Justin Keenan and Kevin Paroda have a few things in common.
They have been roommates at Penn State for three years, share a passion for hands-on projects and believe you can always make things better.
All they need is to find a kink in a cog to get to work, which is what they discovered when using a 3-D printer in their room that required them to manually remove each part that it made and start the process over for the next piece, making for some long nights.
“We got sick of it,” Paroda said. “Anyone who has ever done it probably got sick of it, too, so we decided we wanted to find a way to solve the problem.”
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Keenan and Paroda have since founded Mobium Solutions and made about 10 prototypes for ECHOdrive, a vacuum chamber plate that automates the 3-D printing process. Their invention recently won them $10,000 from the Lemelson-MIT National Collegiate Student Prize Competition, which also awarded four other teams from universities across the country.
Competitors were evaluated by screening committees and a national judging panel of industry leaders from a variety of disciplines. Screeners and judges assessed each invention’s breadth and depth of creativity, potential for societal benefit and economic commercial success, community and environmental systems impact and experience as a role model for youth.
Keenan and Paroda believe their 3-D printer add-on is a more efficient way to make parts, because it doesn’t require the continual human interaction that makes printing on most traditional models a time-consuming experience.
“What we have gives users a better surface to print on than the usual glass, aluminum or acrylic plate that parts are still stuck to when they’re done,” Keenan said. “Our sales pitch is that this is the ultimate upgrade for 3-D printer usability, because we’ve created a better surface and users can access the machine from anywhere (via Wi-Fi).”
Instead of traditional surfaces, the entrepreneurs created a device the pulls film from a spool that is vacuumed onto a platform where the 3-D object is printed. When the printing is complete the vacuum releases, the film rolls out with the part on it and the process repeats itself.
ECHOdrive hasn’t hit the market yet.
“We’re still in the beta testing phase, and we’re still making prototypes ourselves,” Keenan said. “We’re also getting it out into people’s hands to get feedback, to garner interest and see what people like and don’t like about it.”
Though they admit there is something else on the market like their product, it’s still not quite the same.
“There’s not currently any add-ons being sold like this,” Keenan said.
NVBOTS, a Boston-based company, manufactures a 3-D printer called NVPro with automated part removal. The company, however, rents out its 3-D printers and does not sell its automated part removal component as an add-on.
Prices for renting an NVPro range from $2,999 to $9,999 per year, a steep cost to 3-D printer enthusiasts, small businesses and educators that already have a 3-D printer — just to upgrade its process.
“It’s just not viable for some customers,” Prado said.
ECHOdrive will be a more affordable alternative to renting NVPro, but Keenan and Prado said they plan on building and commercializng a full-size 3-D printer, too.
“We have a few ideas for where to take our product,” Keenan said.
Keenan and Prado still have another sticky issue in front of them before they can implement long-term ideas — funding.
They received a $10,000 grant to continue developing ECHOdrive from the Summer Founders Program at Penn State.
They plan to launch a Kickstarter later this summer to manufacture and sell ECHOdrive.
Paroda said they look forward to getting ECHOdrive “into other makers’ hands.”
“Eventually, selling our product on the market will be the realization of thousands of hours of work for us,” he said, “and we can’t wait for that day to come.”