The last decade has seen the emergence of 3D printing, and in the last few years an Ottawa-based company has quietly been changing the landscape for the manufacturing industry with its own 3D printing advancements.
Equispheres developed a first of its kind powder in 2016, ink for a 3D printer if you will, which allows more stable construction for things like aluminum, titanium and steel and at a faster pace.
President and CEO Kevin Nicholds, former owner and operator of Ottawa-based print company Dollco, knew the company was on to something when calls began to come in from high-profile clients asking about materials they were using to print.
“We probably had 25 inbound calls but 20 of them were billion-dollar companies or national research labs,” Nicholds said in an interview with OttawaMatters.com.
“That was really kind of the ‘wow moment,’” he said.
Nicholds and his team quickly abandoned their extensive marketing and business plans they created, something he laughs about now for all the work put in and began to make relationships with manufacturers that have so far included NASA, Lockheed Martin and BMW.
The draw for many of the companies, according to Nicholds, is the ‘ink’ or powder the company has developed is much stronger than previous additives and has a higher success rate, something that is important for making replacement parts for aerospace or cars.
The tiny metal powder particles, less than a 1/20 of a millimetre, are welded together with a laser and Equispheres' powder allows for more consistency than others on the market.
“Say you’re building something for aerospace and they look at it and there’s holes and pores in it and it’s not mechanically sound for repeatable manufacturing,” Nicholds said, adding that their process allows for repeatability.
It also provides less waste, as instead of traditionally ‘carving’ out parts needed from larger pieces of materials like metal, it prints layer by layer.
“You’re basically just using the material where you need it,” Nicholds said.
Its durability is a huge draw too, given it can be used for everything from plastic hearing aids and prosthetic limbs to parts for space ships.
The found success and notoriety for the company has also led to a recent $8-million cash injection from the federal government from its Sustainable Development Technology Canada program.
Building more partnerships and clients will continue to be the goal as the company continues, Nicholds said, as it appears at this point that the sky is the limit.
Nicholds, who calls himself ‘risk-adverse,’ left his third-generation family company that was Dollco Printing about a year after it sold to Lowe-Martin and took a chance on something he and business associate thought had a ton of potential.
"You want to be in a growing market, not just in a big market that’s super competitive…being in printing was very competitive and you see lots of smart people. You can be smart and not be successful and sometimes people are in the right place at the right time,” he said.
“You need to be lucky, so I knew I needed to be lucky but also wanted to have a fundamentally good business model.”
Despite being in business his entire career, Nicholds doesn’t consider himself a ‘serial entrepreneur’ but more lucky to be given the opportunity to run a big company, but his advice for someone looking to get involved in entrepreneurship or starting a small business is to “carve out a niche.”
He said it’s a better approach than just starting with what you love.
While it’s great to follow your passion, he added, the positioning of the business in the market is the most important.
“It’s tough being an entrepreneur. I was always sympathetic running a big company, lucky thing is I have seven experts around me and small company may not have anybody,” he said.
“We had some early success and it took on a life of its own….you want to keep hitting goals and validation points.”