UTEC worker shifts to Plan B ... with a technology twist

Steve Mitchell shows how his 3-D printer lays a thin layer of plastic at a time to make the fidget spinners he is creating with the machine.
Steve Mitchell shows how his 3-D printer lays a thin layer of plastic at a time to make the fidget spinners he is creating with the machine. Photo by Rebecca Sandlin

Originally published June 5, 2017.

When Steve Mitchell learned he was going to lose his job as a surface mount technician at United Technologies Electronic Controls in Huntington, his world was in for a major shift. After working there 23 years and close to retirement age, he needed to kick in Plan B.

“They decided to move to Mexico; I don’t really have a choice,” Mitchell says. “My family is here; that’s where I belong.”

Mitchell, a wood carver since 1980, decided to take the bull by the horns and launch his own woodworking business, with an unusual addition: he bought a three-dimensional printer. He says getting it was the idea of his son, Jesse Mitchell.

“He had talked about it to other people, about being curious to have one,” Mitchell recalls. “I’m getting to the age that I might retire in about six years or so, so I decided that I might try and get my woodworking going, and then we both talked about the 3-D printer and we thought, what the heck — we’ll buy it and see where it takes us. And it’s actually been non-stop — it just runs.”

Not only has it run continuously from nearly the moment they hooked it up and turned it on, they cannot make their main product fast enough — the colorful “fidget spinners” that are so popular among kids, teens and even adults. Demand — and sales — have taken off, Mitchell says.

It’s a delightful dilemma, with the whir of the printer leaving father and son little time for anything else.

“I can’t even do yard work,” Mitchell says, with a grin. “The spinners have actually taken over our life.”

The spinning gadgets rotate on a bearing center stem, with equally balanced blades — sometimes called “hands” — that are weighted to keep the device evenly balanced. Materials used can include brass, stainless steel, titanium, copper, ceramic and plastic. While it has been advertised as a calming, focusing and stress-relieving mechanism for those with ADD, ADHD and autism, the fidget spinners have become a wildly popular toy in recent months, found everywhere from the classroom to the office.

To make the spinners, the 3-D printer melts and lays down one thin, beaded layer of plastic at a time to build whatever object has been entered into its software. The object is built layer upon layer, Mitchell explains, using plans from a 3-D drafting program called ViaCAD.

“It’s amazing that you can do about anything with it; it’s kind of unlimited,” he says. “It makes prototypes; you can run metal filament, wood filament, all types of plastics, a glass filament. When you make the metal, then you kiln it — heat it up — and it melts the plastic away, and you have solid metal then.”

They have made other items with the 3-D printer, including parts for agricultural equipment, small engine parts, a drain stopper for a bathtub and coil clamps for vaping devices.

The Mitchells have invested about $40,000 this year to remodel Steve’s garage into a workshop that has increased the building’s electrical capacity, and they also installed woodworking machines. The printer alone accounts for about $3,500 of that investment. Plans are to add a laser engraver cutter soon.

“By the end of next month we’ll be doing vinyl cutting,” Steve adds. “I’d like to get more into prototyping.”

If the spinner fad keeps up, they may even add a second, even bigger 3-D printer, he says, which will expand their prototyping capabilities.

The Mitchells mainly sell the spinners in four places — so far — including Juergens Hardware, Corn Coast Comics, the Marathon station at CR 200N and Ind.-9 in Huntington, and at Bozarth Campground in Lagro. They also sell them at the factories they still work at.

They are working on launching a website and already have a Facebook page under “S&J Creative Design 3D Printing & Wood Working.” And they are exploring wholesale sales contacts as far away as California.

“We can’t even keep up. We’ve got kids that buy them from us, wholesale, and they make a little bit,” Steve Mitchell adds.

On June 1, Steve opened a booth at the Markle Antique Mall featuring his woodworking products, in the form of rustic furniture made from barn wood, crafts and carved items.

The big question is, after Steve Mitchell’s job at UTEC is over, will the father and son make a sustainable living at their 3-D design and woodworking business? Both are optimistic that Plan B will work.

“It’s kind of forced me into pursuing this,” Steve says. “I had a good job, and it was just comfortable. Why go out on your own? I figured that when I retired is when I would do it. So, I guess I’ll get an earlier start.”

Jesse Mitchell says much of their investment has already been recouped.

“We started covering materials and different things now, whereas before everything was out of pocket,” he explains. “Profits are now coming in and we’re buying filament out of the profits that we’re making. It’s starting to turn around.”

Jesse says since the spinners have taken off, he has put other 3-D designs he wants to pursue on the back burner.

“We’re hoping it helps us build, and hoping it doesn’t bury us,” he says. “We’ve got a good start … there’s really a non-stop outlet of what you can do with these things.”

“We’ve done other stuff with it, and when the spinners are done, we’ll find something else to keep it happy with,” Steve Mitchell adds.