How SiMT, Xometry use manufacturing to fund STEM programs

Dec. 16, 2020
Alexandra Ditoro interviews Greg Paulsen, Xometry, and Tressa Gardner, SiMT

Alexandra Ditoro, spoke with Greg Paulsen, director of application engineering at Xometry, and Tressa Gardner, associate vice president of Southeastern Institute of Manufacturing Technology (SIMT), which is a manufacturing trade school that has partnered with Xometry for both training and revenue and is dedicated to help funding university operations. 


Amanda: Welcome back to Manufacturing Tomorrow's Workforce, a podcast from Putman Media. I'm Amanda Del Buono. We wanted to end the year with an episode that spotlights a positive partnership which helps bridge the gaps between manufacturers and their customers, but also helps encourage STEM education.

In line with this, Putman Media social and digital media coordinator, Alexandra Ditoro, spoke with Greg Paulsen, director of application engineering at Xometry, and Tressa Gardner, associate vice president of Southeastern Institute of Manufacturing Technology (SIMT), which is a manufacturing trade school that has partnered with Xometry for both training and revenue and is dedicated to help funding university operations.

Here is their interview.

Alexandra: Hi, I'm Alexandra Ditoro. Today I'm joined with Greg Paulsen and Tressa Gardner. The Southeastern Institute of Manufacturing and Technology, also known as SIMT, is a manufacturing trade school that uses Xometry for both training and revenue, which is dedicated to funding student's tuition. Thanks for joining me today, Greg and Tressa.

Greg, could you start by telling us a little bit about Xometry and the University Manufacturing Partner program? How did Xometry start the program and what have been the benefits of the program for Xometry?

Greg: Oh yeah. Thanks so much again for having us, and I think it's really exciting to talk about this aspect of the business, because Xometry was founded to kind of solve this problem of procurement, and starting with the customer, the customer is usually someone that's a mechanical designer or someone who needs manufactured part, so whether that is a machine part, a printed part, sheet metal part, injection molded part, just looking to get something made. And a traditional process which I know many have been through, which is calling and just waiting for the feedback and this kind of request for quote usually, and sometimes it's three, four, or five days and sometimes when you get that feedback it may just be a, "When do you need it by?" It's not even a full, "Here's your price and lead time." So, we started about six years ago and injected technology into this upfront quoting process where actually we have software that's free to use online where you upload, get an instant price based off the geometry of the part and you could further configure it and change things like 3-D printing materials or processes and even specifications, price and lead time updates. So, it made it really powerful for designers and people who needed procured custom manufacturing to get these parts. And then you have the other side of the issue, right, which is manufacturing. So, in a lot of cases for a manufacturer you may have only a local environment because they're sending locally, so you're only working with somebody nearby. And what that means is that you may have some seasonal business that comes through because maybe it's oil and gas season that has its ups and downs, or maybe there's something that can happen and I think it's very relevant right now where there could be something like weather event or an act of God or something like a pandemic where it's disrupted the supply chain and maybe you don't have a customer nearby anymore or vice versa, this customer may not have a supplier nearby. So Xometry actually bridged within their quoting and ordering experience a network of manufacturers. So for a customer, they can go order parts and press buy and for this embedded Xometry manufacturing partner network. They can go and see the scope of work that's been awarded on that network and they could see if this is something they want to take and the price that they're willing to take it at.

So, we've been looking for qualified suppliers and all sorts of manufacturing technologies and onboarding them, including SIMT as part of this program, and actually I think, and Tressa, you could correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure we started working with SIMT specifically when we were launching stereo-photography, a 3-D printing process, and I believe Steven from your team actually reached out and we had a dialogue and we started working through. So, I think that's really where we began to work with your program and learned more about the benefits.

Tressa: Yes, we've been partnering with Xometry I think it's at least a year and a half, maybe almost two years, and it especially started with the SLA and SLS business and then we have...I mean, we've actually looked at getting different materials that we can carry to better fill the needs of Xometry and their, places they work with.

Alexandra: Oh, awesome. That goes perfectly into my next question, which you've already touched on a little bit, but Tressa, how did SIMT become involved with the Xometry Manufacturing Partnership Program? And can you just tell me a bit about how your partnership came to be?

Tressa: Yes. The SIMT is a division of Florence-Darlington Technical College, and we opened in September of 2007, and we've been doing 3-D printing almost since then. Not very many people were doing it 13 years ago, or if they were it was typically a university or a big business, like a GE. But we got into it and now we've got folks who've been with us for eight and a half years, our lab manager, Andrew, for example. We started with...well SLS and SLA back in the day, I mean 10-12 years ago, and over time we've added DMLS, the metal printing. We also have a Connex and we do FDM piece deposition modelling as well and have added machines and capabilities over those years but especially in the last two years since we've been partnering with Xometry.

