In a small office space on East Bay Street in downtown Jacksonville, Adam Dukes and Bryce Pfanenstiel are taking a traditional approach to a very new kind of business that some say could alter commerce itself in the coming years.
From the leather aprons worn by the partners, brick walls and molded Victorian ceilings at the FORGE Manufacturing LLC offices, you’d never guess it was a 3D printing shop. Then there’s the scanning devices, a few samples of their work and, finally, down a dark hall away from the storefront in a side room, is the big, box-like device that’s about the size of a bumper car at an amusement park.
That device is an $80,000, full-color plastic 3D printer that FORGE just got operational in September. The 3D Systems ProJet 4500 printer allows FORGE to manufacture or “print” objects up to 10 inches long, 8 inches wide and 8 inches in depth.
It has been used to make statues, custom trophies, minatures of the Main Street Bridge and even forensic replicas that simulate such things as a bullet hole in a window.
For FORGE, such custom assignments are novelites. In just two years, Pfanenstiel said, the mainstay of FORGE’s business has become the 200 customers whose contracted “projects” range from developing miniature space craft used for enhancing video-game development by a company in Prague, Czech Republic, to models of buildings for an architectural firm in Israel.
“What we’re seeing now is, the cost is dropping. It’s more accessible and the software that you use to make this stuff is more accessible,” Dukes said.
And the business is changing from the service that helps a walk-in customer fulfill a unique order to applications that can transform a company’s manufacturing efficiency.
3D printing literally makes an object out of an image created by computer-aided design, or CAD, software. The image is transmitted into the printing device one layer at a time.
The image is sent from a computer to their printer, which has a cartridge that brushes back and forth over a tray that is filled with a powder, which is the plastic compound that creates the object. After the cartridge is done scanning the image into the tray of powder, the object is created in about 20 minutes for the least-complex objects,.
In FORGE’s case, it specializes in creating plastic objects produced right there and wax facsimiles that are used for making casts for metal objects such as jewelry.
CREDIT FOR THE GUYS WITHOUT A LOAN
Pfanenstiel and Dukes went to high school together in Owensboro, Ky. Dukes became a computer science specialist working on genetic engineering projects in St. Louis. Pfanenststiel was an advertising professional who lived at the Beaches in Jacksonville. The pair stayed in touch and, in 2012, they decided to open their 3D printing shop and Dukes moved to Jacksonville.
At the time, there were about a half dozen walk-in 3D printing shops operating in the United States. FORGE pulled in almost no business the first year, then about $25,000 in revenues in 2013 and then an estimated $100,000 in revenues this year. They’ve never taken out a business loan.
The business also took part as one of the “creators” in the inaugural One Spark crowdfunding festival in 2013 and were a showcase venue site in the event this year. They managed to raise about $3,000 combined in crowdfunding money.
Even that modest amount was more than what others invested in this truly entrepreneurial business. Pfanenstiel said they’ve approached the Downtown Investment Authority and other Jacksonville business-support agencies, seeking seed money. None has been given.
The development of FORGE and other downtown businesses featured at One Spark is becoming a new model for Jacksonville’s startup community.
Elton Rivas, co-founder and CEO of One Spark, said FORGE is the ideal entrepreneur that One Spark was designed for.
“It’s really cool to see a creator like this in a bleeding-edge industry in the heart of our city that is starting to see some traction and growth,” Rivas said. “In essence, they’re in the business in providing the tools for people who are going out there searching for gold.”
The area on East Bay Street has since become known as “The Elbow” and FORGE is next to the Underbelly nightclub. It has the hipster vibe and Rivas said FORGE is part of the evolution there.
“The process by which they turned an idea into a reality epitomizes the process by which Jacksonville’s entrepreneurial scene can continue to grow,” Rivas said, also citing the technology and engineering firm Feature  and the web technology firm Station 4 as examples of entrepreneurial businesses that moved downtown.
