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Today we have an interview with Debra Wilcox of the 3D Printing Store. We met Debra at CES this past January, and we bumped into her walking around the show. She is such an interesting person with such an interesting business. When we met her, we invited her to come to your Women in 3D Printing meet-up. She had a great time with that.
She has this really cool business in the Greater Denver area in Colorado. They have several cities around Colorado where they have retail stores that are all about 3D printing. We found her to be a fascinating person doing a lot of great projects, so let’s get right into the interview, and we will talk more at the end.
Listen to the podcast here:
The 3D Printing Store
Hi Debra, thank you so much for joining us.
Thank you, Tracy.
It is so nice to talk to someone who has been really killing it. You have three stores now.
We have a location in Denver; we recently moved to Centennial, a suburb in Denver. We also have a location in Fort Collins, Colorado, and we had a location in Colorado Springs that we are reformatting. We are looking at two other locations as well.
That’s so great. Why don’t you tell everyone a bit about what you do in those locations? You do more than just sell printers.
That is correct. In fact, we don’t sell any printers. We are more in the nature of a service bureau, but we are a full-service, 3D printing shop. By that, I mean we invite people in to learn more about 3D printing, to bring in a design or even a clay model if they need that designed and put into a printing format, and then we do the printing on about 11 different kinds of printers.
We met you at CES. If I remember correctly, you have a large-format printer?
Yes, we do. We are very excited to have a 30” x 30” x 48” printer, which allows us to print large things and is particularly valuable for a number of our industrial customers.
That’s amazing. You have 11 printers, so you have such a variety of things you can show people in terms of what their output will be like. You can really pick the best printer for the job.
Yes, and we pride ourselves in being able to assess a print job and then not only get the design correct for the particular use case, but also the best printing technology and also the best materials. Happily we are getting a variety of new materials in that we are printing with.
Debra, I had misunderstood. I thought you also resold printers, so you’re just a service bureau. Are you selling materials or accessories at all? Or is it really just service?
We sell some materials and some accessories. That would be more in the nature of things that are used in post-processing. We provide a great deal of educational servicing.
I remember you were telling us about how you had a party of teen girls come in and do a makers STEAM project for a birthday party.
That’s correct. A mom called me, and she said, “I have three tech-savvy girls. Could you do a birthday party for them?” I said, “Absolutely, I could.” The birthday girl got to pick the design, which she did in Minecraft, and we printed pink pigs. The girls were ecstatic.
How fun is that? I think that’s a great idea. Our daughter is six going on seven, and she has been doing these STEAM/STEM projects in school. I think they are a bit lacking, like they could be more interactive. So you providing that in your space is amazing. They work on something, design it, and see its output.
That’s correct. We really have them do a lot of hands-on work when they are in the shop. They are learning how to run the printers, see their design go into the printer, look at it on the computer screen, see it on the printer software, and built in the printer. At each step, we are engaging them, and we are showing them how this works, how we take undimensionalized objects and turn them into something we can hold in their hands.
That’s fantastic. That’s a great model for other people around the country, I would think. To have parties based around that, the educational aspect, that’s fantastic. I haven’t heard of anybody else doing it. Learn and have fun, why not?
Tell us about some of your other typical customers. I’m sure you can’t tell us specifics, but do you have a sense of what sort of industries the majority of your customers are in? or is it really all over the map?
It is really all over the map. It has surprised us. We have a lot of customers who are themselves learning about 3D printing. They are trying to understand how they would integrate it into their own business flow. Many of them could use a 3D printer, but two things are giving them pause. The first is the cost of some of the larger-format printers, and the second is that many of them don’t actually have the available work force to run printers. So the challenges they face are understanding how they would integrate it into their process flow and secondly how they would get that work done, both owning the technology and having the work force. We are helping a lot of businesses make that transition once they learn and see what 3D printing can do, they begin to appreciate how important it could be in their process. From there, we are happily educating here in Colorado some fine young graduates who will come out with the ability to walk into a business and undertake both design and printing in 3D.
We agree with that. Are you helping with these companies in doing training as well?
Yes, we are. I think the most important training we are providing is the ability to take something from their work and redesign it for 3D printing and then get it printed out of proper materials. Materials are really important to a lot of industries and individuals who need to get something made, but they need to get it made out of proper material. As we get these better materials, we are able to make more things. Again, we are able to show industry how you can integrate it.
What do you think is the most important new material you could use that they are asking for?
We have printers that will print with nylon, and we can insert layers of Kevlar or carbon fibers. Those are very important. The other new materials that are coming out are the base materials, be it ABS or PLA or the other polymers that have been infused with carbon. Carbon enhances the material and can give it conductivity or extra strength. When we look at those two properties, they are very interesting to people in the aerospace industry and in other industries where having stronger materials is very important.