The SIMT was built to support industry, education and economic development in South Carolina, and then the region and actually we've done worked with folks in 42 states and nine countries. What happens is typically [through] Xometry, we have a job board and so we see every job that's posted at Xometry, and our purpose at the SIMT is to generate revenue that goes back to the college to support academic programs. For example, if you've ever seen a machine shop, you know how many machines there are and how expensive it is to run that kind of program on the academic side, but we have a 100% placement rate for everyone who graduates from that program dating back at least to 2002, which was when we came on board. And there's very high demand. And so, having those students to supply industries locally is very important for manufacturing in the state. We've had search from other states come and say, you know, "We need to hire your graduates," and we say, "Why don't you send us a dozen of yours and we'll just put them in a class and they'll go home and work for you?" So, we got involved with Xometry I believe because of the SolidWorks plugin. The guys in the lab kept seeing Xometry and they reached out and said, "How do we become a part of this network that you have?" And actually, we just in the last two weeks I guess got our second Xometry exemplary manufacturing partner award. That might not be the exact name.

Greg: It's the Excellence in Manufacturing Award.

Tressa: Okay. I was close.

Greg: You are winners, which is fantastic.

And by the way, I just have to say this. So, this is not desktop 3-D printing. Like, these processes that Tressa is talking about, they're industrial additive manufacturing. They're professional technologies that can scale much much more than a desktop.

The things that we rate our manufacturing partners on, and it's kind of a benefit of being a partner is it's probably one of the few times that you actually get real feedback on your system, so timeliness, quality of parts, communication and interaction are all part of our partner's success score and our highest award as a partner. The highest sustained success score of partners is this Excellence In Manufacturing Award. I'm pretty sure you guys are either a 99% or 100% on your success which is unheard of. That's fantastic.

Tressa: They're a little bit competitive about that. I mean, I could call them right now and say, "What's our Xometry score?" and they would tell me. They would know right away, and if it dropped to a 95%, they would call and tell me why. I mean it'd be like, "Oh, this happened." Things do happen sometimes, a machine will crash or here in South Carolina sometimes there's a giant thunderstorm coming through and we have a power outage so that might affect the sales.

But it's all of our machines, when we bought them, for example, our FDM is a Fortus 900 and it's the largest machine of FDM that you can buy. And so, we do industrial-grade, industrial-size.

Alexandra: Wow. That's awesome. Yeah, so just continuing on that, what kind of student programs are offered?

Tressa: So, at the college, we have lots of technology degrees, which would be machine tool technology, which is for your machinist or tooling guy, and then we also have engineering technology, which is the two-year engineering degree, as well as industrial magnets, and all of those are offered in our facility, but the students are not the ones doing the work. We have full-time employees to do all of our work. Now, having said that, two of them are graduates and two of them have taken classes at the college or are currently taking classes at the college, but they all...I'll laugh and say they're all under late 30 to early 40s and between them they've got 80 years of manufacturing experience. But then we do typically have a student or two which is cool because we get to pick the best ones, and then with the idea that when they graduate that we get to hire them, or actually one of our students from a few years ago he graduated, he worked for us for a year or two and he now works for Xometry.

Greg: I was going to say, we did hire one of your guys.

Tressa: Yeah, we did, because I think I actually may have done a reference for him. But we knew that he was, his wife got a job offer out of state, up around Maryland, and so we kind of knew that. I think it was last summer actually. Then we hired a young man to replace him who moved here from Pennsylvania, Maryland, somewhere. Anyway, he kept coming by and just leaving his resume in the lab and then a few weeks would go by and he'd bring it in again. And I said to him this morning...I said something about...they were talking about kicking off a build at 5:00 a.m. and I said, "I might have to just sleep here." He said, "Can I sleep here? I would sleep here if you'd let me sleep here. I just love this place." So, we've got a really good team and we've been fortunate and we're perfectly happy with the fact that one of our employees is now one of Xometry's employees.

Alexandra: That's really cool.

Greg: I did wanna point out, like, this is not, like...I mean these are real paying jobs. Like, one of the cool I don't know, Tressa, if you wanted me to say like what the number is now, but I know we did a press release actually. I got a wonderful email from you all, and we were so excited to share that the revenues were going to tuition, which was amazing, and by about your first year in you completed about $180,000 of work through Xometry's job board, and, it's been less than a year since then and you've only accelerated on the work coming through. So, it's been very exciting to see how much we're doing. I mean, I'm looking at the stats right now, by the way, I know that you have five jobs running in parallel right now, and they're able to take essentially as much work as comes through. You're able to take that work on, which is amazing.

Tressa: And, like I said, they're very proud of that. I mean, the guys in the lab really are. Our revenue supported 10% of the college's operations budget. So that's a pretty good number.

