At the intersection of aerospace and 3D manufacturing, Bastech finds growth track in region

In additive manufacturing or 3D, complete and complex objects are created by applying successive layers of material based on a digital model. The industry began using polymers, but has since advanced to using metals to form complex components and other objects for a wide range of industries including engineering, construction, aerospace, autos, medical, dental, and others.

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In the quickly evolving additive manufacturing industry, what was once novel is moving main stage as a local company’s sales of high-tech equipment reach an all-time high.

It’s been a long journey since Ben Staub, 46, a mechanical engineer and University of Dayton grad, established his 25-worker company in the 1990s.

It was still the early days when the technology was almost entirely about making prototypes and small runs of small objects, including toys - chessmen, gadgets and so forth, the realm of hobbyists.

Staub’s company, Bastech, and sister company Rapid Direction Inc., are complementary. Bastech is the manufacturing company using additive technology to produce aerospace and automotive components, consumer products, and doing special jobs for inventors and entrepreneurs. Rapid Direction is the region’s only sales rep for 3D Systems Corp., one of the two largest global makers of additive manufacturing equipment.

Rapid Direction sold about $750,000 in equipment in the past quarter — its biggest quarter ever. New sales reps in Detroit and Chicago have been hired and Staub anticipates more new hires as the economy improves.

Meanwhile, Bastech is moving into producing small-scale, three-dimensional architectural models of proposed new buildings. The full-color objects better replicate what the actual building will look like since they’re produced directly from the digital renderings, Staub said.

Bastech is also positioning itself to make critical components for the evolving UAV industry, which has a beachhead in Dayton’s Tech Town. Rapid Direction doesn’t disclose sales figures, but Staub says sales are up 40 percent. On the manufacturing side, sales are up 10 to 15 percent in the past year. Bastech has a satellite office at 711 E. Monument Ave. in Dayton’s Tech Town and a manufacturing facility at 9233 N. Dixie Drive in Vandalia.

Now, the additive industry is moving faster into production of actual parts — as much as mock-ups — as the technology improves and becomes more reliable and affordable. It’s getting prominent play from the likes of Popular Mechanics and think tanks, as well as economists and pundits. Some herald it as a transformative industry that, if more widely adopted, could push America’s global competitiveness into higher gear.

Like many smaller manufacturing shops in the region, Bastech is shifting to serve the aerospace industry’s needs after many years where automotive work was more prominent, and 3-D manufacturing is maturing to play a bigger role in the aerospace supply chain.

A visit to Bastech’s 3-D production area finds aircraft parts slowly emerging from an opaque liquid bath, the surface played over by moving red dots from a laser beam. It’s still manufacturing, but a much quieter environment. Workers still make tools and components with mills and computer numerical control machines nearby, but additive offers more production options.

“It’s not going to replace the CNCs, but it can do a lot of things faster and better for its niche,” Staub said. That includes highly customized, lower volume runs and very specialized tooling.

Consulting firm Wohlers Associates Inc. put the growth rate of additive at 29 percent in 2011, a new high, and said it expects continued double-digit growth over the next several years. By 2015, it said, sale of products and services will reach $3.7 billion worldwide, and by 2019, surpass $6.5 billion.

The topic hit Ohio state news in a big way in August when the Obama Administration announced the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, or NAMII, to be based in Youngstown and led by the Department of Defense. It involves the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and is funded with $30 million in federal dollars matched by $40 million from manufacturing firms, universities, community colleges, and non-profit organizations.

The University of Dayton Research Institute in July won a $3 million award from the state development initiative the Ohio Third Frontier to provide specialized materials for additive manufacturing. UDRI is working with partners in Ohio and Minnesota to develop aircraft-engine components for GE Aviation, as well as parts and components for ATK Aerospace Structures, Boeing, Goodrich, Honda, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.

There’s promise in the recent announcement by commercial jet manufacturer Airbus that it’s teaming with the National Composite Center in Kettering to explore starting a manufacturing, research and training hub that could serve a new generation of workers and increase buys from local aerospace contractors.

“There’s been a lot of hard work over five years to build out Ohio and Dayton’s technology base in materials and manufacturing, and in aerospace,” said Brian Rice, division head for Multi-Scale Composites and Polymers division at UDRI. “We’re starting to bear some of the fruits of our labor.”

Lisa Novelli, president of the composite center, put it this way: “The whole game is to make it quicker, better, faster. That’s why Airbus is interested in us. Dayton and the materials region are central to that.”

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