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Voodoo Manufacturing Works Manufacturing Magic with Software, Robots, and 3D Printers
Jonathan Schwartz, a Voodoo Manufacturing co-founder, checks one of the company's MakerBot Replicator 2 3D printers during a typical run involving 119 3D printers producing a variety of parts simultaneously. Photo by Mark Langlois.
As the technology of collaborative robots, affordable desktop printers, and software evolved, Voodoo Manufacturing put them all to work in Brooklyn
By Mark Langlois
BROOKLYN, N.Y.–Voodoo Manufacturing, a supersized capital "D" digital 3D printing firm founded on software, racks of 3D printers, and collaborative robots, produces high volume parts at injection molded prices.
Founded in 2015, Voodoo remains a start-up work in progress as the four founders work on improving its robotic movement and vision, online ordering system, and its 3D printing. Voodoo is building a niche in digital manufacturing with a goal of making production manufacturing as fast, as affordable, and as scalable as software.
Voodoo relies on a room filled with 203 MakerBot Replicator 2 3D printers for most of its work. That means walls at headquarters are stacked with 3D printers in neat rows and columns. On a recent visit, 119 of them were printing at the same time. The company's goal is to tend those printers with robots, specifically collaborative robotic arms.
"We're working on being able to automate the entire process," said Jonathan Schwartz, a Voodoo co-founder, during an interview at the company's facility. "That's how manufacturing is coming back to the United States. It's driven by automation and software. We compete on price. In the last 30 or 40 years, it was cheaper to produce elsewhere. If we want to be competitive, we have to hold down our labor costs.
"It's on demand manufacturing, Schwartz continued. "Literally, the order arrives in the factory. We manufacture it and we drop ship it to the customer. We have a number of customers and, for many of them, we turn it around in a day."
Voodoo added 12 Raise3D N2 Plus 3D printers to make larger parts in its engineering department, where it is researching and expanding its use of the Universal Robots UR10 collaborative robotic arms. It is also testing and qualifying new 3D printers that will replace all the earlier printers.
The robotic arms will someday let Voodoo Manufacturing run 24/7 with the robotic arms tending the printers, Schwartz said.
Software Was Always a Key Component
Voodoo relies on software Voodoo is constantly upgrading to get the most out of the printers and its online ordering software. It constantly gathers data on manufacturing, ordering, and production as it prepares to use artificial intelligence (AI) to streamline and improve its processes. Voodoo already used AI to improve its ordering to the point where today, customers can order a part and put it in the manufacturing queue without consulting with Voodoo. The MakerBot printers build those parts without any human intervention. An order is placed, and a part is made.
"We come from a background of software. We saw the pathway to building this 203-printer factory that is run by software and now it is becoming more and more run by robots," said Schwartz. "This is not a prototype service, making a piece for display purposes. We're taking the leap from one side of the gorge to the other."
Half Prototypes and Half Functional Parts
The gorge he referred to is the gap between making a single prototype versus making thousands of parts for an OEM. Schwartz said Voodoo's part mix has changed since 2015, when it mostly made prototypes. Today, the company's work is half production parts for OEMs, and half prototypes for architects, artists, advertising, and marketing.
Among its prototype parts are the silver mirror-finished VH-1 television Hip Hop Award, a series of Justice League promotional razor decorations, and a four-foot model of former 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeling. It was ordered for an award ceremony by MIC, a digital news organization. Another was an award for the global food importer Atalanta, which consisted of a gold or silver chromed model of the Greek god Atalanta running on top of a globe. Voodoo outsourced the chroming to a supplier that polished the statue to a mirror finish.
"We're moving more toward functional parts," Schwartz said.
Among its production parts are thousands of components for a Squats and Science open barbell device that measures exercise speeds when a person is working out and lifting barbells. The device itself weighs about two pounds and is enclosed in a four-inch tall black aluminum cylinder. It sits on the floor while a person exercises. Voodoo manufactured six components inside the enclosure, including the tops and bottoms.
"They were using 3D printers themselves. They printed the first prototype and first functional version in-house. From there, they were looking to enter the manufacturing stage," Schwartz said. "That's the big leap from prototype and first production part. You've got to figure out how to maintain the economics that are right for your company. You have to hit the right price point, scale to the right volume. Especially for young companies, that's the most difficult point."
