Building a business one micron at a time.

Trent Ernst, Editor


3D printing is a finicky thing.

With the ability to lay down a layer that is 30 microns thick, any blip in the process can ruin the entire print. If the surface that is being printed on is not flat, it can ruin the entire process.

Jody Mitchell pulls a box of what looks like wire and computer parts from under her desk. On closer inspection, it is all extruded plastic. “This is my learning process,” she says.

In the basement of her house on the upper bench in a spare bedroom turned office, Mitchell runs Filaprint, a 3D printing company that’s starting to make waves in the industry, not just locally, but across BC and even internationally.

While Mitchell started the company in February, her first experience with a 3D printer was a decade ago. “It was a joke,” she said of those early experiments in 3D printing technology. “It was a glue gun on steroids.”

Those early efforts elicited little success. “We made a cube once,” she says. “It was pretty good.”

But while the technology couldn’t match the ideas, Mitchell and her brother loved to play with those ideas. “We used to tinker in the garage making ground batteries and stuff like that. My brother is very smart.”

Indeed, her brother is also an entrepreneur who quit school in grade eight to start his career; he now runs a multi-million dollar tech company.

However Mitchell took a different path. “I got married,” she says. “I had babies and bought a house. But as soon as my youngest was potty trained, I decided I was ready to start work.”

But she wasn’t ready to leave her kids. So she went back through a bunch of crazy ideas that she’d had over the last few years, some of which she had started working on the business plans for. Her favourite idea was to do mural painting. “I’ve been doing that for a really long time, so I was going to do a painting company. Did a few murals in town, but it wasn’t going to keep me busy enough.”

Nor would it keep her at home, where her kids were. So she started looking at some of the other ideas she’d had.

Mitchell describes herself as “very environmentally minded,” so she wanted to do something that didn’t hurt the earth. “I wanted to do something I thought I’d be proud to show my kids.”

So, taking those early experiments with 3D printing and combining them with the latest technology, she put together a business plan for what is now Filaprint. She took the idea to Community Futures, where she got a great reception. “Community Futures loved the idea,” she says. “I had written out the business plan, they happily gave me money to buy all my equipment.”

It was the first time she’d taken out a loan to do something for herself, and she was nervous, but her husband was very supportive about it. So she jumped right in. She ordered enough supplies to last a year, as well as a top-of-the line 3D printer. “It came in pieces, with no instructions,” she says. “What little packaging there was, was in Chinese, so it took a while to get that up and going.”

But Mitchell is a tinkerer, and after a bit of experimenting, she figured out how to get it up and running. “I Started pitching ideas left right and centre,” she says. “If I pitched 30 ideas in a week, one would stick. The next week, I’d pitch 50 and 2 would stick.”

Most of her early work was what you’d expect from a 3D printer, small, plastic items like cookie cutters. But a few months back, she came across an idea that seems to have legs: 3D topographic models of landscapes. “I moved to TR for this reason,” she says. “I’m a nature nerd. I love being outside. So this summer, I was out training for the Emperor’s Challenge, and I went up to the Bald Spot. I was sitting there on top of the bald spot, looking out, wondering what I could print.”

Looking down at Tumbler Ridge, she thought, to herself: “Wouldn’t it be cool to 3D print the town?”

So Mitchell went home and started playing. Much of what she does is by playing. Even though there are commercially available 3D models for printing, as well as repositories of free models, 90 percent of the models are incomplete. “If someone was going to buy their own 3D printer, they’re going to run into issues if they don’t know how to redesign. People are uploading these files with a fault so people are forced to buy the actual models. So I have been forced to become a 3D modeler. I don’t use online models anymore.”

She tried to build a model from aerial photos, but she couldn’t find good enough pictures, and it just wasn’t working out.

Another trip to the Bald Spot, and another flash of inspiration. This time, she turned her eyes to the mountains beyond the town, and wondered if it would be possible to 3D print them.

As if to confirm her idea, she was not even home when she got a call from Carmen Drapeau at the Visitor Centre. “She called me, and said ‘can we talk?” So I went down and we were talking, and Carmen said, ‘wouldn’t it be neat if this flat map could just pop up?’”

