Forbes.com, Feb 19, 2019 – Jim Vinoski, Contributor
US Army combat veteran Terry Hill gained valuable exposure to 3-D printing – also known as additive manufacturing (AM) – in his first post-service job with a global aerospace company, leading their robotic welding and AM efforts. When the AM portion of his job was discontinued, despite his own strong belief in the potential of the technology, Hill decided to launch his own company with a two-pronged purpose: to leverage 3-D printing as the basis for his business, and to help out his fellow military veterans in any way possible.
Hill is no stranger to challenges. He spent 13 years in the U.S. Army as an Engineer and UH-60 Black Hawk medical evacuation aviator, commanding officer, maintenance test pilot, and research pilot. He served through multiple deployments, surviving combat missions and a helicopter hard landing that would change his life forever. (He’s now paired with his service dog and VP of Business Development, Jonsey.) It was during his service that he got his first introduction to AM, using it to produce a piece he’d invented for Army flight helmets.
Rapid Application Group, LLC, is the only service-disabled veteran-owned full production AM small business in the US, in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. Hill founded it in 2017 out of his home office, collaborating with 3D Systems On Demand (the company’s service bureau) for his manufacturing needs. An early opportunity to produce parts for a major helicopter manufacturing company helped move the business forward. Hill bought his first printers at the beginning of last year and has added printer capacity rapidly ever since. The company was subleasing from a larger manufacturing space, but they are now finalizing plans to move into their new 12,000 square foot facility. The business grew by 300% last year. They’re on track to triple that growth in 2019, and they’re one of Oklahoma’s fastest-growing companies.
They’re a digital manufacturing company that provides high-precision, quick-turnaround parts for the aerospace, health care, motorsports, oil and gas, and consumer industries. Federal contracts are a key part of the business – they’re the first choice for AM applications for the Department of Defense. “Our tagline is ‘Mission-Critical AM,’” said Hill. The company offers fast prototyping, low-volume and full run production, tool-less investment casting patterns, reverse engineering, 3-D scanning, and other hybrid AM techniques. They accomplish this with a complete line of 3-D printing solutions, matching the right technology to each application as needed. They currently offer in-house capabilities via 3D Systems’ selective laser sintering (SLS), digital light printing (DLP), multijet printing (MJP) for investment casting, and fused deposition modeling (FDM). They continue to partner with 3D Systems On Demand to provide stereolithography (SLA) and direct metal printing (DMP). “We cover the full spectrum of additive manufacturing,” Hill said.
Hill is off to an excellent start on his first objective, building the most advanced 3-D printing business in Oklahoma. He’s also out of the gates on his second goal as well, helping out fellow military veterans. He’s already developed a hands-on training program in AM to serve their needs. “When I transitioned back to civilian life, I had a two-week course on how to be a civilian,” said Hill. “I thought this transition process would be really easy, and it’s not.” That drove his decision to offer AM training to help ease that transition for other veterans. The “Veterans to Additive” program is their in-house certified professional development course, resulting in a certificate in AM. Through this training, Hill is hoping to be able to hire four or five more military veterans this year, to support a long-term target of 51% military veterans on staff.
He’s also begun providing a two-hour course to local high school and middle school students, teaching them the fundamentals 3-D manufacturing. “At the end of it, we give them a certificate that we produce and I sign,” he said. “This program provides the foundation of advanced manufacturing and allows us to plant the 3-D printing seed.”
Hill employs his technologies to aid disabled veterans directly as well. The company has worked on AM production of prosthetics, and has focused particularly on prototyping prosthetics for injured service animals.
His company continues to grow at an astounding rate due to his team, which is made up of an exclusive group of seasoned military and AM specialists. Discipline, loyalty, integrity, and meticulous quality are their guiding principles. One of their biggest opportunities is full-scale manufacturing using 3-D printing. “Our strategic vision is full AM production,” he said. “As AM matures, we’re designing for full manufacturing, to drive the train there from quick prototyping.” The company’s goal is 25 to 35 machines in operation in the next five years. This will support full production government contracting, covering all 3-D printing technologies in-house. They do hybrid AM as well, using multiple technologies for a given project, and will be adding other advanced manufacturing techniques to complement their AM services. “We ask ourselves, what can we be the very best in the world at?” Hill said. “That’s application-based solutions, offering not just one path for production.”
The company has plans to add to its community offerings too. “In Q2 of 2019 we’re moving into our AM Center of Excellence, where a portion of the space is segregated for STEM projects, and for the local community to come in and learn,” said Hill. The company is also partnering with a large university and with manufacturing alliances to add to their educational programs.
In the end, Hill understands the transformative potential of AM. “When I can peel back the onion and show that you can now manufacture something that you’ve never been able to do before, in a way that you’ve never been able to do before… that’s the awesome part. That’s what I really enjoy,” Hill said. “It’s an amazing technology, and I’m very, very humbled to be a part of a team that strives to push the manufacturing envelope.”