On the Ground at Zeda’s New 3D Printing Facility with Shri Shetty and Greg Morris

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Last month, Silicon Valley-based PrinterPrezz and its Cincinnati, Ohio subsidiary Vertex Manufacturing announced that they were rebranding as part of their growth strategy, and Zeda was born. The California company represents the strengths of both PrinterPrezz and Vertex Manufacturing, and uses 3D printing and nanotechnology to develop solutions for the medical industry, as well as the aerospace, space, defense, and energy sectors. Zeda then closed a $52 million Series B financing round to accelerate its footprint and medical product expansion in Asia and the U.S., including a new advanced manufacturing digital foundry in Cincinnati. Recently, I was invited to tour that facility, which, at 73,000 square feet, is significantly larger than the 11,000 square feet out of which the company is currently operating.

“Right now, we’re packed in like sardines, and it’s just because we’ve been growing pretty exponentially,” Zeda’s Chief Technology Officer and TCT Hall of Famer Greg Morris told me. “These are really good problems to have, but a little frustrating because we want the construction to get done. But we’re close.”

Medical and Non-Medical 3D Printing

Morris said they expect to get occupancy within the next couple months, and will start moving equipment in June. This process will be “relaxed” to ensure that ongoing jobs and projects aren’t disrupted, and because they’ll already have plenty of equipment up and running, including the first of a planned eight FormUp 350 printers. He also confirmed that the first AddUp system, already in place at the facility, is for aerospace applications, while the second one will be for “non-aerospace.”

Zeda, originally PrinterPrezz, primarily works with medical implants and related instrumentation, and Morris explained that when PrinterPrezz acquired his Vertex Manufacturing company, they were “brought on board to continue to do what we do with aerospace and the DoD, and energy, and other industries, but also a significant medical focus and making the actual cervical spinal implants and instrumentation.”

“Really, think of us as a contract manufacturer,” he explained.

Morris explained that one side of the factory floor will be “predominantly” focused on medical, with the other focused on space, aerospace, and other industry, due to the different work processes.

“Medical is a little bit different in how you want to process that workflow than some of the other industries,” he told me. “For instance, the titanium room will house the titanium machines and will be very much focused on medical. You have to have a different setup for that, from an Environmental Health and Safety aspect. So keeping all the titanium in one place, keeping all the stainless steel in one place, makes more sense. Keeping the machines that would be on the back end working on those parts as they come out of the machine in one space, and keeping the people whose minds are kind of aimed toward medical is probably a better flow than just trying to mix people back and forth.”

Image: Zeda

Shri Shetty, Co-Founder and CEO of Zeda, said that the main differences between the advanced manufacturing facility’s two workflows are the materials used and the size of the parts being produced. Medical will the main focus of this “flex facility,” and Morris explained that the second workflow would be focused on what he calls “other,” including space and aviation, with gas turbine engine components and semiconductors. He also said the company does “quite a bit of work” with the Department of Defense, both directly and indirectly, and that energy would be the fourth main industry in the “other” category. So the facility will represent mainly high-end, regulated industries.

We walked past a separate room being built on the floor, which Morris informed me would house titanium 3D printers, as they “have very big plans for quite a bit of titanium, especially a lot of implants.” Zeda’s Co-Founder and COO Kishore Karkera made another point here about why the different workflows in the facility will be separated.

“You can see that, even though the same metal powder is used for non-medical and medical, the grade of the powder is different,” he explained. “The medical titanium grade is different than the titanium you use for other industries. That’s why the powders cannot mix even in the same facilities. You need to build walls around it.”

Morris agreed, noting that the separation also helps ensure traceability, which is lost if the powders are mixed together.

“That’s another reason why being very digitally focused, if you will, is super important because, as we scan a bucket of powder, that gives us the traceability. We know the pedigree of that powder, we know where it came from. We have to do that for our medical and our aerospace and other customers.”

We walked past more equipment already in use at the facility, including a mill turn with multiple axes of motion from DMG Mori, which is used “for a lot of the complex geometries that we get involved in.” We stopped outside another separate room, which will eventually hold all of the metrology equipment for Zeda’s medical quality department—everything they need to measure and inspect the parts before they are shipped out.

Automation at Zeda

I asked how much automation they anticipated using there, and Morris said it would be “quite a bit,” and that I’d get to see some of it for myself.

Walking through the large factory, Morris said that, save for a few aisles, the concrete floors would all soon be covered with epoxy, some of which you can see in the above image. In terms of automation being used, we passed by a Makino a51nx 4-axis CNC machining center, and a system of “carrier pallet mobile systems,” which allows operators to set up different jobs on the steel pallets. Morris said this was “a good example of trying to take and automate equipment in order to really perform lights-out manufacturing.”

“What happens is that you have load and unload stations for the operator. When the pallet is going to be used to make something, it’s got what we call a tombstone on top of it,” he explained, gesturing to a tall steel pallet that does in fact resemble its namesake. “That would have some parts clamped on it, and the automated pallet changer would come over, pick it up, put it into the back of the Makino, which would swing around into the processing area, and that’s where all the machining will happen. Then, when the part is done, the pallet processor comes back, hooks in, and then the operator simply removes the door, removes the part, puts a new part in, and resets it. So, you could pre-set up all of these pallets for different jobs and walk away from the machine and let it do its machining on multiple different jobs, multiple different customers. The whole point is you keep the spindles turning, which is how you make the money.”

We walked past a pad that had been cut to add a thicker piece of concrete underneath, which will offer more stability to the large mill turn that will eventually sit there. By this point, we’d reached what Morris had referred to as the “other industry or aerospace side of the facility.” A few other machines were already in place, including a CNC lathe, a wire EDM machine, and an automated powder evacuation machine, which they had designed and built themselves.

“Basically when we get a big platform to get the powder out, you want to automate some of that. It’s very heavy,” Morris explained. “So you got a thousand pounds or something, and to tilt at different angles and the internal passages to get all that powder out is important. So it’ll have sheet metal around it, right now it’s just exposed.”

Passing several smaller rooms used to store powder, which comes in jugs, we came to the standalone room where the AddUp printers will be kept. One FormUp 350 system, which prints Inconel 718, has already been integrated into the space, and more will be coming in the future. I spoke with Rush LaSelle, CEO of AddUp, during my trip to the Zeda facility, but I’ll share the details of that conversation in a future story.

As we headed towards the back of the factory floor, Morris pointed out where the offices will be built, “which will probably happen 12 months from now.” I asked how many employees would be working there once everything was completed, and he anticipates “a minimum of 60 people,” which will be double the amount with which Zeda started the year.

In the next post in this series, I’ll discuss both the planning that went into building this facility and how Morris and Shetty see it fitting into the larger AM industry.

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