Tech center tenant partners with Westmoreland County Community College for 3-D printing program |
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Jeff Himler

The first private entrepreneur to move into Westmoreland County Community College’s Advanced Technology Center has multiple ties to the college.

Tronix3D President Buck Helfferich and business partner Kyle Metsger, Tronix3D’s director of technology and innovation, are alumni of the college and are partnering with WCCC to offer internships and potential jobs to its students.

At the same time, the pair are helping the college develop a curriculum that will focus on the 3-D printing technology — also known as additive manufacturing — that is the basis of their startup business.

A Latrobe-area native who had been involved in electronics manufacturing for more than 30 years, Helfferich switched gears to take advantage of the rapidly growing manufacturing method of 3-D printing. He opened Tronix3D in October in a 3,000-square-foot corner of the expansive technology center in East Huntingdon.

“We have several 100,000 square feet available behind us if we need to expand,” he said prior to a Thursday afternoon ribbon-cutting event for his business that was coordinated with the Westmoreland County Chamber of Commerce.

“We’re excited about the possibilities this opens up for the county and for our students,” WCCC President Tuesday Stanley said of the college’s partnership with Tronix3D. “It allows our students to be able to see an additive manufacturing company firsthand and to draw on those experiences.”

“This is a perfect example of a success story,” county Commissioner Gina Cerilli said. “You have two alumni coming back and giving back. This is an amazing opportunity for our students.”

The Tronix3D partners have added a third staff member — recent WCCC accounting grad Nichole Gabrielli, who is in charge of day-to-day operations. Helfferich hopes that number will grow as production ramps up.

The company has started its work with a high-volume printer that uses a process similar to that of an ink jet printer. Helfferich explained that instead of printing on a flat surface with ink, it prints three-dimensional objects by building up layers of powdered nylon.

“You’re printing a box instead of a dot,” he said.

While the printer can create isolated prototype parts for clients, Helfferich said it has enabled Tronix3D to also produce finished parts in runs of 500 to 1,000.

“For 3-D printing, printing 1,000 of something is high-volume,” he noted.

For one job order, he said, “We printed parts for machines that are no longer available. We took an old part, backward-engineered it and got the (machines) up and running.”

Helfferich’s goals for the company include printing parts in full color instead of just black, and embedding electronic sensors in parts as they are being printed.

Then, robotic machines used in manufacturing could “talk to each other, based on information coming from those parts, without human intervention,” he said. “It has enormous potential. Being on the front of technology is where I love it.”

Helfferich said he’s drawn upon the expertise of Blairsville-based National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining to position his company so that it can take on 3-D printing jobs for military clients as well as those in the private sector.

“The whole industry has to learn how to do it and get (parts) qualified to be able to be used in the military,” Helfferich said.

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