3D Printing Series #4 – Paramount Industries: A 3D Systems Company, an Additive Manufacturing Success Story

August 13, 2013

Langhorne, Pennsylvania-based Paramount Industries debuted in 1966 as a foundry pattern and modelmaker to become a “thoroughbred” product development, design, and manufacturing firm.  The company has always embraced a market-driven business model, and from the earliest days of Additive Manufacturing (more commonly known as 3D printing) in the 1980s, Paramount has not only seen the promise in the technology but also pursued and helped shape it with a driving passion.

Thanks to that drive—and a little luck—Paramount has become a leader in the 3D printing space, producing a range of items for the aerospace, defense, and medical industries.  Their success was even enough to draw the attention of additive manufacturing powerhouse 3D Systems, who purchased Paramount in 2012.  3D Systems made this strategic move in part to expand their capabilities through the acquisition of a player with an established industrial presence.

The story of Paramount’s rise to prominence, however, is one that many leaders of small and medium-sized manufacturers will relate to.  Indeed, they have shown just what is possible with a strong belief in new technology and the ability to accept a healthy amount of risk.

The Early Days

Jim Williams, who would go on to one day become Paramount’s President, joined the company as an apprentice patternmaker.  He was just 18, and Paramount had been in business for less than a month.

“Everything I’ve done has been from a foundry/moldmaking/industrial-consumer modelmaking background,” he says.  Just a few years into his apprenticeship came the first test of his commitment to the enterprise.

“My boss and his partner had the company on its knees. They told me and another guy working for Paramount they needed us to kick in some funding or we were going under,” Williams remembers.  “I was newly married, and we took what my wife saved for furniture and invested it in Paramount.  That helped us pull through the financial crisis and get along until we figured out what we were doing.

“My first real exposure to 3D printing technology was in 1987 or 1988.  It was at a 3D Systems-sponsored event at Drexel University. In fact, Chuck Hull, who to this day is CTO and a member of 3D Systems’ board of directors, invented stereolithography in 1983 and filed the first patent in 1986.  He called it 3D printing. The name 3D printing has fast become a household word.

For all its early promise, however, 3D printing was not an immediate hit with Williams, his employees, or their customers. Put simply, it lacked the quality that manufacturers and end users were looking for. In fact, Paramount’s first forays into the technology resulted in some critical missteps.

In 1992, when AT&T (which was still doing business as Western Electric at the time) introduced one of the first “world phones” to send and receive signals from satellites, they approached Paramount to bid on a modelmaking project.

“We thought we would be slick and use 3D printing as a way to make models and save money,” Williams says.  “We went through the bidding process, and they were not interested in that technology.  They wanted higher quality.”

It didn’t take long for the customer to see the light, but Paramount remained gun shy; when AT&T asked for a bid on a different project six months later, Williams decided not to pitch 3D—only to learn that the contract went to someone who did.

“We were in a quandary,” he says. “We knew it was not manufacturing-level quality, and that’s what we always strived to deliver.  We could see that this was going to be a real technology, though.”

The Eureka Moment

“In 1994, Paramount’s tooling manager and I decided to go to the International Machine Tool Show (IMTS) in Chicago,” Williams says.  “An exhibitor named DTM Corporation from Austin, Texas, had an injection molding press on the floor, along with a Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) system [a metal and polymer-powder based 3D printing process].  They had built a metal matrix injection mold with the SLS, and they were running it on the press right there at the show.  I said ‘That’s the one.  That’s perfect, because we’re mold and tool makers,’ and that’s the direction we went.”

When Paramount compared the new technology with their existing CNC machining systems, Williams says the difference was night and day.

“We saw it could be a differentiator we could leverage, but it was a struggle. We were pioneers in this metal technology, so there was no one to say ‘you can’t do that.’  We had to learn it the hard way on our own.  All the while, we were inventing processing techniques and best practices for this new, advanced manufacturing technology.”

