Voodoo Manufacturing’s amazing project Skywalker portends an explosive robotic future.
If you’re not familiar with them, Voodoo Manufacturing is testing a new kind of business model in which they use a large array of low-cost 3D printers (currently 160 in their plant) to manufacture low quantities of identical items.
It’s trying to fit into that awkward space between the extreme cost of single prototypes and the fractional cost of mass manufacturing. Typically the step into mass manufacturing has a huge up-front cost to set up the tooling and manufacturing line, but afterwards it’s cheap to produce items. However, what if your needs are not big enough to justify mass manufacturing AND you can’t pay prototyping costs for the quantity you need? This is where low-volume manufacturing comes in.
Voodoo Manufacturing’s approach is to do this with low-cost desktop 3D printers, and many of them.
The problem is that such equipment was designed for hobbyist or single person use, and as such requires a terrific amount of manual intervention to operate them. Material must be loaded, print beds adjusted, prints started, prints monitored, prints removed, prints post-processed. In fact, Voodoo Manufacturing says:
Today, much of our production process consists of manual labor. From changing-over printer material between jobs, to harvesting finished prints, to packing and shipping, our factory is still very much run by humans. Reducing labor costs has been a secondary focus of ours over the past 2 years, since even with a somewhat inefficient process we were able to compete on price with low-volume injection molded parts. But more than either of the previous two cost categories, labor will be the critical path to efficiently scaling capacity while reducing costs.
So they set upon figuring out an approach for automation, which obviously would use robots to transform this work. They selected the part removal process, which apparently represents about 10% of their labor cost. They call it “Project Skywalker”.
A “friendly” robot arm was chosen - one that would not require extreme safety protocols as one might see in an automobile factory, for example. This device, the Universal Robots UR10 robotic arm, moves quite slowly and is considered safe to operate in the presence of humans.
The arm sits idle until signaled by a printer that a job has completed. Then it deftly lifts out the detachable print plate. These print plates appear to be glass sheets with a generous application of blue tape. Apparently Voodoo Manufacturing had to slightly re-engineer the plate mounting hardware to make this work, but that’s a small price to pay for what they got.
The removed plate is placed on a collection system for subsequent print removal by humans in the traditional manner. But then the UR10 picks a fresh plate from a nearby hopper and inserts it into the empty 3D printer. Then it signals the printing system that it’s “ready to go” and another print starts immediately.
Here’s how it works:
While they’ve so far built only a fully operational 9-printer plus robot prototype, this approach is near revolutionary. Voodoo Manufacturing explains:
For the given set of 9 printers, we were able to increase output by 3x compared to the production printers sitting in our factory, solely because we could start prints throughout the night versus only during the standard 8-hour shift we currently run. Even though we shouldn’t have been surprised by the results, we all had this strong realization of how much of a game changer this would be.
Extrapolating from the 9-printer cluster, we now estimate that a single arm will be capable of tending to approximately 100 printers within our factory. Using a robot to automate purely the harvesting step of our process would increase the current 40 printers/employee ratio to approximately 400 printers/employee. We also estimate that all in, each deployed robot arm will have a payback period of 3 months. Project Skywalker was a massive success, and all of Voodoo is now excited for the day we deploy it within our factory at full scale.
It’s all about making the process more efficient. I expect with this success they will soon move on to other portions of their manual process and achieve similar results. Perhaps they’ll work on the material loading process next?
But once they’ve proven this can work as an almost entirely automated service, their next step would be to dramatically expand their scale and do this en masse with a very large array of printers and robots.
With such scale they could drive costs down even lower, as they would, for example, obtain volume discounts on robots and re-use software they’ve already developed. This should reduce their costs significantly and actually expand their market.
Why? Because the cost of setting up a mass manufacturing line becomes more distant if you can make more items at the same cost.
I believe this is extremely important, as it is perhaps one of the first examples of how a fully robotic manufacturing system can use 3D printing. It is through this type of approach that, over many years of development, will eventually result in a type of “universal factory” that can rapidly produce nearly anything without the need for re-tooling.
That’s something worth doing.