3D printing: Where Chattanooga's past meets its future

As part of Road Trip 2015, CNET digs into the 3D printing startup culture in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
7 min read

CHATTANOOGA, Tennessee -- When Platt Boyd decided to quit his job as an architect and use his retirement savings to start a company that would construct buildings with a 3D printer, he didn't move his family to Silicon Valley or Brooklyn. He came here.

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Branch Technology has built the largest free-form 3D printer, to print walls. CNET/Marguerite Reardon

Boyd had been an architect for 15 years, and he left his steady paycheck and company benefits at Seay, Seay, & Litchfeld Architects in Alabama to participate in Chattanooga's Gigtank accelerator, a 100-day program where startups come and get guidance from industry experts and business mentors with expertise in broadband and entrepreneurship.

Boyd and the three other members of his team could have come for the Gigtank experience and returned home after it ended in July. Instead, they decided to stay in Chattanooga and create a company, Branch Technology, here. For Boyd, the decision was an easy one. The 3D printing brain trust is in Chattanooga, and that's where he wanted to be.

"Honestly, it was a bigger decision to quit my steady job than deciding to relocate the company," he said.

Call it being in the right place at the right time. Chattanooga has spent decades transforming itself from a dirty industrial backwater to a future-looking technology hub. Today, it boasts the nation's largest ultrahigh-speed broadband network, known in the industry as a gigabit network, and a thriving startup scene. Leaders in Chattanooga's startup community saw 3D printing in particular as the perfect way to marry the city's manufacturing roots with the promise of tomorrow's technologies, which they hope will pave the way for sustained economic growth.

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"We saw how the gigabit network could benefit 3D printing," said Mike Bradshaw, executive director of The Company Lab, a Chattanooga-based nonprofit, whose mission is to help entrepreneurs get their businesses off the ground. "And we thought, 'Do we want to let this just happen, or do we want to be a part of creating it?' We figured now was the time to jump in."

What do you do with so much speed?

Two years ago, the city-owned electric company EPB -- formerly known as Electric Power Board -- started building an ultrahigh-speed broadband network that delivers 1 gigabit per second downloads and uploads, which could let you download a full high-definition movie in 20 seconds, as opposed to 30 minutes on an average Internet connection.

But the city wanted to do more than just download movies, and it created Gigtank to answer the question: "If you had the world's fastest Internet, what would you do with it?"

3D printing was a good fit. The technology requires huge amounts of data to create a detailed three-dimensional design. It relies on cloud computing, where multiple computers are connected over a network to provide the necessary processing power to tell the 3D printer what to do. It requires a network with low latency, or the industry term for any delay with the data traveling across the network (low latency means less of a delay).

One of the benefits of 3D printing to industrial manufacturing is that the machines are able to adapt during the manufacturing process to correct flaws. A low-latency network like the one that Chattanooga has built ensures that all the machines can talk to one another without delay, which to a manufacturer greatly reduces mistakes and waste.

"Machines can adjust parameters over a low-latency network as its printing in real time," said Graham Bredemeyer, a self-taught 3D printing expert, who was recruited by Bradshaw to come to Chattanooga to help mentor startups as part of the Gigtank team. "Using other manufacturing methods, you might be forced to throw away the whole part and start over."

While Bradshaw and others immediately saw the fit between 3D printing and Chattanooga's network, 3D printing, which many believe to be the future of manufacturing, also dovetails nicely into Chattanooga's past. Since before the American Civil War, Chattanooga was an industrial hub of the South. It became a major center for steel and iron production used for shipbuilding. But as those industries started to go overseas and plants closed across the US through the 1970s and '80s, Chattanooga lost valuable manufacturing jobs and a part of its heritage.

Starting in the mid-'80s the city embarked on a revitalization effort that began with cleaning up its air and natural surroundings. Since then, the city has managed to attract industry once again. In 2011, Volkswagen opened its North American manufacturing headquarters here.

Chattanooga: From 'dirtiest city' to Internet haven (pictures)

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The promise of 3D printing

It's still early days in 3D printing, and Bradshaw said he and others recognize it may not be appropriate for all applications. That's why the companies chosen to participate in Gigtank must show a relevancy beyond novelty.

