Numerous manufacturing firms are working on the goal of fast turnaround for machined prototypes to accelerate invention

By Mark Langlois

A medical equipment manufacturer designs a new surgical gripper in 10 iterations, not knowing which one is right. It orders the 10 prototypes and 200 pieces of each for delivery within two weeks.

The manufacturer instant-quotes it, wins the job, machines them, and ships them on time. The designer receives the prototypes, looks them over, rejects all 10 designs, and redesigns one of the designs twice more. Another request for 200 parts from each in two weeks.

Finally, the gripper is approved, and the custom manufacturer receives an order for 5,000 to 6,000 of the grippers a year.

That’s manufacturing’s goal: The ability to manufacture a part faster than someone designs it. It’s World Cup manufacturing and competition is fierce.

“That’s what drives me, personally, the ability to accelerate invention,” said Jeremy Herrman, co-founder of Plethora Corp., speaking at the company’s San Francisco headquarters. Herrman founded the firm with Nick Pinkston in 2013. Plethora opened its second plant this year in Atlanta, where it now employs 35 people, with plans to employ 50 by the end of the year. “You turn invention on its head, where all of the sudden it’s faster to get that part in hand than it was to design it. It’s almost here with 3D printing. We’re talking about quality, scale, industrial-level stuff.”

Herrman is a former software engineer at the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, and at the University of Pittsburgh Medical center.

Plethora combines software, hardware, and robotics to produce high-quality machined metal prototypes fast. Not millions of parts. Just one prototype. Herrman describes Plethora on LinkedIn as “a new kind of on-demand automated factory that lets anyone make parts faster than ever before with the goal of making hardware as easy as software.”

This kind of factory is part of a manufacturing renaissance, where the factory can reconfigure itself to meet a customer’s demand for a single part, and then another customer’s demand for a single part. Then another. It’s sometimes called customized manufacturing, or agile manufacturing, or a “micro factory.”

The Designer’s Dilemma

The first part, the prototype, that’s the designer’s dilemma. Design it and send it out for a build. Is it right? Check the prototype and revise the design. Send it out for another build. Receive the second prototype. Is it right this time around? And check it and revise it again. Send it out and get the third prototype. When a designer is in that creative mode, they want instant feedback by receiving the next prototype back immediately. No designer wants to wait months for the prototype to arrive. They want to look it over immediately and fix what isn’t right. Then see it again. And fix it.

Plethora and other custom manufacturing firms want to help designers accomplish that. A first step that many firms have in common is fast quote software that usually combines design for manufacturing review, material choice, quantity, and shipping dates with CAD compatibility. They want to take an engineer’s drawing and return a completed metal part tomorrow.

“Those onesies, twosies, are where we can help people out,” Herrman said. “It’s a hard thing to do. There are thousands of variables, sometimes hundreds of thousands of variables in that one CAM program. We’re looking to speed that up. You can’t automate end to end. We tried that in the beginning. It didn’t work.

“It needs both human and software,” he continued. We’ve adjusted it to have more of a collaborative approach with the people, as opposed to us coming up with it perfect in software.”

Mass production by machining is available, Herrman said. Once a shop learns how to make one part, often it can make millions, sometimes in as little as one day. In many cases, shops accomplish that work with little or no human interaction. Shops have mass-produced parts by the millions for decades. A prototype is harder.

Sam Tucker, a manufacturing sales engineer at Plethora, said Plethora is always trying to shorten the time gap between a person ordering a part and Plethora shipping it.

Tucker is a former manufacturing operations manager, estimator, CNC programmer, and CNC setup person with a Silicon Valley firm operating in the aerospace, defense, semiconductor, and medical industries. He recalled one aluminum part that was ordered at 8 a.m. one day, and the customer received the finished part the next afternoon. That’s the company’s goal. It shouldn’t be a surprise, Herrman said. It should be routine, and customers should expect it, he said. In the case of the aluminum part, the material was in stock, Plethora’s CAD add-in software approved the part’s design for manufacturing, and the customer lived in the Bay Area.

Hardware is the Challenge

Plethora recognized, at its founding, the challenge of making hardware and its expense. The startup set out to create smarter design tools and production processes that help more people invent. People could then innovate faster. Plethora underwent two audits early in 2019 to become ISO 9001 certified. Final ISO certification is expected later this year.

Plethora opened its Atlanta facility in June to shorten shipping times to its East Coast customers. The company employs about 30 production workers in San Francisco and has about 90 staff members overall.

Plethora performs milling on 3-axis and 5-axis CNC mills, and it turns on CNC lathes. It can reach tolerances, in some cases, of plus or minus 0.0001-inch in quantities between one and 10,000, said Plethora CEO and President Jim Quinn, in an emailed response.

