Industry 4.0

Structur3D’s “factory of the future” offers customizable, hands-on 3D printing opportunities

By Breanna Mroczek

A few years before 3D printing became a popular hobby, chemical engineering PhD candidate Andrew Finkle was developing new materials for traditional 3D printing within professional industries. While attending a local meetup in Kitchener, Ontario for 3D printing enthusiasts, he met Charles Mire who had just completed his PhD in a very similar field. 

“We chatted about our ideas and thought there was a gap in the market for printing liquid materials,” Finkle explains. “There were a lot of technologies for plastic, and technologies for metal were starting to emerge, but we saw a need for people to be able print their own custom liquid materials.” The ability to print from liquid materials would provide industry with more options for prototyping and manufacturing, and in the emerging hobbyist market the demand for printing edible materials was increasingly popular.

With a desire to be “disruptors of the status quo,” the two developed an extruder head for 3D printers that made it possible to 3D print with liquid materials. The product was first offered through a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2014 that reached its $30,000 goal in under 24 hours. Ever since then, Finkle and Mire have offered some iteration of the product through their Kitchener-based company, Structur3D, where Mire serves as co-founder and CEO and Finkle serves as co-founder and CTO.

With plastics, metals, and liquids covered by the 3D printing market, the two then turned their attention to creating something that could print rubber and silicone and be used for rapid prototyping and industrial applications. Unlike plastic, rubber and silicone remains in a soft, malleable state longer, which poses challenges for 3D printing to retain its shape and get clean surfaces.

“There were a few competitors on the market who were all approaching it from the same angle: make a better 3D printer,” Finkle says. “But we took a step back and realized that we could add another product to the additive manufacturing technology stack, which was the injector. The idea was that you could 3D print a mold using a high-quality 3D printer, and then you just simply fill that mold with our desktop injection molder.” The result: the Inj3ctor, a desktop injection molding platform for individual and professional use that can be used to fabricate goods from a variety of high-quality materials.

“A lot of production-grade rubbers that are used in consumer products, and the aerospace and automotive industries, require proper mixing of two or more materials at precise ratios at certain rates,” Finkle says. “With Inj3ctor, we developed a control system that can do the proper dispensing and mixing to fill these molds. And it’s all programmable. It allows the automation of this process, which traditionally has been a very manual process. It also allows much improved detail of what can be molded.”

Finkle and Mire started demonstrating the Inj3ctor at trade shows in 2019, and collaborated with Stanley Black & Decker for feedback about how to use it for the manufacturing of tools. COVID-19 paused production in March 2020, but with the world on hold they spent more time perfecting the product, opening up new applications, and ensuring that it met all of the technical needs of their early customers. Even with challenges posed by COVID-19, Structur3D was able to ship the Inj3ctor to its first customers in late 2020. 

“Many of our first customers are starting to explore industrial applications, as well as some higher end prototyping,” Finkle says. “One of the most popular uses for the Inj3ctor so far is manufacturing medical devices. Because silicone and rubbers are very soft, and 3D printing allows individual customization, the device can be used to create tools for students to practice surgery, and for customized medical devices.” Finkle adds that using the Inj3ctor allows clients to develop prototypes in-house without sharing trade secrets or losing a competitive edge. 

Now Structur3D has turned its attention back to materials. “We are working on a case-by-case basis to deliver materials, but we want to expand that process in order to provide a catalog of materials for new users,” Finkle says. “Our device [Inje3ctor] is capable of running traditional productions rubbers that have been used by many companies, but we want to be able to package that and open those materials up to a new market to use this tool similar to how the plastic 3D printing opened the plastic prototyping up to a lot of new users.” While perfecting the Inj3ctor, in June 2019 Structur3D partnered with fellow Kitchener-based company Grafoid to offer graphine-filled cartridges for printing on their existing Discov3ry extruder.

With the ability to print an increasing variety of materials with an almost infinite number of applications, Finkle sees Structur3D as supporting the “factory of the future.” 

“It’s an Industry 4.0 approach,” Finkle says. “I think that in the future a lot of products will be bespoke. They will be tailored to the customer. They might be manufactured locally, and they may use some aspect of AI through the design of that product as well. What we are supplying now is one tool in that factory of the future that automates a traditionally manual process. I see the factory of the future as a lot of different tools working together to meet an on-demand manufacturing process. We’re starting to see this now with a lot of prototyping facilities, or manufacturing as a service, that can manufacture on-demand for a company. In the future I see the complexity stripped away, and products will be manufactured directly for the consumer.” 

Six years after formally launching Structur3D, Finkle is excited for the Inj3ctor to finally be out in the world.  “I’m personally really excited to see what some of our clients will use this device for,” Finkle says. “We have our own ideas, and we’ve done our market research, but now the creative tool into the hands of the user.”

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