Because he was not averse to taking risks, Williams found himself at the forefront of the rapid tooling phenomenon in the late 1990s.

“I did a lot of speaking and authored articles on it. Paramount got a bit of a reputation as a leader in rapid tooling.  It kept our name visible in the rapid prototyping and tooling community, and Paramount got marketing out of it. That was good enough for me.”

When the recession hit in the early 2000s, Paramount was struggling much like many other manufacturers.  Revenue had fallen to pre-1990 levels, and they were seeing traditional customers disappear completely.  Naturally, Williams and his team looked to new technology for an answer.

That answer came in the form of a new stereolithography (SLA) material.  The material was a ceramic-reinforced epoxy that proved suitable for rapid tooling due to its elevated processing temperature.  This rapid tooling process caught the attention of a major unmanned air system (UAS) manufacturer.  This chance introduction opened the door for multiple years of business applying polymeric SLS to manufacture flight-critical hardware for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).  Manufacturers could now have parts made overnight that were robust enough for use in flight and met the aerospace industry’s rigorous quality standards, AS9100.

“From 2004 on, we went from 0% revenue from aerospace and defense to 60% from aerospace,” Williams says.  “It was extremely good timing being involved with UAV manufacturing over the last decade, and it was a perfect fit for Paramount’s capabilities.”

Northrop Grumman, meanwhile, was looking at direct digital manufacturing (DDM) using SLS process to manufacture non-structural parts (e.g. cold-air ducts, small clips, and brackets) for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.  They had qualified a sintered nylon for the center body portion of the F-35, but because the parts would be located near the engine, it was decided nylon wouldn’t withstand the heat.

The U.S. Air Force Research Lab agreed to help fund a new material and process that would perform in elevated temperatures outside the range of SLS materials in use at that time. The R&D work would be funded through a Small Business Innovation Research Phase I contract (SBIR1) with an initial $100K and six-month period of performance.

“When I learned about the SBIR Phase I opportunity, I said ‘let’s do it,’” Williams says.  “We won the SBIR1 along with three other companies, which meant we had to show that we were the best choice to be invited to compete for SBIR2.”

In just four months, Paramount developed a high-temperature laser sintering machine capable of operating at 400oC. That success led to a follow-on AFRL critical SBIR Phase II contract worth $2.6MM. Additional AFRL contract research contracts ensued for various other DoD initiatives totaling more than $4MM. In April 2012, Paramount Industries was acquired by 3D Systems.

“When 3D Systems came knocking, I said ‘there’s my ticket,’” Williams says.  “I knew it would help in several respects.  For three or four years I was developing plans for an exit strategy and a succession plan. In fact, I turned to the DVIRC to access their expertise and mentoring. The process was initiated with an assessment of Paramount’s key personnel, followed by the development of a business plan.

“My business plan was nearly complete when I started to identify possible target buyers.  It was during this time that 3D Systems started their global initiative to acquire several parts manufacturers like Paramount.  3D first contacted me in late 2009, but at that time I felt our value proposition was still evolving. It took a year from my first meeting with 3D Systems’ CEO in 2011 to close the deal. 3D Systems saw value that most companies wouldn’t. They realized the value of our commitment to quality, our reputation, and our relationships in the aerospace and defense communities. I knew they would understand our value on a level that other suitors may not.”

Having acquired Paramount, today 3D Systems is the only manufacturer of 3D printed, high-temperature SLS parts on the Joint Strike Fighter. With the recent acquisition of Phenix Technologies, 3D Systems continues to stay on the forefront of innovation, looking currently at printed metal parts in materials such as aluminum, titanium, stainless steel, etc. 3D printing technologies are energy efficient and impactful in ways that are life changing. Like aerospace, medical—specifically orthopedic and dental—is ideal for additive manufacturing. Patient-specific devices that begin with CT scanning are proving superior to traditional implant manufacturing processes by enabling an exact reproduction of a patient’s implant.

