Physical products

HVAMC assistant director Kat Wilson. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

HVAMC assistant director Kat Wilson. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

A 3D-printing company on West 24th Street in New York City focused on printing custom shoe insoles prescribed by doctors has raised at least $19.3 million in funding. That’s a lot of money. It gives the start-up business at least a foot up — if not a leg up — in its space.

A tenant in a huge building a block west of the Hotel Americano (the boutique hotel next to the High Line whose ownership hopes to convert the Cioni building in uptown Kingston to similar hotel use), Sols is one of the first companies to employ 3D printing technologies to market custom-manufactured wearables. It’s one of the many examples of digitally based businesses, some in the Hudson Valley, that have been seeking to transform heretofore staid industrial niches.

The Sols end user “scans” his or her foot by recording a video using a mobile application, and Sols adds other information like height, weight, lifestyle, how the insert will be used, and more. New York Knicks player Carmelo Anthony, who has invested in Sols, says that as an athlete he understands “the relationship between high performance, skill and proper biomechanical alignment.” Knicks forward Anthony called Sols a pioneer in the 3D printed, custom orthotics space. Hundreds of medical professionals are now offering its products to their patients.

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“New York’s long history as a fashion, media, medical and shopping city gives it an edge over other cities,” Sols CEO and founder Kegan Schouwenberg is quoted as saying in a July 2016 report entitled Making It Here from the Center for an Urban Future (CUF). “I don’t think [Silicon] Valley understands physical products like New York. They get software and hardware companies. Physical consumer products companies, they don’t get that. That’s what New York does well. We get what people buy. We’re watching every day.”

That’s pretty much what Makerbot co-founder Bre Pettis said at the ribbon-cutting of the Makerbot Innovation Center on the SUNY New Paltz campus back in February 2014. “We were looking for a partner in New York, because New Yorkers just get stuff done,” Pettis had said. “It seemed like such a great opportunity. I’m personally really excited to see what happens when the jewelry students join forces with the mechanical engineering students. I want to invest in the company that emerges from the meetings that happen in this room.”

Though manufacturing in New York City is costly, 3-D printing is not very capital-intensive, and it doesn’t take up much space. “If cost is the important factor, I’d rather make it in Tennessee and FedEx it up there,” says Jack Plunkett of Plunkett Research in the CUF report. “But if time is the key factor, then the ability to localize this technology is phenomenal.”

For the Hudson Valley, the long-range economic question may involve what niche is right for you when you’re neither around the corner in Brooklyn nor as far away as Tennessee. But that’s not the short-term. With so mercurial and unexplored a technology, one available role could be for the early adopter, someone who tries out new technology as soon as it becomes available and shares it with an audience of potential users. A school can fit that role particularly well.

That’s what SUNY New Paltz is doing. If anyone knows about the character of the demand for this innovative, wide-ranging and disruptive technology in the Hudson Valley, it should be New Paltz science and engineering dean Dan Freedman, director of the Hudson Valley Advanced Manufacturing Center (HVAMC). Freedman estimates that about 150 companies and individuals in the region, ranging from large industrial employers to smaller firms to individuals working out of their own garages with an idea, have been in contact with the HVAMC in regard to 3D printing technology. Many have used and are using its services.

Freedman, who notes that the basic technology for 3-D printing has been around for decades, says that prototyping has been its most traditional application. It’s often used to create art objects. And it’s used for final-use manufacturing in a wide variety of ways, making parts, using new materials and creating replicas.

“I’d like to give my students an entrepreneurial education,” he says.

On June 25, the school announced a new superlab with a variety of 3D printers made by the manufacturer Stratsys and its affiliates, including high-end printers using two advanced technologies. The lab will continue to be available like its simpler Makerbot predecessor both to students and the Hudson Valley business community. The facility features a suite of advanced printers, including an industrial-grade multi-material 3D printer, advanced production printers, plus over 40 MakerBot 3D printers.

“The lab will be open to the entire campus from engineering and art students, to English and philosophy students, as well as educators,” said a press release from the college “The lab will also serve as a central 3D printing service center for the surrounding communities and business, helping to grow the Hudson Valley economy.”

The additive manufacturing superlab has received designation as a Stratasys MakerBot Additive Research & Teaching facility, inevitably destined to be known by its acronym SMART.

“Our designation as a SMART lab is huge step for the HVAMC,” Freedman is quoted as saying. “The combination of our unique focus at the interface of art, engineering and science, and the recognition and support by the world’s leading manufacturer of 3D printers, will move us to an unparalleled interdisciplinary educational experience, help us support regional businesses, and give our faculty the tools and expertise to do cutting-edge scholarship in art, engineering and design.”

What hasn’t happened much is the investment Pettis predicted two and a half years ago would “emerge from the meetings that happen in this room.” To my knowledge, there haven’t yet been many examples in the Hudson Valley of the kinds of investments made in pioneering companies in New York City using 3D printing. Surely some of the 150 enterprises with which Freedman has had contact represent investment opportunities, even if after significant tweaking.

Does the problem stem more from a lack of availability of appropriate capital than from a lack of coherent business planning? Perhaps SUNY New Paltz should be asking itself that question. Without both capital and business planning, “the tools and expertise to do cutting-edge scholarship in art, engineering and design” aren’t of much use in helping grow the regional economy.

It’s my thought that the engineering and liberal-arts schools should be in touch with the business school on this one.

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