Alexandra: I'm also curious about the programs funded by the Xometry partnership revenue. Have you expanded your offerings because of this? Which programs are funded through revenue and how has that benefited those particular programs?

Tressa: So we have...what the revenue that we generate allows us to do is support programs at the college in lots of different ways. For example, it might be that there's a recruiting activity that we can help support. We built a coffee shop in the library several years ago. Generally speaking, it goes back to the operations of the college which then supports all of the programs.

Within the SIMT itself, we have the two-year engineering degrees, industrial maintenance and machine tool technology. And so, those students interact with the guys in the 3-D printing lab on a daily basis as well as they're exposed to any industry people who come through. So, for example, we might have someone come in who wants to talk to us about 3-D printing or we have a metrology lab and we might have somebody from industry come in and say, "Can we borrow your metrology lab?" And we can say, "Sure. Can our students watch what you're doing?" And that's kind of fun because every engineer that you say that to goes, "Sure. I get to teach this? I get to teach them what I'm doing is important from a quality standpoint? Absolutely, I want the students in here." The facility itself is 177,000 square feet, so it's not just the 3-D printing and machining and the academic programs, but it's a draw for industry from across the region to come and utilize it for all kinds of things. I mean we might have Honda from South Carolina having a training class, so our students would be exposed to them. I have actually taken industry people into a classroom and before it was over, students were getting job interviews set up just because the HR person walked in.

Alexandra: Wow.

Tressa: So that was kind of a long answer, but...

Alexandra: No, but that's good. That's exactly what I would assume you would hope to have be the result for programs. And then how has this program helped SIMT sustain itself in light of lesser state funding?

Tressa: The SIMT was opened because some of my predecessors knew that the state funding that was declining was not going to come back and said, "What if we had our own little manufacturing facility?" was kind of the idea at the time, but we really didn't...I mean if you look at the original floor plan for the building, our additive manufacturing labs were marked as hydraulics and pneumatics labs, and so those were moved and those labs became 3-D printing labs.

We have tours for everything. We kind of had to stop with elementary school children because they want to run and that's not good in a facility like ours, but from middle school to on up, we've had students come through, just better understand 3-D printing even if it's like the Darlington County summer reading program for adults. We've actually had enrichment programs for retirees come and do a tour of 3-D printing, because they hear it but they don't understand it until they can see it. And so, I think the more we can make people understand 3-D printing. Like, right now with the pandemic, how it might help people then when they hear the news talking about how we need more people in manufacturing then it fills those gaps and starts to make sense to them.

Alexandra: Yeah, definitely. For both of you, I'm curious what lessons you've learned from the partnership. Have there been any challenges you've overcome through this?

Tressa: I would say this. Working with Xometry, especially because we're so intent on getting that Excellence in Manufacturing Award, it really has improved our quality. We instituted some processes and some practices just to improve our quality number, even if it was just shifting. We've reorganized the way our shifting area is set up but just little manufacturing processes and practices that improved the way we did business, and that's what's helped us get that score.

Greg: I just did a little happy dance there. I love hearing that. I think to that point is very interesting.

So, one of the first things to happen, and I've been with Xometry since the early beginning, so the partner network program obviously developed over time and we've had lessons learned, too, but one of the first things we found out was shipping, that a lot of manufacturers because they are working local to local are often not packaging parts to survive ground shipping from east coast to west coast, for example. It breaks my heart when I see a part that scratches itself because it hits a neighbor when you've already put in your $1,000 worth of work into it. And so, one of the biggest portions of our partner guide when we started off other than regular terms and conditions was how to ship a part--put two inches of packaging in between, and some of these things because...yeah, this whole relearning of that.

And I think to your point about the quality side of that, since we are nationally distributed and we have customers not globally but a huge U.S. base of customers, you have to create defined and universally accepted standards for every manufacturing technology, like what is the standard floor for CNC machined components, a standard for sheet metal, a standard for motor components. And 3-D printing to your point, there's a lot of education there and there's a lot of awareness made, and even on our side, we're always trying to better define these standards because even in one process, like SLA for example, there may be some materials that print and have a very nice even surface and, maybe have, like, spots that are fairly visible where others have more expressive, like stems to where supports are that you could physically feel and what the definition of a standard finish is something that I think we've worked collaboratively with both you and our partner network and our internal shop experts as well to kind of come on agreement saying, "Okay. So, a standard finish is this and it's universally agreeable."

I actually have a story on SLA. From our definition of a standard we were thinking, "Okay, grow the part, sand off the supports and ship it." And we actually started finding out that many people were actually looking for a even surface over it. So, you print a part a lot of times the bottom surface has sacrificial structures to it and it looks a little bit different than the rest. So, we changed our definition of a standard to actually what would be usually a matte finish, which basically evened out the surface to give this kind of a universal all around look to the part which actually reduced our overall complaints and returns rejects from the systems, and that's always been kind of a conversation that we've had and our lessons learned from that transferred into the launching of, you know, our HP multi-jet fusion processes, the launching of Carbon VLS and other 3D printing for the future.

