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How 3D Printing Is Reshaping Manufacturing as We Know It

The ’90s digital revolution was inevitable, considering how an internet-connected PC was all it took to create a Google or Apple. But Manufacturing isn’t as easy—that’s why there hasn’t been a Silicon Valley-Esque renaissance in the consumer durables industry.

However, that is gradually changing with the advent of companies specializing in 3D printing and on-demand manufacturing. These firms help bootstrapped startups penetrate the market with disruptive innovation—especially in industries where corporations keep upstarts at bay with their massive engineering and manufacturing muscle.

Let’s look at how on-demand manufacturing is poised to change manufacturing as we know it.

Traditional Manufacturing Favors Goliaths

Fabricating physical products is complicated and expensive, but it’s easy to forget that it gets even worse for small companies with low manufacturing volumes. The smaller your manufacturing batch, the more expensive and difficult it is to turn your idea into a finished product. It’s virtually impossible for small entities to set up in-house manufacturing and maintain the engineering expertise to keep it running.

It’s apparent that 3D printing is the solution, but even that is prohibitively expensive when manufacturing commercially viable products. Because regular 3D printers are slow and inefficient, cheaper 3D printing services won’t pass muster. Fortunately, a few on-demand manufacturing experts, such as Hubs and Xometry, specialize in helping such startups bring their visions to fruition.

We spoke to one of them, and their approach is surprisingly simple in its effectiveness.

From low Earth orbit satellites and energy-generating aircraft to bespoke gaming mice and industrial exoskeletons, these companies have helped many startups bring their products to the market.

Filemon Schoffer, the CCO and co-founder of Hubs, has a surprisingly simple approach—anyone can access their state-of-the-art manufacturing technology by simply uploading their CAD files to order custom parts without worrying about minimum order quantities or manufacturing queues.

Although that might sound no different from a regular 3D printing service, on-demand manufacturing experts such as Hubs and Xometry distinguish themselves with the gamut of their services. “We are not the fastest, but we can do the most,” explains Schoffer, emphasizing that Hubs offers low-volume injection molding, sheet metal fabrication, and CNC machining capabilities in addition to 3D printing.

This allows startups to focus on product design and innovation without worrying about manufacturing expertise and supply chain woes. This brand of on-demand manufacturing allows the Davids of the consumer durables industry to achieve parity with the incumbent Goliaths. Let’s take a look at some notable examples of this phenomenon.

Skelex: Bringing Exoskeletons to the Real World

When you hear the word exoskeleton, you invariably think of the cool exo-suits from Warhammer 40K and Elysium. That is, powered exoskeletons imbuing the wearer with superhuman strength and agility. The real world, however, is a bit more practical. When Skelex approached exo-suits, it envisioned them less as fancy power armor and more like the humble hard hat.

Weighing in at just 4.2kg, Skelex’s exoskeletons are passive devices designed to make lifting industrial tools effortless. Gaurav Genani, the Founder of Skelex, describes his product as a “bicycle for the arms” that makes heavy, repetitive work lighter. The idea is similar to that of a hard hat—except this industrial safety device reduces workplace injuries and boosts productivity.

Unfortunately, it took years and countless cases of head injuries before the hard hat was taken seriously. And that’s just a cheap and uncomplicated hunk of injection molded plastic. Skelex’s exoskeleton, however, is rather complicated to make. That’s primarily because small orders for complex exoskeleton assemblies aren’t the best combination for cost-effective manufacturing.

With the traditional manufacturing approach out of the question, Skelex turned to Hubs for all their 3D printing and CNC machining needs. This allowed it to offer highly customized exoskeletons even in small batches. That’s a godsend for a small firm juggling infrequent orders with constant customization.

And sure enough, Hubs’ expertise with low-volume, cost-effective manufacturing allowed Skelex to scale production from tens of units to a production volume that now runs into thousands.

What started as an outsourced manufacturing process involving 3D printing and CNC machining has now matured to integrate low-volume injection molding, vacuum casting, and sheet metal manufacturing with the help of Hubs’ diverse portfolio. And that makes Skelex’s exoskeletons one step closer to becoming the hard hat of the modern industrial world.

Scewo: Student Project to Celebrated Product

Think Segway for the disabled, except the Scewo BRO power wheelchair can not only balance and ride on two wheels but can also climb stairs. If that didn’t sound incredible enough, the startup was spawned from a former student project at the Zurich University of the Arts and Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.