Bredemeyer noted that there are dozens of companies located in Brooklyn and Silicon Valley that are 3D printing all kinds of consumer goods. But he said there are few such companies focused on industrial- and commercial-grade manufacturing.

"It's not enough to just be able to 3D print something like a bottle opener or cell phone case," he said. "We need to ask what does 3D printing allow us to do in the manufacturing process that we couldn't do using a traditional process?"

Bredemeyer said Boyd's team at Branch Technology got this concept.

"They were asking not if they could 3D print a wall, but what does it offer that traditional construction can't?" he said.

Indeed, Boyd said that's the whole point of Branch. During his pitch at the Gigtank Demo Day in July, he described Branch's technique as a way to build like nature, eliminating the waste of traditional construction and allowing architects to design structures in shapes that were too costly to achieve using traditional construction techniques.

"One of the core advantages of 3D printing is that it allows for customization and complexity," Boyd said. "This means that we no longer have to accept boring, cookie-cutter designs. It really blurs the line between art and function."

Branch Technology has developed a technique it calls "Cellular Fabrication." It uses a 3D printer head attached to a 12.5 foot robotic arm from Kuka Robotics to free-form build a scaffold frame using a combination of plastic and carbon fiber. The robotic arm, which can travel up and down a 33-foot rail, can build a 3D skeleton of a wall that is 25-feet wide by 58-feet long.

The plastic scaffold weighs only a couple of pounds and then is filled with traditional construction materials, such as foam insulation and concrete to add support and strength. The final product is a wall that can support up to about 3,000 pounds.

Boyd explained that architects could send Branch designs that it would then use to 3D print the plastic frames. These lightweight pieces could then be shipped to construction sites, where they'd be assembled like Legos. Contractors would then use traditional building materials to fill in the scaffolding, and apply the proper finishes.

Boyd said this technique can reduce the cost of construction to between $80 to $140 a square foot. Compare this with the thousands of dollars a square foot it costs for most creative building designs, such as museums.

Branch is just one of five 3D startups to come through the Gigtank and make Chattanooga their homes. Another, Feetz, which 3D prints custom shoes, went through the program last year. Afterward, founder Lucy Beard relocated the company from San Diego, California, to Chattanooga.

Beard said her inspiration for the company came one day out of frustration when she was shopping for shoes. She struggled to find a pair of mass-produced shoes that fit. As she took a break from her search and had a latte, she wondered why she couldn't get custom-fitted shoes the way she was able to customize her coffee.

Feetz was born. Using a mobile app on a smartphone, customers take three photos of their foot, which they send to Feetz. The data is used to create a pattern custom-sized to each foot. And then, using 3D printers, the shoes are printed within hours and shipped out to customers. Prices range from $150 to $250.

'Shooting for the moon'

While the gigabit network is a key benefit for 3D printing applications and is one reason entrepreneurs come to Chattanooga, it's not the only thing driving the 3D printing community. Bradshaw has personally recruited 3D printing experts like Bredemeyer and others to relocate to Chattanooga.

There is also a significant amount of expertise in the 3D printing field just 100 miles away near Knoxville, Tennessee at Oak Ridge National Laboratories. This national laboratory, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, is another center of innovation for 3D printing. Earlier this year, engineers demonstrated the first 3D printed car.

"The startup culture in general here and the proximity to Oak Ridge National Laboratories, was definitely a significant reason for relocating to Chattanooga," Boyd said.

Bradshaw says The Company Lab or CoLab, as it's commonly known, is exploring other ways to fuel the 3D printing startup community. He sees an opportunity in helping manufacturers figure out how and if 3D printing is right for them.

"The big question for companies now is what place 3D printing has within their manufacturing process," he said. "But figuring that out is time consuming and expensive."

Bradshaw said he would like to create a lab in Chattanooga where companies could come, bring their engineers and consult with 3D printing experts to study their own processes and experiment with 3D printing technologies to see if it could be used to improve their existing processes.

"We may be shooting for the moon," he said. "But we have to remember that for every trip to the moon there are many earthly things that must happen along the way to get you there."