These Early 3D Printing Pioneers Continue to Innovate
Innovation is key at Advantage Engineering, Inc. of Tecumseh, Ontario, as evidenced by the fact the firm was one of the first in Canada to purchase a three-dimensional (3D) printer. Advantage uses 3D printers for rapid prototyping work, and this is a company speciality along with polyurethane and cast prototype parts.
“From intricate little parts all the way up to bumper fascia for cars and portable toilets, we do all sizes, all complexities,” says Advantage Founder and President Steve Hengsperger. “We don’t have a limit to the size of the parts or the complexity of the parts … In the years we’ve been doing this I think we’ve probably seen every kind of part and material. We do like a challenge, that’s for sure.”
The focus is on custom work, not mass-volume production. Advantage uses a variety of conventional and cutting-edge equipment including robotics and laser cutting systems. The company has presses that range from 140 to 3,000 tons for injection moulding as well as five-axis machining centers.
“In our assembly area, we use robotic assembly cells. Even though we do short-run, low-volume work, we use technology to take advantage of repeatability and quality,” states Hengsperger.
Painting, however, is done manually, because of “the quantities we get. We do some of the trickier painting required – two-coloured stuff. Some work on vehicles doesn’t lend itself well to robotic painting, so we take those on for the OEMs,” he continues. “[We] paint lots of parts, from exterior automotive parts to medical.”
Similarly, Advantage’s assembly work is “all short run … [involving say] vehicles that an OEM might be doing 1,000 to 3,000 of in a year. We do some of the rocker assemblies and mould guards. We have some under-hood engine components. We do some medical assembly as well which is typically low-volume,” he adds.
Once moulds are made using five-axis machines, injection moulding machines are used to produce parts.
Prototyping with 3D printers is one of Advantage’s fortes. The firm purchased its first 3D printer in the late 1990s – making it a pioneer in using this technology in Canada. So far, liquid plastic has been the printable material of choice for 3D prototype work.
“We play around with metal printing technologies, but we haven’t found anything that’s been quite up to what we require. The technology is coming along, but for our needs, the accuracy is not quite there yet,” says Hengsperger.
The company’s three core services are rapid prototyping, mould making, and injection moulding. “They are pretty much equal, revenue-wise,” he continues.
All of Advantage’s operations are based in Tecumseh. “We have two separate facilities. Our rapid prototyping and tooling center is 70,000 square feet, and our injection moulding and assembly facility is 110,000 square feet,” says Hengsperger.
“We’re bringing a third building on board right now, a smaller facility of 25,000 square feet,” He continues, adding that the new facility will be used for 3D printing. “We’re moving in now, but it will probably be a couple months before we’re actually manufacturing there.”
Given the company’s location near Windsor – Canada’s automotive epicenter – it is no surprise the auto-related work represents the bulk of what it does. Other sectors served include agriculture, medical, and consumer goods. Most of the firm’s customers are based in Southern Ontario or across the border in Michigan, although the company “does work for clients all over the world,” says Hengsperger.
Despite the company name, Advantage Engineering does not “do any true engineering work … We get our designs ready from our clients; then we just provide them with the parts. The name ‘Advantage Engineering’ [reflects] my own background. I’m a professional engineer, so that’s where the name came from,” Hengsperger says.
The firm, which Hengsperger founded in 1994, initially offered computer-aided design (CAD) and computer numerical control (CNC) machine programming to mould builders. The company broadened its services and developed a reputation for pioneering 3D print work. The recession, which hit in 2008 and devastated the automotive sector among other industries, was difficult but Advantage persevered and is now growing rapidly.
The company has about 220 employees, up from roughly 190 last year at this time. “For the last three to four years, we’ve been growing fifteen to twenty percent a year,” says Hengsperger. “There is no mystery behind our growth; the company is expanding because customers appreciate that we do good work, we stay on time, and we have competitive industry prices,” he continues.
Advantage does keep certain qualifications in mind when contemplating new hires. “Attitude is number one. We feel we can train somebody. We want to always keep developing internally as well as externally,” says Hengsperger.
This focus on internal development is central to corporate culture. “We try to work together, always be thinking about innovation and how we can do things better for our clients. To my managers, I say, ‘lead by example; be out there training and working with your staff,’” he continues.
Besides being an early adopter of 3D printing technology, Advantage has been involved in some remarkable projects as a result of this culture of innovation. “Internally, we’re always innovating. One of the most recent fascia we built for an automotive client, we finished in six weeks. From a prototype standpoint, I think our closest competitor [would have been] in the ten to twelve-week range. We’re just always pushing the boundaries,” says Hengsperger.
“We also do some interesting medical work with clients, from making medical beds for MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machines and developing the glues and the paints and whole process, to ensure those [medical beds] don’t show up when being imaged,” continues Hengsperger.
Perhaps the most eyebrow-raising product the company ever produced was “a giant, portable toilet, that was collapsible,” he says. It created a full 3D printed model of the collapsible toilet first, which the client (a portable toilet company) used at trade shows. Then, it built all the necessary tooling for conventional production of the portable toilet.
Innovation is expressed in other ways too. The company has set up its own internal, online internet of things (IoT) network “that lets us gather various pieces of information, so we know exactly how much our machines are being utilized,” says Hengsperger. “[we’re] using telemetrics to get data to a database then display it in a way that makes sense to our team so they can actually use it.”
This internal online system, on which the company is still working, allows staff to view production data on smartphones and laptops. Advantage also uses a customized enterprise resource planning (ERP) software program for administrative duties.
Keeping on top of technology might seem a challenge. There are always new developments in CAD, computer-aided manufacturing (CAM), IoT, and CNC technology after all. Hengsperger, however, does not find it difficult to keep abreast of technological or manufacturing developments.
“We’re in an area here where there’s a lot of mould-making so the vendors – the guys selling that equipment – are in here on a regular basis showing us what’s new – the latest and greatest. On top of that, we go to the bigger trade shows in North America to see what’s out there – what’s developing,” he says.
For all this cutting-edge technology, Advantage has not forgotten the importance of basic things such as plant safety. All new employees “get almost a full day of safety training,” adds Hengsperger. “We have a whole safety committee that’s always reviewing and walking the floor and office area – seeing what they can make better for everyone.” It is IATF 16949-certified and is also registered and approved to handle controlled goods – a must in Canada for certain types of work.
The company is looking to improve its promotional strategy. It recently hired a marketing manager, charged with putting together a list of trade shows to exhibit at and developing a social media/digital campaign “We’ve done everything the old-fashioned way until now, where you have a salesman go to a customer and knock on his door,” says Hengsperger. “We want to move into the digital marketing world. We want to promote all the things we do here at Advantage and not stay so quiet anymore.”
While optimistic about the future, the company’s drive to expand has not always been smooth, he admits. “The biggest challenge as we grow is finding people. It’s a very tight job market right now. Every time we grow, the next big question is: where to find new staff?” says Hengsperger.
For all that, Advantage remains committed to expanding its services, particularly in the 3D printing and rapid prototyping fields. “Our goal is to continue to grow at fifteen to twenty percent every year and to keep expanding beyond the automotive industry,” states Hengsperger.