DETROIT—Now that he has hired his first employee, Ken Foster is ready to start bringing offshored mold making jobs back to the U.S.
Foster plans to do that by reducing the high labor costs required at the thousands of small job shops that make the hundreds of thousands of molds used to make all the plastic and metal parts that go into automobiles and other products.
When the molds are made, they must be polished for hours to make them as smooth as required by auto makers so they can make thousands of precisely identical parts.
Because of that amount of labor and the cost associated with it, a lot of mold making has been offshored over the years to China and other low-labor-cost countries.
3DFoundri is based on the work of two professors in mechanical engineering at Michigan State University, Haseung Chungand Patrick Kwon.
Foster is the president and CEO. He got his master's and Ph.D degrees in materials science and engineering from the University of Illinois and was a postdoctoral research fellow at the Japan Science and Technology Agency. He then embarked on a 25-year career in industry before becoming an entrepreneur-in-residence at Spartan Innovations in 2019, helping vet on-campus research for potential commercialization.
In addition to other positions over the years, Foster was a researcher at Japan's National Institute of Materials and Chemical Research; was application development manager in advanced electronic chemicals for Dow in Midland, Mich.; global technology manager at Wixom, Mich.-based Exatec L.L.C., a joint venture between GE Plastic and Bayer Materials Science; and director of innovation and intellectual property at Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Amcor Rigid Plastics, part of Australian-based Amcor Ltd.
Foster liked Chung and Kwon's work and its potential for commercialization so much that he decided to not just mentor them but to lead the company, which was launched in February 2020 with an investment of $100,000 by Red Cedar Ventures, the investment arm of the MSU Foundation. That came just after Foster completed a customer-discovery program run by Western Michigan University, which involved 33 face-to-face interviews with potential customers.
"The two professors were working on the right problem. This was technology I wanted to work on," said Foster, who helped write the broad provisional patent MSU filed. "Costs are going up in China. Now is the time to onshore the technology. We can make molds better and cheaper here, now," said Foster.
"It's a very interesting technology. If you can improve the polishing of molds while decreasing labor costs, that's a great opportunity," said Jeff Wesley, executive director of Red Cedar Ventures. "And it's great to see Ken lead it."
In March, 3DFoundri got a $35,000 investment from members of the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Grand Angels as part of a $350,000 seed round Foster hopes to raise by the end of the summer. He said he hopes to raise an equity round of $1 million next year. He said he invested $50,000 of his own money and "I'll likely invest another $50,000 or $100,000 to get it done."
The product the company hopes to commercialize is something called a magnetic-field-assisted-finishing slurry that the company claims when used on molds reduces the labor costs by at least 20 percent and the time to make them by 30 percent. Foster described it as a ferroelectric powder with fine abrasive powders added in and mixed with what is called the carrier fluid, a silicon-based material supplied by Dow Corning.
The slurry is put on a tool, becomes solid and acts like a brush in the presence of magnetic field.
Foster said he began making sales pitches to customers in June. "I want to have $375,000 in sales this year. That's only five customers."
The company is also working on an advanced 3D metal printing technology it hopes to have ready for market by next year, which it claims could make it 10 times faster to make complex 3D printed metal parts.
Foster projects revenue of $3 million in 2022, $7.9 million in 2023 and $90 million in 2025.
"Many of our members have built large companies in the manufacturing industry," said Paul D'Amato, the CEO of the Grand Angels. "As a result, our members are very interested in advanced manufacturing technologies. Our organization believes that this is one of Michigan's greatest strengths. 3D Foundri has a very interesting process for high-speed polishing. This technology could be very important as we start to see plastic-injection molding business move back to Michigan."
The company is based in MSU's Van Camp Incubator Center and Research Labs just off campus in East Lansing, Mich., and rents space and equipment as needed in the Maker Works in Ann Arbor.
John Hill is president and CEO of Roseville, Mich.-based Midwest Mold Service Inc., which designs and builds high-volume plastic-injection molds for both automotive and nonautomotive OEMs and Tier 1 suppliers and low-volume aluminum molded parts for nonautomotive OEMs.
"Ken came to us. He found our website and came to us on a different project more than a year ago. When he saw our place, he told us about this polishing idea he had. He picked our brains and we shared our expertise," Hill said.
Hill said the cost of labor for North American tooling is one problem. The other is finding the skilled labor he needs. He has 37 employees and what he describes as an aging work force. While he acknowledges that 3DFoundri is in the early stages, he said depending on product development, he could be an avid 3D customer.