Rhode Island Bureau Taps Local Talent for 3D Printing Innovations

August 07, 2015

Some of the newest and brightest engineering minds are helping a small reseller and service bureau in Rhode Island usher in the next generation of 3D printing and keep top STEM talent in the state.

R&D Technologies, based in North Kingstown, R.I., started out in 2000 as a SolidWorks value-added reseller before transitioning in 2008 to a Stratasys reseller and 3D printing service bureau. That's about the same time Justin Coutu, president and son of company founder Andrew Coutu, came on to establish the new 3D printing business.

For the past five years Coutu has implemented a robust internship program with engineering schools at a number of local universities as a way to employ some of the brightest minds in the area and bolster the region's economy, as well as help him grow R&D's business with some of the best new engineers New England has to offer. Universities included in the program are Johnson and Wales, University of Rhode Island, Brown University, University of New Hampshire, Roger Williams University, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute, he said.

"I established an internship program which gave me the ability to bring in students from different local universities," Coutu told Design New in an interview. "It's always good to keep jobs within Rhode Island. We have such good educational facilities."

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As a result six of R&D's efforts, six of its 17 employees are 25 years old and younger, and two are in their early thirties. Four of these young full-time employees came directly from the internship program, and seven have various engineering degrees in either mechanical, biomedical, electrical, industrial, and civil engineering.

Coutu takes on about two to three interns per semester depending on the workload of the company, the business of which is generally split about 70/30 between its reseller business and service bureau, although at times that number can be reversed, he said. "Some months are complete opposites."

Customers of the service bureau -- which has grown from one to 15 machines since its start -- include from large companies like Burton Snowboards to research and medical institutions in New England. "It's really anyone who needs a prototype," Coutu said. R&D has a mix of Stratasys (FDM and Polyjet) and Solidscape machines in its bureau and works with 140 types of plastics, including ABS, polycarbonate, and nylon.

Coutu, who just turned 40, said there are some unique benefits of employing young professionals who come directly from universities and already have a close relationship with new technologies.

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"They adapt faster, they don't question as much, they try to see what will fit their style, they learn things quickly, they're fast to research," he said. "They're right out of school and still have that learning mindset, whereas when you're in the working world for awhile and you're comfortable with doing things in a certain way, [it's different]. These guys want to learn, they want constructive criticism, and they want to see what they can do better."

Aside from the productivity and professional benefits of taking new engineers on board, "it's really fun working with them," Coutu said. "They're not introverted engineers like they used to be. They're outgoing, they want to be involved. They want to open up everything and explore. It's enlightening."

He continued, "If you put a part in front of them, they may not know what it is at first, but give them a day and they will know everything about it, how it works, and how to make it better. It's exciting and fun."

On the flip side, there also are occasional hiccups that come from the generational gap between more traditional engineers in the company's reseller business and the new crop of engineers, who have different perspectives, Coutu said. He said sometimes there is resistance when a young professional is out in the field trying to convince a company that 3D printing can change the way they do business in a positive way.

"It can be a bit of an issue when they see a younger person coming in," he said. "There is an age barrier, and an attitude like 'Who is this person to tell me what to do?'"

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That attitude often softens, however, when customers hear about the benefits of 3D printing, Coutu said. "It changes the game completely."

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Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for more than 15 years. She has lived and worked as a professional journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco and New York City. In her free time she enjoys surfing, traveling, music, yoga and cooking. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.

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