Nov 8, 2016 | By Alec

Remember Tend.ai? Back in June, this startup unveiled a concept that could bring 3D printing into mainstream manufacturing. While currently used 3D printing farms rely on a complicated logistic and very labor-intensive process, Tend.ai is streamlining the entire farm concept with a versatile robot arm that can automatically operate a dozen or more 3D printers, laser cutters and other modern workshop tools. The promising startup has just raised $2 million (from True Ventures) in seed money to improve upon their initial prototype.

But even their original setup that was revealed during the summer looked very impressive. As you can see in the clip below, one single robot arm easily operates numerous 3D printers, pushing buttons and removing the final components from the printbeds. These objects are even boxed and subsequently pushed down a conveyor belt. Using nothing more than a webcam, it reads each 3D printer’s display just like you or I would. Once those prints are registered, the system knows what buttons to push and when to remove prints. What’s more, the system is compatible with just about any 3D printer.

This fantastic 3D printing farm concept is being developed by founders Mark Silliman, Robert Kieffer and James Gentes, who together have decades of experience in robotic, software and startup development. Inspiration was found in a local 3D printing farm, run by a friend who produces custom cookie cutters for Etsy. “AKA she's running to her garage every 5 minutes, all day to keep the process going,” Silliman previously explained to 3ders.org.

But Tend.ai’s overcomes all of that. The robotic arm takes over all labor tasks, including starting, stopping and removing prints – and replacing failed ones. That means no more nightly trips to the 3D printing farm and it could save thousands on labor costs. Now you might think: but why isn’t everyone doing this? Well, that’s because industrial robots aren’t very good at doing more than one task. “Right now, industrial robots are really good at doing things that need to be done a million times exactly the same,” Silliman said. “But going from enterprise to SMBs [small and medium businesses] is they’re not necessarily as standardized. So making something that works in a dynamic environment is where a lot of our efforts are going.”

The Tend.ai robot therefore relies on a mounted webcam and software that analyses everything it sees. This is translated in to instructions, from hitting the start button to removing prints. The actual motions can be programmed through training, also relying on a shared library of machines and controls embedded in its memory.

But of course an investment round always says a lot about the state of a work-in-progress product, and this successful round is overflowing with confidence. Tend.ai was looking for $2 million, and the very confident True Ventures partner Toni Schneider immediately covered the whole sum. “It has all the elements we look for,” Schneider revealed. “Great team that has worked together before, deep experience, and a really unique, innovative product. I kept talking to people who told me these robots are the future of the industry, but a small business buys one, and then what? This takes something that’s been in use for a while and brings it to a larger user base.” The same investor previously put money into MakerBot and Glowforge.

So what is the current state of Tend.ai? Since the previous June update, the machine’s software has been expanded to incorporate CNC and injection molding machines, which paves the way for a lot more possibilities. Silliman further revealed that their early adopter clients will be official customers by January 1, and hinted about significant interest from the aerospace industry – where 3D printing is increasingly becoming the premier prototyping option.

This $2 million in funding will mostly go towards expanding the startup, including hiring more coders and roboticists. “At this point [money] is primarily going towards development,” Silliman said. But sales will soon head towards the top of the agenda as well. 3D printing, it seems, is rapidly becoming a true manufacturing option.

 

 

Posted in 3D Printer Company

 

 

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