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North Portland manufacturer bets half a million dollars on a large format 3D printer hoping to kickstart its trade show business post-pandemic.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE  - Technical designer Tyler Smith who works at Figure Plant in North Portland, with the $500,000 large format 3D printer the company acquired in May. Smith says it will make outputting one-off objects with organic forms much quicker than carving them from Styrofoam or plywood. The gel comes in five gallon buckets, seen here at rear.

There are only two ultra-large-format 3D printers in the United States.

One of these printers is in Las Vegas and is mostly used to print things that go in the giant aquariums — like sunken ships and plastic coral — in casinos and hotels. The other printer is in North Portland at Figure Plant, a design and manufacturing company where they can already make anything but want to make it faster and cleaner.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE  - The Massivit 5000 3D printer outputs objects from a Computer Assisted Design file rapidly. An ultarviolet light hardens the gel as soon as it is laid down by the printer head or nozzle. Here the machine works on the legs of a moose. Note the flat 'brims' on the glass floor which give it stability while it is being printed and are trimmed off later.

Figure Plant in Portland's Kenton neighborhood makes a lot of large displays for special events. Anyone who saw the 22-feet-high Pabst Blue Ribbon unicorn statue at Waterfront Park when Duran Duran played Portland in 2016 will know Figure Plant's work: big, eye-catching logos that come to life. It's the kind of stuff that wows crowds for a week, then gets mothballed or junked.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE  - Figure Plant makes lots of promotional items, such as the $1,000 shoe box for a big athletic apparel company, and this CB Radio for a tie-in between T-Mobile and the TV show Stranger Things.

The unicorn went on to tour a few other cities before being bought by someone else who keeps it as a sculpture, but it became a symbol of waste. The unicorn was carved from Styrofoam and covered in a hard epoxy finish, and painted. As Figure Plant technical designer Tyler Smith explained to the Business Tribune recently, the unicorn looked great, but while carving objects from Styrofoam using a three-axis router is accurate, it's also wasteful. Sometimes as much as 50% of the material is carved away as waste.

"In the production of that, we generated a unicorn's worth of trash along with the unicorn," he said.

PHOTO: TYLER SMITH - Tyler Smith at Figure Plant test-printed this moose in about two hours. The chin support is the only way to print parts that would otherwise hang in the air.

The router can only handle pieces about 6 inches long, and many recyclers won't take Styrofoam anymore, and it is terrible for the environment. That's why the Israeli-made Massivit 5000 caught the eye of Figure Plant founder and CEO David Fredrickson.

Big plastic

The Massivit 5000 rapidly prints objects from a Computer Assisted Design file in a way that serves big clients who are in a hurry. On a recent May afternoon, Smith set it running, making a moose and a model of Mount Hood. Both pieces, about a foot high, were done in two hours.

Unlike a desktop 3D printer which melts plastic cable that quickly cools and turns solid, the large-format machine squirts gel from a nozzle, and a bright ultraviolet light hardens it in a fraction of a second. The object is placed on a glass shelf which moves up and down as the two printer heads work. Sometimes the heads retreat to the corner to clean themselves off.

Although the machine had been at Figure Plant for four weeks, it took two weeks for a Massivit technician to set it up before Smith could get his hands on it. Smith started by making test shapes. One looked like a shoebox with no lid. (No surprise really, since Figure Plant has made a $1,000 presentation shoebox for a certain athletic footwear client). The shape is challenging because the large flat base is built in mid-air and would need support if it were too big.

PMG: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Tyle Smith opens a tub of light-reactive gel for the Massivit 5000 large-format 3D printer. As usual, the printer manufacturer gets you on the ink, so Figure Plant opts for the $40,000 a year all-you-can-print option.

For support, the machine lays down pools of plastic that spread out and become brims (like those on a hat) upon which the printer can build the rest of the shape. The moose has one brim for each leg. It also has a "rib," plus a chin and head support, as does the Mount Hood object. All of this extra material is trimmed off later.

The printer is the size of a walk-in closet and has tinted glass doors, with a control panel screen on one side and a monitor showing three live shots of the interior on the other. One side panel hides a Dell Windows 10 computer that runs the printer, the other hides two buckets of gel.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE  - Tyler Smith with a 3D printed model of Mt Hood. The machine lays down pools of plastic that spread out and become the brims, like brims of a hat, on to which the rest of the shape can be built up. The moose has one brim for each leg. It also has a 'rib' plus a chin and head support, as does the Mt Hood object. All of this is trimmed off later.

