Broadalbin business producing success with 3D printing

Julie Benware, owner of Bit Solutions 3D Printing in Broadalbin, September 2021. Photo by Charles Erickson/For The Leader-Herald

BROADALBIN — Julie Benware understands her storefront may be one of the area’s smallest manufacturing operations, even if she refers to its production as “printing.”

Since she opened at 22 N. Main St., last January, assorted passersby have gone inside to ask Benware about the dice towers, chess pieces and other items which are made here.

“People will ask how long it will take to print a dice tower,” she said recently. “But 3D printing is very slow. Very slow. It could take 36 hours.”

Benware is the owner of BIT Solutions, a computer repair and training provider she founded in Saratoga Springs in 2003 as Benware Information Technology.

Orders for repairs and training services are not common these days, she said, but work remains brisk in BIT Solutions’ 3D Printing Division.

“I have a lot of steady customers,” she said, displaying one of the coin banks she makes under a subcontract from a German company for distribution to customers in the U.S. The banks, formed from the letters in a person’s first name, are hollow and contain a slot for coins and an opening for emptying the bank.

This bank, which said “RYLAN,” took about eight hours to manufacture, she said. Longer names can take half of a day to print.

Fair view

Benware purchased her first 3D printer in 2014, a year after she saw one being demonstrated at the New York State Fair in Syracuse. There, in a venue known for rides, food and exhibitions about agriculture, she watched the little machine slowly render a stencil from a strand of filament being pulled from a spool. The stencil was made, one layer at a time, as the filament plastic was melted and set in place by the printer’s back-and-forth motions.

The first printer put online by BIT Solutions featured a 6-by-6-by-6-inch printing area. Benware began advertising her services online, and soon began receiving orders for the manufacture of checkers and other small items. The printer was in operation for many hours, every day.

“I never had time to print what I wanted to print, so I bought a second machine,” Benware said. She now has 15 of the devices. The largest has a 20-by-20-by-20-inch printing area.

When a shaft of metal is placed on a lathe, turned and cut, the process is known as “subtractive” manufacturing. To get the piece to match a design specification, the lathe cuts unneeded metal from the shaft.

Additive work

With 3D printers, the manufacturing is “additive.” Moving back and forth like an old dot-matrix computer printer, the 3D printers lay strips of hot filament until an item has been built up into a desired shape.

“Each layer cools very quickly,” Benware explained. “It’s hot and it melts and then it’s getting cooled at the same time, so all the layers kind of all bond together.”

Filaments come in different colors and are made of different materials. Benware mostly prints using PLA, or polyactic acid.

“PLA is made of corn and soy,” she said. “When you start printing, it smells like syrup.”

Other filaments used in the Broadalbin shop are made of ABS, a tough plastic commonly used for producing toys and interior parts for automobiles. The material was used to make an order for an area hospital, which requested shower drain covers and redesigned faucets in ABS.

Benware has a job with Staples in Saratoga Springs, where she works as a computer technician. She need not keep banker’s hours at BIT Solutions’ 3D Printing Division, which has posted hours but is not really a retail business. Benware relocated to Broadalbin to be closer to her parents. The printers frequently run during nighttime hours, and most of the shop’s work is for customers from outside the Mohawk Valley. On the e-commerce site Etsy, Benware sells under the name Bits3DandPieces.

Computer programs direct the movements of a 3D printer. Benware uses CAD, or computer aided design, software to draw some of the products. For others, like the banks, she has permission to use the files created elsewhere.

All designs must be “sliced” by another computer program so the 3D printers can be instructed on how to build the object.

“It slices the entire model, line-by-line,” Benware said. “And then that program gets plugged into the printer and the printer knows where it needs to go, every single line.”

Benware’s printers are fused deposition modeling, or FDM, machines. Other types of 3D printers can render objects in resins or even metal.

PLA and ABS filaments are inexpensive. Benware charges $3 to design and print the cookie cutters a young man uses for his dog-biscuit business. She gets $2 for duplicate cutters. Dice towers are priced at $35.

She made a replacement light bezel for a 1932 Nash automobile, and pre-production prototypes for the inventor of a system for watering Christmas trees.

Learning production

Benware is proud of what she has learned about the production aspect of 3D printing. Holding up the bank, the one formed from the letters “RYLAN,” she noted how the slicing program provides instructions to the printer, but it does not guarantee how the materials will act when an object is being made. She had many rejects, in the early years.

“This is one of the hardest things to do with a print, because it does print hollow all the way up,” she said. “When it gets to the top layer, you have to change your settings because it’s literally going across an open space and it’s hot plastic and you have to stop pushing as much plastic and speed up the print head a little bit so that it goes all the way across and touches both ends and cools before it can droop.”

Other requests, much simpler in design, presented Benware with other challenges.

A woman in Texas was interested in buying stencils made to resemble Google’s famous logo. Benware made one, as a prototype, but thought better of it and contacted the woman to say she didn’t want lawyers from the search engine giant to come down hard on a tiny storefront factory for the unauthorized use of its trademark.

“She turned around and sent me her Google credentials,” Benware said. “She worked for Google. She wanted to give away these stencils at a picnic they were having.” A few days later, the stencils made in Broadalbin were dispatched to a grateful customer in Austin.

By Paul Wager