The only U.S. company to be awarded the World Economic Forum’s Manufacturing Lighthouse status so far, Chicago-based Fast Radius is deploying a suite of M4.0 technologies to help pioneer a new kind of manufacturing business model for the future.
“The challenge in the industry today is helping companies that have been designing and making things using legacy methods for a long time to understand how they can convert to the new technologies and learn what’s possible and what it means to their business.”
Lou Rassey, Co-Founder and CEO, Fast Radius
When the World Economic Forum (WEF) identified nine showcase smart factories to launch its global “Manufacturing Lighthouse” network late last year as beacons of technology and innovation in manufacturing that are successfully embracing the industrial transition to a 4.0 world, only one of them was in the U.S. – an innovative start up in Chicago called Fast Radius. Now the WEF has extended its Lighthouse network to 16 companies around the world, nine are in Europe, five in China, and one in Saudi Arabia. Fast Radius is still the only U.S. site.
Founded four years ago, Fast Radius focuses on driving rapid innovation for major industrial organizations using advanced additive manufacturing techniques supported by digital design tools, real-time analytics, an end-to-end digital thread, and a close distribution partnership with UPS that includes a dedicated Fast Radius production node at the main UPS global HQ in Louisville to ensure swift delivery of its output both nationally and worldwide.
In our latest Dialogue with a manufacturing industry leader, Fast Radius Co-Founder and CEO Lou Rassey, whose career has been inspired by his family’s long-standing manufacturing tradition, talks to Manufacturing Leadership Executive Editor Paul Tate about embracing digital design and manufacturing technologies to bring innovative products to market faster than ever before, the opportunities to rethink supply chain models in an M4.0 world, using digital tools to inspire the next wave of creative manufacturing talent, and why the industry needs to embrace digital technologies and new business models to help make the world a better place for the future.
Q: What excites you most about your role at Fast Radius?
A: We have a deep belief in the importance of manufacturing, not just for the things that it makes, but for the things that it makes possible in the world. What we mean by that is, manufacturers are not just making cars and cell phones and satellites. But we’re making the world more connected. We’re making the world healthier. We’re feeding and powering the world with the things that we make. Now we have these new tools of digital design and additive manufacturing that allow us to design and make new things possible, again, to advance the human condition. So absolutely, with that purpose behind us and guiding us, I’m excited to hop out of bed every morning.
Q: What challenges keep you awake at night?
A: I think the challenge in the industry today is helping companies that have been designing and making things using legacy methods for a long time, to understand how they can convert to the new technologies and learn what’s possible and what it means to their business. We spend a lot of time thinking about how we can help our customers build their understanding and awareness of what these new tools can mean and help them to on-board them.
I think the second challenge for us as a company, is that we want to move very quickly. These technologies are advancing mercurially. There are new materials or new improvements that come out in the industry all the time and we want to make sure we keep pace, and help our customers keep pace, with those innovations. The combination of these two things is on our mind every day.
Q: There’s a lot of talk today about manufacturing becoming increasingly more digital, often called Manufacturing 4.0. What’s your view of this trend?
A: I think we’re in the very early days. There’s certainly cause for great excitement about the value it can bring to global manufacturing because of the ability to design new products with performance and economics that are significantly better than legacy technologies allow. There’s also a positive impact if you look at the efficiency of global supply chains, the ability to produce more proximate to customer demands, to simplify supply chains, and to reduce the waste in supply chains. That creates exciting opportunities for all parts of the global manufacturing system, for both established economies and emerging economies alike.
I’d also add that if we look out over the next decade, there’s a forecast of a doubling of the consumption of products on the planet with another two billion people coming into the consuming class. We need to develop ways to meet that demand efficiently and responsibly. We need to design and make things better, more efficiently, more sustainably. That’s a major force that we see at play that is now pulling new innovations into the manufacturing economy. The world needs this new wave of manufacturing.
“We have a deep belief in the importance of manufacturing, not just for the things that it makes, but for the things that it makes possible in the world.”
Q: Why do you think the World Economic Forum has chosen Fast Radius as the only U.S. Manufacturing Lighthouse site so far?
A: I think what they’re looking for in the Lighthouse program are companies that have embraced Industry 4.0 technologies and are employing them for very tangible business impact at scale. From the ground up, we built our business and our strategy around driving tangible impact for customers. We embraced additive manufacturing technologies and powerful digital design and simulation tools on the front end to help them make new products.
We have also designed a “first of its kind” standard, repeatable, reliable software operating system for our factory that allows companies to embrace additive manufacturing at industrial-grade levels of quality. That’s quite unique. For the last 30 years additive has principally been a prototyping tool. Now the technology has matured to the point where the materials and the performance of the products that you can make can rival legacy production methods from injection molding or other traditional techniques. The economics are also now increasingly attractive for many products.
The software operating system that we’ve created takes a customer’s design and creates a digital thread through every step of the manufacturing process, all the way through fulfilment. It allows us to gather data at every step along that digital thread, analyze it, and learn from every part that we make so that we can get better each time and use those lessons as we continue to serve our customers.
