⭐ Texas educators: our K-5 Tech Apps curriculum is a state-approved instructional material. Learn More.
Download the free STEM Career lesson that matches this interview. Explore the responsibilities of a CAD designer and 3D printing technician with your students. Then, assume the role of a 3D printing professional with an engaging activity! This STEM Career lesson from Computer Science Applications for grades 6-8.
Name: Alex Correa
Title: Co-Founder and Fabricator
Company: Practically Parents and Practical Creatives
STEM Career Lesson: 3D Printing Industry
Course: Intro to Computer Science Applications
Slice and dice with a 3D printing expert! Explore a career in the 3D Printing Industry with Alex Correa of Practically Parents and Practical Creatives. As a CAD Designer and 3D Printing Technician, Alex creates products that bring joy and ease to daily moments.
Shop Practical Creatives: https://www.etsy.com/shop/PracticalCreatives
Shop Practically Parents: https://practicallyparents.com/
Search open-source 3D printed items with Thingiverse 3D: https://www.thingiverse.com/
Explore Fusion 360 (professional modeling software): https://www.autodesk.com/products/fusion-360/overview
Explore Tinkercad (open source modeling software): https://www.tinkercad.com/
Shop Prusa Mini: https://www.prusa3d.com/product/original-prusa-mini-3/
Shop Ender-3: https://store.creality.com/
Katie: The 3D Printing Industry is taking the world by storm! Also called “additive manufacturing”, 3D printing has created countless new jobs and opened the door to create amazing products, like fully functioning cars and prosthetic limbs. But how does this process actually work?
Today, you’ll hear my conversation with an entrepreneurial CAD designer and 3D printing technician. Alex Correa is the Co-Founder and Fabricator at Practically Parents and Practical Creatives, two Etsy shops that create 3D printed items that simplify the lives of their customers.
Welcome to My STEM Career, inspiring the next generation of leaders. This show is brought to you by Ellipsis Education; I’m Katie Baird.
In this first section of the episode, we’re diving into questions from our 3D Printing Industry STEM Career Lesson from Computer Science Applications, built for grades 6 to 8. Then, we’ll transition and learn more about Alex’s life, career, and advice.
Katie: Hi Alex, thank you so much for coming on the show today.
Alex: Oh hello Katie. It is a pleasure to be here; I’m really thrilled about the opportunity to chat a bit about what I do.
Katie: So we’re going to start by asking some questions about our 3D Printing Industry STEM career lesson. This lesson can be found in our Computer Science Applications course so for those of you listening either on the video or on the podcast, go ahead and check that description box if you want some more information about this course. But Alex, I’d love if we could start if you can introduce yourself. What’s your name, your job title and where do you work?
Alex: Yeah, sure thing. So, my name is Alex Correa. During the day, I work at the company called Codelicious, but actually where I spend my time outside of my 9 to 5 is I support and run two different 3D printing businesses, those businesses are Practical Creatives and Practical Parents.
Katie: And what are some of the products that you distribute through those businesses?
Alex: Yeah, we’ve got quite a few. I’ve brought some with me, just to show and help. The first product we ever sold across any of the businesses was actually a phone holder.
And so this is a phone holder that goes on to a cart that’s frequently used for nursing, and it holds your phone. So, I had a son about a year ago, and we were up very late, all the time, and at some point it was just inconvenient to have my phone in random places. So this is the one that kick started it all, and then we branched out from there.
We sell things like cupholders that go on your couch. We sell things that are something like a headphone holder for holding headphones underneath your desk.
And then finally, another example I’ve brought is something for the pet owners out there. If you have a dog, sometimes they use Kongs, which are, you know, rubber feeding tools and toys. And this is just a holder for them to be kept on you or on the table so they’re not rolling around and you’re not getting dog food everywhere, which is always a pain.
Katie: Very cool. So, describe the life cycle of your products from the design stage to the finished item. What are some of the steps that go into that?
Alex: Yeah of course, of course. So I think we, we love, thinking about the phrase, you know, “necessity is the origin of invention”. For us, all of our products begin with an idea or a problem. You know we experience something in our lives (like many people do), and in those moments of challenge – or of opportunity we like to say – we think about, you know, what is a solution that we could build to solve this. And so it starts with that idea, that moment of of, “I want to make this thing happen”, and then what we do is we began designing. And so we hop on and start designing a product, a prototype, if you will. And then we build out the first iteration, we print it on the machines and our homes, and then we iterate from there. You know, we we do some measurements of success; we check if everything’s aligned, where we want it to be, if it’s working. And then we repeat the process, kind of like the design thinking process is probably a really great analog for that. You tweak, you go again, and you keep iterating.
