Just Under the Radar: Innovation on a Shoestring
By Bob Pinato, MPD Editorial Advisor
Now here we are in 2013. The elections are behind us, Congress is still deadlocked on what to do with the deficits and how to tax, spend, cut or produce our way out of the muck and mire we have bogged ourselves down into. Where are the cuts going to happen and how will they affect the military projects, advanced R&D projects and maybe most importantly the jobs of many sharp, knowledgeable engineers, scientists, technicians and staff with decades of expertise to offer. Where will they go off to? Or will they go off and make contributions to design, produce or start a company on their own?
We have given much space in this column recently talking about R&D expenditures and cutbacks. What the effects will be if such cutbacks occur and where they will hit the hardest and deepest. The reasoning for this talk is to start the dialogue within each of our respective circles; military, space, commercial, semi-conductors, packaging, toys, and so on and encourage some radical thinking to take place when the changes do occur. In the very heart of our microwave industry much R&D is and has been funded through SBIR, DARPA and other agency funding. More recently others have been funded at the product level by VCs and other funds to leverage what was developed into viable profit making products.
Let’s imagine that our collective funding pool shrinks and creates a diminishing share of the pie for the companies working on future projects. With less funds companies have to cut back on some of the more futuristic programs and start to reduce workforces. The cycles of spike and dip have repeated themselves many times in our military and aerospace industry over the past 60 years. The golden handshakes start to be given out to the senior staff, sharp engineers with perceived business and technical savvy start to bail out on their own to go and “create” something. The rest remain and continue to create and develop and keep the corporate ship functioning.
It is the core entrepreneur in our industry who has on occasion been given the chance, by challenge more than by choice, to go off and do something new. Many startups have happened this way, just look at all the companies in the high technology, military hardware space which have been started from incubators (I am sure they would not look at themselves in this mirror) such as Avantek, HP, TRW, NGC, Hughes, Motorola …..and the list continues. Companies like Broadcom were the result of a couple of very smart fellows, with a great idea and knowledge, who left a very large aerospace firm and made a new startup. I am sure you all know of at least a handful of similar small and medium startups which are a result of being leveraged by military technology or mass migrations during harder times.
It is not my goal within the framework of this bi-monthly article to discuss the politics, economics and potential upheaval they may or may not bring in the future months and years to come. What I am trying to do is set the flow of thought on what we do, on our own, under the radar to take on challenges, create opportunity and potentially new industries and products in the future. What industries do you say? Well we don’t have a crystal ball, but what we do see is that people make things happen. And from this new industries and economic growth engines are formed. One of those potential enablers I started to discuss in previous columns is the 3D-Printer. A tool which could and will complement the aerospace and high technology designers who will need new tools to enable their designs to become prototypes, experiments in real time in the confines of their very own design center.
Just imagine being able to manufacture what one conceives in a drawing in 3D right in the lab. No need for outsourcing the prototypes to an outside vendor (unless the outside vendor is the 3D printer shop), to be made for design reviews in a plastic or poly-something material. When completed manufacturing the final versions in a material of choice. The 3D printer works a lot like your ink jet printer, but it does it by layering the printing drop by drop, layer by layer, until a full 3D version of the drawing is built. Currently the low end printers do this with polymers, wax and plastics to deliver a full scale 3D “printout” of your product. Higher end printers do this with more exotic materials, even metals and ceramics.
The creation of the 3D printer a few years back was never envisioned to be a prototype mini-factory in an R&D lab as a replacement to the milling machine in the company machine shop. In just a few short years engineers have perfected these machines so that one can not only build one for less than $1500 from available plans, but can be used with a variety of infusers.
From plastics for creating a 3D non-functional evaluation model, to full metal products and even replacement parts created without a mill right in the R&D lab. One can now take a product, create a 3D image in a CAD programs, feed it to the printer and voila, out comes a replica product. The prospects are astounding to the average aerospace engineer who had to wait weeks for the company machine shop to spit out a first level prototype.
We predict that the 3D printers will swiftly become a necessity in the R&D lab to spit out prototypes which allow the product team to make design evaluations, look for quirks in the design, fit and form, show customers prototype and concepts. Then make corrections, adjustments and run the process over again all within a workday. An approach which will revolutionize product development and NPI processes. Imagine laying out a new package type, or a circuit board layer by layer (alumina?), very small dimensioning for higher frequency cavities in modules. One could even see how an antenna would look and function within hours of completing a simulation and design.
Basically one can create what one can conceive or copy and do it in a material of ones choosing. A major boon for the small business, aerospace engineering startup we talked about earlier, Self-funded high tech ex-aerospace gurus again doing more on their own or joining forces to make use of key expertise and the new tools at their disposal.
The 3D printers can be as small as a microwave oven to as large as a milling machine. I have read that there are some new advanced machines which are the size of a screen room and used for faster replication of products using alternative materials such as rubber, ceramics, metals and complex alloys for aerospace applications.
It will become as necessary as the CAD and design tools in every lab as ubiquitous as the ink jet printer in the office. This new tool will turn the manufacturing world for low volume production on its head (somewhat like laser printers are doing for vanity presses) and actually re-establish local manufacturing centers for quality production. Where there used to be local machine shops to turn out a few products for evaluation, there will become production houses supporting the local small business industries. The accuracy of the higher end 3D printers challenges the machine shops and can actually manufacture products piece by piece or as a whole.
There are of course challenges to be reckoned with. In time as the 3D printers become more prevalent tool in the lab, there will be those fighting this new technology as a pirating tool for IP and measures will be imposed in some form with the printer , an IP blocking chip, or the software as the means to verify compliance (or pay fees). Yes it will be possible that pirating will expand into the hardware realm and encroach on your precious designs…if they can figure out how to draw it in 3D of course.
In the end, This new revolution will be hitting hard on overseas production of higher end products, almost requiring moderate volumes in production to be sourced more locally. Again this new exploit of the technology will be a boon for local jobs, business persons and high tech moderate volume manufacturing in the USA. Another leg of manufacturing moving back to the USA one could say, but enhancing more of the high tech protected manufacturing to be done by local entrepreneurs.
This is all happening under our very noses and in many cases we will be affected by the overseas investments in technology access, the 3D printer phase in R&D and the ultimate renaissance in volume manufacturing due to this new technology. Even corner 3D printer shops or machine shops with 3D printer prototyping capability will sprout, enabling the prototype to production capability we all desire.
As our beloved USA again comes out of the malaise and starts to move aggressively into key areas where individual businesses and entrepreneurs can drive business forward, we will see the results of our efforts in new venues not yet ascribed to in any publication to date. The growth will happen in ways we cannot yet imagine. As past events have shown us and the experts people do the unexpected and markets drive venues as we can never imagine.
Entrepreneurs go forward, create business and jobs, investors fund and propel markets, inventors develop technology and products as this is what makes the world and America go round. This is one of the great undertakings of our country and innovators of our national culture which inspire us all to aspire and reach to new limits in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…..and innovation.
Who knows, maybe all this activity can be a major contributor to reducing the debt, provide lower cost high technology for the aerospace and military programs and at the same time keep it all home.
ICCS Global LLC. is a multinational consulting firm with offices in the USA, China, Hong Kong and associates in Korea, India, Singapore and SE Asia.
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