New Ann Arbor business brings brings ideas to life with 3-D printing

If you didn’t know what you were looking for, you’d probably miss it.

Tucked away in an obscure, 175-square-foot office space above the Five Guys on South State Street, there is business called Thingsmiths.

The name of the business doesn’t lend itself to identifying the type of work done there, but it stems from the fact that the owner’s great-grandfather was a blacksmith.

“I was thinking about the nature of his business and thinking about this industry, and it will grow to the point that there will be local shops popping up in towns all across the country. There will be these services bureaus in every town in the same way you used to have these neighborhood blacksmiths,” said owner Owen Tien.

“It just kind of made sense to me that, hey, you could really have a neighborhood Thingsmiths,” he said.

While Tien doesn’t use metal to craft ideas into useable objects, he instead uses a high-density plastic material to print three-dimensional objects ranging from phone cases, to dental moldings and even small scale automotive components.

“It’s just so cool. I mean, you come up with this digital idea, and a few hours later it’s sitting there in the machine. The first time I experienced that on my own it was just something simple like an iPhone case, but having gone through the design process then hitting print and seeing it there – at that point I was hooked,” he said.

“Sometimes people come to us with their designs and they’re ready to go and we can print them. Other times they come with an idea that’s sketched out. We have a designer on staff who can have a conversation with the customer and they come up with a (computer-aided design) of it and we’re able to send it to the printer. Depending on the size of the object you can have a print out in a matter of hours.”

Tien said he sort of backed into the business of 3-D printing. He worked in the coffee industry throughout high school and college and ran a coffee shop in his hometown of Midland.

He studied philosophy and business management at Grand Valley State University and had plans do ethics consulting before graduating in 2010.

“I learned the ins and outs of business working at the coffee shop in Midland because I was basically there from day one. After college I wanted to try something entrepreneurial and then I ran across this 3-D printing technology about two years ago. I saw it and I was just blown away,” he said.

He comes from a family of engineers, as both his father and sister work at Dow Chemical, but he had no background himself.

“In terms of learning all this stuff, I spent a lot of time reading and researching and going to industry events. Part of what clued me in as to there was a potential to do this is that I went to a conference in Chicago. It’s the second largest version of this event, and there are only 200 people there. Again, this is the second-largest conference in the entire industry and there are only 200 people,” he said.

Photo gallery: Thingsmiths 3D printingThe final elephant piece will resemble this computer image. Melanie Maxwell | The Ann Arbor News

“So I did some research and saw that a lot of service bureaus were really expensive and they were really geared toward the automotive industry or people who have design degrees.”

He said the fact that no one really knew the potential growth opportunity for the industry really sucked him into it.

The current industry generates about $8 billion annually worldwide – a small number compared to, say, the auto industry, which generates about $500 billion in the U.S. alone each year. Industry leaders guess that in about 10 years it could grow to five times the size it is now, Tien said.

“The growth could be even more exponential. A lot of the guys in the industry are predicting that this could even be a technology that everyone eventually has in their own house. I don’t see it happening because of the technological advances that would need to happen, but it’s possible,” he said.

Tien said he’s able to keep costs down because he buys prosumer machines – a cross between professional grade and consumer grade – and modifies them to fit certain specifications. In doing so, he’s able to pay less money for the equipment and keep customer costs at an affordable level.

The machines still have the capability of high-end machines that are a few years older and that are still being used in many 3-D shops across the country.

“For this truly to be revolutionary and change manufacturing it’s got to be affordable to the average person and that’s really what we’ve targeted,” he said.

“Most of our objects we sell come in between the $20 and $50 price range. It definitely depends on the product and the design time, but we do everything in-house, but they have printers off-site to fill larger orders.”

A lot of business Tien generates is from University of Michigan students, but his client base is varied because of the wide range of products he’s able to print.

Photo gallery: Thingsmiths 3D printingOwen Tien, of ThingSmiths, holds piece he printed using a 3D printer on Feb. 28, 2014. Melanie Maxwell | The Ann Arbor News

“We can do so much. I mean, we’ve made camera parts, replacement gears for different companies that do automotive testing, things for different student projects, we do gifts for people. A good example was when we did a custom iPhone case for a guy for his girlfriend for Valentine’s Day,” he said.

Pricing is determined by a number of factors, including whether the customer has a design of if a designer at Thingsmiths has to create that design for the customer.

“The cost is a flat $5 fee per object then the cost is calculated by the amount of material used,” Tien said.

“If they don’t have a design we can help them come up with one after we negotiate a price, then we fire it off to the machine and the machine builds it up layer by layer, and after some time we have a finished product.”

The software he uses runs off something called an STL file, or Standard Tessellation Language.

“That’s basically a series of triangles. Those triangles give the object volume. This software is able to pinpoint where the extruder or printer needs to be at a given time,” he said.

“Once you have that STL file, it says ‘OK, I need to be at this set of coordinates at this time, extruding this amount of material,’ and so that’s the process.”

Since opening a little over a month ago, Tien said that business has been going well and he hope that trend will continue as he becomes more well-known throughout the community.

“I’ve always really like working with people…and this is kind of like the ultimate way of making a person happy,” he said.

“You take a person’s random idea, maybe it’s sketched out on a napkin, and within a couple days they’re actually able to hold and use that. I mean, that’s pretty powerful and pretty cool, and seeing the result of that is a pretty good feeling.”

The shop is located above Five Guys at 313 S. State St., Suite 301. The shop’s hours vary, so call ahead at 734-707-8148.

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