Developments in 3D printing with James Hedrick


Dr. James Hedrick is the Co-Founder & Chief Product Officer at Azul 3D, which is commercializing the first 3D printing technology capable of competing with the speed, strength, and economy of scale of injection molding. He started his first company at the age of 16. The profits paid for his college tuition at MIT, where he was also a NCAA student athlete.

He went on to receive his PhD at Northwestern University with Professor Mirkin, during which he developed seminal technology at the core of Azul 3D. He was both a National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate and Ryan Fellow. Dr. Hedrick has authored 16 manuscripts and has 5 patents. He was also named to Forbes 30 Under 30 Class of 2020.


James Hedrick: We can start really early on. I think going back to high school and middle school, all of those, I was always the guy that loved to do math, science, engineering, and try to build stuff. When I was 14, I built my own human center. Huge. I thought the ones you see, like in the space movies or the training where they, we made one with a 10 foot or arm out of a treadmill building these, like, those are the things I did for fun, just as like a kid. So like engineering just kind of was naturally what I was drawn into.

Elisa Muñoz: I did a little bit of research and I found out that you built your own company at 16! Am I right?

James Hedrick: Yeah, that was a funny story. So when I was 16, I started my first “company” and I'll go to the company in quotes because it was a two person operation. It was just my family and me and my brothers setting this up, but it was doing custom lapel pins.

It was this really niche market, but it was a very strong market. That was good enough to be able to build up and be this combination of not too much of a time sink, but at the same time grow, just scale. That really good actually helped me pay for college and get through that. It was one of those weird things that just randomly you find out about and then kind of get sucked into and never thought it would be something I would do. And even looking back 10 years later now, or even 15 years later now did it. I would have still never guessed that I would've got sucked into doing that of all things.

Elisa Muñoz: Wow. And you never continued with that. Like it ended up and then you just jumped into the next thing.

James Hedrick: Yeah. It was something where it was great during undergrad. Cause it was perfectly timing of you're working with manufacturers in China. So you're doing calls at 2:00 AM. So you finish your homework and then you, you jump on a call and then you get that set up. But then once I finished undergrad, what I really decided, you know, was not something that was mine to become a billion dollar company. That was something that was going to be a lifestyle company where, you know, you could very much make a salary off of it, but you kind of would stop there. And it was kind of a, it lost its edge, his lost his appeal.

And when I was starting to graduate college, that's when I was really kind of making this transition of what do I really want to do for a career? What do I want to do next?

The true answer is I had no clue what I wanted to do next. So I decided to do more school and that's where luckily enough, that actually is what led me into starting my next company, which is what I'm still in today.

Elisa Muñoz:  Well, this might be a dumb question, but how long does it take, like what is the main difference from 3D printing compared to  the other manufacturing processes?

James Hedrick: Yeah. So when you start thinking about it, traditional injection molding is amazingly fast, but you could put it in, but we start looking at other 3d printing. What we find is that we can be, you know, a thousand times faster than traditional 3d printers. And the reason for that is that the original invention that we did on that nanoscale was a method of how do you print continue? How do you have the pool just slowly pull out what never stopped traditionally 3d printing was what they call layer by layer, where you make a single layer at a time. But when we talked about that, that it would stick to the bottom of the bat, eight at the peel it off, come back down, restart the chemistry and go up again and do one lit where, and these layers are incredibly thin.

We're talking about something a third to the thickness of a hair at a time is how people, so we're talking about just imagining one at a time. And you're a very good printer would do a centimeter at per hour. And so if you want to print something that is this tall, or you're talking about days, the print. So what we're trying to do is can we reduce that to, you know, hours or minutes to be able to print by? And, and that's really where the core of our technology started off as.

Elisa Muñoz: I'm pretty sure that it's really hard to get customers, especially being a startup and finding your own company. So what was that process like and what kind of customers do you have nowadays?

James Hedrick: Yeah, you'd be interested in 3D printing. You're right. People forget it's 40 years old, already from the original companies coming out. And it's because of this, originally it was called rapid prototyping. It's great for making parts. And then the concept of additive manufacturing came in over time, but the technology hasn't been there and the issue we find with customers is that these big companies said, Hey, we're ready for manufacturing. They sold them the printer and the printer didn't do manufacturing. That's the biggest hurdle that we have is not that they don't believe that out of manufacturer we'll get there. They just don't want to get burned twice, trying to get there. 


Elisa Muñoz: Wow. And did you ever imagine, like being at this point of your life?.

James Hedrick: It's been interesting. I would have never guessed that this is the route I would have gone. I still like it, but I couldn't imagine doing anything else now. Like I say, like the old reason I did a PhD was because I was not ready to do a real job. I was like, I'm not ready for, I'm going to push it off, go to a PhD. Cause that, that feels safe because school has been, you know, fun already. So why don't I keep doing it? It's easier than making a decision. And then a Zol kind of happened into my lap, but it, the day-to-day of how much you have to do with a startup, because, you know, as a founder, as private Ironman, a mix of, and why I chose product versus, you know, more of the traditional science officer or technology officer is I love the combination of being able to meet with customers and seeing are the interesting thing about having a printer technology like ours is it's a base platform. The truth is, the solution we're offering is that part that comes off the printer.