“The tools used to facilitate the surgical implant are instruments (drill guides and alignment fixtures) manufactured using selective laser-sintered polymer,” Williams says.  “The supply chain for replacing a bone or joint is rapidly becoming Additive Manufacturing.  3D Systems sells the machines, the powders, and the devices themselves to manufacturers.  We sell the OEM the equipment, the powder, and the software so they can automate their process.”

Asked about what has sustained Paramount across the sweep of nearly five decades, Williams is quick to answer.  “What made Paramount unique was going out and taking risks.  I was a risk-taker when it came to technology and new processes.  I didn’t blush if I saw something that I thought could add value for our customer, differentiate us from our competition, and lean-up our processes.” Risk became a strategic way of doing business.

And as for what’s just over the horizon for 3D printing, Williams sees a few more years before any significant breakthroughs occur.  He believes the next quantum leap will relate to size (e.g. being able to make much larger parts).  Another breakthrough application could be embedded sensors.

“You could have functionalized materials,” he says.  “Imagine if you had a material that could have a sensor (maybe an antenna) built inside a wing.  Printing the wing, antenna, and electrically conductive cables would do away with the wiring. Or you could grow an integral antenna all at one time, printing metallic materials and polymers together.

“You could also print something with an RFID chip in it.  The introduction of counterfeit aerospace parts into the supply chain is a growing concern. How do you know a given part is made according to the manufacturer’s specifications if you can’t be sure it’s genuine?  3D printing would let you print the proof of identification right into it.”

Whatever path 3D printing takes in the coming years, it is clear 3D Systems will be at the forefront of cutting-edge technology, leveraging innovation and an entrepreneurial spirit to maintain world-class leadership in 3D printing.

To learn more about how DVIRC can help your business benefit from the new manufacturing and supply chain opportunities associated with 3D printing, contact us today.

About Paramount (now 3D Systems Corporation)

Paramount Industries is among the world’s most experienced prototype manufacturers and providers of product development services, including product design and engineering, rapid prototyping, rapid tooling, and new direct digital rapid manufacturing technology that produces custom parts direct from digital input.

Founded in 1966, the company initially specialized in model making for a wide variety of consumer and industrial products. Over the years, Paramount has expanded its scope to apply advanced technology in all aspects of product development. Today, Paramount offers a comprehensive array of services. In addition to rapid prototyping and rapid tooling, Paramount sets the pace in direct digital rapid manufacturing of precision parts from 3D CAD digital input, utilizing advanced laser sintering (LS) technology. Paramount’s services also include injection molding, full-scale manufacturing from domestic and offshore facilities, as well as assembly and packaging. Paramount is a premier prototype manufacturer.

About 3D Systems Corporation

3D Systems is a leading provider of 3D content-to-print solutions including 3D printers, print materials and on-demand custom parts services for professionals and consumers alike. The company also provides CAD, reverse engineering and inspection software tools and consumer 3D printers, apps and services. Its expertly integrated solutions replace and complement traditional methods and reduce the time and cost of designing new products by printing real parts directly from digital input. These solutions are used to rapidly design, create, communicate, prototype or produce real parts, empowering customers to manufacture the future.

More information on the company is available at www.3DSystems.com.

DVIRC Advanced Manufacturing Accelerator

DVIRC and its partners have established the capacity to help manufacturers innovate by making it faster and easier to learn about, assess, and—when appropriate—invest in specific advanced manufacturing technologies. The Advanced Manufacturing Accelerator assists regional manufacturers by providing the knowledge and skills necessary to capture the value of advanced manufacturing and achieve profitable growth through new products, processes, services, markets, and customers.  Learn more here.

Save the Date

JOIN DVIRC October 4, 2013, for National Manufacturing Day: Made in America!  Hear guest speakers (including Jim Williams) present on 3D printing, composites, digital networks and cloud computing, and robotics.

For more information about Made in America, 3D Printing, or the Accelerator Program, contact DVIRC at info@dvirc.org or 215-552-3800.