BENNINGTON — A 3D printing and composite materials company that a local engineer started in his home two years ago has grown in size and staff.
Hale Mountain Research has expanded into an East Road garage space and added two employees, according to founder James Salerno of Shaftsbury.
And the company is working with a Rutland-based footware center on a new project that aims to change the way custom foot inserts are manufactured.
Salerno, who founded the startup in 2014 after his former employer relocated to Michigan, rented his own shop space and has hired two employees. He's had contracts with clients in the automotive, medical and defence industries. And he said that, because of projects in the pipeline, he may need to move to a larger space.
"It's been a challenge," Salerno said on Friday. "But, I haven't met a challenge I haven't decided to take on."
The company specializes in design, consulting and prototype services. Salerno works with 3D printing and composite materials like carbon fiber.
One of Salerno's clients is BalanceWorks, a Rutland-based "complete footcare center" offering orthotic shoe inserts, footwear and shoe repair. A new project aims to use cutting edge 3D printing technology to create custom orthotics, according to David Goodspeed, owner of BalanceWorks.
"I saw the limit to what we have now," said Goodspeed, a pedorthist and master boot and shoe fitter. "It's time consuming with a lot of hands-on work and therefore expensive. So there's a limit to the number of people we can help."
Salerno, a native of Rockland County in New York, graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology in 2008 with a bachelor's degree in engineer. After Plasan Carbon Composites hired him out of college, he worked as an engineer for six years before the company closed its Bennington facility in 2014. They offered him a job, but he declined because he wanted to stay close to his family and pursue his startup company. He said it's been a challenge, in part because he handled all aspects of his business until recently bringing on consultants, but that he enjoyed knowing how the wheels and gears of the business run. He still has a lot of respect for Plasan. He made a lot of connections and that company was one of his first clients: He provided them with consulting services after they left Bennington.
Composite materials are made by layering two or more different materials on top of each other, with the end result having different properties than the original. Woven carbon fiber, for example, is layered and bound with a polymer resin. Industries like aerospace favour carbon fiber products because they are light-weight, but can be stronger than metal.
In the automotive industry, carbon fiber parts were once only found on the highest end performance cars. But technological advances have made it more accessible, Salerno said.
Those advances in carbon composites and 3D printing open doors for companies like his. He's hired two employees, one full and another part-time, and aims to hire another to run the 3D printing operation. He moved into a 1,600 squarefoot former car garage on East Road in April. Salerno said he may need more space. The 3D printer won't fit and is still at his home. He outsources paint work, but would like to do it in house.
"There's this narrative that I do not like — that Vermont is not friendly to businesses," he said. "But I don't see it that way." It was state grant money that allowed him to buy his first 3D printer two years ago.
Goodspeed said a $25,000 matching grant from the state made the partnership with Salerno possible.
The project involves creating a process to scan a three-dimensional image of a client's foot into a computer, and then creating the orthotic using a 3D printer. Now, Goodspeed said he makes an orthotic by taking a plaster cast of the bottom of the foot, a time consuming task.
Composite materials would also make for a better product because of their unique properties. Orthotics have to perform two "opposite functions," Goodspeed said: (1) They need to keep the foot and body in optimal alignment, and (2) need to be comfortable, or soft and cushiony. Goodspeed said that, working with Salerno and a chemical engineer, they've identified a special, proprietary material that will do this.
Salerno will develop the process to take the computer image of a foot, feed it into the printer, and ultimately create the insert, Goodspeed said, and then teach others how to use the equipment.
The next phase would be making custom shoes. Those are now made with a mold of the whole shoe, called a last. A custom shoe can run as much as $800 to $1,000, Goodspeed said.
"We believe we can do that much more economically," he said.
Contact Ed Damon at 802-447-7567, ext. 111.