FARGO — Because most of their projects involve proprietary information, it's not often that John Schneider can talk publicly about the work being done at Fargo 3D Printing.
But this spring, the business at 2222 Seventh Ave. N. garnered some national attention from an unlikely source. Schneider and his business partner, Jake Clark, were enlisted by Good Housekeeping to print custom cookie cutters for the magazine's April 2019 issue. The cookies were featured on the cover. Inside, readers found the recipe and a link to Fargo 3D Printing's website, where they could buy the custom bunny, chick, lamb and piglet cookie cutters.
Schneider said he wasn't sure how Good Housekeeping found them, but he expects it was because of their straightforward business name.
"Fargo 3D Printing — it's not a terribly creative name, but it works well for SEO (search engine optimization) when you're searching (online) for various things," he said.
Schneider said they sold about 1,000 cookie cutter sets in all. They also reached a whole new demographic through the project.
"We had a lot of customers named Gladys, Ethel, a few Marges in there as well. Really just an older demographic," Schneider joked in a video blog released in May on YouTube.
In all seriousness, Schneider said they enjoy a broad mix of customers.
"We have everyone from middle school students that are coming in to buy materials for their 3D printing projects. We have robotics teams around town doing the same, but I’d say the largest use is in manufacturing," he said.
In 2016, Ted Juhl, of Drayton, N.D., and Robin Weisz, of Hurdsfield, N.D., approached Fargo 3D Printing for help building a prototype for an aftermarket extender that cleans planter gauge wheels and saves on tire wear for planters and air seeders.
They brought in a concept, and Fargo 3D Printing fleshed out the design and printed a prototype of the ring that fits inside the wheel.
"It was an idea that we had for years," Juhl said. "But it was just not feasible to spend a minimum of $15,000 on a mold only to find it wasn’t quite right, so you have to do it again."
They needed to make six adjustments before they landed on the final prototype for MudRX, but at $300 a pop, Juhl said it was a bargain.
"The 3D printing concept is great for anybody who has an idea they want to test. It allows you to have a physical piece you can look at for a really reasonable price," he said.
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Evolving business model
Schneider first became interested in 3D printing while attending North Dakota State University in 2012. At the time, he said a decent 3D printer retailed at over $2,000.
Because it wasn't feasible for him to purchase one on his own, Schneider opened a makerspace where members could share equipment.
He was introduced to Clark, a Minnesota State University Moorhead grad with a background in mechanical drafting and design, at a 3D printing event at the Fargo Public Library. It wasn't long before they decided to join forces to open Fargo 3D Printing in 2014.
"We started out selling 3D printers but pivoted from that to providing more repair services. Then, we changed from doing that and added 3D-Fuel — which is the filament manufacturing. The big things we do now are custom 3D printing services and providing spare parts for 3D printers," Schneider said. "It’s been an interesting road. I don’t know that we’ve ever had two years in a row that have been exactly the same."
Fargo 3D Printing also offers regular 3D printing classes and Meetup events.
They recently celebrated five years in business and a move to a new, larger office space at 2222 Seventh Ave. N. The building is home to Fargo 3D Printing; 3D-Fuel; Meld Workshop, Schneider's custom laser cutting and engraving business; and c2renew, an independent material designer and custom compounder.
How does a 3D printer work?
Schneider explained that a 3D printer works by taking a 3D model and running it through software called a slicer.
"It does exactly what it sounds like. It takes that model and slices it into individual layers. Think of it like a CNC (computer numerical control) machine where it is cutting away material, but it’s doing it in reverse. One layer at a time," he said.
Some 3D printers employ what is essentially a really precise hot glue gun on a robot gantry, Schneider said. It lays down a layer of a material following the outline, and then another and another until the project is complete.
Others use a liquid plastic that cures when a UV light hits it, Schneider said.
"You have a vat of liquid plastic and there is a laser with a series of mirrors on galvanometers, which are just positioning that laser beam really tightly, and it’s shooting that laser up through the bottom of a clear plastic reservoir and hardening that plastic one layer at a time," he said.
The liquid plastic is more expensive, but it delivers greater detail, he added.
What are the applications?
Scheider believes 3D printing will "change the way the world works." The applications are endless. For example, 3D printing is revolutionizing the health care industry.
Fargo 3D Printing works with a company to produce what Schneider calls a "3D printed bolus" used in radiation therapy.
"They essentially 3D scan a persons face and then 3D print a mask that then allows them to very precisely direct the radiation where it needs to go," he said.
Because each mask will be different, they cannot be mass produced.
Schneider said they also have printers capable of producing implants for the dental industry.
Basically, the opportunities are endless.
"There's one customer that's developing a product. We've worked with him the whole way from when he had it drawn on a napkin and brought it in. We've been through about a dozen revisions and helped him out with product testing. Now, he's taking the 3D-printed part and is using it for his patent application," Schneider said.
He is also able to take that 3D-printed part to potential wholesalers and manufacturers.
"He can say, 'This is how the 3D-printed product is going to look and this is the price we will be able to achieve when it is injection-molded and we're making millions of them.' It's really helping to drive that idea home of what the part is," Schneider said.