Katie: Great, so I know as a small business, you have kind of taken on a lot of different roles, and typically in a 3D printing business, a CAD designer and a 3D printing technician would be two different jobs but you’re kind of doing both. So, I’d love if you could explain what a CAD designer does first.
Alex: Yeah, of course. So, CAD designers are generally the individuals responsible for the modeling and the design of products digitally. CAD stands for “computer aided design”. And really what it involves is the process of, you know, taking an idea, or measurements, or an object and then creating it in a digital space, and we use different tools for that. There are many, but that’s the primary objective for that person, right, is to create that digital object. And that’s really the primary role.
Katie: And then, what does a 3D printing technician do?
Alex: Yeah, so 3D printing technician is probably where a lot of expectation comes into play of what people think of when they think of 3D printing. That’s going to be the individual that is working with the printers themselves. So once the product is designed digitally, it, you know, it is the responsibility of the technician to ensure that it is created physically in the real world from the 3D printer. So they will oversee maintenance, they will make sure that things are operating efficiently, and should anything go wrong, of course they will be there to fix or work on the printers to develop them and make sure the operation is running.
Katie: And then finally, what traits do you think a 3D printing professional should have?
Alex: Yeah, that’s a fantastic question. When it comes to, you know, 3D printing, there are the soft skills and the hard skills. I like to break them down, and when it comes to the soft skills, you know, curiosity is so important, because there’s a lot of learning that happens. You know, I am always learning something about printers, and you have to have the confidence – that’s another skill – to be willing to learn that and to go into something that’s completely new to you and say, “I’m going to try. I might get it right, I might fail, but I will learn and I will continue to grow”. So there’s confidence, perseverance, curiosity all in that.
And then the hard skills, you need to think about things like math. You also need to think about things like art, and I’m going to put that in art skill category, because the ability to create something requires so much art in the idea of thinking about something in a, in a space that doesn’t exist yet and creating it into being. Math is so important when you need to measure. You know, “measure twice, cut once” is a fantastic phrase; one that has proven to be the bane of my existence at times.
And then finally, when you start looking at those next level skills, you know, that are going to push you, programming can really help improve your ability as a 3D printing professional, because that is the language of the printers.
Katie: Great. Well, thanks so much Alex! As a reminder, those were some questions from our 3D Printing Industry STEM Career Lesson in Computer Science Applications, so if you want to find out more information about that course, check out either description box or the show notes.
Katie: Those questions drew from our 3D Printing Industry STEM Career Lesson, part of Codelicious Computer Science Applications for grade 6 to 8. You can find more information about the course in the show notes. Now, on to the second part of our show. Join me as Alex explains the inspiration behind his businesses and the process of 3D printing a product.
Katie: So Alex I’d love to transition and talk just a little bit more about your career and about your business. You mentioned that your first product was inspired by your son but I’d love to dig into that a little bit more and what really inspired you to start these businesses?
Alex: Yeah, I think this is a really exciting story for me, you know, some of my friends and I were sitting and talking one day and one of us was really in love with air quality, and he was talking about the, you know, the air filtration machine he had in his room and he had just purchased it, and you know he was telling us about how expensive it is to clean air, and you know, his machine he had was a couple hundred dollars, and he said at the end of the day, you know, there are some studies that show just putting an air filter on the back of a box fan is going to produce pretty similar results. And that was the lightning moment right there – like the light bulbs turn on, and we have this, this look at each other and it’s, we could, we could do that, you know, we could make that! And so what we did was, we designed a clam that goes on a box fan that holds an air filter. And what we did was use that as an opportunity to just share, you know, and create a bit more of a level playing field or on lower entry point for people to get clean air.
And at the time when we launched, there were a lot of wildfires going on on the West coast, and we initially saw a ton of people ordering and sending orders directly to the West coast so they could help get some clean air in the areas they were in that were really struggling at the time.
Yeah, you know, that’s the product itself, and designing that came from, you know, the need to solve an issue, but that’s just the product. Then from there, it’s the actual business piece, right? What inspires someone to take that and say, you know, confidently, “I’m going to go out and share this with others”? I think for us, it was always the idea that there is a need for other people to have other problems in their lives solved, and what is the best way for us to provide them with access to that solution? For us, it was starting a business, you know, it was giving people the opportunity to say, “I’m, I’m interested in this thing and it solves a problem that’s relevant or specific to, you know my life, and I, I want to be able to acquire that without, you know, the need of having to worry about if a million people like it”. For our products, we don’t have to worry if a billion people buy it, or even a million people but it. If one person buys it, we haven’t wasted anything. They’re made to order.
Katie: Awesome. So that’s, that’s really the business side, but now, I’d love to dig into more of the technical side. So, how did you learn the additive manufacturing process?
