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Most Asked Question

February 20, 2011

Filed under: additive manufacturing — Terry Wohlers @ 09:22

2011 marks our company’s 25th year in business. Over this quarter of a century, I’ve been asked many questions about the company and its origin. The most asked question: How did I get started in additive manufacturing?

I began the company in November 1986 after being at Colorado State University for several years as an instructor and research associate. About half of my time was dedicated to teaching CAD and related subjects and the other half was research. This experience provided the foundation needed to launch a company, which focused on consulting, publishing, and hands-on CAD training, in its early years.

In 1987, I read a short article written by Dr. Joel Orr, a consultant and futurist for which I have a great deal of respect. The article introduced stereolithography from 3D Systems. I thought, wow, if this is possible, it could be the most important invention since the development of CAD itself. Putting the two together could provide an incredibly powerful solution to product development. I saw the potential of being able to create a design and then print it quickly, something we now take for granted.

In April 1989, I chaired a conference session titled “3D Printing and Plotting” as part of the National Computer Graphics Association (NCGA) annual conference and exposition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. We had speakers from 3D Systems, DuPont, Helisys (then Hydronetics), and a few other companies. The standing-room only crowd was fascinated by the technology. At the end, one individual in attendance introduced himself to me as an employee of the world’s largest manufacturer of custom-fit in-the-ear hearing aids. He told me that I could expect to hear from him soon.

A short time later, he invited me to visit his company and asked if I would present on the subject of additive manufacturing (then called rapid prototyping) and laser scanning technologies to the top management of the company. Fortunately, I had dabbled a bit with 3D scanning and reverse engineering, but it was all very new back then. The goal: to manufacture hearing aid shells using AM technology. Long story short, I signed a two-year consulting contract with the company. My role was to track the new developments in AM and send monthly reports in the context of hearing aid manufacturing. Also, I made periodic trips to meet with company management.

This company sponsored me to learn as much as possible about additive manufacturing, laser scanning, and special software tools. I attended industry events, read everything I could find on these subjects, and talked with those who knew more than me. I was incredibly happy about the work because I had already started doing some of these things, but now I was being paid handsomely to do it. We produced functional hearing aids using stereolithography and made shells using fused deposition modeling, laminated object manufacturing, laser sintering, and other AM processes. While working for this company on a consulting basis—four years altogether—I met many people at other organizations who also hired me to provide consulting assistance. This is what led to the more than 170 client organizations from 23 countries that we list at our website.

Apollo 13

February 3, 2011

Filed under: event — Terry Wohlers @ 15:37

“Houston, we have a problem,” was said 40 years ago and again on January 24, 2011 by Jim Lovell, the astronaut who made the line famous. Lovell, commander of Apollo 13, spoke at SolidWorks World 2011 in San Antonio, Texas. Gene Kranz, former flight director at NASA Mission Control, presented with Lovell as they took the audience of 5,000 back to April 1970. Kranz and his team were instrumental in bringing home Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise after an oxygen tank exploded and severely damaged the spacecraft’s electrical system.

The two legendary figures had my attention as they told the story of what happened to the Apollo 13 mission. Even though I knew it had a happy ending, it was very special to hear the story with such vivid detail from the two who were most responsible for how it would conclude. Lovell, now 82, shared the first part and then Kranz jumped in. And then it went back to Lovell and again to Kranz. Their words and presence gripped my attention from start to finish.

Kranz, 77, still carries a look that is as tough as nails. I had a chance to meet and speak with him after a press conference that SolidWorks organized. I told him that I had the privilege of also meeting the late Alan Shepard. Kranz agreed with Shepard that the 1995 film titled Apollo 13 was presented accurately, although it left out technical detail, discussion, and debate that went on behind the scenes.

It was an opportunity of a lifetime to hear Lovell and Kranz. Thanks to SolidWorks for bringing them to the event to share their moving story that occurred at a time when so many Americans were fascinated by the space program. NASA served as inspiration that led many to engineering and related fields. Comments by Lovell at the press conference suggested that he was not entirely happy with the current direction of NASA. Hopefully, the space agency will get back on track and help create another generation of Americans whose passion is science and engineering.