When you think of manufacturing, images of enormous machines isolated in a machine shop or factory come to mind. But ask Danielle Applestone and she’ll tell you today’s most advanced manufacturing machines are small enough to “pick up and put in a car.”
Applestone should know. She’s the CEO of The Other Machine Company , a San Francisco manufacturing tech firm. Her firm builds something called The OtherMill (pictured above), a desktop computer numerical control (CNC) milling machine. It’s a manufacturing machine that can create complex shapes without the need of CAD drawings or extensive user skill.
The OtherMill is at the forefront of a micro-manufacturing movement within the Internet Of Things trend.
Devices that once cost hundreds of thousands if not millions and required large facilities are now much smaller and networked. This approach to manufacturing has sparked small groups of manufacturing enthusiasts to appear. It’s part of a larger “maker culture” and it’s very much akin to developer communities that spring up around a given software.
CNC machines may sound a lot like 3D printing when you hear a general description, but they are mills and lathes with some major differences. CNCs can handle most any materials, while 3D printers are usually limited to certain material types.
CNCs typically can create shapes faster than 3D printers, and have adjustable drilling quality. Users can mill parts of varying thickness quality, even on the same part, thanks to the programmed automation in CNC machines.
The OtherMill makes these basic advantages accessible to budding machinists.
The machine size is dramatically reduced and is highly automated. That means people can quickly get up to speed and use the machine, without years of training or specialized CAD knowledge for support drawings.
That ease of usage is part of Applestone’s manufacturing philosophy.
“We want [business] people making things with professional tools,” said Applestone.
“We made a machine that does the same mechanism of cutting and moving around, but only 16.8 lbs. The portability aspect is really important. It’s a thing you can pick up and put it in your car. It can be part of your life that feels inviting. We want people to get going pretty quickly. You don’t want to be saddled with a lot of software learning. So you don’t have to know CAD. You can take a picture and turn it into a vector file,” she added.
She notes the importance of managing scale in a budding manufacturing or product business.
“You have a thing you want to build, and you save to figure out the scale of business that you want to build around it. Maybe it’s a small thing that you do as a hobby, and you make a few things for your friends and that’s satisfying to you,” she said. “If you want to have a business a little bit larger, you have to think what is the market for this product and if this is a product you can bootstrap. Not every good idea is going to provide crazy returns, but that does not mean it is not worth pursuing.“
Applestone is very accomplished. She has a doctorate in material science, and a masters degree in chemical engineering. Those accomplishments infuse her awareness of the growing need for more women in technology and in manufacturing.
She says, “I like that there’s a dialogue, though it’s not always positive. I am hopeful that people are now feeling that they can reach out and find resources on how to do diversity. When there are no examples, what are they going to do? In our business, we use Slack  to have a safe place to have women talk about their professional issues, and a safe place for men to ask questions to learn without being shot down. At the end it is a great opportunity to talk about gender issues.”
“There are at least news articles that talk about balanced workforce. That topic wasn’t on people’s radar at one time. Now it’s not just ‘We should do this.’ Instead, it’s ‘We should do this, and here’s why.’ And you can never put too much money into middle school science education for girls, or for all kids. It is money well spent,” Applestone says.
Images: The Other Machine Company, Small Business Trends