Is Low-Volume and Transparent Manufacturing the Future of Manufacturing?

Formnext Germany

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3dp_voodoo_logoIf you’re not familiar with the Brooklyn-based 3D printing service bureau Voodoo Manufacturing then it is probably a good idea to get familiar with them. Formed by a group of former MakerBot employees, the company has a unique, and potentially groundbreaking business model that could radically alter the way that our products are made. Voodoo Manufacturing specializes in low-volume manufacturing, a process that is often prohibitively expensive when using traditional manufacturing techniques. Because there are no real economies of scale when it comes to 3D printed parts Voodoo is essentially democratizing the production of plastic materials.

The company is basically a 3D printer farm that uses a massive bank of connected MakerBot Replicators that work around the clock. Many of the company’s orders are entirely automated and come in from the internet, where proprietary software verifies each job and sends it directly to the print queue. The software is the real star of the show, because it automates virtually the entire process, and the bank of almost 150 3D printers can be managed by a single operator. Not only does the need for significantly less personnel reduce the cost of production, but the automation allows the process to begin almost immediately which allows companies to send products to market much quicker.

The massive bank of MakerBot's at Voodoo Manufacturing.

The massive bank of MakerBot’s at Voodoo Manufacturing.

Recently the New York Business Journal sat down with the co-founder and current CEO of Voodoo Manufacturing, Max Friefeld, and talked about his company, what the future holds for it, and where he thinks businesses like him will affect the manufacturing industry. It is a pretty brief interview, but Friefeld did raise the the idea of transparent manufacturing being a big part of their ongoing development as a company. Basically, he wants to allow the people who use his service to be able to watch their products actually being 3D printed via connected webcams. While this may seem like a novelty, it is actually a really smart way to show customers that Voodoo Manufacturing can get the job done without any tricks or shortcuts. Friefeld is certain that this will be the future of manufacturing, so much so that his entire business model is reliant on it.

“The way we’re approaching it is we want to make the factory more transparent. So, because the printers are connected to an internal server which is in turn connected to the internet, we’re starting to brainstorm workflows that will essentially show people ordering prints from us a live video of their print being done or maybe after it’s done you get a recap, a video of the product being printed. Along every step of the process we want to publish stats about how many printers are running, how many print-hours we have under our belt as well as webcams of the whole factory running. We want to offer features like that so we can help people police their own products. It’s almost like you have this virtual printing factory. You can just pick up and rent a printer whenever you want and you don’t have to worry about the maintenance or any of the difficulties that go with it,” Friefeld said.

The Brooklyn-based startup was founded by former MakerBot employees.

The Brooklyn-based startup was founded by former MakerBot employees.

Among the many benefits that 3D printing can offer to a business is the ability to understand the process in greater detail than with traditional manufacturing techniques. At its core 3D printing is a relatively simple process, a computer holds a 3D model of a file and a robot that extrudes melted plastic replicates that 3D model on a build platform. It is easy to understand and straightforward, whereas CNC milling or injection molding have more steps, and potentially more complications. The ability to watch as a product is actually being manufactured will only make the technology that much more attractive to businesses.

The affordability of 3D printing is going to give companies and startups that traditionally would not have been able to afford to manufacture their products the ability to bring their products to market. Nowhere is this more evident than with the Voodoo Manufacturing partnership with craft and handmade goods marketplace Etsy. Their new manufacturing program will allow Etsy sellers to offer very small-scale manufacturing on their products, essentially making them made to order. The transparency that Friefeld is trying to bring to the company will not only be attractive to their low-volume customers, but offer them peace of mind that they’re buying a quality product.

“Traditional manufacturing is high-volume manufacturing. The last 200 years have been all about making a ton of something that all looks the same. So low-volume manufacturing is a return to this idea that we can have products that are made specifically for us, for the individual, to fit me in some way differently than someone else. If you look at the Etsy manufacturing partnership that’s come out, people are looking for things that are handmade or manufacturing in low volumes. Nordstrom and others are working with Etsy to get things made by hand and we think that’s the future of where we’re going: low-volume production. We’re supporting that idea and making it more affordable at lower volumes,” Friefeld continued.

For a long time many in the 3D printing industry were trying to sell us the idea that in the future we would all have 3D printers in our homes. Unfortunately, the probability of that happening any time soon is at best highly optimistic. There will always certainly be a market for home 3D printing, but the majority of society is pretty fond of the idea of convenience, especially when it comes to goods and services. A more likely scenario for the future of the 3D printing industry is large and small service providers offering their printer banks and expertise to consumers at affordable rates. And companies like Voodoo Manufacturing are perfectly positioned to lead this new manufacturing revolution.  Let’s hear your thoughts on this story in the Voodoo Manufacturing forum thread on 3DPB.com.


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