The five El Camino College students behind 3D printing startup ‘Techtonic 3D’ wear many hats – they are scholars, engineers, inventors and entrepreneurs.
Moises Santander is fourth-year El Camino College Student and cofounder. But, he said that it can be exhausting to manage all the roles. However, the prospect of bringing an affordable, high-speed 3D printer to market is a strong motivator.
Their business idea was formed in 2021 when the team won a national competition to develop a new invention using NASA’s patent technology. They then received a crash course in running a start-up through a business accelerator program at Virginia Tech University, and are currently working to develop a prototype by the end of this year — thanks to a $5,000 grant from NASA.
The design competition was run by NASA’s Minority University Research & Education Project, an initiative to strengthen the relationship between minority-serving colleges and universities and NASA, and encourage more students of color to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math.
Santander and team members Noe Servellon, Alexander Lopez, Mohammad Pasta and Faizan Darsot jumped at the opportunity to work with some of NASA’s intellectual property. The team chose a patent to protect a motor controller technology that would enable them to create a user-friendly 3D printer capable of producing the same precision and speed as industrial ones.
The ultimate goal of their efforts is to make 3D printing more affordable to consumers and institutions outside of the tech sector.
“When users are trying to learn to use a 3D printer, they can think, ‘This is probably something that’s too complicated for me,’ just because of the user interface and all the knobs and switches that are on there,” Santander said. “So what we are thinking of doing is integrating a touch screen onto the 3D printer that would make it a lot easier for anyone to hop on and use the 3D printer.”
The team is also interested to see how 3D printing can help with social causes such as affordable housing or medical technology.
Santander shared that one story inspired them greatly was the time a shipment of COVID-19 ventilators got stuck in the Suez Canal Blockage in 2021. A 3D printing company came to their rescue and printed ventilators quickly and cheaply for the patients.
“3D printing prosthetics can also really help families and people who come from low-income backgrounds,” Santander said. “Then when it comes to the construction side of 3D printing, there’s a story I’ve heard about a family in Virginia that is already living in a home that has been 3D printed.”
The Techtonics 3D team believes that the printer could be brought to market for as low as $1,000 in the long-term. But even if the business doesn’t pan out, the students say they see it as an exciting training exercise for their future career goals.
Santander plans to transfer to a four year university after he graduates El Camino College in June. He also wants to pursue a doctorate on robotics.
Santander indicated that he would like to open a company that uses robotics for disaster relief and recovery later in life. His business partner, Mohammad Pasta, would like to develop maker spaces — think public libraries for engineers, with various tools folks can experiment with — in South Central California to interest more low-income students in STEM, robotics and design.
While Santander is preparing to leave El Camino — and several of his business partners have already transferred to four-year universities — he is very grateful for his time and experience at the college.
“El Camino has definitely been supportive of my career ideas and passions,” Santander said. “The instructors here are very passionate about what they are doing and they always go out of their way to help and support and encourage students.”