Voodoo Automates 3D Printing to Take on Injection Molding
Michael Molitch-Hou posted on August 09, 2017 | 6275 views

In some ways, the dream of 3D printing is also the dream of the automated factory, in which a machine can manufacture products 24/7 without any intervention by labor. As it stands, many additive manufacturing (AM) technologies are already capable of performing work that would have previously required a great deal of human intervention.

For instance, aerospace manufacturers have found that, by digitally combining multiple parts, it’s possible to 3D print complete assemblies that require no actual assembly by human hands. That being said, AM is still a long way away from the dream of the automated factory. There are numerous steps, from checking, prepping and loading CAD files to removing prints from the machine, post-processing them and shipping them out the door.

With Project Skywalker, Voodoo Manufacturing was able to automate an important part of its manufacturing process. (Image courtesy of Voodoo Manufacturing.)
With Project Skywalker, Voodoo Manufacturing was able to automate an important part of its manufacturing process. (Image courtesy of Voodoo Manufacturing.)

One might expect a manufacturing giant like GE to be at the forefront of automating these steps, but, in fact, smaller companies like Voodoo Manufacturing may be the ones to look to for advances in automation, as well.

The Brooklyn-based startup demonstrated the use of a robotic arm to bypass manual intervention in an important stage of the 3D printing process that has the company competing with injection molding at smaller batch sizes. And it does so, not with million-dollar metal AM systems, but with off-the-shelf plastic 3D printers.

To learn more about this Project Skywalker initiative, ENGINEERING.com spoke with Max Friefeld, cofounder and CEO of Voodoo Manufacturing.


Voodoo Takes on Injection Molding

“We founded the company two years ago as the first high-volume 3D printing manufacturing company,” Friefeld began.“Really what we’re going for is building out serial manufacturing as a tool for making end-use parts and products.”

Friefeld said that he wanted 3D printing to move beyond rapid prototyping, on the one hand, and, on the other, the high-end, expensive parts, such as the metal components 3D printed in the aerospace and medical industries.

“The market of 3D printers has been built towards these high-end value, low-volume applications,” Friefeld continued.“We kind of started two years ago with the opposite approach to go after low-volume, everyday plastic parts that you might get injection molded and shipped over from another country for use in your consumer product or device.”

A 3D printer cell located at Voodoo Manufacturing’s Brooklyn factory. Voodoo is a partner of 3D printer manufacturer and Stratasys subsidiary MakerBot, which sells its Replicator+ machines for $2,499. (Image courtesy of Voodoo Manufacturing.)
A 3D printer cell located at Voodoo Manufacturing’s Brooklyn factory. Voodoo is a partner of 3D printer manufacturer and Stratasys subsidiary MakerBot, which sells its Replicator+ machines for $2,499. (Image courtesy of Voodoo Manufacturing.)

When Voodoo launched, Friefeld said that the team began to realize that they were serving two different markets. The first market is made up of engineering companies that are launching new products and which need to produce a few thousand products for early testing and validation.Voodoo works with these firms to produce the first few thousand enclosures and other parts for their designs. The second market consists of marketing materials and other aesthetic products.

How can a 3D printing company compete with the $162 billion injection molding market? Voodoo accomplished this by purchasing off-the-shelf 3D printers, which require very little up-front investment when compared to an industrial manufacturing operation. Running a series of print farms, Friefeld said that his startup is cost-competitive with injection molding for runs of up to 10,000 units. For print runs above that, it usually makes more economic sense to have parts made with injection molding.

“With Voodoo, there’s no up-front investment,” Friefeld said.“We can get started with the file and get your part the next day, or 10,000 parts in two weeks. We’re fast and we have very little startup costs with our process.That’s all because we’re using 3D printers—digital manufacturing tools that can take in a digital file and produce a physical product with little human interaction. No tool, no tooling, no jigs, no fixtures. File in, product out.”


Automating a Print Farm

The next step for Voodoo, then, was to bring these costs down even further so that it could compete for larger and larger batches within the injection molding market.

In a blogpost, Voodoo Chief Product Officer Jonathan Schwartz and Friefeld write, “If Elon Musk can improve the cost of traveling to Mars by 5,000,000%, we can improve our costs by 1,000%, right? We then began the task of figuring out how the hell we could cut costs that much (equivalent to a 90% reduction) over the next 3 to 5 years. Our costs today come from three main areas: material, machines, and labor. To reduce our overall costs by 90%, we will need to reduce each of these cost areas by 90%, or an equivalent combination.”

