A Fixture on the Production Line
MakerBot has a 3D Ecosystem that helps others — engineers, designers, educators, students, hobbyists — to turn their ideas into reality. It includes software, materials, and support, but these elements of the MakerBot 3D Ecosystem all involve the 3D printers that we make in Brooklyn — now in a new factory, with double the manufacturing capacity.
A few days after we opened the factory, I spent a few hours on our production line, as part of the human ecosystem that is ramping up the factory to full capacity. I worked a station on the MakerBot Replicator 2X line, building what we call the Z stage: the motor, the threaded rod, the holder that heats the build plate. At the Z stage station, as at many work stations, the task of assembly involves a fixture to hold the parts in place. Fixtures can be machined, but 3D printed fixtures take less time and money to make than metal ones, and in many cases are just as good as metal. 3D printed fixtures allow us not only to create a repeatable manufacturing process, but to refine and improve the process as we go.
You might expect us to make our own fixtures on MakerBot Replicators, but we’re not alone. In Chicago a couple of weeks ago, on my 11-week, 22-state Listening Tour, I stopped by the Center for Lost Arts, monthlong pop-up community workshop, where the makers of the Beton Coffee Storage Vessel were making rewards for their backers on Kickstarter. They had 3D printed a fixture to shape the handle of the coffee scoop using the MakerBot Starter Lab at the Center for Lost Arts.
Beton is a two-person operation — Dan Cigler and Travis Koss — but the big boys do it, too. I went to see a multibillion-dollar manufacturer with a million-square-foot facility, and they make some fixtures on a MakerBot Replicator Z18.
The Z stage fixture back at our factory worked pretty well, but if I’d had any ideas, I could have shared them with our manufacturing engineers and, in a matter of hours, we could design and 3D print something new and see if it made things go more smoothly. And that’s not just because I’m the CEO: Any worker on the line can recommend an improvement to the workflow, which can be tested with a small investment of time and filament, and if it’s not right the first time, we can try again. The worker shapes a process he or she understands best; the line becomes more productive. Everybody wins.
Soon there will be customers who will have a MakerBot Replicator 2X that I helped to assemble, and it means a lot to be able to take pride in our products in this direct, physical way.