That makes a lot of sense. Are you finding color limitations?
There are color limitations for some of the materials. In the case of the nylon, we have learned a great deal about how we can post-process it and dye it. Now we can turn nylons into very interesting custom colors.
We have to explore that further here. That sounds great. How about any other industries? You had mentioned to us that you have a project in the bio field. This sounds really interesting.
Yes, we are very excited to have a bio printer located at the University of Denver in their cardiovascular biomedical engineering lab. They are working diligently to develop the proper organic compound materials that can be 3D printed into the exact geometry of a heart valve. You add cells into that, put it into a bioreactor, and the cells will reformulate and remodel that structure that we created. We have already seen a print that they had an MRI data set from an actual patient and they were able to reprint the exact geometry of that patient’s heart valve. Once we are able to add the cells to that, we will be able to create heart valves that will be designed for an individual. They will be made out of heart cells, so they will be implanted, but ultimately they will become part of the person, not just be an implant.
You can actually recreate a new heart valve completely compatible for a patient.
That’s the project that we are working on. What I’m most pleased about is they have had that printer since last May. The strides that have been made in less than a year are extraordinary. We are seeing this across the platform in bioprinting and biofabrication. Now we know that we can actually get these organic compounds that are compatible with cells and recreate these things. We are going to be doing game-changing things that will change people’s lives.
That’s incredible. I’m so thrilled to hear that. We get a lot of questions from people who are out in the field at different conventions. People ask us about bio 3D printing. We haven’t had a whole lot of people we could talk to about it who have had any experience with it. I’m thrilled. I didn’t even know that we would get this today, so this is fantastic. Are there other areas in the medical field beside the heart valve that they are experimenting with? Or does it take so long to do it that that is really the thing they have been focusing on right now?
Actually I think the places where we are going to see biofabrication and bioprinting most quickly will be in the parts of our body that are nonvascular or in the parts where we don’t have so many blood vessels running through them. Connected tissues and other things that we can print, bone material we think will be printable, or we will print a scaffolding in which bone cells can grow. These are all things that are happening in very real time. I know a couple of other universities are looking at connected tissues, outside of ears, and eardrums, any of those parts that can be relatively easily created through organic material and then create the scaffolding upon which the cells can be inserted and continue to grow.
Fantastic. I remember the toughest injury I ever had in my life was when I ruptured my Achilles tendon back in 2007. That was rough. It was a really long recovery. They were hard to grow. I remember the doctor telling me that tendons don’t have much blood flowing through them, so they are hard to grow and take a long time as a result. I wonder if some of those types of things, tendon or knee injuries, could work. Are those things you have heard be addressed by technology like this?
Yes, I think so. The other thing that we have heard about are other sorts of small tubes. They could be used in nerve regrowth. They have created this nanostructure on these tiny 3D printed tubes that create a pathway for nerves to regrow through. That is another exciting opportunity.
Nerves to regrow, wow. Could that help people with spinal cord injuries?
That’s the theory. This would be a great way to get that accomplished. There are also some small pieces where the trachea that have been 3D printed for some small people, those have been very successful. Those cases were printed out of material that will ultimately biodegrade, so we only had one surgery. That’s also true for the chemotherapeutic devices that are being implanted. I am not a doctor, but apparently a great delivery system for chemo drugs is to the location of the cancerous cells, so they implant a tube with the drugs in them, which will be time-released through that little device. The device can now be implanted out of biodegradable materials, so it doesn’t have to take a second surgery to remove it.
Wow. So smart. I’m so excited. Think of the new world of medical treatment that 3D printing is helping to make possible. Who knew? It seems like far more universities and medical professionals are really looking into this and working on it than we even realized.
It’s also true that we are able to print skin and other tissue samples upon which testing can be done. For example, we’re aware that Loreal is creating skin tissue samples upon which their testing can be done, and that will eliminate the need for testing on other creatures.
No animal testing, that’s an awesome use of 3D printing. Yay. I bet the PETA people will be thrilled with that. They should be putting more money into 3D printing.
One of the things you mentioned earlier is the e-NABLE project. You are involved with it, and kids making prosthetic hands for other kids. I love that idea. Tell us a bit about that.
We are very excited to be working with the STEM club, which is part of the Boys and Girls Club in Larimer County, Colorado. That is a group of fifteen young people who are interested in learning more about STEM. We engaged with them and were able to get a corporate sponsor who came in, and we think that is important because now we are adding in adult mentors to work with these kiddos. They have sponsored the building of five hands for the e-NABLE project. We have the kids and an adult group of sponsors and mentors to work with them. They will be putting together the hands, and we have talked with them about how those hands will be delivered to other kids somewhere else in the world who need the hands. They have built this out to a wonderful project. They spent some time with the kids a week or so ago, and each child had their hand taped with duct tape so they couldn’t use it. They were actually thinking about what it would be like not to be able to have a hand they could use. They have built this into a really great project for the kids. They were very excited because they know they are helping other kids, so it’s a full-on engagement with STEM as an emphasis. But I think there is a bigger emphasis for the kids.