The duo argues that materials and machine costs will gradually drop as the 3D printing industry adopts injection molding pellets over filament, something we’ve seen Oak Ridge National Laboratory work to pioneer, and as higher-end technologies make their way to the desktop space. For this reason, Voodoo decided to tackle reducing the labor involved in the 3D printing process.

The UR10 robot drops off a fresh print onto a ramp that was custombuilt for the process. Unlike industrial robotic arms, the UR10 has a lower price of roughly $50,000. (Image courtesy of Voodoo Manufacturing.)
The UR10 robot drops off a fresh print onto a ramp that was custombuilt for the process. Unlike industrial robotic arms, the UR10 has a lower price of roughly $50,000. (Image courtesy of Voodoo Manufacturing.)

Dubbed Project Skywalker, this initiative saw Voodoo introduce a low-cost robotic arm, the UR10 from Universal Robots, into its manufacturing operation. Beginning with a cell of just nine of Voodoo’s 160 printers, which are mounted to server racks, the startup programmed the robot to handle the “harvesting” portion of the process, in which a completed print is removed from the printbed and the printer is prepped for its next job.

According to Friefeld, harvesting accounts for only 10 percent of the total work taking place in the factory, but, by automating that process, it’s possible to create a 24/7 print cycle.

“Today, the section of the factory that’s able to run with Project Skywalker is able to run around the clock, 24 hours a day,” Friefeld said. “We only run a single shift right now, but when our team comes in in the morning, there are a bunch of parts that were running on the Skywalker cell overnight that we can then simply clean, pack and ship and get out the door that we wouldn’t have had otherwise. It’s a huge, 3x productivity boost for all of the machines that are being run with robotic arms.”


The robotic arm has been programmed with specific predetermined paths that navigate to each of the nine printers when a job is complete. Then Voodoo implements some machine vision to take care of the last-mile approach to the printbed. Once it pulls the print plate from the machine, a custom-built plate “hopper” feeds new, clean plates to the robot to place back into the printer for its subsequent task.

Essential to all of Voodoo’s operations and partly responsible for the company’s overall efficiency is the software that runs its various printer cells. The startup has, in addition to Skywalker, software that partially automates the file preparation process. This tool helps speed up the process of orienting the 3D model, determining the print settings, placing it in the queue at the proper time to meet the customer’s needs, and sending it to the printer.

For Skywalker, Voodoo leveraged its software writing capabilities to network the robot with the printers. The arm is notified when a print is complete on which printer and when a new print plate has been loaded so that the system can begin a new print automatically.


The Future of Project Skywalker

If Voodoo can reduce its costs by 90 percent over the course of the next three years, Friefeld believes that his company will be able to compete with injection molding for runs of up to 100,000 units and with a much faster turnaround time.

To do so, Voodoo will gradually introduce a Project Skywalker setup to each of its printer cells, powered in part by a recent $5 million financing round led by General Catalyst, with participation from NextView Ventures, 645 Ventures, and Y Combinator’s Continuity Fund.

To test out the possibilities and work out any kinks with the system, the startup has also setup a sale for its Direct Print Service during the month of August. Pricing during the sale will be 40 to 80 percent lower than other online 3D printing services, when printing with PLA.

Implementing Project Skywalker across the company is just a first step. In the future, Voodoo hopes to expand beyond its Brooklyn factory and also adopt other forms of manufacturing technology.

“Ultimately, we will be producing low-volume runs of any manufactured product anywhere in the world,” Friefeld said.“[We’re] starting with plastic today, but we’ll eventually expand into other materials and processes built on top of these digital tools like 3D printers.”

Prospective technologies include new metal 3D printers that Voodoo might be able to purchase 100 units at a time. “We are considering technologies across the board,” Friefeld explained. “The unifying theme behind what we would want to bring to a factory is that we’re looking at technologies that have been newly released that will change the economics of what was being done before.”

Before Voodoo moves that far down the road, however, Friefeld wants to focus on its Brooklyn headquarters.

To learn more about Voodoo Manufacturing and its Direct Print Service, visit the company website.


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