And so I get to work with customers to help them design and look at new parts, coming off the printer while still trying to help the roadmap of what printers are going to keep building up from there. And then there's a whole other aspect of, as a startup, you have to be raising funds all the time. And so there's a whole nother third of my job that is just purely, how do you get the investors that help give you keep going? And aren't just money in the door, but add value to the company that takes you to that next stage.

Elisa Muñoz: Okay so we have to talk about the good side of the company and the hard times, but what about the challenges? What would you say is the biggest technical challenge you have ever solved?

James Hedrick: Ooh, there's so many technical challenges to go into that we've had to solve. The constant one we're facing right now is how to think about supply by supply chain. As you start scaling up, we're starting to see a great demand. How do you get parts through the door, but on the tech, but that's more of an operation side, but, and it's actually something we're trying to solve as a company. The biggest challenge that I would say that the original owner, when I was talking about it, was around thermal management. And what I've seen is that when these parts are made, they get incredibly hot.

So when you go from liquid to solid, you're forming a bond and you're releasing the heat to do that. And what we've found is that something, you know, maybe eight halls and about a 10 minute print, we could do that and we could get 150 degrees Celsius, temperature swing. So that's the equivalent of room temperature to fresh out of the oven while we're printing with polymers. So plastic materials, you know, take that speaker you have right in front of you and go throw it in the oven for 20 minutes and see what happens.

It's not going to end well, they work, they bend. And what we've found is that from my study, like we kind of heard rumors that this heat problem was a problem. But when I stayed any research on it, I found out like, oh, there's a paper in 1990 saying how big he is a problem to go fast. And then there's 30 years of nothing until we eventually published our paper. And it's because it was such a hard problem. Everyone just swept it under the rug, didn't care about it, kept it secret. And that's something that we keep finding in this industry is like, there's these really hard problems. People figured out that they existed and then they veered away from it.

Wow. But every company in the same industry has the same problem, but how did they manage to, in order to solve it? They don't.

Elisa Muñoz:  Are there any critical challenges in the project development phase when it comes to the procurement? 

James Hedrick: Yeah. COVID was interesting for us. I definitely don't recommend trying to raise funds in March of 2020 with a close date three days before COVID hits. Cause that, that was probably the, maybe you want to live the most exciting closing our series, that it was definitely a, a fun one when we were all set and then everything fell apart and we had to rebuild it all up because you know, the whole world shut down and all the VCs we had just freaked out.

But you know, you got through that, that though how we pivoted and really the area I want to focus on with us with COVID was we started manufacturing face shields. It was one of the, probably the highlight the hours my team put in that those first couple months was insane because we started doing 12 hour days where we found out our printer, each printer could do a thousand face shields, every 12 hours, which was about 10 X times faster than the closest printer out there. So it gave us a great benchmark, but it also gave us a way to really help out. We, even of all things, had Shawnee Galecki who plays Leonard and big bang theory, call us up and pay for the face shields so that we could donate them for free.

So we covered the labor, he covered the cost for the materials. And then we were able to do this huge project of getting 10,000 pays shields out over that summer, which was quite a feat for us to be able to really push through.

Elisa Muñoz: Wow, last but not least: Do you have any advice for future engineers or entrepreneurs starting on this path?

James Hedrick: It starts with following your passion. So when you think about our company, we're a very interdisciplinary company. I have, you know, people with math backgrounds, physics, but more materials, chemistry, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, chemical engineers. That's what I am. The range is pretty far because what we have is, you know, we get people that are building on software. I forgot that whole side. Like we have our own printer that we're building. And that is definitely heavy on the hardware side. Then when you have to be able to make your own materials, we found it to be, cause it was garbage in garbage out when it came to the properties that came on that printer.

So we had to develop our own material field and then we had to develop the software to run it because this is an automated chemistry. And if you're not running everything very precisely, you're not going to get consistent parts. And so with that, and then we have our third or fourth team on the R and D side, which is our application team. These are the people that are running the printer. They are heavily focused on CAD design and designing for additives. Cause they help our customers think about, okay, here's our material properties. Here's all the capabilities of design. How do we merge our materials and our design to make a part that you want?

So there's a lot of very different areas in 3d printing, just even without us and them. We're, you know, we're one of many companies in 3d printing, I will say every 3d printing technology is very different. So with that, the biggest thing is just falling. Like what part of that speaks to you? What is it that, you know, do you like the program and think about the machine learning aspect that comes into these printers or do you like to actually build the printer itself or are you more focused on what comes off that printer? And then once you figure out what is it that drives you, it's always what drives you and then follow that passion all the way through like that's the, whatever, whether it's a 3d printer or not.

If you can't find that thing, that's fine. It'll let you do those long nights. Like we used to call it Friday fun night here where we would stay till two in the morning printing. Cause that's what everyone wants to do to just get these parts off the ground and get the things started. As we got bigger, we did, we stopped that because not everyone wants their whole weekend to be just printing, but that is kind of, you have to find something that, you know, you'd work all Friday night and then still call it a success.

Elisa Muñoz: Really motivational. Thank you so much, James. And thank you so much for being here to share your story with us. 

James Hedrick: Thank you so much.

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