Let’s dance: Lamp manufacturer Gantri discusses the development of its Dancer 3D printing system

In San Francisco, September 2018, the senior management of a designer lights manufacturer gathered for their quarterly strategy meeting in what is looked back on as a significant juncture in the company’s story.

Subsequent to that gathering, the vision of an automated manufacturing plant set some years previous was kicked into action.

Gantri had recently expanded, increasing its 3D printing capacity by eight times when it opened its San Leandro Gantri Factory with 80 printers now running 24/7. But to grow as the company plans, Gantri estimated it would need to invest in thousands of off-the-shelf machines, which would require further modifications. That, the company assessed, was not a viable investment.

“We realised, at some point, we’re going to need something custom to ourselves,” Gantri CTO Christianna Taylor told TCT. “When we think about how we want to expand the manufacturing line, we need to think about efficiency and what else we want to integrate.”

Taylor, among those in that strategic meeting, was responsible for the preliminary engineering work that followed. She spent two months surveying the market, looking, first, to see if there were viable options already out there, and when there weren’t, what constitutes a good efficiency for a desktop 3D printer. At the other side of this assessment process would be a big change.

“We don’t make technology decisions lightly,” Taylor said. “[We consider] is this going to benefit us? Is this the right strategic move for us? Is the solution we’re coming up with good enough for what we want to do?”

Gantri believes the answer to all three questions is yes. In August 2019, the company unveiled the Gantri Dancer, an extrusion-based, multi-gantry machine with a build volume of 16”R x 24”H. The four gantries have full access to the entirety of Dancer’s rotating circular print bed meaning there is no dead zone and prints can be built in a quarter of the time, per Gantri. Dancer uses corn-based PLA materials co-developed with colorFabb and, with the print bed and spools accessible from the front, is ready for complete automation. 

This November, Gantri will start migrating its workload over to the Dancer systems with a second batch to be installed next June. They will be used to produce an ever-expanding portfolio of desk and floor lights on-demand and, the company hopes, do so at much quicker rates.

“There are a lot of great printers out there [that] can print to our standards, but the problem is that our longest print takes five days, and most take two to three days,” Taylor said. “If we can get that down to one day on the printing side, we are bringing down that customer experience of taking four weeks to print, assemble and go through an entire process to two weeks. This is why Dancer came into play.”

Gantri’s products are developed with a team of freelance designers in the ‘Create Hub.’ While 3D printing means designers aren’t constrained by minimum order quantities, ideas still have to be pitched and rationalised. Needing to conform to the company’s roadmap, drawings and mood boards have to be submitted to Gantri. Gantri also vets each design to guarantee originality and ensure nothing identical is being sold by the likes of IKEA or Design Within Reach. Then the manufacturability is assessed, making sure the design can be printed without failure, and the exterior isn’t too difficult to finish.

“We’re not here to change their aesthetic,” Taylor explained. “We are here to make sure that it’s actually possible to manufacture and the end user has a good experience with it.”

Integral to that is testing. Designs are checked to make sure bulb isn’t too close to material, that the light doesn’t break if tipped over, and that it is durable enough to survive shipment in the back of a UPS truck. When all concerns are satisfied, design files are sent to San Leandro where the frames will be printed, assembled, passed to a third party to paint and then shipped.

Now that a fleet of Dancers has been installed in the Gantri Factory, Taylor is stepping up the company’s automation plans, which is primarily what she was brought in to do in 2017. Having come through NASA as a graduate researcher and later working as a systems engineer at aerospace company Microcosm, Taylor recently found a company called Intelligence Space where she has worked with artificial intelligence (AI) to design navigation, hardware and simulation systems.

She has leveraged this experience to develop a roadmap for a comprehensive integration of AI. The technology will be used to monitor print quality and identify blemishes on behalf of the production team, to control the advanced robotics that will be deployed to paint custom shapes, and as a source of data analysis so customers and designers benefit from better recommendations and insights. Automatic job scheduling is also to be integrated, while quality checks and assembly will also be automated one day.

Ultimately, all of Taylor’s work is being done to streamline Gantri’s operations. While a two to three month lead time is typical for Gantri to go from concept to available product, it can take the best part of a month to print, assemble, finish and ship after an order is placed. That’s a long wait for the type of accessory that is readily available at your local department store.

And yet, compared to Taylor’s work in the aerospace sector, the time flies by. Her impact at Gantri is much more tangible and that’s most evident during the company’s quarterly strategy meetings. Taylor and Gantri are keen to maintain the pace.

“I love strategy and vision, but with a 20-year lead time you might get one thing, two if you’re lucky,” she said of the aerospace market. “At Gantri, I’ve gotten to oversee software launches, hardware launches, multiple industrial engineering launches. I worked on Dancer in a year and now we’re getting it in the factory. I have an immediate effect on the products I do.”

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