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Mod Squad 2.0

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By Mark Vruno

Most teenagers can’t wait to turn 17, but Ethan Baehrend wanted to slow down the clock this past summer. The crafty whiz kid soon may work on such a time-stalling project, but for now the three-dimensional print space is his tekkie domain.

His birthday was in mid-August, but his new 3D printer assembly still was a good two weeks from being completed. Additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, is the action or process of making a physical object from a three-dimensional digital model, typically by laying down many thin layers of a material, such as resin or plastic, in succession.

Ethan’s new machine is massive, relatively speaking, expanding beyond table-top designs. “You can probably fit three people inside of it, crouched down, side by side,” describes the young business owner, emphasizing its large footprint in a spare room in his family’s River Forest home. One early product review is glowing: “I haven’t seen, in design and function, anything like this before, and I’ve been in IT for 35 years,” says Eamon Murchan, CEO and founding director of 11-year-old Creative ITC, a global information-technology (IT) firm based in London, England.

Since returning from a summer vacation on August 8th, Ethan’s production schedule has been crammed with the arrival of printer parts, the design and printing of additional parts, and subsequent assembly. His biggest stressor has been configuring code for the laser-cutting and drilling of the enclosure’s acrylics and rails, which is a one-shot deal. “There has been some pressure,” the developer deadpans with raised eyebrows.

Ethan had wanted to say that he custom-built his own machine when he was 16 and started his own Kickstarter company when he was 17. “That [chronology] looks great on a résumé,” he notes. But, really, do a few weeks matter in the grand scheme of such a promising future?

Last spring, Fenwick Economics Teacher Gerald Lordan, PhD., invited Ethan, then a sophomore, to demonstrate 3D printing to one of his classes. “This technology is a real game-changer,” Dr. Lordan explains. “Historically, the U.S. economy has migrated from that of an agrarian society to the Industrial Revolution to the Information Age. So-called 3D print is threatening to alter mass production as we know it, perhaps even rendering some factories obsolete in the future. Fenwick is fortunate to have an in-house expert resource in Ethan.”

Murchan, the IT guru who is one of Ethan’s father’s contacts, adds: “… when you consider prototypes and manufacturing, it [3D print] would revolutionize some markets. Certain areas would be much more efficient and change their dynamics without it. In some fields, especially in medical, 3D printing would definitely be game changing. And actually, depending on what is printed, the world is your oyster. The possibilities are infinite, which make this a very exciting time.”

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Ethan's 3D printer workshop in the Baehrend home.


Buy low, sell high

Ethan’s curiosity about additive manufacturing started nearly five years ago, when the studious boy was 12 years old. In middle school, he began customizing gaming computers. A friend of his dad (and now a client) introduced Ethan to Arduino, an open-source electronic prototyping 

platform that enables users to create interactive electronic objects. “I tinkered around with it before going directly into 3D printing,” he recalls, pointing out that Arduino’s code also is the interface on which some 3D-print devices run.

Intrigued by the technology, he used money he made from selling two gamer PCs to purchase an inexpensive 3D unit online. “I learned how the device worked,” Ethan remembers, adding that he also was (and still is) interested in coding and electronics. “That original printer broke down, but my knowledge grew,” he explains. Ever since, he has been seeking out broken printers online – via e-commerce/auction websites such as eBay and Craigslist – purchasing, refurbishing and then reselling them.

Ethan is more than a printer repairman, however. Like the devices with which he tinkers, his skill set is multidimensional, ranging from making 3D-printing parts he needs and customizing printer modifications (modding) to developing and tweaking the computer code used to run the machines. He has become adept at spotting design flaws, “and I like modding to enhance the existing printer’s functions and capabilities,” he admits. That could mean replacing a part to widen the printable area or improving print speeds and/or stability. He has melded his four years of practical experience into a best-practices approach.

And, his EB3D business is lucrative: After refurbishing and customizing, several devices have resold for up to six times more than their initial purchase price. Paying customers have included an Army base in Virginia, an owner of a construction company (who is printing low-cost models), a tech firm manager in Argentina, and an engineering graduate student at Purdue “who may be using it for prototyping,” Ethan speculates, as well as many hobbyists.

He tripled his investment on one project by buying a prototype LulzBot 3D printer on sale for under $1,000. After fabricating the necessary parts and putting in approximately two hours of labor, he resold the revamped printer on eBay for $3,000.

Mom is quick to add, “We don't fund this ‘hobby.’ We are simply the facilitators in helping with suggestions, his personal Uber driver, etc.,” Diana Baehrend says. “All of Ethan’s earning are divided: half into long-term savings [for college], five percent to charity and the rest he can spend on whatever -- hobbies, dates, souvenirs. He and Ed go over the accounting every month or so.”

Printing the parts “only costs about $5.00,” Ethan says, but this is the most time-consuming part of the process, sometimes taking up to 10 hours. “I don’t have to sit around and watch them print,” he explains. “I can do other things,” such as finish homework or go to school while the parts are printing. He likes the flexibility of being able to make his own hours; it’s one of the perks of his job.

