Talk to Stephan Adams for a bit and you’ll soon discover that one of his favorite words is “workflow.”
Founder and managing partner of Adamation LLC, Adams is an entrepreneur and micro-manufacturer who’s all about innovation – not only in product design, but in production. He quickly found that Type A Machines had the perfect tool for his latest project – not just to create a novel design for a new product, but to optimize his workflows.
Adams has been operating in 3D printing for four years, creating action figures and objets d’art, as well as licensed collectibles. Several months ago, he and his brother William, director of Microsoft’s LEAP Engineering Acceleration program for expanding the company’s hiring of women and underrepresented minorities, recognized a new application for 3D printing. As part of the program, participants receive a kit, which includes a Windows 10 tablet and a Raspberry Pi device. “We started talking about how we could use 3D printing in that initiative,” says Adams.
Upon beginning the program, trainees receive a packet of instructional materials. Adams suggested loading the content onto the Raspberry Pi to create an interactive textbook, a low-cost alternative to supplying the hundreds of trainees with full computers. He hit upon the idea of 3D printing a housing that required some assembly. “We wanted to create a fun kit, to make it innovative and interactive,” he explains. The brothers’ design consisted of two triangular pieces of Plexiglas, held together with three corner brackets, and a hanger for the user’s tablet; the brackets and hanger are 3D printed.
Faced with producing hundreds of parts, Adams’ manufacturing side kicked in. “We already had a manufacturing facility for 3D color printing,” he says. “We considered buying a couple of single fused-deposition modeling (FDM) machines and stringing them together, but I decided that would take too long. I said, ‘Let’s do it the manufacturing way.’”
Enter Type A Machines
“I liked Type A’s approach – more of a manufacturing approach than a hobbyist approach,” Adams says. The Print Pod would allow him to create many components at a time with consistent, repeatable results.
“We wanted to create tens of parts in hours to fulfill these kits,” says Adams. “We already had an automated workflow for licensed objects, so we basically used that same workflow to work with the Type A Machines.”
An injection molder would consider Adams’ batch size microscopic; a hobbyist would be overwhelmed. But Type A’s Print Pod filled the micromanufacturing niche perfectly, generating prototypes as well as finished product.
Before settling on the final design, the brothers went through four iterations of prototyping, producing 30 pieces (i.e., 10 kits) for each iteration. “We’d prototype parts that we’d put into kits and sell to Microsoft. And then we’d change the design slightly on the next round.”
Trying to do that with injection molding would be astronomically costly, Adams points out. “With injection molding, each of those slight changes would require a new tool costing $30,000-50,000. And you’d end up with the same cost per unit!” The Print Pod, he says, quickly paid for itself a couple times over.
In addition, creating the kit’s three-cornered shape via traditional methods would be difficult and expensive. “3D printing allows you to make shapes that are unusual and innovative, but practical,” says Adams. And the transparent material used for the brackets clearly shows the 3D printed support mesh. “If it were injection molded, you wouldn’t get that webbing,” says Adams. “We wanted to show some of the advantages of 3D printing, rather than trying to hide the fact that the object is 3D printed.”
All About Workflow
There’s also an advantage that relates to Adams’ favorite word. “Type A is making workflow innovation, and that’s valuable to a manufacturer,” he says. By fitting into his existing operations, the Print Pod increased his batch capacity significantly without slowing down production.
“The added value for me is production time, and that’s all about workflow,” says Adams. “You have a Pod system that’s networked together and all managed from a single interface. Now I’m saving time. What I’m interested in is productivity, being able to integrate the machine into a productivity workflow, and ensure repeatability and quality of product. That’s why I chose Type A Machines.”
Adams isn’t interested in incremental printer improvements, such as new features or lower cost, which he calls a “race to the bottom.” “The difference between a machine costing $600-800 and one costing $1200 doesn’t matter if it can’t fit into my workflow,” he explains. “I’m amortizing the value of the Pod over time, which is far greater than trying to skimp to get an upfront cost advantage.”
He discovered, too, that the people at Type A Machines are just as supportive of his workflows as their products are.
Adams wanted to generate a certain quantity of product in two shifts: daytime and overnight. He found that prints failing during the day would throw off the night shift. “Either you’d have to stay longer, until the machines with failed prints could catch up so we could start all the machines at one time, or the night build would operate without those machines,” Adams explains.
In addition to decreasing production, the failures disrupted filament-loading procedures. “You want to have regular intervals for changing your filament, and regular intervals of when you pull off your product and then put it back on,” Adams adds.
The Type A engineers first tried replacing the print heads on the machines with failed prints. That helped somewhat. But they weren’t satisfied.
As it turned out, the main problem was the way the part was oriented on the print bed. “I didn’t discover that; they did,” says Adams. “They looked at the part, analyzed it, resliced it, changed the settings. They tested the part on their own machines in their own facility. They gave it back to me. The yield went up, I was able to stay on time, and I got better quality parts. At no charge.
“All I had to say was, ‘I’m not getting good yields,’ and they took it upon themselves to understand my business, fix the yield problem themselves, run it at their own facility, and bring it back to me. And we got great results” says Adams. “Regardless of what was on their product roadmap, they took the time to understand what I was trying to accomplish, and helped fine-tune my workflow and their machines to achieve that goal. Type A Machines provided me the right integrated system to quickly capitalize on a new market opportunity that I would not have pursued by cobbling together other 3D printing solutions.”