I think that’s great because it’s not an abstract concept. You’re building something you then grow to care about. You’re excited about the output of it; it really inspires the innovation process.
We also have a group of local doctors who have been making regular trips to Haiti. A number of the patient amputees in Haiti were survivors of the hurricanes, and they are now very excited because they have learned the process we are measuring, and we think we will be able to supply some hands for the patients in Haiti, too. Again, we have a real connection to that project, and we are able to have kids helping to change kids’ lives.
I love that. Debra, if it’s all right, I’d like to ask you a business-related question because it strikes me that so many people we have talked to are either working on e-NABLE-related projects or in other research areas are doing it in businesses that are not-for-profit. Am I correct that your business is actually a for-profit venture?
Yes, we are. We see the opportunity. What we try to do is give back.
That’s great news to me. I completely agree with giving back even if you’re a for-profit company. We donate our time to teach things to other people in business as well, and there is nothing wrong with that. What I like is that you have an actual functioning for-profit business that appears to be growing, and the interest and the opportunity in this industry is tremendous. If I understand that correctly, it seems like it’s really working for you as a business as well as a philanthropic venture.
Yes. We have a real business here. We are serving so many business clients that we know the value proposition of owning a business like this is tremendous and an immense growth potential.
I’m really excited about your business growth because there are so few companies that are making money, and definitely so few designers that are making money in 3D printing. Some of them are getting discouraged, so when they hear a success story like yours of where it’s growing rapidly and you’re getting involved in all sorts of projects in exciting areas in 3D printing, it inspires us all to keep going.
As I tell people, I always want them to think about what 3D printing is becoming, not what it has been. If we think about what it’s becoming, we begin to see the many places in our businesses and in our lives where we are going to want this to be part of what we do on a daily or weekly basis. That’s definitely true for our kids who are coming out of school right now. This is going to become part of their lives in a way that you and I don’t anticipate today. But if we do have that longer vision, then we begin to impact people and other businesses in a positive way. They are seeing that, and that is where we have been building our business strength.
The 3D Printing Store – Final Thoughts
Wow, I’m so glad we talked to Debra today. I’m really sorry I misunderstood her business a bit. I thought they sold 3D printers and they were a retail store like that. Obviously there are several retail locations, but it’s built around service, which makes a lot of sense.
I love it that they have so many printers. That’s a huge problem a lot of the time. If you have a Makerbot store, it’s all Makerbot printers, and that is where most people go in that realm, or they are all targeted at a very specific price point. She is approaching so many different businesses with her services; she has such a wide variety of things she can do for them from bio to industrial to this large format. I think it’s very wise with a real for-profit business that she has engaged in. We are still in the early stages of the desktop 3D printing industry, which is really being learned and understood by all sorts of individuals.
You sort of have to go any which way that the market takes you, don’t you? You really do. You want to be focused as a business owner, and she has a focus of exactly what she does well. She does really hands-on training and walks them through the process. Her specialty is that transition between when they have their own printers and when they are starting to investigate; she has that gap in there. She has that focus dialed in, so she is not all over the place, which some businesses make the huge mistake of. That is really helping her.
I can imagine if she were engaged in the business of selling printers… What did we find out? There are more than 1,000 3D printers on the market. How can you focus on what are the best ones? There probably isn’t a best printer. It’s just what is the right printer that fits what you want to do. Clearly she knows what her niche is, and 3D printers, if she sold them, might be a distraction. Instead she focuses on what she wants and where she thinks the opportunities are, which is education, training, and service.
I love it. It’s very simple in terms of scope of the business services, but they are also really customized and complex once you get into them. She is providing a very high-touch service that not many people can provide.
I’m just blown away by the bio 3D printing in the medical field. I love it. Couldn’t it have been 20 years ago when this happened so maybe my Achilles injury I could have repaired more easily and sooner? I think you would have to have known it was going to happen. I just wish it had happened a couple decades ago, so it would have been an easy repair.
I definitely wish that because that was a really harsh recovery. That was hard on the whole family. I am a terrible nurse, I self-admit. You really are; that was no fun for me, I’ll say. If you’re married to Tracy, you don’t want to be ill because you don’t get much sympathy. Your bedside manner is kind of lacking, I have to say. Suck it up. Grow some skin, as our brother-in-law says.
I still can’t believe the whole thing was caught on video, my Achilles injury. The video should be in this post, it’s super funny. People will get a kick out of it. But it’s not attractive. I’m going to tell the story because it’s hilarious. It’s awful and hilarious at the same time.
