ACT 3D Equipment & Services, a division of ACT Group, is a resource for additive manufacturing equipment, service, and support. The division provides 3D content-to-print solutions including personal, professional, and production 3D printers, print materials, and custom parts services for clients throughout Connecticut and New England.
Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price sat down with Director of Additive Manufacturing/Applications Engineer Nick Gondek and Statistical Sales Analyst Emily Turcan to discuss technology, innovation, and the importance of collaborating with resources throughout Connecticut.
NAN PRICE: ACT Group formed in 1999. Give us a little background. When and why did the 3D division develop?
NICK GONDEK: ACT Group was originally an office equipment company. The owner was introduced to 3D six years ago, saw an opportunity to provide 3D service, and realized the company had an infrastructure to support it. We developed a team that’s just dedicated to 3D sales and service, which is how I came on board.
NAN: How has ACT 3D innovated over the past six years?
NICK: We pride ourselves in understanding the 3D industry—it’s rapidly innovating and uses of it are changing quite dramatically. Through many partnerships, we try to identify new technologies coming out. Also, we position ourselves with what we sell and the type of services we provide to cater to needs of the industry. I should emphasize that we don’t just sell, we also do some consulting services.
EMILY TURCAN: Our team works a little bit differently in a sense that we set realistic expectations for our clients. Instead of just pushing product, we learn and understand an organization’ business goals, internal processes, and so forth to assess where 3D printing would benefit—if there is a need. That’s important, because a lot of people buy 3D based off misinformation. Many companies think they need a 3D printer, but it might not even make sense, especially for their specific application.
NAN: What differentiates you from other suppliers and makes you innovative?
NICK: It’s our expertise. When we hire new sales, before they sell anything they must become experts in 3D printing. For instance, we sent a couple our sales people to MIT for professional education courses that are geared toward the 3D printing industry.
Also, we develop complete workflows and collaborate with our customers, so we can provide the right solution. So, it’s not just selling a 3D printer.
EMILY: Our client base is comprised of companies and organizations from almost any industry imaginable. This gives us the opportunity to gain a much greater insight in the world of 3D printing. We are consistently absorbing feedback and trying to do the best we can to provide for our customers. We can’t always provide a solution, so we build those relationships—it’s not necessarily about what our customers are buying from us, but what we can provide for them.
For example, an organization may approach us and want a 3D printer, and we may confirm that they could absolutely benefit from 3D printing, but maybe not so much from what we can offer them from our portfolio. We’ll still maintain that relationship, so they understand we’re not there to sell to them, we actually care about fitting them with something beneficial.
NAN: According to your website, your customers range from small manufacturers to Fortune 500 companies. How are you building clientele?
NICK: A lot of it is word-of-mouth. We also get a lot of referrals and references. When we got into the 3D industry, we obtained several clients that already had pre-existing machines, many of whom are shoe companies. They utilize the technology for rapid prototyping iterative design, because it’s faster and less expensive than fabricating a shoe. They’re not so much creating end-use parts, that’s still sort of pretty far out there.
NAN: What does innovation mean to you?
EMILY: It the result of pursuing an opportunity for change that you believe in. Innovation isn’t something that happens overnight, it’s something you work toward. Advanced manufacturing technologies, like 3D printing, are not only changing the way we are innovating but they’re also catching the attention of our younger generations.
NICK: There’s a lot of news about cutting-edge technologies, I think the true innovation in this space has nothing to do with the printer whatsoever. It has to do with development, new applications, and business models facilitated using 3D printing. That’s what gets us excited—these new and exciting applications, which have true measurable benefits in the fields of healthcare, education, and manufacturing.
NAN: In what ways does ACT 3D collaborate with Connecticut resources.
NICK: We facilitated the sale of the first multi-material machine at the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology (CCAT) and our service team has worked closely in supporting them. As it was the first machine of its kind, our service department works very closely with CCAT to ensure the machine is operating as intended.
EMILY: ACT 3D also holds educational seminars at CCAT about application-specific topics such as direct metal printing or rapid printing. The seminars are designed for companies that want to learn more about specific applications, the different technologies and implementation, best practices, and so forth.