Birgit Sharman, who works at the Visitor Centre and is one of the organizers of the Emperor’s Challenge said to Mitchell “if you can do that, you could do the EC route.”

“So I went home, and tried and it didn’t work, and tried and it didn’t work.”

But it was close, and it was such a good idea. After a number of failures, she finally figured out how to slice the topography. “I called Birgit back and said, ‘Yes, I can do this.’ It was way too much work, but they were very supportive letting me try something new.”

Her first attempt seemed successful and she showed it to some people, including Birgit’s husband Kevin, who is a Geologist. “He really liked it, but he could tell some slopes were off.” So Mitchell went back to the drawing board, combining two sets of data to make the file.

It worked, and the idea struck a chord. “My maps are getting attention down in Whistler, in other countries. Nobody has done what I’m doing, printing the mountains then painting them in. It’s unique. It’s fun to show the land and bring it  to a trade show. They are durable, and no language is needed to understand. It’s a different level of looking at the land. Right now, if you wanted to look at land models, you’d have to go to the museum and look at these works of art. This is a whole new way of looking thing.”

Mitchell says right now, she’s just using a paper topographic map, and Google earth to create the models. “Anyone can get the same data I can get.”

Mitchell is still doing other work, but it’s the maps that are taking off. “I’m getting interest from Banff, Jasper and Whistler. Even Dawson Creek is thinking about doing a Watershed model, where you can pour water on it, and kids can see how the water flows.”

But if a company wants their logo printed 3D, or if someone wants a dinosaur shaped cookie cutter, Mitchell is up for the task. There are a couple things she won’t do. For instance, team logos. “People come up to me and they want 3D team logos. They ask if I can make a Vancouver Canucks this, or an Edmonton Oilers that, but there’s copyright issues. The 3D industry is a little ahead of the legislation, but I’m saying no, I won’t do that.”

She’s also had requests for 3D printed pistols. These are actual working pistols that will fire real bullets. “They’re undetectable in a metal scanner, so I don’t do that, either. The laws about that will catch up.”

For the 3D modeling, she uses a program called SketchUp, which is available for free from Google, though Mitchell uses the pro version. She’s taken and transferred her art skills into sculpting with a mouse. “If you’re artistic and patient, anybody can do it,” she says.

She models what she wants in SketchUp, then downloads it into a special program called a slicer, which converts the model into layers that can be printed by the 3D printer. While SketchUp is free, the slicing software is very expensive, and is the biggest limiting factor for home users.

That’s changing though, and with each new generation, with more increased demand, the price is going down.

After the image is sliced into layers, the magic happens. The slicing software takes and tells the printer how to create the shape. “It’s like layer of ink from any other printer, but the ink is filament,” says Mitchell.

The slicing software is very expensive. The tricky part for home users is they have to spend thousands of dollars to get this software.

If people were thinking about getting into 3D printing, Mitchell recommends using PLA filament. PLA is a thermoplastic. It becomes mouldable when heated, then becomes solid when it cools. But unlike the more prevalent ABS plastic, it is derived from sugar and starches. “It a biodegradable, renewable filament. Most people use ABS plastic. You get a finer finished product with ABS. With PLA you get a little rougher product. But you can burn it in your house all day, and it’s just like baking cookies.”

But even though the 3D mapping is taking off, Mitchell keeps trying new things. “Right now I am talking to someone to get a roll of chocolate filament. I’ve very excited about the idea of printing a chocolate sculpture.”

And it’s not just food. Mitchell says she could print in glass, in gold…”I have aluminum and cedar at home.”

Filaprint is one of four businesses being highlighted as a BC Job Maker this month. She has brought 3D printers into local classrooms, challenging students to write short stories that her printer will turn into braille, creating children’s books for the Canadian National Institute For the Blind and children’s hospitals.

“It takes innovative thinking to run a small business,” Peace River South MLA Mike Bernier says. “Ms. Mitchell provides a service that makes unique products for people in our region, and through her business, has also contributed to our tourism sector. Small businesses like these help grow our provincial economy.”