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Entrepreneur seeks to fill niche with 3-D image printer

ST. PETERSBURG

Pauline Hill discovered the power of filling a niche more than 23 years ago. She was answering phones at a medical imaging center when an idea struck. So many people were calling about getting copies of X-rays, maybe she could make a business out of it. • Against friends' advice, she quit her job, invested about $10,000 in used printing equipment and started Professional Duplicating in St. Petersburg. • "It was very risky,'' she said. "People said, 'Are you crazy? I can't believe you're sticking your neck out and taking the risk.' But I felt confident because I knew no one else in the area did it.'' • Her first clients were defense attorneys seeking film copies of X-rays for court proceedings. Until she started making money, she lived off savings from a previous job tending bar at Bennigan's at Tyrone Square Mall. She decided early on: "The only way to achieve your desired income is to be self-employed.''

For the first year, Professional Duplicating was the only company listed in the Yellow Pages under "X-ray Duplicating.'' Business boomed. Over time, Hill expanded into video copying, banner making and home movie transferring to DVDs.

Today, she hopes to fill a new niche using 3-D printing technology.

Hill recently bought a three-dimensional image printer than can copy any image on just about any flat surface, from a ceramic tile to a closet door. Program it for multiple ink layers, and it will print a raised image, the latest rage in print technology.

Hill is counting on the $150,000 machine to help diversify and grow her business, which dropped to $1.1 million in revenue last year from a high of $1.6 million two years ago. So far, it hasn't made her a dime, but she's confident the opportunities are endless. How about custom backsplashes for kitchens? Or photos printed on cellphone cases?

It's just a matter of finding the right market.

"I feel like it's such new technology and it can print out some really different images. Once people see it, I think it's going to take my business up a step,'' she said.

• • •

Hill, 55, knows what it's like to shift gears. Her company was chugging along when many of her clients stopped bringing X-ray viewing boxes to courtrooms and shifted to photographs. To adjust, she started printing X-rays on photo paper.

As technology evolved, she branched out to video, making copies of depositions and trial exhibits and personal videos. She also copied surveillance video commissioned by insurance companies to ensure claimants weren't faking injuries.

Eventually, film X-rays gave way to digital ones viewable on computers in court. To expand business, she bought a broad-base printer for making banners and vehicle wraps. She also began transferring home videos and old 8mm films to DVDs.

Professional Duplicating took a hit last year when software upgrades enabled medical facilities to transfer X-rays to CDs more efficiently. She started looking into cloud technology. Soon, instead of copying CDs, clients will be able to upload images to the cloud, where they can be viewed, copied digitally or printed on film.

• • •

Last summer, Hill decided it was time to move. After 15 years across from St. Petersburg General Hospital along 38th Avenue, she wanted a less expensive, but more prominent, retail location with opportunities for walk-in traffic.

She found the perfect spot on the top floor of the renovated historic Alden Hotel at 433 Central Ave. Its exposed brick and ductwork, big windows and wood floors were ideal for her small staff of 10 and her collection of antiques and eclectic home accessories. She walked in and said "Mine!''

Moving her equipment proved challenging. Upon inquiry about how to relocate her large banner printer, she discovered that Xerox had stopped selling the model and was discontinuing service for it. Her sales rep suggested a wide-format 3-D printer from SunAmericas of Fort Lauderdale.

"They showed me samples and it was so impressive I decided to go with it,'' she said.

The printer creates 3-D images using layers of ink, unlike the more publicized 3-D printers that use powders, plastics and metal to produce objects. It can't make guns or machine parts but can make raised images on surfaces, usually about ⅛ inch high.

• • •

The market for 3-D printers and services is small, but growing quickly. In 2012, the 3-D printing products and services business was worth $2.2 billion, up 29 percent from 2011, according to Wohlers Associates, a consulting firm. By 2017, the group forecasts the market will approach $6 billion among a broad spectrum, from printed architectural models to footwear, and even food.

Grabbing a piece of it is a huge leap for Hill, a high school graduate from a 100-person town in Pennsylvania who lives in Pinellas Park with her husband, Rick, two teenage sons, Rick and Jamey, Sassafras Louise the pig and a rescued squirrel named Ooba.

Hill, who was a finalist for the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce's Women with Vision awards in 2012, is promoting her printer to clients and friends and plans to attend a home show in Tampa in March. She sees a huge market among interior designers seeking customized tiles, table tops and doors, and photographers looking to capture images on keepsake items.

Since the printer arrived in October, Dan Hane, the lead technician, has been experimenting with designs and making examples, from a 3-D frog on a tile to a large giraffe on a door. Depending on the complexity, each 3-D image can take up to three hours to print.

"It's pretty impressive and versatile,'' he said. "We can print on virtually anything flat.''

During an open house at Christmas, people were floored, Hill said. Sliding their fingers over the raised images, they couldn't believe they were made on a printer.

Susan Thurston can be reached at sthurston@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3110. Follow @susan_thurston on Twitter.

Entrepreneur seeks to fill niche with 3-D image printer 01/24/14 [Last modified: Friday, January 24, 2014 5:45pm]
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