NICK: And we do a lot of work with University of Connecticut. We’ve sponsored a few senior design projects. Some have branched off to work with the companies that sponsor those projects. We’ve collaborated with Robin Bienemann at The Connection, which links practicing engineers and businesses with UConn faculty, students, and resources. We’ve also collaborated with researchers at UConn.
ACT 3D has also worked with Nerac Inc. President Kevin Bouley, who is one of my mentors. We have viewed and create pitches for XCellR8 events.
EMILY: In the beginning, we worked closely with Kevin and his team at Nerac. They would send a series of alerts based on criteria we provided. For example, we would receive alerts related to direct metal 3D printing advances, medical specific applications, software patents, emerging applications, etc. We would also use their services to better educate our customers by providing specific information pertaining to their needs rather than bombarding them with an overwhelming amount of information.
Internally, we would use this data to basically understand what markets to hit based on who was buying what, what they were buying, and what applications they were interested in utilizing 3D printing for.
NAN: And you’ve been involved with the Mystic Aquarium. It was actually Kevin Bouley who told me about the Purps the penguin project. Can you elaborate?
EMILY: We had the opportunity to collaborate with Mystic Aquarium and Mystic Middle School on a project involving a penguin who suffered a foot injury. We were able to provide the expertise and equipment needed to facilitate in the process and workflow of making a supportive boot for Purps. We utilized 3D scanning, 3D modeling software and a multi-material 3D printing technology that is able to print a single geometry comprised of flexible and rigid material.
With 3D printing, kids can relate to real life. It gets them excited. And, with this project, it became evident that young students are more than capable of using this type of technology. They are very tech savvy. And having them see the impact of their work was really cool. That mindset of innovation and seeing the output is motivating for kids, especially at that age. It gets them thinking about what type of career they want to pursue.
NICK: And we enjoy working with a lot of educational institutes. We sell more to universities, but we are interested in middle schools and high schools, too. One way we’ve been involved is through guest speaking. For example, in January 2017 Emily and I were keynote speakers at Project Lead the Way, which provides engineering curriculum for K-12 student. They wanted us to talk about our experience in the educational field and some aspects of the penguin project.
We’re interested in obtaining more market share in the education space, but we’re hesitant because 3D printing can be complicated, to say the least. So, we’re trying to have a better understanding before we fully commit to being in that space.
EMILY: There are definitely inhibitors when it comes to the implementation of 3D printing in the classroom. It can sometimes fall on budgetary issues, but other times it falls on the instructors. 3D printing is intimidating if you’ve never heard of it. If a teacher doesn’t understand how it’s applicable to the learning process, then who will teach then students? This is something that will change over time, just like the implementation and use of computers.
NICK: With education, 3D printing in its hype phase. Tons of companies have come out with low-end 3D printers. It’s a choice of technology and how you approach it. With teachers who have tried working with 3D, some have been successful with the students while others had zero success.
EMILY: For me, the education part is more personal because I want to see the number of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) industries grow. The students involved in the Purps project were mostly girls. It was fun to see how excited they became about engineering—and they didn’t even realize they were doing it.
The word “engineering” can be scary, and as a girl at young age it may not necessarily be something they are thinking about. Completing that project changed the way some of the girls are looking at what they want to do when they go to college. So, we’re finding these types of opportunities are intriguing more girls to consider different types of career paths
NAN: Let’s talk about Connecticut and the significance of being located here. You obviously tapped into a lot of the resources. Do you feel like that has helped shape the company as it’s grown?
NICK: Definitely. There are a lot of resources here. I think UConn has been a large help to us, probably the primary help. And CCAT. We try to be involved as much as possible in the community. I believe it has helped shape us, and it’s continuing to this day.
NAN: With an eye to the future, What’s next for ACT 3D Equipment?
NICK: For the future of the company, in our journey of selling equipment what we have obtained is we have a lot of feet on the street. We understand at a high-level how people are actually utilizing 3D printing. I think that puts us in a good position to innovate and understand what technologies are needed next.
In the next couple of years, I wouldn’t be surprised if we transfer from reselling products to developing our own products.