its long history of plastic molding.
That is, until you turn a corner into rp+m's additive manufacturing headquarters, occupying a quiet room in the factory, closed off from the noise and business of Thogus' traditional works.
The rp+m (rapid prototyping and manufacturing) space is jammed full, wall-to-wall, with some of the most advanced 3-D printing equipment available – giant industrial Stratasys FDM machines and Objet's detailed inkjet printers, along with selective laser sinterers, stereolithography machines, and direct laser sintering and polyjet equipment.
It is one of the most eclectic and impressive mixes of 3-D printing gear in the region, and has brought the company to the absolute forefront of the burgeoning print-on-demand market.
And it's only the beginning.
"My goal is to own every machine available on the market," Thogus President, Matt Hlavin, explained. "I want to have the capability to print anything here. I want to print everything."
Hlavin is prone to this kind of bold sentiment; it seems to reflect the find of trailblazing certainty that has allowed him to dismantle his grandfather's business after taking control in 2008 and rebuilding it to his own design – a process that has resulted in over 400% growth, even through the recession.
As Hlavin explains it, additive manufacturing, and the engineering capabilities it requires, has played a central role in that growth.
The Road to 3-D
When Hlavin took over the family business, it was resting at a precarious balance.
"We grew the business all the way through the 1990s primarily on the back of automotive," he said. "The big three automakers made up about 56% of our company – but when the industry changed in 1996 with the QS certification, my grandfather fired them all."
Since then, he said, the company has been on a journey to redefine itself. And that's where he came into the picture.
"I began looking at the industry from the material supplier to the processor, from the processor to the customer, from the customer to their customers," he explained. "And it's the gap in between those is where we started to find ourselves."
That investigation, he recalled, led to two discoveries: first, there was an emerging trend among polymer manufacturers pushing plastic replacements for metals and traditional manufacturing processes; second, there was a need in the industry for low volume, customized parts.
Combined, he said, those two points led to one solution: 3-D printing.
"I'd been tracking the 3-D printing industry for over 10 years, I say where it was going, where I was taking the company and I saw where they met," Hlavin explained. "So I bought our first machine."
The first purchase was a big one – a top of the line Fortus 400 FDM machine from Stratasys.
At that point, the lead time for the machines was about a month – far too long for Hlavin to wait. So he arranged for Stratasys to print any parts he might need in the meantime.
Hlavin put them to work immediately.
Thogus was in the midst of a bid for plastic bottle job and was set to go about it in the traditional method – submitting a price quote, a few specs and a sample of the plastics to be used. Instead, Hlavin decided to put 3-D printing to the test.
"We had Stratasys print the part the way the company designed it, but the design didn't work," he said.
This is a common problem for new designs, he explained, but one that usually isn't discovered until long after the deal has been signed. Hlavin decided to capitalize on that early discovery.
"Since we found the problem and we had the engineering staff, we re-designed the part, printed a prototype and brought it to the meeting," he said. "20 minutes later, we got a call from the company, freaking out. They'd never seen anything like it."
A week after that, the deal was signed, bringing in $600,000 before the first machine was even assembled.
Hlavin called Stratasys the next day and ordered a second Fortus.
From Modeling to Manufacturing
As Hlavin began collecting printers and engineers for his new additive-driven process, he opened the rapid prototyping shop up to his employees to experiment and print tools for the shop. Anything they could design that helped them do their jobs better, he said, was free to print.
Soon custom safety guards and 5s workstations, even specialized tools for their robots began popping up on machines across the factory. Hlavin even ordered a unique mix of bright yellow safety plastic for the guards.
The benefit of these tools added up pretty quickly.
In that first year, Hlavin said, those 3-D printed tools were saving the company $150,000 from the expensive custom metal pieces that would have been ordered in their place – not to mention the time saved by printing them in house.
And that sparked a new idea.
"I thought, if I need these parts, if they benefit my business, then so do the other 8,000 molders. So do machine shops. So do manufacturing companies.
And that was when rp+m was born.
rp+m branched off from Thogus as an independent company in 2011 under Hlavin's leadership and is on pace to become what he sees as "the Kinkos of parts" – an all purpose manufacturer of diverse pieces and assemblies to suit a full range of industries.
And this matched with the broad experience and expertise of Thogus, he said, will be the driver of his expanding enterprise in the future.
"We're going to new clients now, we're selling engineering services, rapid prototyping and finished, customized products," he said.
"This is much more than just prototyping. There's really something here."