Founder John Melwak is using additive manufacturing to drive his consumer brand to rapid growth.
Melwak moved from web development and graphic design to manufacturing with Retro Layers. “I decided to get into the 3D-printing world years ago as a hobby,” he says. “Then I started doing 3D modeling in software called Blender. That sparked the creative side in me, and I’ve always been interested in the ’50s and ’60s years. I’m also a classic car guy.”
Melwak put the two together in Retro Layers’ backward-looking product line made with modern technology. The catalog includes a bestselling line of wall art along with planters, drinkware, birdhouses, office products, holiday décor, and other midcentury-inspired goods.
To manufacture it all, Melwak has 15 FDM (fusion deposition modeling) and resin 3D printers made by EPAX 3D and ELEGOO in operation. He spearheads production and the website, while his wife, Erin, helps with social media and bookkeeping.
It’s a turnkey operation, with all manufacturing accomplished by Retro Layers in-house. “There’s no outsourcing as of right now,” says Melwak. “There’s a workflow I have here of concept, design, digital design in the 3D software, and then we do a test print and go from there. Then it goes into production.”
“All of our orders we do right now as a made-to-order type of thing,” he continues. “We’re trying to be more eco-friendly with this process, as far as not having a lot of stock on hand, and all the waste we currently have is recycled as well.”
Leveraging social media and a newsletter with monthly giveaways, Retro Layers has taken off in 2023. “This is 100 percent my full-time job,” says Melwak. “I was actually just thinking of it as a side gig to begin with, and then after I realized as I was getting into it, after a couple months, that this could definitely be much bigger than that.”
He adds, “As of right now, I am going to have to expand and purchase more machines. We are getting a little behind, but that’s actually a good thing. It’s a good problem to have.”
Challenges: “The challenge right now is just keeping production going at a reasonable rate,” says Melwak. “The only way to really scale out 3D printing is to purchase more machines, so financing always has been a little bit of a challenge. Also, the more machines that you get, the more troubles you have. These machines require some sort of maintenance. They require an actual physical presence to start a print and maybe in the middle to check the print. And then at the end, you have to basically take it off and clean it up a bit. So, scaling is going to be a little bit of a challenge.”
Production has also encroached on product development. “With all the orders coming in right now, I have not had time to think of the next product, but we do have some new ideas coming down the pipeline,” says Melwak.
Opportunities: Customizable products, including the new Vintage Vibes Lamp, are a big one. “It’s a panel lamp where the customer will really be able to customize the type of panel that goes on the lamp, the color of the panel, and then the color of the base as well,” says Melwak. “I think [the ability to customize] really sets us apart from other companies as well that have a traditional manufacturing style. We can do a lot of things on the fly.”
Melwak also sees the possibility to use his manufacturing capacity to launch additional brands beyond Retro Layers. “I’ve always been the type of guy where I have ideas and I’m going to do it,” he says. “As things come along in the future, if something can be set under a new umbrella, I will probably create more brands that could be either related [to Retro Layers] or not related at all.”
Needs: Space and people. Melwak says he’s looking for an industrial space to accommodate growth and will soon need help to manage his growing stock of printers. Retro Layers also needs faster printers, and Melwak says he is considering a model from Bambu Lab that’s three times the speed of his current machines.