If Lou Rassey is to be believed, the future of manufacturing already is playing out inside Oprah's former videotape library in Chicago.
For years, we've been told that 3D printing would make the leap from prototypes to full-scale production, replacing the costly but time-tested factory methods of making parts for everything from jet engines to smartphones to toys. Often, though, it's been used for gimmicks, like sneakers with 3D printed soles.
Reality is about to catch up to the hype, says Rassey, CEO of Fast Radius, a Chicago-based startup that's running a dozen small cylindrical machines that layer materials to quietly turn out parts in a building that was part of Harpo Productions.
"Previously, parts weren't good enough, production was too slow and the cost was too high," says Rassey, 44, a former McKinsey consultant who teamed up with Bill King, a former chief technology officer of UI Labs, at Fast Radius. "We've crossed that threshold."
The company got its start in Atlanta in 2015, backed by UPS. Rassey took over in early 2017, moved Fast Radius to Chicago and raised $13 million in November from Drive Capital of Columbus, Ohio, and Chicago investors Jump Capital, Hyde Park Venture Partners and Michael Polsky's Skydeck Capital. It now has 40 employees and continues to hire engineers, software developers and other technical workers/technicians.
Terry Wohlers, founder of Wohlers Associates, a consulting firm in Fort Collins, Colo., forecasts 3D printing will grow from about $7 billion this year to more than $25 billion by 2023. "We're probably in the first or second inning of this," Wohlers says. "It's going to get big."
Rassey, who has both a master's degree in mechanical engineering and an MBA from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says a new generation of high-end machines from companies such as HP Inc. and Carbon3D Inc. is largely responsible for the great leap forward.
What does the future of manufacturing look like? An armrest. Fast Radius worked with Steelcase Inc. in Grand Rapids, Mich., to design and make caps for armrests on desk chairs that are radically different and more comfortable. Designs made possible by 3D printing result in materials that can have differing properties within the same product. In this case, the armrest can be more or less firm at the edge than in the center.
"We can design new materials with capabilities that didn't exist before," said King, 44, Fast Radius' chief scientist and a nanotech researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Perhaps best of all, it took just eight weeks to go from idea to production, a fraction of the usual time.
Rassey's goal is much bigger: to create a virtual supply chain, with on-demand manufacturing of parts stored at various locations around the world, reducing inventory and production costs. "We're moving goods by internet, instead of air, ground, or sea," he says.
If only it were that easy.