An inexpensive CNC machine boasts precision and access for any user in medtech.
A few months back I was listening to a This American Life episode about the NUMMI plant in Fremont, Calif. The plant, which opened in the mid1980s was one of the first automotive factories in the United States to aim for design for manufacturability. As I listened to the story, something clicked in my mind. I had seen many of the practices on tours of medical device manufacturing floors. Invention at the point of manufacture is critical to innovation in medical technology. Although the automotive industry took almost two decades to really embrace those notions, the medtech industry has built such practices from the ground up.
In design for manufacture, engineers look at how parts are assembled and try to design them to be easy to work with. The design, by nature, becomes a collaborative process. Cross-functional teams can discuss challenges, maintain product requirements, address technical risks, and manage costs better than a single function team.
There are volumes of information on design for manufacturability, so I’m not going to exhaust all the ideas of how to set up a program. But one challenge that has held companies back, including the NUMMI workers, was how to visualize a part and then get a working design on the floor quickly.
Othermill is a high-precision desktop CNC mill that seems perfect for solving such challenges. It is the first commercial product developed by Other Machine Co. (San Francisco, Calif.). Ezra Spier, director of community at Other Machine Co., says “We see the Othermill as one of the best tools to develop precise integrated devices.” Designers might be particularly interested in it, he says, because it can be used to prototype both electronic and mechanical components.
Othermill is the product of a Kickstarter campaign and a DARPA grant. Wearable device engineers, artists, jewelers, and universities have adopted it as a way to rapidly test out PCB designs, for example, as well as create finished products. It can accommodate an array of materials and tool bits at a minimal price. The desktop itself is only $2,199.
For the price, the Othermill boasts an incredible level of precision and usability.
The company has focused on precision because, “people who are building real-world devices need the type of precision the Othermill offers,” says Spier. The Othermill can mill down to 0.001″ precision on any material softer than steel.
It is important to note that Spier is not suggesting that Othermill is a replacement for rapid prototype shops. “Rapid prototyping shops offer a lot of expertise, and often have access to machinery and manufacturing processes that may be cost prohibitive to have in-house.” Still, he says, “even waiting overnight for quick-turn service can slow down the product development process.”
“Our customers find a lot of value in using the Othermill to make prototypes in minutes or hours.” Customers also find value in the Othermill’s accessibility and ease of use. The system enables users to mill directly from design files. Essentially, Othermill offers precise milling to anyone and everyone and the accessibility is designed into the product.
“The future of manufacturing is small-batch, distributed, and ultra-customizable,” says Spier. “For this to happen, more and more people need to be able to take part.”
This is also a future of medical technology. The Othermill offers a point of entry, not just for engineers, but also for anyone in a medtech company to visualize and experiment with how a part could be designed. In a cross-functional design environment, such a tool could assist in developing better teamwork and innovation.
Spier is also motivated by the lessons learned at NUMMI. “I have discussed it at length with our own manufacturing team. We actually use a number of the techniques from [the NUMMI] assembly process in our own company.”