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Auburn city officials draw on Auburn University to grow a new industry
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Auburn city officials draw on Auburn University to grow a new industry

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Auburn city officials are reaching out to university faculty and local entrepreneurs, offering them opportunities to get into a new branch of manufacturing.

The Additive Manufacturing Accelerator targets startup businesses that use additive manufacturing – which is related to the 3D printing that has emerged on shop floors around the world.

In essence, these businesses use specially formulated plastics (or polymers, as they are commonly referred to) and 3D printers to create made-to-order products for customers. Such products are in high demand at large scale production operations, such as the die casting and automotive plants along the Interstate 85 corridor.

XO Armor founder Michael Zabala explains how the city of Auburn is helping him growing a new business locally.

Most of it is piecework – nothing like the old methods of gearing up labor-intensive production lines; rather, it typically involves an engineer designing a product and another engineering writing the software to instruct the printer how to carve up the polymer.

“There is freedom in design of the part you're casting,” explained Arndt Siepmann, the city’s Deputy Director for Economic Development. “You can print something in a shape that you cannot cast or machine (by hand). If I create this thing and then I drill holes in it, I can only drill straight holes; now, if I design something and print it I can print it so there is a curve in here.

“The second thing is, of course, how quick it is. If I have a drawing, I can create a (software) file and put it on the machine a day later,” Siepmann continued.

The Accelerator is a partnership with Auburn University, the National Center for Additive Manufacturing Excellence and the city’s Training Connection. It provides advice and some funding to such businesses to help them find customers, hire employees, establish manufacturing processes and the like.

The city’s accelerator program runs through the fall of 2021. The goal is to help 10 local companies and three startups and – at the same time – create new training opportunities for Auburn engineering students and a new local industry to employ local workers, Siepmann said.

XO Armor

Auburn University Professor Michael Zabala is one of the accelerator’s first clients. He teaches mechanical engineering, with an emphasis on human biology. He started up XO in 2019 after one of Auburn’s football trainers reached out to him for help with fashioning bespoke padding for an injured player.

Former Auburn wide receiver Anthony Schwartz protected his injured hand with a Zabala creation and ran a reverse in for a 57-yard touchdown to open the Tigers’ 28-20 win over Texas A&M.

XO Armor took off from there, creating braces and pads for other college athletes at Auburn, University of Alabama and other universities.

Zabala said XO’s products combine with padding to disperse the energy from a collision on the field. It also helps knees, shoulders, knuckles, ankles and elbows from getting out of joint. Customers use the company’s app to scan the joint in question and send the specifications to XO, which creates the piece in questions and ships it back to the customer – often within a day or two.

“In biomechanics, we analyze the human body, how it moves and the forces and motions associated with that. That’s the relationship between mechanical engineering and what we're doing here: using 3D printing and other manufacturing techniques to make devices that work extremely well with the complicated human body,” Zabala said.

Accelerator

The city’s accelerator should help Zabala scale up his operation, and create local jobs and training opportunities for his engineering students.

“That effort is support us with engineering consultation, as well as business consultation with the business faculty here at Auburn University. It also provided us some funding for research and development type work, which is critical with what do here, exploring different types of (3D) printers, different types of materials, different settings, with the ultimate goal of determining the fastest way to make these,” said Zabala, holding one of the shin pads he just made on a printer.

Anyone interested in more information should call (334) 501-7377 or email cmyers@auburnalabama.org.

Read more about XO Armor at www.xoarmortech.com.

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