By Tanvi Bajaj
3D printers continue to grow in prominence as their uses are expanded to a wide variety of industries. From printing prosthetics for hospitals, to producing construction materials for supply chains, and even supporting and bolstering coral reef regrowth, 3D printers are being refocused to tackle problems and create solutions within every field.
But what about the military? That’s the question Eric Shnell asked when he and two others co-founded Craitor, a UC San Diego startup that works directly with the US Department of Defense to create expeditionary 3D printers “that can fabricate military grade parts from metals, plastics, and composites, all on a single platform.”
We sat down with Eric Shnell, Craitor Co-Founder and CEO, to discuss his journey building a startup in San Diego’s growing tech ecosystem.
Year Founded: While the company was technically founded in February of 2019, Shnell and his team have been working with units in the Navy and Marine Corps since 2018.
Key Players: 3 founders: Eric Shnell (CEO), Akhil Birlangi (CTO), Niklas Sprute (Lead Software and AI Developer)
Headcount: 6 (3 founders and 3 full-time employees)
Headquarters: Basement Accelerator at UC San Diego
Inspiration: Shnell – a mechanical engineering major who graduates in 2021 -was working with one of his co-founders on a desktop combination CNC (computer numerical control) and a 3D printer, with plans to create a product that would function as a miniature mill for cutting metal.
While participating at the Ignite Conference at UC San Diego in 2018, the team’s product got the attention of a retired Marine Corps veteran who saw the portable form of the machinery and thought it could be refocused to aid the defense industry.
He introduced Shnell to some friends of his from his Oceanside-based Marine Corps base Camp Pendleton. Together, the soldiers and the engineers identified a major problem with military operations’ supply chains and how 3D printing could provide a solution.
“The supply chain over the last few decades has become totally swamped with more parts and technologies and old things haven’t been phased out, creating an obsolete supply chain that is super slow to operate,” Shnell explained.
The soldiers discussed that, while an inefficient supply chain may just be an inconvenience in the United States, overseas, it’s a genuine threat to troops’ safety. Shnell and his team heard numerous stories about soldiers in a convoy whose part would go down, putting the entire convoy at risk in a hostile environment. Oftentimes, the convoy with the broken part would become totally useless, resulting in a waste of money and resources. On top of that, they’d have to call for rescue, thereby putting the entire rescue vehicle at risk as well.
Hearing these stories, the Craitor team of engineers became invested in the idea of revolutionizing the military supply chain. They began working with various groups in the Navy and Marine Corps to create an expeditionary chain of action.
Their goal? Eric summed it up best: “To put a system anywhere in the world and print any component you need, easing the supply chain but also allowing for immediate customization and reprinting in the field.”
Technology: Current manufacturing for 3D printing is not yet ready to deal with varying environments, especially extreme temperatures, such as humidity and extreme cold. Additionally, many 3D printers in the industry right now are huge, almost refrigerator sized, clearly incapable of providing the efficiency and ease that soldiers overseas require. Craitor is changing that.
Craitor’s 3D printer stands out from any other on the market by focusing on three key aspects: survivability, capability and portability in the field.
The smaller printer’s design allows it to be carried by two people and works at full capacity in any environment a soldier may find themselves in, whether it be a dry desert, frigid tundra, or humid rainforest.
In fact, all branches of the US military are stepping up efforts to use 3D printing technology in the field.
“While they aren’t testing Craitor’s tech yet (hopefully in the next 3 to 4 months), the DM (Digital Manufacturing) team has been testing many brands and types of 3D printers and other manufacturing technologies to determine best use cases and procedures for use to support expeditionary manufacturing,” Shnell explained.
According to Research and Markets, the military 3D printing market is projected to grow from USD $799.8 million in 2018 to USD $4.5 billion by 2025, at a CAGR of 28.37% during the forecast period.
In fact, the US Army Research Laboratory has collaborated with numerous groups to increase funding and development into large-scale 3D printing projects. This growing demand for lightweight parts and components in the defense industry is driving advancements in 3D printing technology and paving the way for startups such as Craitor.
How it Works: The basis of Craitor’s printer is a traditional FDM (fused deposition modeling) 3D printer made for extrusion printing, meaning that it “fuses material together layer by layer in a specified pattern to create the object 3-dimensional.”
But that’s where the similarity ends.
Craitor’s printer is designed to function as a large 3D printer but in a smaller body to allow easy transportation and mobility. Additionally, the case has been redesigned to improve its ruggedness, helping it survive drops, falls, and changes in atmosphere and temperature.