Alex: Yeah, so I am completely self taught in the 3D printing world, so I, I like to say I went to the school of YouTube for 3D printing. And I learned so much from both reading and watching videos. You know, I, I first got into printing, because I saw so many great things that people were designing that were available for others to 3D print. They were distributing them freely, which was amazing. And you know, I bought the printer, and I thought, you know, I want to be able to to reproduce some of these things that these people are putting out there. Naturally, once you’re able to print things other people have made you start thinking, “Well, why can’t I make something right? I have my own ideas”.
So I went through the process of teaching myself modeling and design as well. And that part, you know, I did through different videos, tutorials, and a lot of trial and error, I’d say.
Katie: That’s amazing. So, where were you you finding some of these free 3D printer designs where you could go and just print what someone had already designed?
Alex: Yeah, yeah, I’m happy to share those. So there are a few different platforms – so for designs others have made, Thingiverse 3D is a fantastic location to find items that others have made and distributed freely. The wonderful thing about Thingiverse is that it’s massive. I mean, there are items for any type of problem you can imagine, there are solutions, and even better for those that are potentially interested in, you know, starting their own business which maybe we’ll talk a bit about more about later. They even include the licensing of those designs, so that you understand what, you know, you are able to do with someone else’s design, and within the realms of, you know, legality.
Katie: Sure, so that’s really interesting that you started by printing other people’s things and then started creating your own. So kind of as you became more of a subject matter expert in 3D printing, what were some of the tools that you needed to create your products?
Alex: Yeah. So I think if we’re talking about, you know, the lifecycle of our products, you know, when we think of ideas, and we have ideas, we need to start building things, one of the first things we do is we take measurements. And in order to take precise measurements, one of the things we use extremely commonly is the set of calipers. They are used to, you know, measure gaps, distances, whole lengths, so that you can get precise measurements down to the millimeters, which is the world we operate in right now with the metric system. So we use calipers to start gathering measurements.
From there we jump into modeling software. There’s one that we use really frequently, it’s called Fusion 360. It’s more of a professional tool, but we really got primarily started in a tool called Tinkercad. Tinkercad is produced by the same company, but it’s a lot more accessible. It runs in your browser, so you can run it on just about any computer, and it’s completely free. So we built all of our initial products in Tinkercad, you know, on our laptops in the browser. They even have an iPad app. And then from there, we’re able to print those, and so once you have the design, there’s one more software people don’t know about usually, and it’s called a slicer. The slicer is what takes the 3D model, which is the digital object and converts it into code that a printer can read. It’s extremely essential; it has a lot of different options for how you can print objects which is the, you know, a whole rabbit hole in itself, but the slicer is really what translates everything into the programming language of printers.
Once you slice something (which is the verb associated with it), what you do is you’ll transfer it to your 3D printing machine. We have a couple of different printers across our team. The best 3D printer is one of two brands; we use Prusa printers and an Ender 3 3D printer. Both the Prusa 3D printer and Ender 3D printer are considered to be entry level hobbyist printers, they don’t print massive objects but they’re extremely approachable, as far as usability. So we’ll use our printers to get the first iterations out, and then the fun part is the testing, you know, you get to take that object, and you just try it. You’re trying to break it, you see how strong it is – and then we iterate all over again back to the design software.
Katie: What are some of the physical, like, plastics or some of the 3D printing materials that you need as you’re actually printing it?
Alex: Yeah, of course. So, when it comes to the actual printing of objects, so you need a 3D printer. That is, you know, of course one of the main ingredients. It’s the machine that does the work, but you also need the 3D printing materials, and we print in plastic. Most 3D printers do, but there are a shockingly high number of different types of plastic. I’ve learned more about plastic in the last couple of years than I ever thought I would know. So this is called PLA. It’s really the most common form of 3D printing plastic I’d say; it’s what we use personally to print all of our products, but there are some products we have that are printed in more unique plastics – things like PETG, which is what water bottles are made of similarly, as well as flexible plastics where we get into things that have a bit of a squish factor, if you will.
Katie: So what does that look like – does it look like a school of yarn? It’s definitely not a sheet, like a sheet of paper.
Alex: Yeah, yeah. So the plastic itself is a single, I know the measurement – it’s 1.75 millimeter long line, you know, it’s… You can think of it like a string that’s really tightly wound, and it slowly unwinds on the printer. It’s fed through the printing hot end as we call it, where it is, dropped, you know like millimeter by millimeter onto another piece of plastic that’s really the common method of printing. There are other printers that also use different types of things like resin. And those are liquid printers, so you actually have a vat of liquid, and UV lights solidify the liquid in the precise place you want it to be solidified. So, it’s really between those two you know, a line of plastic that’s really tightly wound or a vat of resin liquid.
Katie: That’s really interesting. So that’s a little more technical side, I’d love to know from you know your opinion and from where you’re sitting. What is your favorite thing about 3d printing?