This VH1 HIP HOP Trophy (left) was 3D printed by Voodoo Manufacturing, and then polished to a mirror finish and silver chromed by a subcontractor. Photo by Mark Langlois.
The largest order to date was 18,000 pipe connectors that were the size of a golf ball, weighed about 25 grams each, and were manufactured out of PLA. The company also manufactured prosthetic hands for LimbForge and components for 3D printers for BotFactory.
Another production part Voodoo created was an anti-skimming device made of PETG for a national grocery store chain. The chain said skimming, a crime that involves copying a person's credit card information, doesn't happen often, but when it does, it costs the chain thousands of dollars. The chain first ordered 500 of the plastic inserts and tried them out. "Now we're doing a run of 5,000 of them," Schwartz said.
It’s All in the Digits
Voodoo belongs in the digital world, Schwartz explained. He said e-commerce sites use Voodoo as a just-in-time manufacturing pipeline as they reach out to their customers on Amazon or Etsy. They take payments via Square and Stripe and promote their products on Facebook and Instagram. He said the importance of the "just-in-time" schedule is a customer does not need to warehouse parts awaiting a customer's order. A person orders a part, Voodoo manufactures it and sends it out to the customer.
"These platforms and services have enabled entrepreneurs of all levels to create massively successful products and brands. At Voodoo, we think it's time for manufacturing and fulfillment to be just as accessible," Schwartz said.
Voodoo's Brooklyn headquarters and manufacturing space includes the engineers who are developing software that speeds ordering and production by combining the printers so that they work together on making parts. One of their tasks is to make the manufacturing process as seamless as the ordering process. Schwartz said the 3D printers can either create 203 copies of one part simultaneously, or each printer can work on its own part, thereby creating 203 unique parts simultaneously. 3D printing involves making a part based on its shape and dimensions in a CAD file. It doesn't require a costly steel mold for production.
Voodoo Manufacturing (https://voodoomfg.com/) offers help with people trying to design parts using CAD, as well as help with multi-part assemblies for complex or integrated products. Its robotic automation is also lowering its labor costs.
When in full robotic mode, as one printer completes a job, a robotic arm can remove the plate the part is printed on. The arm replaces the full printer plate with an empty plate. It racks the full plate for post-production, such as removing supports. It then alerts the system that the printer is free for the next job.
Schwartz said workers are constantly looking at each process and trying to figure out how to automate that process or how to bring in a robot.
Invite in the Robots
"What will help us reduce our costs the most? What part of our process is the biggest bottleneck? After a part is done, that plate waits for a technician to remove the part. Until that happens, that printer remains idle. We are able to automate that part of the process," Schwartz said. "For about a year, we worked on how to do that. We think we can have one arm tend 100 printers. It has to be mobile to some degree. We are currently working on that. It has to be fungible. It has to be custom, scalable. It has to perform, be versatile, mobile, and reliable."
Voodoo is developing its robotic capabilities to tend those 3D printers. Among its engineers is an industrial automation engineer, a robotics automation engineer, and a research and development engineer. The company founders are all engineers. When the company first acquired the robot, the Voodoo team had to hardcode the robotic arm on how to insert a printing plate and remove it after printing, which is called "harvesting." The problem is the robot can't see and it doesn't know where it is. If Voodoo hardcoded the location into the arm, any movement, such as shifting a printer or shifting the arm, would throw off the robot.
"If anything in the system moves a little bit or you want to expand the system, it becomes difficult," Schwartz said. "That is the challenge of robotics today in factory spaces, building a flexible system. We have to be able to quickly expand number of machines and improve viability. Then the system is dynamic and alive."
Where once a Universal Robots UR10 could tend nine printers, today, after Voodoo improved its software, an arm can tend 27. Voodoo's goal is for a robotic arm to tend about 100 printers. To meet that goal, Voodoo is developing vision technology that tells the robot exactly where it is and where the printers are, so it can properly tend them. Despite improvements, Voodoo isn't where it wants to be yet.
"It isn't robust enough," Schwartz said. Voodoo is working on software that will improve the robot's vision, enabling it to move into the right position to tend a printer. Then the robot can pick up a completed part and its plate, set it onto a conveyor belt or into a rack, and then replace a blank plate for the next task. The robot then presses controls on the printer to tell company software the printer is ready for its next job. When fully functioning, the arm's base will roll across the floor to the next printer needing tending. Someday the robotic arm may move on magnetic stripes or rails on the floor to the right spot for its next task.