With a total team strength of 23, Scewo AG is the epitome of a lean operation with a killer idea. While killer ideas are largely inexpensive, the same cannot be said for the massive capital investment required to bring them to fruition. This is where Xometry’s on-demand manufacturing services and expertise came through for Scewo.

The stair scaling wheelchair comprises several parts fashioned out of eclectic materials and manufacturing processes—from 3D printed plastics such as PLA and ABS to CNC milled aluminum and vacuum cast steel. What would have otherwise warranted a few million dollars in manufacturing investment, Scewo AG achieved it at a fraction of the cost with on-demand manufacturing.

Formify: Bespoke Mice for Cyber Athletes

Professional gaming is not unlike the Olympics, and becoming a professional gamer is no easy task. Cyber athletes push the envelope of human ability to its very limit. But sometimes, these athletes need a bit of help from engineers.

The Speedo LZR suit—a marvel of sports engineering—is the best example of how high-tech tools can change the game in competitive sports. Formify’s 3D-printed mice promise to create a similar impact on professional gaming by being specifically tailored for the user’s hand.

Just like a lower drag coefficient of the LZR suit is critical to swimming performance, a tailor-made gaming mouse has the same effect on pro gaming.

Most popular competitive games, such as DOTA and StarCraft, measure gamers’ performance in APMs (actions per minute)—a simple parameter governing (to oversimplify the concept) how quickly the cyber athletes can click away at their mice. Formify’s bespoke mice are instrumental in improving the critical APM metric.

However, the traditional injection molding approach isn’t exactly conducive to making custom gaming mice. The molds used in the manufacturing process cost in the region of a few hundred thousand dollars. That’s probably why none of the major gaming mouse brands offer their products in different sizes. Well, not unless they are okay charging a few thousand dollars for the privilege.

Formify worked around this limitation by replacing the traditional injection molding manufacturing process. Seeking Hubs’ manufacturing expertise was critical to ensuring that its professional-grade gaming mice didn’t resemble a high school project. And sure enough, Hubs leveraged cutting-edge Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) 3D printing technology to manufacture bespoke mice that looked like finished products.

This allowed Formify to deliver mice precisely customized to the hands of cyber athletes. Meanwhile, Hubs’ low volume design, prototyping, and manufacturing expertise kept costs under check. This is a shining example of how commercial 3D printing has allowed previously unviable business models to flourish.

Cyfac: Race Winning 3D Printed Bicycles

The French are passionate about two things—eating snails and riding bicycles. And when they run out of snails, they get pretty serious about competing in the Tour de France.

Little wonder then that the French company Cyfac decided to build a unique all-carbon bike to compete in Concours de Machines. For those who don’t dine on escargots, Concours de Machines is a platform for bicycle makers to put their hand-made machines through the paces in an actual race.

While mass-manufactured bicycles are built to a price and appeal to the lowest common denominator, things get pretty crazy in bespoke hand-made bicycles. Cyfac’s offering, dubbed the Paradox, didn’t cut any corners. Composed of strategically placed carbon and titanium parts, the bicycle uses these high-tech materials to imbue strength and flexibility precisely where needed.

This is important as the race involves challenging terrain spread across frame-busting sections of rough gravel and cobbled roads. Cyfac achieved the mutually exclusive goal of building a strong yet light bike frame with careful use of carbon and titanium components. True to its name, the Paradox weighs in at just 10.7kg while being durable enough to endure the mechanical torture of the rugged race terrain.

These are mechanical demands that even traditional carbon fiber bike suspension components cannot deliver. That’s why Cyfac turned to flexible titanium blades for the suspension swing-arm components. The low volume and high precision requirement of these components necessitated the bike maker to seek the on-demand manufacturing expertise of Xometry for this project.

Xometry’s assistance with CNC machining and metal additive manufacturing allowed Cyfac to take the Paradox from the whiteboard to the finish line in record time. That’s true in more ways than one because Cyfax went on to win the Concours de Machines title with the same bike.

Democratizing Manufacturing

While we aren’t quite at the point of 3D printing everything we need at home, on-demand commercial manufacturing is helping small entities to achieve parity with their much larger competitors. And making manufacturing accessible undoubtedly benefits everyone.

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