In the words of every “smart device” crowdfunding campaign ever: Hardware is hard. Getting a new product from idea to prototype to mass production can take months or years, requires juggling technological challenges and managing business relationships, and can cost hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars. But it may not be that way for long.
“Can we build electronic products in a way that there are no up-front capital costs, no inventory, no supply chain?” asks Baback Elmieh, founder and CEO of Nascent Objects. “Can we automate all of that using 3D printing technology?”
These are rhetorical questions: His company is already making it happen.
In the same way that web publishing platforms like Livejournal, Wordpress and Squarespace have made it possible for anyone with basic computer literacy to create a website out of pre-built templates, tools for industrial design and electronics prototyping are becoming increasingly user-friendly. Nascent Objects pulls a bunch of those tools together and combines them with a fleet of 3D printers so that, as Elmieh puts it, “building physical products looks exactly the same as building an app or a website.”
Well, almost. A customer has to supply a 3D model for the exterior of their product, so a bit of design skills are still required. But for everything else, the platform takes care of the basics—from wiring together drop-in electronics modules, to generating fully functional mobile app templates.
“People can make a product by telling the system what they want it to look like, what they want it to do, and the system figures out how to build it,” Elmieh says.
After loading in a 3D model, customers use a drag-and-drop interface to add electronics modules to their product from a list of 15 standard components. Elmieh says the selection, which includes Linux-based processors, sensors, cameras, LEDs, touch pads and more, was based on reviewing hundreds of successful crowdfunding campaigns and trying to provide components that would make it possible to create those products with Nascent Objects. Customers just cram the modules into their design wherever makes sense, and the software figures out a wiring diagram that can be incorporated during 3D printing. At the same time, it builds an app that makes use of the modules so customers can test that it all works as intended.
Nascent Objects has a handful of partners that use industrial-scale 3D printers to print the final design, which includes cavities for each electronics module and thin channels that snake through the interior of the device for wiring. Nascent Objects takes care of the next step itself, turning those empty channels into conductive leads between each component via a secretive process. All Elmieh would tell me is that it involves “a liquid that can metalize the interior of 3D-printed objects” and grew out of work that Alexandre Jais, Nascent Objects’ “3D printing guru”, developed at his Stanford spin-off company Rabbit Proto.
Three days after submitting a design, the customer receives the printed object along with its set of electronics modules. Pop them in, snap on the printed covers, and the product is fully functional.
And it can cost as little as $50.
Larger, more complex designs might run up to $1,000—but even that is a mind-boggling improvement over months of development time and hundreds of thousands of dollars in up-front costs. Elmieh says that for most smart electronics product categories, manufacturing with Nascent Objects should cost on average $200 per unit. That’s cheap enough for a hobbyist to use the platform for one-off projects, while the process is scalable for businesses that want to place orders in the thousands. And since printer time is the largest expense, the cost of a customized smart gadget will only continue to fall.
There are limitations, of course. Nascent Objects is still improving its electronics modules, and hopes to shrink them significantly while boosting performance and battery life. And even though the company’s manufacturing partners can work with a variety of materials, 3D printed objects don’t always meet the physical tolerances or design needs of mass-produced products, which often use injection-molded plastics. So while some products are retail-ready right out of the printer, Nascent Objects is largely going after opportunities in the in-between stage—where a company needs to test a number of different designs or a startup wants to quickly fulfill crowdfunding orders before moving to a more traditional manufacturing process.
“We’re trying to be smart about the products we pick,” Elmieh says.
The inexpensive process and quick turnaround time have already started to woo customers. Elmieh told me his company recently prototyped a smart home device for Taiwanese electronics manufacturer Compal; instead of months, it took just 10 days to deliver the first fully functional unit. And at Maker Faire earlier this month, California toymaker Rawrz showed off a line of smartphone-controlled, animal-shaped “cupcake” lights built with Nascent Objects.
Though potential customers need to reach out directly to get started, Nascent Objects is already open for business and fulfilling orders. Its workshop is currently staffed by two people running multiple printers that can turn out 400 products a day. As the platform evolves the back-end will need to scale to handle more and larger customers automatically, but Elmieh says there’s “almost infinite capacity for production development.”
And considering the massive predictions for the Internet of Things and the explosion of innovation that accompanies every new democratization in technology, he’s going to need it.
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