“We use many methods, from a rigid external case that is sealed against water and other environmental hazards to internal shock mitigation. We can’t go into a lot more details until we have finished our patents, though” Shnell explained.
Furthermore, its internal technology has been significantly altered in order to improve survivability but also make it easy enough for soldiers to use. The actual technology itself involves intelligence sub-systems with specific internal machine learning baked in -something that the Craitor’s team is currently seeking a patent on. The other part is the software – the front end needs to be as intuitive as possible, making it so that the objects print themselves. Essentially, engineers can pre-set factors such as orientation of the print, area required, and air flow, so that soldiers in the field don’t have to do really any work to get the materials for the equipment they require.
Shnell’s ultimate goal with this printer is to make it an “easy one stop shop for finding the part you need and printing it immediately without any training needed.”
Challenges: Shnell explained that the main challenges his team has experienced are very intertwined with the goal of his unique startup: “Craitor isn’t a traditional startup because the focus isn’t the development of a unicorn product, rather it’s developing a solution for the Department of Defense.”
While finding business partners and looking into non-traditional ways of funding (e.g. government grants, partnerships, corporate investments) has been a big challenge, the team has connected with many advisors whose connections will hopefully help them secure investments in future months.
The other primary challenge Shnell describes is working with the Department of Defense itself. “The military is a very protected area in which each person has his/her place. It’s a very defensive industry and they don’t always like seeing new people” Shnell explained. “Looking at a young diverse team of college engineers puts people on guard sometimes because they see us as ‘kids who don’t know what they’re doing.’”
That being said, Shnell further explained that the two groups have been able to connect over their faith in the technology and their shared goal of improving and revolutionizing the military supply chain. The Craitor team also relies on an advisory board of almost all veterans, thereby giving them a diverse group to provide personal knowledge and experience so that they can develop the solution while limiting their mistakes.
Funding: Craitor received much of its initial funding through pitch competitions and bootstrapping. The team was a finalist at Ignite, part of the third cohort chosen to represent San Diego through the Blackstone Launchpad Lift, and attended Founders Live. Furthermore, the team represented San Diego again for the Global Student Entrepreneur Awards and most recently, took top honors at Triton Entrepreneur Night 2020.
In total, Shnell and his team have raised about $21,000; the Basement accelerator at UC San Diego provided $2,000, they received another $10,000 from the Blackstone Launchpad, and winning Triton Entrepreneur Night gave them $5,000.
Mentors: Shnell cited Marine Corps veteran Todd Forsman as one of Craitor’s mentors, explaining that he was the initial point of contact between Craitor and Camp Pendleton. Additional mentors include George Eiskamp, who played a major role in helping the team develop their pitch, Jenny Lawton, former CEO of Makerbot and COO of Techstars, and, most recently, MajGen Vincent Coglianese (USMC, Retired) who has been helping the team develop their big picture strategy.
On the Horizon: Shnell’s goal for the company in the next five years is to be “at a point at which our printers are ubiquitous and known for being the solution for the military supply chain.” He hopes Craitor will be the name that people go to if they have any concerns for decentralizing supply chains and providing manufacturing when and where it’s needed.
Their plan to make this happen is simply by creating and providing a strong, capable product that does exactly what it claims, whether it be surviving an explosion or printing an indispensable part of machinery.
At the moment they are primarily targeting the defense market given that this tech has been designed to support the DOD supply-chain. They intend to make the technology for dual-use (that is for use in both the armed forces and the commercial market) in the future.
Shnell sums it up perfectly: “When people think of defense manufacturing, the goal is that they think of Craitor.”
San Diego Tech Ecosystem: “San Diego couldn’t be better” was the first thing out of Shnell’s mouth when we asked about the local tech ecosystem. He went on to explain that it’s one of the largest innovation-based economies in the country with UCSD being one of the top schools in the world for innovation.
Additionally, San Diego – home to the nation’s largest concentration of military personnel and top military installations – is the perfect venue for Craitor’s technology, and allows the startup’s team to connect directly with not only their stakeholders, but also the people that can give them the best feedback.
“The problem we’re trying to solve is right here,” Shnell said.
Tacos Anyone?: Shnell was quick to tell us his favorite taco spot: Tacos El Gordo
Keep up with Craitor through the startup’s website, LinkedIn, and Facebook.
Editor’s Note: TritonTech is an original series on UC San Diego created by Fresh Brewed Tech that showcases the innovative ideas born in the halls of academia that are making a great impact on our ecosystem and beyond.