Every dimension of development
A 3D printing entrepreneur is finding community support in printing a future for Bemidji businesses.
“How is the garage treating you?"
The words rang in Mike Block’s ears, voiced by the entrepreneurial success story across the lunch table – LaValley Industries founder and CEO, Jason LaValley.
It was 2018 and the two were discussing Block’s 3D printing startup venture, ELITE Additive. As the company’s founder and CEO, Block had been running ELITE out of his garage since November 2017. He told his business mentor that things were going well, but it was getting harder to make phone calls with the background noise of his growing kids.
“Jason said he might have a space for me. We came here and walked in the door,” Block recalled from what is now his office, 3D printers tucked against the wall. “He said, ‘If you want to move in here, you can.’ And I did.”
It was the start of a relationship that would give Block the space, resources and guidance necessary to grow ELITE Additive into an asset for companies in Bemidji, Minn. Block now works with around a dozen local and national businesses at any given time, offering services spanning 3D printed prototypes for visual verification, end-use part applications, computer-aided design (CAD), production consulting and more. His clients cross several sectors, including powersports, energy, dental, automotive, agriculture and aerospace.
“3D printing fits into just about every industry,” Block said. “ELITE Additive’s mission is to provide advanced manufacturing solutions to the area, promoting more product ideation and faster market entry. We’re not only providing 3D printing for companies looking to get their products to market faster. We’re also taking current companies who are using 3D printing and helping them increase their throughput.”
Local companies have already seen results from ELITE Additive’s on-demand manufacturing capabilities. Block said by offering more, faster, these companies have won more business.
“The type of business Mike is building is a vision of what we believe to be the future of manufacturing,” LaValley said. “New technologies in 3D printing and automation manufacturing are becoming more of a reality every day.”
Living in a material world
Block has been in the 3D printing world since 2008. He attended Bemidji State University (BSU) – one of the first schools in the U.S. with a tailored 3D printing program – and worked several years with 3D printer manufacturing company Stratasys before bringing his expertise back home.
“When I first wanted to start ELITE Additive here in Bemidji, the vision was to have companies use me as a local resource – to be able to leverage the technology and increase further adoption,” he said.
ELITE is the only company of its kind in the Bemidji area. However, Block says the 3D printing industry is making considerable strides.
At its base, 3D printing is the practice of taking a digital design fi le and using a machine to make that design a real object, layer by layer. There are now more than eight different printing technologies available, with the ability to print with plastics, metals, hybrids and beyond. With that flexibility, the industry is evolving from simple prototypes to manufacturing-level applications. Companies can now have parts designed and printed locally, cutting out long overseas lead times and avoiding the risk of waiting weeks for a part that ultimately does not fit the bill.
One of Block’s pinnacle projects was working with LaValley Industries engineers to design and print a UV-resistant monitor shroud housing for the inside of excavators. (The LaValley product line includes heavy excavator attachments that enhance the precision and safety of pipe and utility pole handling.)
“The innovation Mike has brought to the table using 3D print manufacturing is a work in process, but has begun to lower lead times and cut costs of some of our legacy products,” LaValley said. “It has also helped us lower prototyping costs and lead times in some of our research and development projects.”
Design for development
Jorge Prince, LaValley Industries chief financial officer, knows firsthand how audacious innovators change the face of a community. He served as the executive director of the Small Business Development Center at BSU and helped Jason start LaValley Industries. Jason eventually recruited him to the LaValley team, but Prince retained his eye for Bemidji development.
“At LaValley, we talk to a lot of entrepreneurs, especially in the early stage. They see us as a successful model,” Prince said. “It was encouraging to see a young person with a vision and an idea for a new business in our community that was moving new types of technology forward.”
Prince said renting space to Block has allowed them to not only mentor ELITE Additive, but also examine additional opportunities to utilize 3D printing.
“Having him here allows us to dream a little,” he said. “We’re learning. But the likelihood that we would be exploring or studying it in house without Mike being here is pretty low.”
That ability to dream is what Prince believes can draw more high-impact businesses to the Bemidji area. He says companies that are on the forefront of technology – such as in manufacturing, automation, etc. – also create better-paying jobs that give people greater opportunities and the desire to stick around.
“Bemidji has so many amenities that other places don’t have, but what we need is that good industrial base. If we had it, in combination with everything else we have, we could really slingshot this community,” Prince said. “But it takes risk takers. It takes people like Jason and Mike and others like them.”
Support from all sides
Beltrami Electric Cooperative, which serves LaValley Industries, ELITE Additive and many neighboring businesses, has also become a partner in growing the city’s economy. President and CEO Jared Echternach says it’s essential that cooperatives help communities prosper.
“Support can be as simple as connecting manufacturer to buyer or as complex as property acquisition and financing,” he said. “Either way, we are here to help facilitate that process.”
Echternach remembers when Block first introduced ELITE to the Greater Bemidji Development Corporation. “I thought, wow – this guy has an amazing talent, is passionate about what he creates and, even more important, he wants to put that talent and passion to use in Bemidji because of our quality of place.”
“Bemidji is where we’ve planted our feet. We’ve dug in, because of the mindset for economic development and supporting new technology for future manufacturing,” Block said. “My hope is to have someone say, ‘You printed this prototype for us, and now we’re a company of 10,000.’ That, to me, would be exciting and fulfilling.”
Block has big goals for the future of ELITE Additive. He wants to expand awareness of 3D printing capabilities to grow his client base, create a facility to be fully autonomous in manufacturing, and become involved in life-changing projects like printing prosthetic limbs for veterans.
For now, he is grateful for Jason, Jorge, and the local network of support that pulled him out of his Bemidji garage and into partnerships across the region.
“There were so many people in the community that surrounded me and wanted to help – you don’t see that elsewhere,” he said.