We get home from this trip, and Tom is playing softball in a league of a bunch of businesses. I had never been to a game, and neither had our daughter. We just had gotten off the plane and had some dinner, so we thought we would go to the game all together. He had been so excited about how fun it was. We are watching him play, and he gets up to bat. The hit looked pretty good actually. It was an extra base hit, and it had this great pop sound. He is running down to the first base, and we are sitting on that side. I look at our daughter Alex, and I say, “Your dad runs like a girl. He’s just not running right.”
Thanks a lot. What she didn’t know is that I absolutely blew my Achilles tendon as I launched out of the batter’s box. As he collapses at first base, I felt really bad after having said that. Once you found out what happened, it was really something. I had never experienced anything like this. We did not even know what happened to me until we got to the hospital and they checked it out. Apparently it had been weakened another way, but when I launched myself to run to first base after hitting that ball, it snapped, and I didn’t know what happened, so I just kept running. By the time I got to first base, I couldn’t stay on my feet anymore.
The important link between this and 3D printing is the fact that there is not a lot of blood in those tendons, and they don’t repair well. If you can do anything to progress that, like bio 3D printing, that is going to be amazing. I would imagine at first when they perfect this, it will be used in sports injuries first because they are the ones who can pay more money to do these things quickly, like they did in the Super Bowl making that brace. If you haven’t seen that, you might want to check out our episode of WTFFF that we did on 3D printing your way to the Super Bowl.
They were using it for braces, but this is the first I have heard of this connective tissue issue. It makes a lot of sense. I was in a boot for six months and a full year to recover because it takes so long. Blood doesn’t flow to those tendons very well. Evidently we are still traumatized as a family by this. If 3D printing can help avoid any other families having to go through that, we will be supportive of that. Medical advancements for 3D printing, we say thumbs up. Cool stuff.
You mentioned this when we were talking to Debra. I have to say that when I am out in the field, this area interests so many people. This is where a lot of investment money is going right now. People are very interested in investing in these areas. I can really see this helping to turn around the impression that 3D printing is just a bunch of tchotchkes. This has very real application that is obviously beneficial, and since we stopped talking to Debra and are recording after this interview, she has already emailed us the links to the information and a video about that bio printing, which will be in the show notes. We will also have a link to the university. If any of you are interested in this, or if you are a different university that takes on a different part of the medical field and want to know how they did it or what’s involved in this, here are some references and links to them that you can use to go and ask them yourself and set up your own program.
I would contact Debra directly because she is such an amazing resource and such a great connector, too. She has a for-profit business that I asked and emphasized in the interview because that’s important. we always say you have to make money if this is still going to be happening a bunch of years from now. But she has a higher mission in her mind beyond making money. She is doing advancement of 3D printing for social good, and I think that’s fantastic.
Kudos, Debra Wilcox on such a fabulous business, The 3D Printing Store.
I want to remind people that if you listened to our episode on the Digital Footprint, if you are interested in considering that, don’t forget to go to digitalfootprint.net and use WTFFF as the coupon code. If you want to attend that conference coming up in early April, it’s about a week away. There are a few spots left, and you can save $2,000 on the entry fee. Again, we are not getting paid for this; we just think it’s a cool conference. We will be there, so if you want to meet us, come on out and learn a whole heck of a lot about how your business can rank higher on the Internet and help your business grow. Small plug there. Check it out.
- The 3D Printing Store
- Denver University and bioprinting
- STEAM Club of the Boys and Girls Club of Larimer County
- 3D Print Your Way to a Super Bowl Ad
- Digital Footprint Conference
Debra Wilcox is the co-Founder of The 3d Printing Store. Previously she was Vice President for Bye Energy, a start-up developing an electric propulsion system for general aviation. She was selected for the NREL Energy Executive Leadership Program in 2009. Ms. Wilcox was the Founding Chair of the Advanced Transportation Technologies for The Colorado Cleantech Industry Association Fellows Institute in 2012 and Co-Managing Director for the Fellows program in 2014. Ms. Wilcox was appointed by the Governor to the Colorado Aeronautical Board overseeing 76 airports in the State of Colorado and is a member of the Citizens Advisory Committee for the regional FasTracks project. She is active in several aviation/aerospace business groups and is a member of the Colorado Space Business Roundtable board. The 3D Printing Store is her first foray into manufacturing. She is a member of the Colorado Advanced Manufacturing Alliance and promotes young women in manufacturing through ‘Gear Girls’. She serves on several industry advisory boards for Colorado universities and Community Colleges and is a frequent speaker at schools, universities and conferences. She practiced law in Denver and previously worked for the Colorado Legislative Council. Ms. Wilcox holds a Bachelors of Arts degree in English Education from the University of Northern Colorado and a Juris Doctor degree from the University Of Denver Strum College Of Law and a certificate in Leadership in Sustainability from University of Denver.
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