Branch Technology has what it calls the largest free-form 3D printer in the world working away at the company's modest space in Chattanooga's small business development center.
But company founder Platt Boyd really gets excited when he shows off a wall of photos of "the beautiful things in nature" such as an extreme close-up of shark skin or a satellite shot from space of a river delta.
"What this is is how structure is made in nature," he says. "We're at the smallest beginning steps."
Branch Technology, started just three years ago, uses a technology that it calls cellular fabrication. Its plan is to bring prefabricated products to the construction industry whereby the pieces can be made at a plant and then shipped to a work site where they're assembled like Legos, Boyd says.
"It's much more efficient," he says, noting that studies show it's 97 percent more so and that it can sharply reduce building costs.
Boyd, 42, walked away from a 19-year career in the construction industry, having served as an architect at a traditional Montgomery, Alabama, firm before starting the business.
* Position: Founder, CEO of Branch Technology
* Born: Honolulu
* Age: 42
* Education: Auburn University
* Previous work: Seay, Seay & Litchfield Architects
"It was a hard thing to leave friends, family, mentors," says the married father of four children.
Born in Honolulu — his father was in the military and moved around a lot — he grew up in Auburn, Alabama. After moving away, he later returned to study architecture at Auburn University.
While working as an architect, he became interested in the idea of using 3D printing in the construction sector. Looking at what other companies were doing, he determined they were "going backwards in terms of building science" and he came upon a different way of using the technology.
After about nine months of nights and weekends working to advance his concepts, he says he "made the leap" at starting the company, initiating the patent process and researching "how to make it happen."
Boyd says he took a class of how to program robots, and the company came up with its own extruder to make the earliest examples of what he calls "a matrix," or 3D checkerboard-like pieces that can bear a lot of weight.
In 2014, Boyd brought his ideas to GigTank, a 12-week program of Chattanooga's The Company Lab that helps startup businesses get going.
"It was one of the most exciting events," he says. Boyd says he met people involved in Chattanooga's startup community as well as at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which has expertise in 3D printing. "I've been collaborating with Oak Ridge for over two years."
Boyd says he looked at 10 to 12 cities in the Southeast to place the company, but Chattanooga "won hands down."
His company moved into space in the Chattanooga-Hamilton County INCubator at Cherokee Boulevard and Manufacturers Road. Starting with one robot and three people, the company has now grown to about 19 people.
Tony DiSanto, a robotics engineer, says he was the third person to come on board at the business. He had learned robotic welding at Chattanooga State Community College and had actually landed another job, which later fell through, before joining Branch Technology.
"You don't get the opportunity to work on creative applications," he says about other jobs, noting that people at Branch are delving into problems which have never before been solved.
Boyd says he foresees moving away from the business development center because he needs more space but staying in Chattanooga and close to downtown. While the company has five robots now, four more are on order.
Boyd declines to reveal company revenues, but he says they're 12 times more than a year ago. He's hopeful revenues will grow by three times over the next year and 10 times in three years.
Within the next couple of years, Boyd says, employment could grow to about 50 people.
He says the company is seeking about $5 million more in venture capital from people from New York, Boston and Birmingham.
Branch has used a carbon fiber polymer to build its matrices as well as another material that is utilized to make tough water bottles, Boyd says. Also, the company has utilized a sugar cane material to make its products.
Boyd showed off an example of the company's work, in which a matrix is filled with traditional insulation and then clad with dry wall.
Branch Technology created a lot of interest when it announced it's sponsoring a design competition to construct the first 3D-printed house using the company's cellular fabrication technology.
Boyd says it had queries from 1,300 designers from 97 countries, and the 1-bedroom, 1-bath, 1,000-square-foot house will go up at Chattanooga State's main campus off Amnicola Highway. Plans are to start in December and finish by summer 2018, he says.
Chattanooga construction giant EMJ Corp. along with Lawson Electric, U.S. Gypsum and Techmer Plastics are among partnering organizations, Boyd says.
Jonathan Deming, EMJ's director of building information modeling and construction technology, says its special projects team will serve as the construction manager on record for the house to ensure the design is built to the highest quality.
"Our goals are to come alongside Branch and help this project reach its potential by providing building construction guidance, expertise and local connections to get the job done," he says.
Deming says that Branch is doing things that no one else in the world is doing — here in Chattanooga.
"They are a world-class leader in bringing innovation to the construction industry," he says. "This work has the potential to change the architecture, engineering and construction industries. Through their team of highly skilled individuals, the possibilities of what they can achieve are limitless."
Plans are to document the house when it's done, Boyd says, calling it "one of the largest learning curves ever."
"It showcases what's possible in the future," he says. "We're really, really excited."
Branch Technology has undertaken projects countrywide, including its involvement in the largest 3D-printed pavilion in the world located in Miami's design district.
This summer, Branch joined with an architectural firm to win first place in a phase of a NASA competition to build a 3D-printed habitat for deep space exploration.
Branch won with the California-based office of Foster + Partners and took home $250,000 in prize money.