We've been kind of working on top of those and I mean we're just at the beginning of what's available, and we still have like 11 processes available. There are always things that we're always researching and we're always asking the experts if we don't have experts internally, and getting honestly candid feedback from our manufacturing partners to make sure that we're all on the same page, and I think keeping that open conversations is one of the most important things about Xometry's relationship with our partners is we're not just dictating down, like, we're keeping the mic open and talking.

Tressa: Yep. So, eight or 10 years ago...I mean, we laugh now and go, you know, 3-D printing was...there were no standards. It was kind of the wild wild west. Everybody was just happy to get a part. And then, when you ask about standards you sometimes got a blank look because it was like, "Oh, we're not sure where to begin." And so now of course there are experts, but everything about it is improved. We can show you parts off our SLA and say this one is this old. And we have one that we show it a lot because we can say, "You see that first little teeny circle that looks like a wood grain? That's actually the very first layer and then these are the subsequent layers." So, it's a great demo part, but it's not at all the finish that our customer would expect now.

Greg: Yeah, that we accept it today, yeah.

Alexandra: That's awesome. So, just to follow up on that, and this is something you've both already touched on but I want to ask it in case there's anything else you want to add, and it's a two-part question, so I'm sure it can bring in some new information, but how has this helped both of your organizations and why do you think others should follow your example?

Greg: I could certainly say that Xometry, our business strategy is these manufacturing partners and building a robust network of talented professionals that can do this work on demand. And we really rely on our manufacturing partners for the obvious sort of side of fulfillment, but also kind of feedback for ourselves and make sure that we're constantly working on doing the right thing whether it's improving features themselves in the job portal, or making sure pricing is fair, like make sure pricing that we're giving out is fair and reasonable. At the same time, we're working on constituents on the customer side making sure that the price is fair and acceptable for the customer and that the quality they receive is stellar, and we're building the entire feedback loop.

But I just really want to say that there's a lot of places out there that are able to maybe quote a part, or maybe do a portion of the process, because we are focused so much on the ability to get work from customers and give work to those partners and really are starting to spin that fly wheel and just get that momentum going, Like, we've been able to really be elevated by both sides, and honestly, like, partners like SIMT have just brought our quality, brought our objectives to a whole other level.

Tressa: And I would say...I mean it's beneficial for us obviously, I mean, from a revenue standpoint, but we can't afford to have a sales force, and so, you know, Xometry is our sales force. And then also, folks come to us sometimes. I mean, I get calls and people, a lot of times it's an enterpreneur or a small business person and they say, "I have an idea. I need this to solve a problem in my industry, right? And I've come up with this." And we look at it and go, "Well, we can't do that, but we can reach out to Xometry and say, ‘Hey, do you all know somebody who can help with this?’ So, it goes back. They're a resource for us as well. So, we can reach out and say, "Hey, can you all take a look at this font and tell us who might can help?" And then Xometry would send it to another partner of theirs, and so we've made our local person happy and we filled a need for them but then we didn't have to invest a new expertise that we couldn't afford to do, but we met their need.

Greg: You didn't have to turn the customer down. We see that a lot actually recently, which is our manufacturing partners, so our machine partners maybe sending us some sheet metal work to fulfill via the partner network, because we have very fair pricing and so it's've heard that they get that pricing, commit to it, add it to their bid package back to that customer and keep that customer happy. And so you’re able to focus, as a business owner on your sweet spots and spend less time like on that searching and making exceptions to the rules more times than actually making the parts that you're at making. So, I love that you brought that up. It's great.

Alexandra: Yeah, all of that. That's really great. I think that obviously the school programs, university programs higher education programs are so important and I think that it's really awesome what you all are doing.

And thank you both so much for joining me.

Greg: Happy to be here. And by the way, I did want to mention one of the things that if you are a manufacturer and you're interested in Xometry it all starts with the link at the top of the page. So Xometry is, and if you go to the top go to the button that says, "become a partner." It all starts there. So, fill out that information. It will help guide you through the partner side of the process, and I know like we're looking forward to other manufacturers, so please take a look there.

Alexandra: Great. Thank you so much.

Tressa: Thank you for inviting us. This was fun. We enjoyed it.

Alexandra: Of course.

Greg: Yeah, thanks so much.

Amanda: And that was Alexandra's interview with Greg Paulson of Xometry and Tressa Gardner of SIMT. Stay tuned for season 3 of Manufacturing Tomorrow's Workforce coming in 2021. We wish all of our listeners safe and happy holiday's and here's to a better new year. Thanks for listening.

For more, tune into Manufacturing Tomorrow's Workforce.

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