More manufacturers are applying computer numerical control (CNC) — computer-programmed automation of machine tools — to blend program advances with real world applications.
Take Other Machine Co., a San Francisco-based advanced manufacturing firm built on the idea that everyone should have access to professional-quality, affordable manufacturing tools on their desktops.
'Excuse Me While I Make a Circuit Board'
The company produces small CNC machines like the Othermill, a 17-pound, 10-inch by 10-inch by 12-inch milling machine. It sells for $2,199 online.
Othermill enables you to use design files from software like Illustrator to create 2Dand 3D objects — anything from circuit boards to ice cube trays — out of durable materials, such as wood, metal, and plastic.
Other Machine Co. also issues supporting software, leading to a growing user community.
Manufacturing Meets the IoT
Fueled by a successful $311,657 Kickstarter campaign in 2013, the company raised $3 million in Series A early last year and shipped its first machines to its backers last October.
CMSWire caught up with Other Mill Co. co-founder and CEO Danielle Applestone recently to discuss the ways manufacturing is changing, especially as a result of the Internet of Things (IoT).
“We can be faster, offer more levels of product customization and infuse story into what we do," she said.
"Some people call it branding, but this has infinite value and is deeper than design. When you know who made a product for you, it feels personal and becomes a factor that may lead you to chose one thing over another."
Applestone holds a BS in Chemical Engineering from MIT, a PhD in Materials Science from the University of Texas at Austin and multiple battery materials patents. During a keynote address at the O'Reilly Solid conference in San Francisco last month, she explained some of the challenges manufacturers face in the IOT era.
“As a hardware company we understand what the climate is like. It’s very difficult. The margins on physical goods are really low. Even contract manufacturers are operating at a 2 percent to 3 percent profit margin. This is a really risky business to enter," she said.
During a follow-up interview, Applestone elaborated on how investment choices are influenced.
“The cost for making a prototype has dropped dramatically, in part because the prototyping phase is rapidly short. But as soon as you want to make more than one of something, you still have a big cost barrier. The production costs are still really high.
“You have to front-load resources, such as a hardware designer, a production manager and supply chain manager. Positions like these rapidly turn into full-time jobs once you go into production.
"Moreover there’s a need for people to learn things from totally unfamiliar subjects. If you have a designer that is excited to build something, all of the sudden they are saddled with having to get a degree in operations and supply chain.”
Extreme Mobile Enterprise
Applestone said her company is democratizing manufacturing by producing a small, easy to use, use anywhere version of machines that were too huge and expensive for most people to access even a few years ago.
“You can pick up and put it in your car. The portability aspect is really important. You want people to get going pretty quickly. You can take a picture and turn it into a vector file. You don’t want people to be saddled with a lot of software learning," she said.
She attributes her company's early success to smart business decisions, including deciding business scale and carefully researching marketing strategy.
“You have something you want to build, so you have to figure out the scale of the business you want to build around it. If you want to have a business a little bit larger, you have to think what is the market for this product and ask if is this a product you can bootstrap," she explained.
And then there are things like marketing and logistics to consider.
A marketing analysis upfront can not only determine if something is a cool product, but whether it is a cool product that could sell 3,000 units, she said.
“Most people that get passionate about something because they care about a group of people and think their product can make their lives better, but
international logistics is often not part of the thought process,“ she said.
Applestone said both men and women have to work diversity in technology. She attributes the 50/50 gender balance at the Other Machine Co. to the support of her co-founders, Saul Griffith, the company's Board Chairman and CTO Mike Estee.
" Every engineer who interacts with me sees how respectful they are with me and how they interacts with other female tech leads. They ultimately become more aware of gender issues and how to handle them.
“There’s more work to be done for men who are sensitive to these issues to give examples for other men in tech. I'm hopeful that people are now feeling they can reach out to men who are trying to make their workforce more balanced and find resources on how to balance their own workforce," she said.
Applestone said women in tech have a responsibility to be mentors to encourage students, especially women, to enter the field. "You can never put too much money into middle school science education for all kids. It's money well spent,” she said.
What's her dream?
Applestone just wants people “to invent new things and tinker around” — exactly like the Other Machine Co. is doing.