Talking Robotics and 3D Printing with Y Combinator

November 29th, 2017 by

Last month, two of Voodoo’s four co-founders, Max Friefeld and Oliver Ortlieb, sat down with Craig Cannon and Daniel Gross of Y Combinator to discuss the future of robotics and 3D printing. For the uninitiated, Y Combinator is a startup incubator that helps young companies raise seed funding, flesh out their business plans, and gain invaluable insight and support from an extensive network of YC alumni. Voodoo was fortunate to be selected for YC’s Winter 2017 batch, which we participated in from January to March.

In the YC podcast, Max and Oliver field questions about the intersection of robotics and 3D printing, where they see those industries heading in the future, and whether or not robots really will take over the world. Below is a recap of the conversation.

Project Skywalker Robotic Arm

From Plastic to Planes: The Evolution of 3D Printing

To provide some context, it’s important to point out that the first patents for 3D printing were written in the early 1980s. Up until those original patents began to expire in 2007, the going rate for an entry-level 3D printers started at around $30,000. It wasn’t until the patents entered public domain that more affordable desktop printers – ones that cost a few thousand dollars – started to emerge. At Voodoo, we use these less expensive desktop printers to operate a system that is, as Oliver puts it, “all about scale and cheap parts.”

When it comes to advancing 3D printing technology and expanding its influence, the two biggest issues to focus on are material and size. Right now, the items being 3D printed most often are relatively small, plastic models, meaning that 3D printers don’t yet have the material capability to print most everyday items in a person’s home ― which is why 3D printers are not in most people’s homes.

For this to change, 3D printers would have to utilize multi-step processes for multiple materials. Oliver points out that Boeing is currently 3D printing titanium parts for planes, which could be an exciting indication of changes to come in the field of 3D printing, and how it could eventually expand into a variety of industries.

But while Boeing may be able to afford to 3D print plane parts, 3D printing in general is not very cost-effective for items larger than a loaf of bread. The technology would need to improve significantly in order for 3D printers to be able to print large items, such as furniture, at even relatively affordable prices.

Human After All? The Current State of Robotics

Another way 3D printing will become more efficient and widespread in the future is by incorporating robotics. Max and Oliver are, to put it simply, very excited about robots. When asked how the robots of today are better than the robots of the past, Max touches on a couple of reasons.

For one, like 3D printers, robots are cheaper now than they used to be (think $35,000 instead of $150,000), which means they are becoming more accessible to a variety of industries. On the software side, robots are easier to program than ever before thanks to their accessible operating systems.

collaborative robots

In the past, the primary concern when it came to programming robots was, as Max notes above, safety ― how to ensure that a robot won’t destroy a lab and everyone working in it. Now, new software called ROS (Robot Operating System) is allowing for a less rigid, more customizable programming experience in which robots are collaborative and can be trained to complete certain tasks.

The goal is for robots to ultimately be able to teach themselves how to do things ― we would love to see Project Skywalker learn to assemble an item simply by watching a video of a human hand doing so. But before reaching that point, improvements must be made in both simulation techniques and the dexterity of the robot arms and hands themselves. Existing robotic arms with human-like hands are rather slow, and nowhere near as dexterous as a real human hand.

Robot harvesting 3D prints

Bringing it All Together: How Robotics Can Advance 3D Printing

It’s clear that implementing robotics makes 3D printing at scale possible, and Voodoo is paving the way for this technology merger. Max and Oliver tell YC about the proof of concept we’re currently building in Brooklyn with over 175 3D printers, some of which are tended by a mobile robotic arm.

robot operated 3D printer cluster

Voodoo’s goal is to scale up over time and operate satellite cells of printers that we liken to web server farms spread out over the country, rather than having one giant factory. This means that while there may not be a Voodoo server farm in your town, there will hopefully be one within one-day delivery distance, or even within pickup distance for larger companies placing high volume orders.

When asked about what challenges they may face as they aim towards scaling up, Max and Oliver describe several important steps that happen after items come off our printers: post-processing, packing, and shipping. Once those steps become automated, the whole operation can scale up very easily. After that, it would just be a matter of figuring out the hardware ― how many robotic arms they need, how many AWS servers they need, and so forth.

As Max explains, scaling a factory of robots is so much easier than scaling a factory of people, because hiring people who are the right fit can be very difficult. With robots, you just need to make sure they’re properly programmed.

You can listen to the full audio of the podcast below.


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