Quinn worked as chief operating officer at Plethora before taking the top job. Before joining Plethora, he oversaw consumer hardware and hardware engineering as vice president of operations at a medical device manufacturing firm. He worked for two years in product development as vice president of operations at a professional and consumer hair tool manufacturer based in Los Angeles. Quinn also worked as the director of supply chain management at an internationally recognized personal activity tracker firm based in the San Francisco Bay area.

“We’re typically working with design engineers, manufacturing engineers, product designers, product engineers, and similar titles,” Quinn added. “They’ll come to us during their prototyping phase and often stick with us through production. We also work with procurement and sourcing professionals for larger volume orders for parts and products further along in their lifecycle. Plethora uses proprietary software developed by our engineers to analyze each part in order to determine the most efficient way to manufacture the part to the customer’s specifications.”

An eMachineShop worker adjusts material being milled in a Haas VF-2SS high performance super-speed vertical milling machine. Photo by Mark Langlois

In addition to speeding up the ordering process, Plethora’s software makes sure the part can be manufactured as designed. Customers get a price immediately, as well as a quantity and ship date.

“All our machines are networked. We’re able to push code down to them, dynamically, to monitor them. We have our computational geometry engineers working side by side with the machinists, the CAM programmers,” Hermann said. “There’s a lot of stuff that really requires a tight link between the two teams to enable something that’s otherwise not going to be possible.”

Machine It or 3D Print It

To make a prototype by traditional machining, the object starts as a block that is repeatedly cut, drilled, turned, planed, sawed, broached, or hogged out until the desired shape remains. In 3D printing, an object is created by adding layer to layer, typically, until the desired shape is reached. The two processes are sometimes referred to as subtractive manufacturing and additive manufacturing, respectively.

Herrman said it is inevitable that automation will speed up the machining prototyping process. But to achieve that goal for every part, more work needs to be done.

“There’s not going to be a monumental shift to make manufacturing more accessible unless you tackle the real challenging problems, and that is automation,” he said. “That’s where it’s at. There’s what, 20,000 machine shops in the U.S.? If everybody is just focusing on their slim margins, getting their mom and pop job shops in order, it’s not pushing the envelope for what is really possible through automation, through both hardware and software.”

Quinn said from his viewpoint, a great design meets the needs of the larger project and takes into account the realities of manufacturing. “We’re a precision machine shop, not a design shop. We’re happy to work with customers to iterate on their designs, for the sake of manufacturability.”

Other manufacturing firms, including Protolabs and eMachineShop, are working on the same goal, but it’s a hard target for any firm to hit 100 percent of the time. EMachineShop is a 20-year-old firm with the goal of digitizing the ordering and manufacturing process. Protolabs, a 20-year-old firm in Maple Plain, Minnesota, was founded with the goal of automating the prototyping process.

“I’m thinking of one specific customer,” said Robert Bodor, vice president and general manager of manufacturing, Americas, at Protolabs. “They wanted, simultaneously, 10 molds to fine-tune a design. It was a gripper for a surgical tool. They wanted 200 parts from each in two weeks.”

After Protolabs delivered the first batch of parts, the customer made two subsequent modifications to the tool. In the end Proto Labs made 12 molds, which cost the customer about $40,000. “That’s very cost effective,” Bodor said. “They could have confidence in their design. We did that, no problem.”

Protolabs now manufactures 5,000 to 6,000 of the grippers per year. The company  operates manufacturing plants in the U.S., England, Germany, Japan, and France. Its processes include CNC machining, injection molding, 3D printing, and sheet metal fabrication. Bodor said Protolabs can ship, within three days, parts made by any of those processes.

Bodor worked as chief technical officer and director of business development at Protolabs before taking over as vice president, Americas. Before that, he worked as a safety software solutions leader and in strategy and business development for a Fortune 500 company.

“We focused on how to digitize the early stages of the process,” Bodor said. “We talk about the use of the digital thread. We start with a CAD file, the 3D geometry of a part. Oftentimes, the file has other information in it—the PMI (product and manufacturing information, such as tolerances and geometric dimensions), any inspection details that are necessary. Then we wrote our own 3D geometry-based algorithms that will analyze that part and will pre-compute all the steps in the manufacturing process. So, if we’re doing IM, how to orientate the part in the block, where the part will be, what end mills we’ll use, what path, what we’ll EDM.”

One key to modern manufacturing is the use of digital files. Before computers and computer-aided design, a quote came back as a PDF or a fax. If the designer made changes, the back-and-forth between designer and custom manufacturer added days or weeks to the process. After receiving a digital quote from Protolabs, the designer can use the electronic quote to change the material, the quantity, and other variables, and the file adjusts itself. When the customer places the order, the parts can be manufactured nearly immediately.

