Last year we dedicated many pages, podcasts and panel sessions to the concept of the “smart factory”. In pretty much all of those cases, the focus was primarily on high value manufacturing; big, industrial machines using expensive materials to produce complex, low volume parts. Therefore, I will admit, I wouldn’t have predicted the first time I came face-to-face with one of those factories in practice, it would consist of desktop machines printing cookie cutters in colourful plastics, adorned with neon lights to illuminate the night shift. But Voodoo Manufacturing, a Brooklyn-based 3D printing company, is every inch the digital factory.
Well, it’s a factory but with all the markings of a cool New York outer borough start-up. Young team, loft windows, XBox, and a friendly office dog named Willie to greet you at the door. Voodoo knows it too, as Jonathan Schwartz, Co-Founder and CPO of Voodoo Manufacturing told me during a visit back in December, it likes to think of itself “one of the cool companies” in the space.
That, I can vouch for. As you enter the factory floor, you’re met with a huge farm of MakerBot Replicator 2s printing away simultaneously in bays of six, differentiated by various colours of PLA and Semi-Flex filaments. The company first moved into the building over three years ago and has since grown from 80 machines to over 200, boosted by more than 6 million USD in seed funding. Schwartz co-founded Voodoo with Max Friefeld back in 2015, who, together with a team of six engineers, started out in the industry by creating a 3D printing software company called Layer By Layer, which they sold to MakerBot in 2014. The acquisition led to a move from California to Brooklyn to work at MakerBot full-time where they soon spotted the potential to build a software-enabled, high-volume 3D printing factory that could compete with injection moulding for low volume runs.
“These machines that everyone kind of saw as toys or things for hobbyists, we realised they can make great parts as long as you pair them with the right application. You’re not just making toys and Yoda heads, you can make functional components,” Schwartz commented. “The second thing we realised is, with software and good engineering and robotics, we could actually build a factory that has 200 machines and run it efficiently enough to offer parts at injection moulding prices.”
While the printers are busy manufacturing parts in their thousands for customers ranging from students to small engineering firms, the real innovation here is the software. Jobs come in either via Voodoo’s Direct Print Service or customer integrated APIs (the company recently introduced a 3D print on-demand app for Shopify) and are automatically assigned to the next available machine or multiple machines for large quantities. Schwartz describes the factory as more of a server farm, if a machine goes down, it’s part of Voodoo’s process to be able to continue with minimal disruption.
“We’re about to do something cool,” Schwartz tells me as he picks up a clean build plate and places it onto a vacant machine. Each plate is equipped with an RFID tag so that every part is completely traceable. The plate is scanned and linked to a machine which signals it is now a candidate for being assigned a job. The factory runs an automated algorithm every 30 to 45 seconds to calculate a new schedule and assign jobs to available printers. Once printed, the plate is taken to a sorting station, scanned and checked for quality.
“Everything needs to be quantified if we’re going to build this fully automated lights out factory,” Schwartz adds.
At any given time, there can be over a hundred different orders being processed at the factory. Customers may use the online quoting system for a prototype or two, and as soon as they’re ready to scale to say, 1000 or even 10,000 units, they can easily shift to Voodoo’s volume printing service where they’ll be assigned a dedicated project manager and a specific turnaround time. Voodoo has already logged over 1 million hours of printing and its biggest single run to date is 22,000 parts. For their API customers with their own stores, when an order is placed, it is immediately sent to the factory to begin printing without any intervention from the team and shipped directly to the end customer.
“There are so many plastic parts and products in the world; engineering components, fixtures that are used on assembly lines, marketing products, things that are given away or used as memorabilia,” Schwartz explains. “All around us there are these plastic components and people go through great lengths to get those things made. It’s a very risky process injection moulding because you’ve got to buy a mould and that costs thousands of dollars … so we see ourselves as a much better way to do that.”
Customers like Alexis Walsh and Justin Hattendorf have used the service to print 900 individual plastic stud pieces for their futuristic APEX Coat design and more recently, JASPER Engines, a remanufacturer of engines, transmissions, and motors, used the factory to produce protective covers for magnetic timing wheels for its camshaft assemblies. Voodoo also practices what it preaches and as you traverse the factory you’ll find small pieces of coloured plastic dotted around from fixtures within the print farm used to improve the process, to armchair coffee cup holders.
Robotics and automation
The big word around smart factory is ‘automation’ and while Voodoo has got the software aspect covered with a well-oiled assignment and quality control process, the company is also tackling the hardware side of automation by implementing robotics.
Meet Luke (as in Skywalker), a UR10 collaborate robot from Universal Robots, equipped with intuitive programming, and one of the most recent additions to the Voodoo team. First installed inside Voodoo’s “top secret lab” in 2017, Luke currently mans a separate cluster of 27 printers, automating the loading and unloading of build plates from the printers, otherwise known as harvesting. It’s part of the company’s Project Skywalker initiative which has been designed to automate the more manual tasks in the factory and scale up. This isn’t just a gimmick, Voodoo is implementing this right now and Schwartz says it will ultimately allow them to run operations 24/7 and increase utilisation to essentially 100%. Whilst there is ongoing disussion in the manufacturing industry around the impact of automation on skilled labour and employers reducing headcount, Schwartz says that’s not Voodoo’s goal.
“The only way that we as a company are going to be able to grow and hire more people is if we become more competitive with other manufacturing solutions, so automation is that key. By using robots, we are going to create more jobs. Are we going to create as many jobs as a manufacturing line 50 years ago? No, the ratios will definitely be smaller,” Scwartz explains. “[For our factory team], the harvesting step isn’t one of the more interesting steps of their work so by not having to do this, they will be able to apply themselves in more creative, more thoughtful ways to other steps of our process.”
Most manufacturers these days are talking about digitising their factories in some way. EOS is developing its shared modules concept which will see guided units whizzing around factory floors, while other companies like Autodesk are building robotic arms into AM technologies to increase flexibility and productivity. Schwartz says Voodoo’s agility as a start-up has been one of its biggest advantages in turning its own digital factory concept into a reality compared to larger companies which often have to contend with retrofitting and red tape before introducing any new technology.
“Everyone these days is interested in additive manufacturing, everyone is interested in internet connected devices. I think a lot of manufacturers don’t quite know how it’s going to be applied to what they do,” Schwartz commented. “I think whether you like it or not, it’s going to become critical that everyone has a digital factory, at least to some degree.”
The cobot-manned printer farm is already churning out end-use parts for customers but it’s still a work in progress and the company has plans to scale it even further by introducing mobility to the robot so that it can tend to even more machines. Voodoo is also expanding in other areas too. Last year it added Polyethylene Terephthalate Glycol (PET-G) and Rigid Thermoplastic Polyurethane (TPU) to its materials offering and also introduced a large-format 3D printing service with the installation of ten Raise3D N2 Plus machines each offering a build volume of 300 x 300 x 600 mm (to compare, the MakerBot Replicator 2 can build parts up to 285 x 153 x 155 mm). Non-additive manufacturing technologies are also a possibility, so long as they fit within the company’s model of producing 10,000 units in under two weeks and of course, more robots.
“I think the name of the game now is value for various applications and industrialising the technology, making it more useful, not for just consumers or hobbyists,” Schwartz concluded. “Prototyping has reached its saturation, anyone or most people these days who can get value out of using AM for prototyping, they know about it. The next phase is how do we make people realise that they can get value out of AM for real parts? The fact that we still have conversations with customers all the time who didn’t realise this was something they could use, we work with them and they’re just so happy. The number of times that happens stands for the fact that this market is just at the beginning.”