“These (FORGE) folks are doing something that’s not 100 percent digital-technology related. But it’s still a technological advance in an explosive industry. They’re a great example of someone who is growing the entrepreneurial scene in our city,” Rivas said.
Both Pfanenstiel and Dukes said that any attention they get for helping downtown is nice. But they can’t wait for or target that.
FORGE literally forged ahead. Both founding partners say that’s the impetus for the name of the company. Whether they’re considered entrepreneurs or artists, they’re now in a state of simply getting money and growing their business however they can.
“You’re a ***** at the beginning,” Pfanenstiel said. “You pick the position and I’ll do it, that’s the way it is.
“You want an artist? I’m an artist. You want a mechanical engineer, give me the tolerance and the specs. We’ve had to do both.”
Dukes said they’re not overly concerned about the impressions they’re making on the startup community. But they see downtown Jacksonville as the place to be.
As Pfanenstiel described it, if FORGE had opened at the Beaches or on the Southside, they’d be waiting in line for customers. In downtown, “We’re at the head of the line.”
As for the development of the 3D printing industry, FORGE may have struck the anvil — the very icon for their business logo — at the right time.
3D PRINTING FOR ONE AND ALL
There have long been high-end 3D printing operations since the 1970s, but usually for larger-scale industrial and mechanical operations, such as the military and major manufacturers. Most 3D printing operations remain on that level, said Bill Decker, chairman of the Association of 3D Printing, which has 1,200 members around the world.
The cost of the printers varies depending on the task. Some 3D printers still cost more than $1 million and are used for complicated objects such as airplane flying devices, crowns for dentists and replacement parts for military weapons.
At any cost, the printers still can’t produce a single mechanism with complex moving machinery. But 3D printers can produce each moving part, which work together after assembly.
3D printing’s profile heightened in the past year after several media accounts reported that guns could be produced on one of the replicating machines.
Decker said while that makes for a sexy headline, that’s not where 3D printing is headed. He said the 3D printers that cost as little as $100 and allow anyone to experiment are not very high grade. He compared the current evolutionary stage of 3D printing to that of the Internet in 1992: It’s very formative but could soon undergo such a transition that 3D printing shops become as common as Kinkos used to be for paper, two-dimensional printing.
“3D printing is still pretty much run by engineers. That reminds me of the Internet where pretty much the geeks were in charge. But that flipped,” said Decker from his office in Denver. “The salesman [eventually] became in charge of the Internet, not the programmers. That’s going to happen in 3D printing.”
The nomenclature is already changing in the 3D printing industry, Decker said. The traditional heavy-industrial 3D printing operations are still referred to as “makers” — they make devices. “Service bureaus” are stores such as FORGE that take a customer’s needs and reproduce an item for a custom need.
And there’s the pending conversion, when 3D printing jumps to a new level through the service bureaus, Decker said.
“There are going to be a lot of them that say, ‘I have this machine,’” Decker said. “They’re going to be makers and service bureaus at the same time.
“The big advantage is time,” Decker said, noting his organization actually managed to 3D print an electric guitar in 19 hours as part of an experiment. “The average person who needs something made … you’re seeing more of that kind of consumer model.”
His association has courses online at their website, associationof3dprinting.com explaining how to handle the 3D printing business.
Pfanenstiel said his advertising background and artistic roots give him the creative edge for FORGE’s marketing, which for the time is largely limited to Internet search-engine programming.
Dukes remains the techno-head who brings the mechanical bearing to the business. Still, Dukes acknowledged that their novelty work today, the custom service at a relatively low price — for instance, walk-in customers who want a bust of themselves after being scanned on a computer device — will lead FORGE to greater success.
“It’s better for everybody if there’s a FORGE and you can pay $60 and get something made,” Dukes said. “If I want something, I want to feel it. Is it hard or is it soft? It’s like a retail experience for creating.”
Drew Dixon: (904) 359-4098