“Additive manufacturing (also known as 3D printing) is going to be the next industrial revolution; it’s going to change the way you design and manufacture parts,” insists ProtoCAM co-founder Ron Belknap.
He should know. Since founding the company in 1994 with Ray Biery, Belknap has seen it expand to make parts and prototypes for nearly every industry, including Fortune 500 companies across the United States.
ProtoCAM’s services include stereolithography, selective laser sintering, PolyJet 3D printing and much more, using all kinds of material.
The company also had the stamina to survive a devastating fire in 2013 and come back stronger than ever.
What inspired you to start ProtoCAM?
I worked at Ingersoll Rand (a global industrial machinery company) in Allentown where I was in charge of all the manufacturing services; Ray Biery was the manufacturing manager. They closed and moved to Virginia, and we chose not to move with the company.
We always wanted to start a business, so we did some research. We wanted to get into a growth industry. When I was at Ingersoll, I used to subcontract different (additive manufacturing) processes from different people. A lot of them didn’t do their jobs right. So we decided to bring all of those processes into one house.
We’re basically a one-stop shop. A customer calls us and we will take the process to whatever level they are looking for, all the way through manufacturing, if they so choose. That way they only have one group to work with.
How did you get started?
We both invested in the company. We found an old farm market building in Northampton County, bought a used machine in Philadelphia, and started chipping away. With Ingersoll closing down, we bought a lot of the office furniture, supplies and equipment at a very reasonable price.
We started advertising our business through the Thomas Register of American Manufacturers [now ThomasNet], a directory of industrial product information. We started there, and started getting clients.
Initially the clients were local, but in a very short time we started getting [calls] from all over the country. With FedEx, UPS and the Internet, we don’t need to see the client. Now we’re international.
Did you take advantage of any resources in your area to get started?
We worked with Lehigh University’s Small Business Development Center and they helped us develop our business plan. We presented that to local banks, and because the plan was so well written, with their help, we got a loan from a local bank, which they told us was not very common for a startup.
We talked to the Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Northeastern PA early on, and they funded us; we have since paid back the grant.
How has your company grown?
We’re now in Allentown in an industrial complex in a building that’s about 14,000 square feet. It’s a nice facility, with offices in front and a shop in the back. We have 15 full-time employees. We have about 8,000 clients, many of them Fortune 500 companies, including Intel. We have six additive machines; we also have peripheral operations for making urethane castings, a paint booth and other equipment for finishing products.
Could you give examples of some of the things you’ve made?
We did scale-model prototypes of the new World Trade Center for the architect.
About five years ago, there was a crane accident in New York City — a crane tipped over and hit a building. We made a scale model of the crane and delivered it right to the courtroom during a case that determined responsibility for different aspects of the lawsuit.
We once made a model of a stage for [country singer] Reba McEntire. She was performing in Hawaii and she wanted to understand the stage layout.
We just sent a scale model of an art museum to Italy designed by an architect in New York.
We’ve also made a lot of prototypes for the ABC TV show Shark Tank — a program on which entrepreneurs pitch ideas to investors — including one of a disposable wine glass sold full of wine.
Our biggest area is the medical industry. We make all sorts of little instruments and tools. We work with a company in New Jersey that makes knee implants; we make the wax patterns for the knees — several hundred a week.
What has been the biggest challenge so far?
In March of 2013, we had a fire in our building in Northampton and lost everything. Luckily, our insurance company did a phenomenal job working with us. Our insurance agent told us that 75 percent of businesses that have a fire go out of business. That motivated us to be the exception.
A lot of people helped us. The day after the fire, we went down to the Samuel Owens Restaurant in Coplay. [The owner] said we could use his conference room and his WiFi. We hooked up our PCs and we weren’t out of business an hour. We started that day.
Then we moved to the basement of my co-founder’s house where we set up an office, and we set up a little shop in his barn. We worked there for a few months while we renovated this building in Allentown, and we moved in six months after the fire.
The nice thing about starting over was that we could build the shop we always wanted. The systems, the layout were the way we wanted them; we have a great place now. It was painful, but the results are awesome.
What’s next for ProtoCAM?
For 20 years, we would advertise and have our clients come to us. But now I’m being more aggressive about keeping the visibility out there locally. I want everyone in the Lehigh Valley to know who we are and to use us. We stumble upon people here who send their work to California or Tennessee, and they’re 10 miles down the road!
They can come and talk to us, and we can advise them on how they can do their projects better. We need to educate them about what’s available in the market. We also subcontract every technology out there, so they can get any technology they want through us.
Writer: Susan L. Pena
6620 Grant Way
Allentown, PA 18106