Alex: Yeah, I. There are so many, I think that if I had to narrow down to my favorite. It is the ability to take an idea, you know, something that doesn’t exist at all and take it to both the digital world and the physical world. I think we spent a lot of time right now, you know recreating physical objects in the digital space I think that’s a whole era of technology we’re in.
But being able to take something that’s an idea, put it in the digital space, and then bring it to reality is so exciting. You know it’s a true opportunity for you to see the fruits of your labor as you work and as you develop and you practice, in ways that aren’t as easy you know I could go from an idea to a product in a single day. There aren’t too many industries and careers honestly where you can say that that’s a really normal thing.
Katie: And then what are some of the challenges you face as a 3D printing business?
Alex: I think that it would be impossible to ignore you know. The first one is supply chain, of course. One of the things as a business, you always worry about is, as we use plastic to make products but we have the raw plastic we need to build them. That’s number one. Number two is your printers.
One of the challenges you will always face is are the printers running and operating successfully; are we having any issues? And once you do have an issue, you know, not being afraid and having the confidence to jump in and tackle it and solve it. I think that, you know, so many of the challenges are mental, because it is intimidating, but at the end of the day, if you believe in yourself and you are willing to take a chance on on trying to fix something you’ll solve almost every single one of your problems.
Katie: So I’d love to take these last two questions and zoom out a little bit and look at the larger industry. So as you know, a lot of discourse is happening right now with people 3D printing huge items like cars. I’d love to know if you think the 3D printing revolution is here to stay and has some longevity, and why or why not?
Alex: Yeah, of course. So I, I really believe that the 3D printing industry has some amazing power for innovation and longevity. I think it is here to stay. That said, I do believe it has some tough questions to answer as we move forward.
You know, 3D printing is amazing in small quantities; when we talk about, you know, large scale manufacturing, it faces limitations with timing and the amount of turnaround time so there are specific areas. But I do think that 3D printing shines in the modern world. When we explore things outside of just plastic – plastic is really the most common use case – but the ability to create something from a raw material with very little waste along the way is hugely beneficial and one of the, one of the best parts about 3D printing.
When we make something in the 3D printing world, we make one. And for us, if we make something to order, we don’t have anything sitting on a shelf or potentially not being sold that needs to go in the trash. We have a one-to-one delivery to our customers and if we think about that in a larger scale of the world, we can think about things like housing and be really careful about the way that we use raw materials and construction, so that we can efficiently use them to build, let’s say, larger, more sustainable housing projects in areas that need larger developments of housing. We can use them in food processing, for an example, if we need to make sure that we aren’t wasting materials in areas that aren’t cut. I think cookie making is a great example.
When you’re baking cookies, you know you roll out the dough, you cut the shapes, and then you pull together all of the space that was lost from cutting the shapes, right? You don’t always get the whole thing. You keep going smaller and smaller until you can no longer make any more cookies out of the dough you have left. With 3D printing, you don’t have to do that. You set the machine up, and you just print the cookies.
Katie: Very cool, yeah. There’s a lot of conversation about sustainability, and I love those examples that you gave – just gave some really good context. So, my final question here is, what advice would you give to students who are interested and following your career path that you’ve taken?
Alex: Yeah. My favorite quote is, “Big things have small beginnings”. And I believe that for anyone interested in pursuing a career in either owning 3D printing business, or working in 3d printers at all, don’t be afraid to start small. You know, we started with a single printer, with no skills in design, you know, and no, I mean, no customer base anything like that, right? I didn’t have anyone knocking on my door to get orders; I just had an idea, and I knew because of the way that you can efficiently use plastic, if I put an idea out there, I don’t have to worry if I buy 1000 units and they don’t sell, I can just put it out there, and if someone buys it, I can make it. So the risk is is lower than you think.
So my biggest thing is, have the confidence in yourself, that you can try and that if it works, you have succeeded, right, and that’s amazing. And if it’s not always as easy as you think it might be, you’re learning along the way. So that would be my biggest advice is to start small and not be afraid of that being a path to success.
Katie: That’s great advice. Well, thanks so much, Alex, for coming on My STEM Career. I hope you have a really good day!
Alex: Hey, thank you so much, Katie! Have a wonderful, wonderful day as well.
Katie: Thank you Alex Correa, Co-Founder and Fabricator at Practically Parents and Practical Creatives, for coming on the show today. Listen to every episode of My STEM Career at ellipsiseducation.com or wherever you get your podcasts. See you soon!
Teachers and students: explore STEM careers and discover the ways computer science knowledge can help regardless of your path. In this show, we speak with industry experts that share information about their careers, describe their professional experiences, and offer advice to students. This show is hosted by Ellipsis Education computer science curriculum.