Solving the Prototype Challenge

“We already pre-computed the manufacturing. We can send those demands to the mill and start manufacturing the parts,” Bodor said. “We can manufacture starting within 30 minutes of placing the order. That’s why we have the capability to send the finished part that day, as soon as it’s finished. We can only do that because of the work we’ve done over the last 20 years.”

Duncan Domingue, a CNC machinist with ASH Industries in Lafayette, Louisiana, confirmed that prototyping brings its own set of challenges.

“It’s not the machining itself. Machining’s been solved,” Domingue said. “[A prototype] raises questions. What tools to use? How do you cut it? How do you hold it? Not every part is a square block. It might be thin. It might be delicate. Will you crush it?”

Before the part is machined, all the questions must be answered, Domingue said, so most of the work on a new part is spent in thinking, in programming, and in the set-up, not in machining. Thinking requires human intervention. Even a firm with a huge library of machining experience and artificial intelligence relies on people, as well as automation. Domingue said Protolabs comes closest to solving the prototype challenge today.

InterPRO Additive Manufacturing Group has been helping manufacturers integrate additive manufacturing into their engineering, prototyping, and production operations for 23 years. Kevin Dyer has worked as founder and CEO of the Deep River, Connecticut-based company since the beginning.

“Everything in 3D printing can be broken down into one thin layer that is extruded or formed,” Dyer said. “The difference with CNC machining a part is you look at it as a puzzle challenge. Where do you start first? How do you hold it? Which tool? How do you orient it? How fast does it spin? It’s an interesting AI thing.”

Take Your Time, It’s Free

When planning a custom prototype, some designers may not be familiar with CAD software. But eMachineShop set out to solve that problem by making a user-friendly, novice-accessible version of CAD software available for free to everyone. It also offers 50 training videos on CAD design on its website for free.

“CAD is expensive. You’ve got to learn how to use it,” said Jim Lewis, inventor, tinkerer, and founder of eMachineShop. “People give it a try for three weeks and then throw up their hands and walk away.” Lewis started writing the manufacturing code for eMachineShop in 1999 and shipping parts in 2003.

“The free eMachineShop CAD software allows users to design, analyze, price, and order their parts in one place. Customers continually praise this one-stop custom manufacturing solution for its simplicity compared to conventional custom parts procurement,” Lewis said in an emailed response. “In addition to offering CAD, we are now quoting from essentially any software package. We respond within a day.”

Lewis said an inventor wants a part. They don’t want to spend the next six months learning a CAD program. Lewis started designing the software four years before eMachineShop shipped its first part. The firm removed the CAD obstacle from the equation, Lewis said, by designing it for first-time users.

“It pretty much doesn’t allow you to design a part you can’t make,” Lewis said. He said every so often, someone finds a new manufacturability rule that he adds to the software. For example, sheet metal can’t be folded closer than 1/16-inch from the edge. If a customer designs a pocket and the radius of the corner is too small, the program points that out. Corners must be round. A round tool won’t cut a square corner. A one-inch tool won’t cut an eighth-inch radius.

“There’s probably 1,000 design for manufacturing rules built into the software. We continue to evolve it every day, Lewis said.”

Processes offered by eMachineShop include CNC milling, waterjet cutting, turning, injection molding, and 3D printing.

Lewis grew up making things and tinkering as a child. He graduated from NYU in 1979 with a degree in computer science. He founded numerous companies, including Pad2Pad, a firm that helps fabricate printed circuit boards. He founded Quirkle, a company that helps analyze data, customer information, spreadsheets, and new products for companies having trouble managing and understanding information.

EMachineShop makes parts for a range of industries, including aviation, biomedical, automotive, government, education, pharmaceutical, agriculture, transportation, and robotics, among others. It works with anyone who needs a metal or plastic custom part. Those have included custom gears, enclosures, brackets, gaskets, front panels, car and motorcycle parts, engine components, and shafts for use in vehicles, machinery, medical devices, electronic products, lab equipment, piping systems, and more.

Lewis said some of the improvements he made recently to the eMachineShop design software involve making the customer-facing computer experience easier. As one example, a customer may not orient the part on the screen for the easiest manufacturing. Originally, eMachineShop asked customers in that circumstance to change the orientation. EMachineShop rewrote the code so that the CAD program orients the part automatically for best manufacturing.

“We spent years trying to make this accessible, not just for engineers, but for a broader audience. That’s been our philosophy from the beginning,” Lewis said. That’s why the eMachineShop (eMachineShop.com) website includes 50 how-to videos explaining the CAD software.

“Anybody who needs a metal or plastic custom part for anything is a potential eMachineShop customer,” said Nick Walker, marketing manager at eMachineShop.

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