Ever since he was a boy, Zack Vader has wanted to know why things work the way they do, or why there isn't a better way to do something.
Vader, now 24, peppered his father, Scott, a mechanical engineer, with questions, and they hashed out the most interesting answers in a journal they've kept for years.
Could there be a restaurant staffed by robots to ensure consistency in meal preparation?
How about cars outfitted with spherical wheels, as in the movie "I, Robot," for better handling than conventional tires?
As you can imagine, most of the 80 or so ideas in their book haven't panned out. But one has.
The Vaders have developed an innovative method that uses liquid metal for 3-D printing.
The father and son, and the University at Buffalo professors who work with them, say their system of printing is faster and cheaper than the conventional 3-D metal printing methods used in manufacturing today.
Zack and Scott Vader, who left his job in industry, founded Vader Systems in the basement of their home five years ago.
Last fall, they moved into an Amherst office park after perfecting the design of their first machine, which works along the same lines as an inkjet printer. The company this year hopes to build 10 of the machines, which sell for $400,000 each.
The Vaders say their printing process has applications for the military, consumer goods and the auto industry – any low-volume, highly complex manufacturing.
For Zack Vader, it's been a thrill to see his company come to life.
"This is exactly what I always imagined," he said this month as he stood in front of the initial prototype and and his father built together. "It's definitely been a labor of love."
In a hurry
Zack was a young man in a hurry with a blizzard of ideas.
He stayed at UB just one semester because he was eager to get out of the classroom.
"It was too slow," Zack said. "I wanted to get at building my ideas."
He wanted to be a mechanical engineer, like his father, but he said he wanted to be involved in the entire process, from designing the product to growing the business behind it.
For any engineer or startup founder, the question isn't whether you can come up with a cool product, or whether you can build a working prototype, Zack said, but whether there's a market for it and how much capital it takes to get the idea off the drawing board.
The concept that grew into Vader Systems came from the Vaders' book of ideas. Zack said the Vaders were thinking, during a drive back from Toronto, about how to miniaturize a gas turbine generator while retaining the efficiency of a standard-size power plant.
Such microturbine generators show promise as replacements for batteries in electric cars, he said, but only if the parts can be produced cheaply. He looked at 3-D metal printing, which can bring the cost of making the parts down considerably, but he couldn't find anyone to make the parts the way he wanted and he couldn't get his hands on a machine.
So Zack and Scott decided to make their own 3-D metal printing machine.
"When we couldn't get one, we had to make one," Zack said.
How it works
The Vaders then analyzed every part of 3-D liquid metal printing – what works, what doesn't work – before coming up with what they say is a better way to do it.
Here's how their method works, with an assist from Edward P. Furlani, a professor in UB's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, who has advised the Vaders:
They take aluminum wire, the kind you can get at Home Depot or Lowe's, on a spool, and thread it into a heating chamber where it is heated to form a pool of liquid metal. The liquefied metal flows through small channels and fills a separate ejection chamber, which has a small nozzle.
This chamber is surrounded by an electrical coil. To eject a drop, a short voltage pulse is applied to the coil, which produces a magnetic field and electrical currents within the liquid aluminum, and causes a drop to eject through the nozzle. This process is repeated and multiple drops are deposited, coalesce and cool to form a desired metal structure.
It's similar to the function of your inkjet printer at home, which is why it's called drop-on-demand printing.
Because the Vaders use metal wire, their process is cheaper and faster, and the pieces it produces are of the same quality as those produced using metal powder that is melted into liquid form, according to the Vaders and Furlani.
"It's ideal for the production of solid metal pieces, with no waste, at relatively high through-put," said Furlani.
For example, Scott Vader said aluminum wire typically costs $3 per pound, while the powder version of aluminum can cost about $80 per pound.
He said the machine works quickly, too. A small test piece, an aluminum cylinder that's a few inches around, takes about three minutes to make, Scott said, because they can print one piece at a time, as well as in batches. That same piece, on a standard 3-D powder-bed fusion machine, would have to be printed in a batch and would take two to three days, Scott said.
The next version of their machine, the Mk 2, which they hope to complete next year, will have 10 nozzles.
"That goes 30 times faster," Scott said.
A growing family company
Zack started the company in 2012, and incorporated it the next year. By then, he had recruited his dad, an executive with Unicell, to join him as CEO. They started in the basement of the family's Amherst home, cobbling together the first prototype of the 3-D printer with parts from local suppliers.
When they ran into technical issues, they reached out to UB scientists for guidance. Faculty, including Furlani, continue to consult with Vader Systems.
"It's just cool technology," Furlani said.
The Vaders, with Zack's mom, Pat Roche, working as the company's controller, finally grew out of their basement and moved into the CrossPoint Business Park in October. They lease 17,000 square feet of office and manufacturing space and have room to expand. The company has nine full-time and four part-time employees.
"Every one of these engineers is from UB," said Scott, as four of the company's five engineers worked recently. The fifth is from the University of Texas. He said working with his son and the other young engineers is what he enjoys about the job, as they figure out new ways to tackle scientific questions.
"You don't know what will work," Scott said.
They made their first sale of the Mk 1 Experimental to Rochester Institute of Technology, and will deliver the machine at the end of March. They're building one more now and plan to finish a total of 10 this year.
Scott said future customers could include the military, because they like that the machines can be easily moved by truck to forward operating bases, or on ships. Private companies have sought them out about taking the machine into space, where it doesn't make sense to bring a lot of pre-manufactured equipment.
Just bring spools of aluminum wire and, Scott said, "Make what you need when you're out there."
There's also potential in aviation, for producing out-of-stock replacement parts for 50-year-old planes, for example, he said.
The automotive industry is a big potential market, the Vaders said, but producing parts for vehicles is years down the road.
In the sports market, making club heads tailored to the needs of the golfer's individual swing is a fruitful possible market.
Eventually, the Vaders want to set up as assembly line of sorts in their new workspace to allow them to build the machines even more efficiently.
They relied on their own money to get the company going in their first few years, but they recently completed a $2 million round of fundraising.
Scott and Zack, sometimes with Roche along for the ride, usually commute together to work.
It gives them a chance to bounce more ideas off each other.
"We keep adding to that list," Scott said.
"That's the problem," Zack said.