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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.