By Anthony Wyatt
Hi-tech manufacturing usually conjures up images of white lab coats, enormous warehouses and international teams of engineers. Instead, for 3D printing pioneers GorillaMaker, local production provides the best avenue to high quality products, motivated employees and close community relationships.
Glenn Warner, founder of GorillaMaker, points to an American flag sticker on the front of a GM3D500, the company’s flagship model.
“We stick these on everything we make,” he said. “We get parts from around the world, but everything that can be made by us in Kentucky, we make. I bleed red, white and blue, and we want that flag to be on every machine that goes out of here.”
From a small workshop near his home, Verona–based GorillaMaker carries on the American entrepreneurial spirit, making state-of-the-art 3D printers for local and national use. GorillaMaker products can be found all across the area and throughout the country, from schools and small businesses to the homes of hobbyists and the factories of large companies.
Three years ago, Glenn was working on a project in southern Kentucky for his IT company, American Computer Solutions, when he needed to replace a costly plastic bracket. “I laughed at the vendor,” Glenn says, “and said, I could make one of those myself on a 3D printer.”
Without hesitating, he bought a printer, made the brackets and sold 600 to the company.
Orders came in fast for his products, but Glenn was relying on 3D printers that lacked quality. They constantly broke and needed expensive repairs, so Glenn decided once again to take matters into his own hands. He designed and built his first 3D printer, dubbed “Lulu,” and has been innovating ever since.
Although production started in the kitchen of Glenn and his wife and co-owner Shelley’s home and took a few months to turn a profit, GorillaMaker now leads the industry and produces more than a dozen machines a month.
GorillaMaker stands out among other 3D printer manufacturers for a number of reasons, not least of which is the printers are designed, machined and built right here in the Bluegrass state.
GorillaMaker individually makes most of the parts for its products, and all of the work that goes into creating a printer happens within the tri-state.
High-touch approach to high tech
Once the products are sold, GorillaMaker remains innovative. “The difference between us and a big-box company is that everybody who buys one [of our printers] gets four hours of training,” Glenn explained. Each buyer receives hands-on instructions about how to use the printers and how to make functional designs.
“I don’t want to say we’re full service, but in the 3D printing market we will do a lot to help our customers out,” he said.
Price and quality also set GorillaMaker apart from competitors. One competitor is Italian brand MakerBot, which retails products for around $6,500, while GorillaMaker sells its printers for $5,500. The Verona company offers an unheard of three-year warranty on all its printers, although none has ever broken and no parts have needed replacement.
GorillaMaker also produces some of the largest printers available, and they include unique features such as anti-stick printing plates.
“If you were a 3D printing guru,” Glenn says as he casually pulls the latest plastic gorilla from the printing plate, “you would almost pass out right now because you would not believe that this just popped off.”
Glenn attributes the success of the company and its products to his six employees and his “perpetual inventory” assembly line approach to manufacturing.
“A lot of [business owners] think that you manage people, and that’s furthest from the truth,” he says. “We manage processes.”
GorillaMaker allows employees to work flexible shifts, and every worker keeps a log of the shift’s accomplishments and ideas for improvement. For a good laugh, there are even kitschy signs above each workstation with phrases like, Wire Assembly: Look the Part, Be the Part.
“It’s not to keep track of anything,” said Glenn, pointing to the daily production sheets. “It’s to empower the employee to be successful.”
This innovation and commitment to workplace ethics has gained Glenn quite a reputation in the business world, so much so that CelebrityPress recently asked him to co-author the book Ignite Your Life with Bryan Tracy, a renowned motivational speaker and professional development expert. Glenn has a passion for helping businesses grow, increasing their profits and most importantly empowering and listening to employees.
In spite of the national and international attention GorillaMaker has received, the company remains committed to helping Northern Kentucky by promoting and encouraging problem-solving. The firm partners with local schools to supply libraries with 3D printers, and it supports the Boone County MakerSpace.
In the upcoming months, Glenn will go to Kentucky State University in Frankfort to demonstrate how GorillaMaker designs and assembles its printers. He will also teach students basic business and manufacturing skills, such as managing internal communication, staying organized and performing assembly tasks.
Even though GorillaMaker sales continue to rise, the company’s motivation isn’t purely financial. Instead, it wants what’s best for the community.
Take Keith, one of GorillaMaker’s recent customers from Ohio, who makes lanyard holders and belt clips for EMS badges. At first, he wanted to buy a printer, but Glenn suggested that he print a few prototypes of the product first. When the products exceeded expectations and demand grew, Keith bought a machine to keep production going. Now, he tells Glenn that he will probably have to buy a second printer soon to keep up with demand.
Growing economy one entrepreneur at a time
Glenn’s business philosophy of educating and supporting clients, students and the community not only fuels GorillaMaker’s sales, but it also grows the local economy one entrepreneur at a time.
“If you can dream it, you can make it with a 3D printer,” Glenn says, “and you can become an entrepreneur very quickly.”
Have a great idea for a new toy, vase or plastic sculpture? Owning a 3D printer of your own or having GorillaMaker print products for you allows you the opportunity to turn that dream into a reality. Anyone can design and print a product, sell it locally or on the Etsy website and start a business overnight.
The enterprising spirit afforded by a 3D printer has philanthropic effects as well. A few weeks ago, Glenn heard about a design idea to make low cost fans for some of the world’s hottest environments. A large board is covered in dozens of small funnels with fans attached to the back, all being powered by solar panels. Due to the shape of the funnels, the air being pushed through changes in pressure and can cool spaces by up to fifty degrees.
Instead of printing funnels himself, Glenn has a unique idea for turning this design challenge into a community project. As he explains, “What happens if I get together with schools and say, ‘Here is a free design. Print this out with your students, send them to me, we’ll bundle them together with the fans and solar cells and donate them to a worthy cause’? How cool is it that 3D printing can change the life of someone in another country, and how cool is it that kids in our country could be part of that movement?”
From a Fortune 500 company to a small-town workshop, Glenn Warner has seen all sides of the tech manufacturing industry, and for now, the futures of 3D printing and GorillaMaker look bright. “Next we’ll have to buy the farm next door,” Glenn jokes, “and then there will be a lot of Kentuckians with jobs.”
As one of the few locally owned and operated hi-tech manufacturers in the area, GorillaMaker’s success has the potential to serve as a catalyst for the growth of similar companies. “Instead of seeing 3D printing as a fad or a toy-making machine, you can make parts for your multi-million company to sell a multi-million dollar machine,” Glenn says. “You wouldn’t be able to do that five years ago.”
At the moment, production shows no signs of slowing, and designs are under way for new GorillaMaker printers that use lasers to create models out of resin and even print using steel. Wherever his company goes, though, one thing remains certain: GorillaMaker will always be locally made, value each and every employee and spread the entrepreneurial spirit.