In addition to the data platform that we’ve put in place, we’ve also embraced a number of new production tools in the factory, including advanced automation, collaborative robotics, and tools of digital metrology where we’re able to scan a part, compare that part to the design intent, include that information in a digital thread and have that on record as the part goes out into the field.
So, it’s not the deployment of just one 4.0 technology, but it is how we have embraced a full suite of Industry 4.0 technologies into an integrated operating system that allows companies to use additive manufacturing for real industrial applications.
Q: What’s involved in being a WEF Manufacturing Lighthouse site? Is there an obligation to share the lessons you’ve learnt with other manufacturing companies?
A: Yes. We really compliment the World Economic Forum for putting the Lighthouse initiative together. We think it is important to global manufacturing for these lessons to be shared. It’s already happening in a number of ways, like regional meetings and opportunities for other manufacturing companies to come and visit the different Lighthouses in the network. It includes creating write-ups and sharing some of the lessons that can be distributed digitally to people who don’t have the opportunity to visit the Lighthouse sites first-hand. There’s a range of other tactics that the Forum will be rolling out in the coming years. The idea is for this network to continue to grow and expand, and for the mechanisms to share insights to continue to mature. It’s still early days, but we are thrilled to be a part of it.
And independently of the events organized by the World Economic Forum, we are also excited to have companies come here to Fast Radius to learn what we’re doing and to share their perspectives on how these technologies may be relevant to their own businesses. On any given day, we have companies here that are working with us and building partnerships to see how we can bring additive manufacturing and digital manufacturing to their businesses at scale. We have an open invitation for any companies who are excited to learn and understand, to reach out to us. We’re excited to be helpful to them.
Q: How does the distribution partnership with UPS fit into the Fast Radius business strategy?
A: Right now, we have two nodes in our production network: Chicago and Louisville. Our Louisville node is located at UPS’ North America headquarters. It allows us to produce parts late in the evening and get them anywhere in North America the following morning, and around the world the next day. Over the next several years, we will be building a global network of these nodes.
Our strategy here embraces the lessons from other new manufacturing platforms that have been introduced over time, particularly if we look at semiconductors as an example, where Intel has embraced the Copy Exactly operating system. They designed a standard process (a standard node) and they can then copy that exactly to scale. As part of our operating system, we’re creating these replicable nodes of production here in Chicago, which is our launch facility. We are locking in everything from the flow of the material, the layout of the equipment, the tools that we use along the way, and then we can copy and paste those exactly into a global network where we can produce proximate to end customer demand.
All of those nodes will be complimentary to each other and all of them will be digitally connected through our operating system. It creates the first of its kind in a global digital manufacturing network. Over the course of the next three years, we’ll be deploying a global footprint.
Q: Do you see this kind of collaborative, localized supply-side partnership becoming more common in the future?
A: If you look at what’s happening in manufacturing, the lines are blurring between how we used to think about manufacturing and supply chain. We look at additive manufacturing, effectively, as adding a new supply solution. We describe it as the Fourth Modality of Logistics. What we mean by that is, throughout human history, we have moved parts around the world in three ways – by ground, by air, and by sea. Now we have a new way of moving parts through the Internet at the speed of light. That is a profound transformation for how the world can think about manufacturing supply chains. UPS shares our vision, and they share our vision for creating this global network of reliable nodes in production that can allow the Fourth Modality of Logistics to come to fruition.
We also have something called a Virtual Warehouse at Fast Radius where companies can store parts with us, virtually, in the cloud, and we make them on-demand. So, instead of having a warehouse full of parts, we can migrate this to a virtual inventory. That offers meaningful improvement when you look at the cost and efficiency of supply chains. Of course, not all parts are going to go into our Virtual Warehouse. There’s still a need for physical supply chain solutions, so we’ve teamed up with UPS where we can offer companies a combination of both digital and physical warehousing and supply chain solutions.
Q: Do you see today’s demand drivers also moving towards more highly customized products?
A: There is the opportunity today to create products tailored for an individual, whether that’s in pharmaceutical manufacturing in the lab, or in consumer products, using technologies like additive manufacturing. We’re working with companies across multiple sectors to think about how to bring that level of mass customization into their business strategies and product offerings. That is very much one of the ways that Industry 4.0 can bring new value to manufacturing companies.
We see even more immediate opportunities in small batch customization where it may not be for a single consumer, but it may be in units of a thousand, or units of 500. Specialty runs can be created where the economics of additive allow companies to experiment and to create. Tooling up with injection molding may not make sense if you only made 500 or 5,000 of a particular product variant. But with additive manufacturing, you don’t have that up-front expense, so you can experiment with smaller lot product offerings.
Related to this is another very tangible economic driver behind Industry 4.0 and that is the speed of innovation, regardless of volume. We recently worked with Steelcase where we went through a hundred different design concepts and dozens of completed and produced parts for a new chair. We landed on a new design in eight weeks. That would have taken 18 months using legacy practices and more traditional methods of design and fabrication. So, that’s another very tangible benefit that these tools are bringing to manufacturing, increasing the speed of innovation.
