This robot-run 3D printing farm is the future of light manufacturing

Even small businesses are now running lights-out facilities using robots and automation
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

A 3D printing farm in Brooklyn needed to scale up to handle large production runs and better compete with injection molding.

Until recently, that would have required investing in more 3D printers and additional manpower to run the machines, eliminating many of the cost advantages inherent in 3D printing.

Voodoo Manufacturing invested in a single robot, which it leaves running all night--what's known as "lights-out" manufacturing.

It's an elegant display of a model that will soon be commonplace: Through its automation efforts, Voodoo is showing how even small businesses are beginning to run fully-automated, lights-out operations.

It's also an illustration of the calculus business owners are now engaging in when deciding whether to invest in personnel or technology.

"When we were looking for a robotic arm, we were looking for one that could do the tasks, but would also be easily programmable and get up and running very quickly," said Jonathan Schwartz Chief Product Officer of Voodoo Manufacturing.

The robot Voodoo chose is the UR10 from Universal Robots. It's one of a newer class of collaborative robots, or cobots, which are distinguished from other industrial robots by their relative ease of programming and because they can safely work alongside people thanks to robust safety features.

Universal Robots is one of the primary players in the space, with about 60 percent share of the global cobot market on revenue of 99 million USD in 2016.

For now, the UR10 is taking over what's known as "harvesting" on a select bank of 3D printers in Voodoo's Brooklyn headquarters. One of the more cumbersome portions of the 3D printing process, harvesting involves physically loading and unloading plates.

Voodoo estimates the task took up 10 percent of all labor hours. It's also one of the few tasks that requires human intervention in the middle of a production run.

Voodoo Manufacturing has 160 3D printers. Based on early results with a current bank of printers, it estimates that by placing its UR10 on a mobile base to roam its 18,000 square foot factory, the company will be able to use the collaborative robot to tend 100 printers.

By adding another UR10 to its fleet, Schwartz believes he can bring Voodoo from 30-40 percent printer utilization up to 90 percent.

Depending on a variety of options, a UR10 can be set up in the neighborhood of $50K to $60K. That's an astounding leap in productivity for what amounts to a small outlay, and gives insight into the value robots are now bringing to companies of all sizes.

"From here on out as we scale, we can just buy more arms as we have more and more printers," said Schwartz. He calls Voodoo's new robot a "game-changer."

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