Near a window on the third floor of a world class hospital in London sits an EnvisionTEC
machine that can create the prototype of a skull with a tumor in it. Before surgery physicians carefully examine the object, and decide how to operate on the patient whose skull has been replicated.
"In the past they had to do it based on looking at CAT scan information, and now imagine they are holding an actual replica of his skull which is accurate within one human hair," EnvisionTEC CEO Al Siblani said.
EnvisionTEC manufactures three dimensional printers that produce consumer products or medical devices. The machines are sold to companies that use them to manufacture their own products. The products and devices are first designed. Then the file with the design is saved in STL file format, and put through EnvisionTEC's software. After going through the machine, a product is produced, and within a few hours it can be held. STL is a three dimensional format widely used for rapid prototyping and computer-aided manufacturing.
The machines have printed teeth, dental crowns, toys, jewelry, human body parts and hearing aids. Depending on the country a dental crown can cost $300 to $800, Siblani says. EnvisionTEC has donated machines to Africa, where dental crowns are being printed at an average cost of three dollars, and improving cosmetic features for people.
"In Africa you can afford to buy a crown for three dollars, but you cannot afford to buy a crown for $300," Siblani said. EnvisionTEC has 13 types of machines. Disney, Fisher Price and Cartier are just some of the company's notable clientele. Disney has used the machine for animation.
One of EnvsionTEC's products is FDA approved in the dental market. "So I can actually print something. It comes out of the machine and goes straight into the mouth, and you can be told by a dentist that it can be chewed on for three years," Siblani said. Various types of materials are used in the machines to produce different products including silicone, fibrin, gelatin, agar and titanium.
EnvisonTEC is a leader in printing globally. A company that earns $4 billion in Euros annually by selling hearing aids uses EnvisionTEC's equipment in 19 countries. EnvisionTEC has three branches. Its locations in California and Germany manufacture the machines. Siblani works at the branch in Ferndale, Michigan which is the headquarters for North American operations. It caters to sales, distribution, tests out products in the machines and deals with technical support. At the Ferndale building 30 associates are employed. Globally, the company has 135 employees.
There are future plans to double the capacity of its German operations, and make EnvisionTEC machines more accessible to the general public. The company is in the process of developing a desktop printer similar to a typical Dell printer or HP Laser Jet printer. "So we are looking to make a three dimensional printer affordable for home use, which runs at a price point of about $3,000," Siblani said. Machines have varied in price running from $30,000 to $500,000.
Siblani, who is Lebanese, came to the United States in 1986 at the age of 17 with only $700 in his pocket. He received a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Lawrence Technological University, and a master's degree in electrical and computer engineering from Wayne State University in Detroit.
After graduation he started his own company, which was a third party service and material provider for the rapid prototyping industry. He was selling services and material for people who are his competitors today. In 1998 he made his own system, and in 2003 he began selling the system. The company went from selling three machines a month in 2003 to currently 60 every month. "So first I learned every other system on the market because I was selling raw materials and fixing them, and then I looked at all the weaknesses of those systems and in 1998 I started making my own system," he said. Siblani isn't the sole owner of the company. There are other shareholders, however he's the majority shareholder.
A great portion of EnvisionTEC's success is its ability not to depend on one industry for business. The company won't invest more than 10% in the automotive industry because of its recent financial problems.
EnvisionTEC's success is also driven by its capacity to turn a manual process into a digital one. Siblani says that is the heart and soul of the company, and why it continues to advance. He said digital technology isn't a threat to manual labor workers, although it reduces the time to make a product by a large margin.
"The adaptation of what I call the digital highway in consumer products, in medical products, and a lot of things where manual labor was intensive will lead to more jobs, and jobs that are more high tech which means they are not jobs that are easy to replace or be duplicated in China," Siblani said. He says one company made 98% of its hearing aids manually and now 98 % are printed digitally - saving time. "I'm very proud of what I do on a day to day basis, whether I'm making teeth that are affordable for someone who can't chew or helping someone who has a brain tumor, making his surgery a little easier."
Photo (Top): EnvisionTEC CEO Al Siblani (right) is seen speaking to a associate at the company's location in Ferndale, Michigan while holding a product produced by a EnvisionTEC printer, similar to the machine both are standing in front of. The company has 13 different types of machines.
Photo (Left): Caption for Photo (EnvisionTEC-1): A product created by a EnvisionTEC printer is pictured here. EnvisionTec produces various products including teeth, replicas of human body parts, toys and jewelry. Photo courtesy of EnvisionTECThe Arab American NewsNew Michigan Media