Backstory: 3-D printer only limited by customers' imagination at TouchStone 3D Services

vbridges@newsobserver.comMarch 10, 2014 

  • Advice from Allen Moore

    • New entrepreneurs should spend less time tweaking their website and marketing plan and more time reaching out to customers and selling their products and services.

    • Focus on helping customers instead of how much money you’ll make.

    • Be responsive to customer questions.

— The tagline for TouchStone 3D Services says it all: “You think it. We make it.”

The company offers a range of services that help hobbyists, inventors and companies design and develop parts and prototypes and help get them into the market.

Owner Allen Moore founded the company in his garage in 2005 after leaving his position as director of engineering for Ericsson, a communications and technologies company.

Moore used his 30-plus years of experience in high-tech product development and founded TouchStone 3D Services and robotics company HomeBot Robotics.

“I felt the next big thing was going to be personal robotics,” he said.

Moore created a small robot that could travel into crawl spaces with a camera and measure moisture.

“My goal was to create a home inspection robot,” he said.

Moore shared his idea with home inspectors, but they said they weren’t interested in inspecting crawl spaces as it would ultimately increase their liability.

In 2004 Moore visited the University of Illinois at Chicago, where his son was competing in a national science competition. Moore saw his first 3-D printer during a tour of the university’s visualization lab.

The introduction resulted in an “epiphany,” he said.

“I was absolutely amazed that a machine like this could exist,” he said. “And that you could take a design in a computer and print it in 3-D, much like you can print a document in 2-D.”

Moore couldn’t afford a 3-D printer so he acquired in 2005 a computer-controlled milling machine. The milling machine, or “CNC machine,” uses a complicated, subtractive process to create prototypes as compared to a 3-D printer, which layers plastics and other materials into shapes based on the specifications a user inputs into it.

He realized he built a robotics company that offered solutions to problems that didn’t exist, so he turned his focus to his prototyping business.

Former colleagues at Ericsson contracted him to build circuit board enclosures used to test cell phone microchips.

The prototypes turned into short-run productions, he said. In 2006, Moore moved his business to a storage facility. He bought his first 3-D printer, a used machine that only printed using an off-white powder material, soon after that..

Over the years, Moore’s company acquired color and high-resolution 3-D printers, expanded its services to include design and deployment strategies, and evolved into a one-stop shop for inventors.

“We are really focused on innovation and introducing new products to the marketplace,” he said. “We are just enablers.”

The company handles 30 to 50 jobs a month and employs eight, including a full-time project manager and industrial designer. The company’s made from waterless toilets to fishing lures.

Moore said he built his initial customer base through networking events with organizations, including the Council for Entrepreneurial Development in Durham. He also visited business classes at Wake Technical Community College.

Over the years his customers have evolved from mainly larger corporations to entrepreneurs and inventors.

“Looking back the business just kind of came about,” he said. “There was a need for being able to create things from nothing.”

Bridges: 919-829-8917; Twitter: @virginiabridges

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