Competitive networker

Ethan is competitive, a solid student with a 3.4 GPA at Fenwick. “Mostly A’s and B’s,” he reports, although sophomore Spanish was a bit rough last year. On Instagram earlier this year, he posted a photo of himself in the foreground with a Prusa i3 MK2 three-dimensional printer. The occasion? “Guess who just set the record for fastest Prusa i3 MK2 build? Me!” he wrote proudly. The manufacturer’s (www.prusa3d.com) previously published, record-setting build time had been four hours. The youthful challenger set up a digital, stop-watch timer and knocked it out in under three hours and 20 minutes.

Ethan doesn’t sit still much. In addition to juggling his business and school, he has a part-time, after-school job at Tapster Robotics (www.tapster.io), an Oak Park firm. Both of his parents have financial-services backgrounds. “We are far from being tech-savvy,” jokes his mother, Diana, but they appreciate his buy low-sell high strategy. Her husband, Edward (Ed), is a money manager and principal at Raymond James in Oak Park. Much like them, the teenager is project- and goal-oriented, giving attention to the most minute of details.

Also offering moral support is a large, extended family of entrepreneurs, engineers, a union leader and relatives involved in the sciences. “It’s undeniably a menagerie bunch,” his mother adds, “varied in cultures, career paths, religious and political beliefs.” Many relatives are world travelers, including Ed, an avid marathoner who has run races in all 50 states and on six continents. They all have encouraged Ethan “to walk his world aware but unafraid,” she says.

This fall, Ethan is focused on his new company: Creative 3D Technologies. There is a logo to design, URL domain research to conduct and a website to construct. He also is busy gleaning advice on “a lot of legal stuff,” he says, to keep him and his ideas protected under the law. Once he is a bit more established, he is considering expansion into selling 3D printing models -- end products and parts -- made from the printers he fixes and modifies.

A baby-faced entrepreneur (he’s shaving now), Ethan doesn’t believe in “floating alone,” as he puts it, appreciating the value of networking. His latest venture is a limited partnership with the aforementioned Creative ITC. “Ethan is rare in drive and ambition for his age,” believes Murchan, the firm’s chief executive. “I am more than impressed of his maturity and passion, his proficiency … however, if he keeps doing what he has always done, he's going to get the same result. I think it’s important for him, therefore, to be at the top edge in learning of new technologies.” Murchan encouraged the protégé to attend a 3D conference in Munich, Germany, next month. However, Ethan and the Baehrends had to respectfully decline the invitation; the conference’s timing during the school year was too difficult.

Fenwick Math Teacher David Setum also appreciates Ethan’s passion. “He is one of the most self-directed and internally motivated students I have had the pleasure to teach,” praises Mr. Setum. “Ethan loves building 3D printers and working with the modeling software that they use.” When Setum invited his student to demo the printer at a spring Open House, the ever-dedicated Ethan showed up with gauze covering second-degree burns on his hands, the result of a minor industrial accident in his workshop. Invention sometimes can have a painful price.

Last school year, “when he was done with classwork, Ethan downloaded a different 3D modeling program, started playing around with it and, within a few class periods, was creating models of parts that he then printed and added to some of the printers he owns,” Setum continues. “He gave his after-school time to trouble-shoot and fix two of our 3D printers. His love of this technology is evident and contagious.”  

Ethan is determined to secure a position with the ID Tech Camp he has attended since he was eight years old. “The director and we are confident that he can get it because of his expertise and because he has been there,” Diana says. His camp task would be teaching 3D printing and engineering using Autodesk software -- in Hong Kong, while his dad runs a marathon in Africa.

Bringing Tech Home

Ethan is excited about completing his final Eagle Scout project this fall. On October 7th, in collaboration with the River Forest Public Library, he is coordinating and hosting a “Maker Fest” to inspire teens and adults, introducing technologies of which they may not be aware. “There’s so much more than just gaming,” he says, adding that he does like to play sometimes.

This past spring the fun-loving teen 3D-printed a character mask and wore it to the Anime Central (ACen) conference in Rosemont, IL. ACen is the Midwest’s largest anime and manga convention. Ethan’s cosplay (costume play) centered on a character from the Adult Swim (Cartoon Network) TV show “Rick & Morty.” (The fictitious Rick Sanchez is a genius scientist who splits his time between domestic squabbles and intergalactic time travel, bringing his distressed grandson Morty along for the ride.) “There’s a big market for [movie and stage] props and masks,” Ethan points out.

The young businessman has always gravitated to the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) disciplines, and “I’ve always liked messing around with electronics,” says Ethan, who is part of a makerspace. Makerspaces are sort of like the tech cooperatives (co’ops) on the West Coast in Silicon Valley, where technological enthusiasts share resources and ideas while treading the perilous waters of intellectual property, patent law and copyright infringement.

Also called hackerspaces, hackspaces and fablabs, they are collaborative places where these people gather to get creative with DIY (do-it-yourself) projects, invent new ones and share ideas. Since the first official makerspace convened some six years ago in Upstate New York, libraries have remained an ideal setting for makerspace events across the country. Many public libraries offer resources such as 3D printers, software, electronics, craft and hardware supplies, and more. The ideal of a communal creative space has gained momentum: The White House held its own inaugural Maker Faire in 2014, and there were more than 135 million adult makers in 2015, according to Popular Science magazine. This year’s National Week of Making was June 16-22.

Included among the 12 exhibitors at the River Forest Library’s Maker Fest in October, Ethan will demonstrate the 3D printer that he has designed.

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