Once the plate and finished part reaches the conveyor belt, workers in Voodoo's post-production department, called "SCORE," check each part as it comes off the printer to make sure it is correct. After the first visual inspection, they sort the parts, clean them, organize them, reclaim any waste material, and evaluate the part. Each step is documented on a computer.
"The vast majority of the parts we produce requires cleaning of the support material, removing the webs, and a final quality check," Schwartz said.
Why 203 printers in the same room? On a recent visit to Voodoo in Brooklyn, 119 printers were working at the same time. Many were printing numerous copies of the same part while others were printing different parts. Software accomplishes that.
Economies of Scale
"If a printer breaks down, the odds are we're already printing it on a different machine. It's a highly reliable process compared to other processes," Schwartz said. Also, with 203 models of the same printer on hand, Voodoo workers can repair a broken printer themselves. They have interchangeable spare parts and workers all know the machines. "We're not waiting on someone to come in and fix it."
Another benefit is the factory's scalability. It's expensive, but they can add printers for about $2,500 each.
"It's modular. It's lower cost and easy integration," Schwartz said. He expects to replace all the printers in the factory every two years because new and better models are released every year. "With the next generation of machines, we'll be able to produce higher volume parts that are more accurate in a wider range of materials."
Voodoo can print parts in four types of spooled filaments, including PLA, semi-flexible TPU, rigid TPU, and PETG. Schwartz said the company will add materials, which will help it expand its manufacturing capabilities.
Voodoo expanded into larger-scale parts by building a rack of 12 Raise3D N2 Plus 3D printers capable of building parts almost 700 percent larger than its original printers. Voodoo created a six-foot one-inch mannequin from 88 parts on its original printers. Today it makes the same mannequin from 19 parts on its Raise3D printers.
So, one benefit of the larger-format printers is fewer parts are required, creating a shorter bill of materials. "With fewer parts, large scale projects are now easier to assemble after printing," Schwartz said. "Fewer parts means fewer visible seams and reducing seams means increased overall part strength and higher visual quality."
The entire 6,000-square-foot factory and headquarters is on the fourth floor of an industrial building in a fashionably industrial section of Brooklyn's Bushwick neighborhood. The factory and headquarters includes offices, production, post-production, and engineering divisions that look more like an office than a factory. One reason it is quiet is 3D printers don't make much noise, and another reason is the factory has wooden floors and tall ceilings.
Schwartz said Voodoo came together when three industry trends occurred at about the same time. Desktop printers hit the market for about $3,000 each, and the printers are capable of producing a part of high enough quality that customers were willing to buy it. Universal Robots introduced an affordable collaborative robotic arm. Voodoo's co-founders, Schwartz, Max Friefeld, and Oliver Ortlieb, learned software when they studied engineering in college, and then co-founded Layer by Layer, a software firm for 3D printing. They sold Layer by Layer to MakerBot, where they then worked for about a year. Joined by Patrick Deem, another MakerBot employee, the four founded Voodoo Manufacturing in 2015 to combine hundreds of 3D printers, robotic machine tenders, and software.
"By using software to harness the production power of over 200 desktop 3D printers, Voodoo Manufacturing has provided on-demand manufacturing services for hardware part components for companies like LimbForge for prosthetic hands," Schwartz said in response to a Design-2- Part questionnaire. For that project, Voodoo printed 150 prosthetic hands in five days. Voodoo also printed parts for BotFactory's circuit 3D printers, and components for Squats and Science's data-driven fitness training devices, Schwartz said.
Voodoo Manufacturing employs 22 people, including the four founders. The talent pool for a start-up manufacturing business in New York City is excellent, Schwartz said. He said its customers tend to be other firms operating in New York and Boston.
"Our co-founder Oliver is the CTO, a computer science major. Max and I were engineers. We absolutely had software experience. Our first start up, Layer by Layer, was an entirely software-based company, although still in the 3D printing space," Schwartz said. "So, you could say we knew what we were doing when we started Voodoo. We knew first off how to apply software in a way that would help us, and we knew how to build that software. That's also an advantage we have over traditional manufacturers. Most companies are trying to bring that knowledge in house and trying to understand it. We were born in that knowledge.
"What we figured out is we could build a high-volume factory populated by machines that are run by robotics and software. As engineers we were able to figure out a way to get there," Schwartz said. "We can produce anywhere from one to 10,000 parts. That's our bread and butter."
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