Recent work for "a large tech company," which cannot be named, featured an array of connected appliances, including a round robot vacuum. Technical Designer Tyler Smith and his colleagues are currently stripping down a vintage Airstream trailer and fitting it out as a food cart for Pine State Biscuits, and turning a plain, boxy trailer into a mobile showroom for the electric vehicle nonprofit Forth.

XXL

One benefit of a large format printer is that it can make things in sections that can be glued together to create something larger. In years past, Smith has made plenty of small objects using the translucent, white plastic of desktop 3D printers, lit internally by LEDs.

"We make signage for any kind of restaurant or business, like an ice cream cone that hangs on the wall, with lights. It's called a pop display." (Fredrickson's first-ever piece still sits in the Figure Plant office, a 12-foot-long wooden spoon he carved himself in his garage.)

Could Smith make a giant piece of fried chicken on a waffle for Pine State Biscuits? "Yes," he says without hesitating, estimating it would cost about $4,000 from design to delivery.

That ability to make organic shapes is the attraction of the Massivit for Figure Plant. Things with straight lines are still better cut from plywood or plastic. Smith has been testing the Massivit's settings by making a mock-up of the round tuning knob of an old 1960s TV.

He was impressed with the fidelity of the output. With polishing or a coated finish, it could look close to the real thing. That is, close to injection molding. It wouldn't be cost-effective to have one made by injection molding because of the set-up costs. That is for mass production. For one-offs, 3D printing is just fine.

PHOTO: TYLER SMITH - The test moose: rough edges will be sanded down or coated with a smooth finish such as epoxy. Rapidly printing large, organic forms is a strength of the Massivit 5000 that Figure Plant hopes to exploit to get more work making booths for trade shows as the conference industry comes back after COVID-19.

The printer has two types of gel, one thicker than the other for printing in lower resolution. The gel comes in five-gallon buckets inside the machine, with pneumatic rams to keep the pressure constant as it is forced through the pipe and nozzle. Spare buckets are kept around the back of the machine. Then, like most printers, the manufacturers get you on the ink. Smith says the machine cost around half a million dollars, but they pay another $40,000 for the "all you can print" level of ink supplies.

Hands on

Smith has been with the firm for four and a half years. He got his start in set building for a regional theater, so he is familiar with deadlines. In the trade show world, he explains, creative decisions are often left until the last minute. Then the rush is on to fabricate and ship what the client wants. As a result, it's common for his colleagues to work over the holidays as companies scramble to get their act together for the Consumer Electronics Show in early January.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE  - Technical Designer Tyler Smith at Figure Plant's office in Kenton, North Portland, surrounded by some of the promotional objects the company has made.

Figure Plant does white label work for a company called Sparks, which does the design then outsources production. They know of one smaller model printer in Los Angeles, but with the other 500 tied up doing fish tanks, Smith says they hope to grab market share when it comes to large format additive printing.

There's still no substitute for a skilled human sculptor.

"Oftentimes, the organizations that we work with have the money, but they don't have their ideas soon enough," said Smith. "A typical lifespan of a project with us, from the moment we hear about it, is maybe five or six weeks. Two weeks of that'll just be estimating, contracting, getting it all together. And then we do very rapid production. A lot of times they have ideas that are just not achievable because of the complexity of it and the organic nature of it. It takes an incredible amount of talent to be able to do a sculpted thing."

Figure Plant

Design and manufacturing.

Where: 8411 N. Denver Ave. Portland

Phone: 503-289-2070

Online: figureplant.com

IG: @figureplant

PMG: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Cameras show what's going on inside the Massivit 5000 3D printer. Cameras on the nozzles tell the machine when the nozzle is caked and needs cleaning.

Thinking big

Figure Plant started looking into the large format 3D printing 18 months ago. They did a profit and loss evaluation and listed all the companies in the United States that have additive printers. "If somebody else in Portland already had one, that would have weighed heavily against the decision," said Smith. "We figured out that the closest 5000 was in Las Vegas, and the closest other machine was in Los Angeles. We're in the Pacific Northwest, which gives us the big area to work with."

There is a Massivit 10000, but that is used in the auto industry to make large prototypes, such as bumpers. The beauty of owning your printer is the ability to do one-off jobs, especially of shapes with complicated lines and curves. Smith explains the human-robot interface:

"Tesla, GM and Ford use robotic spray guns for painting their cars, but that's because it's the same shape every time. So that programming time is well worth it. Do it once, and you're set up for forever. We very, very seldom make the same thing twice. The "figure" part of Figure Plant is that we're figuring out new ways to do whatever anybody's idea is. It's that always-changing thing that doesn't really lend itself to automation."


Joseph Gallivan
Reporter, The Business Tribune
971-204-7874
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