Q: How are you deploying data analytics and new artificial intelligence technologies as part of the Fast Radius production process?
A: Much of what is employed today is big data. We are gathering data across each step of the manufacturing process, as well as using the digital metrology tools we have put in place and running more traditional big data analytics on them. But we are also investing in AI and machine learning under the leadership of our Chief Scientist, Bill King, in a way that we think over the next few years will create a meaningful advantage by employing those technologies to look at different parts, different designs, and identify insights about opportunities for additive manufacturing and new design ideas.
One of our key areas of focus today is on generative design, using computational engineering to really optimize the design of different structures. We’re doing a lot of that work now. It allows engineers to create designs that they otherwise would not be able to achieve by exploring organic structures and lattice architectures that can be optimized for weight, strength, thermal properties or vibration dampening properties. One of the really exciting things about what additive manufacturing unlocks in partnership with today’s digital design tools is that engineers can now create new structures, geometries, and materials with particular performance characteristics by using an entirely new toolbox.
Another area where we’re employing data analytics and AI approaches is in production monitoring and metrology where we can look at the end product that is created, understand in very fine detail how that end product compares to the design intent, how different features may be trending over time, and tying that data back to the factory. I think there’s real opportunity in the world of digital metrology and production optimization by connecting those dots across the digital thread.
“We designed our business and our strategy around driving tangible impact by embracing additive manufacturing technologies and powerful digital design and digital simulation tools.”
Q: What would you highlight as the greatest business challenges and opportunities for the manufacturing industry over the next 5 years?
A: I think most companies are now recognizing that embracing new Industry 4.0 technologies is important for the future competitiveness of their business, but few have really figured out what it means to them and what they need to do. So, there is a great opportunity today for those companies to prepare themselves to compete in the next era of global manufacturing. If we look at companies like Johnson & Johnson, who’ve been around for over a hundred years, they’re making real investments in a suite of Industry 4.0 technologies right now.
But it requires leadership from senior levels, backed by investment and resources and time and talent, and the ability to take some risks, to explore how some of these new technologies can help design, and make, and fulfill products differently.
There are examples of companies that are making this shift happen and embracing new technologies today. But it’s a challenge because it requires them to think and act differently for the future.
Q: What new skills will leaders need to succeed in this fast-changing, digitally-driven future?
A: A couple of the common success factors that the World Economic Forum has highlighted, and also that we’ve seen just in our own experience, is a willingness to look outside of your own walls for what’s happening, to learn and realize that the best ideas may be outside of the boundaries of your legacy business or your legacy supply chain. The second key factor is the willingness to take some risks and experiment and to make investments behind the new technologies to bring them into the flow of the business.
Q: What other key factors do you feel will determine the future of manufacturing?
A: One thing we’ve not talked about is talent. There is an opportunity for manufacturing to really capture the imagination of young professionals today in a way that it did generations ago. When young engineers see what is now possible and what the next era of design and manufacturing can look like, it is inspiring by any measure. We need to continue to put emphasis on helping young professionals and students to understand both the importance and the value of the next area of manufacturing.
For example, we recently hosted an organization called MakerGirl at Fast Radius. This is an organization that tries to introduce science and technology, engineering, and math to young girls. 20 young girls came to the factory and had a digital design experience and worked to design and produce a product that they had imagined, which we printed for them over the course of a few hours. They had an introduction to the world of digital design and manufacturing that allowed them to bring their ideas to life in the same day. It is just an incredibly powerful and inspiring thing to see.
I think this is another reason to be really excited as more talent and more passion comes back into the manufacturing space again, as we’ve seen in other eras. This should give us all cause for great excitement about what is to come.
Q: Finally, if you had to focus on one thing as a watchword for the future of manufacturing, what would that be?
A: Possibility. It’s the core of Fast Radius. We are driven to make new things possible to advance the human condition. We believe that these new tools, and digital design, and Manufacturing Industry 4.0, allow us to make fundamentally new things possible to advance the human condition. That’s inspiring. That’s noble. That’s worthy of all of our efforts and pursuit. M
Fast Radius, Chicago, Ill.
FACT FILE: Fast Radius
Location: Chicago, Ill.
Business Sector: Additive Manufacturing
Revenues: N/A (Privately-Held Company)
Net Income: N/A (Privately-Held Company)
People: 50 Employees
Market Presence: U.S.
Production: 2 U.S. Production Sites
EXECUTIVE PROFILE: Lou Rassey
Title: Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer
Education: Bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, University of Notre Dame; Master’s degree in engineering management, University of Michigan-Dearborn; Master’s degree in mechanical engineering, MIT; M.B.A., MIT-Sloan School of Management.
Previous Roles Include:
Industry Roles and Awards:
- Fellow, Leaders for Manufacturing, MIT
- World Economic Forum, Manufacturing Lighthouse Award