Earlier this year in May, Markforged announced an all-new AI-powered platform for manufacturing and inspection systems. Blacksmith has been dubbed "an autopilot for manufacturing," because it has a continuous feedback loop which means what comes out of a 3D printer is learnt from.
"For the last hundred years, machines have been unaware of what they're creating and would happily waste millions of dollars producing out-of-spec parts. We’re going to fix that by connecting the machines that make parts, and the ones that inspect them, with a powerful AI,” says Greg Mark, CEO of Markforged. “Much like the way Tesla is building autopilot for cars, we are building an autopilot for manufacturing.”
Smarter With Every Part
Blacksmith is an ambitious and bold attempt to automate and enhance the repeatability of parts on the manufacturing line. For now, it is in pilot mode with a few select users, designed to accommodate metal 3D printing with the Markforged Metal X.
Each time something is 3D printed, the AI learns from it. "It learns more about printing, about sintering, about shrinking, about sliding on the plate, about deprivation of metal, because it’s running through an AI," says Mark.
What this means for the future of manufacturing in this particular application is simple: part inspection will be enhanced beyond the capability of humans, together with part repeatability. What this means plainly is manufacturers being able to get things right the first time. This reduces waste, slashes costs and results in immense efficiency improvements.
Next-Generation Metal 3D Printing
Mark says when Blacksmith is finally rolled out on the factory floor, the AI will be learning at the rate of all machines combined because the AI will be linked across a network of machines. Real-time information will be shared and computed and stored to assure equal learning.
The opportunities for this technology are immense. "Take your pick," says Mark, "Fortune 100, military, it doesn’t matter. When they buy printers and start using them, they have some expert in additive, but when they want to roll it out further, they’re limited by ‘I don’t have the people who know how to use it. You print a wrench and get the wrong wrench; they don’t know how to fix it. We automate that. It’s like taking a bad-ass application engineer, putting them in the cloud so they’re automatically moving the handles around, and it’s super easy-to-use.”
The most immediate benefit of Blacksmith is a solution to the challenge of sintering metal parts without distorting them. Sintering distorts metal parts because the powder can heat and cool unevenly. Blacksmith will solve the issue by learning over time, to continuously improve manufacturing output.
Markforged has estimated that within a year of going live, Blacksmith will surpass the design and inspection capabilities of mechanical engineers, including his own.
To accelerate the development of it, Markforged has recently expanded operations by opening a new office in Kendall Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Cambridge Innovation Center will solely work on the development of Blacksmith.
A Vision For The Future of Manufacturing
Blacksmith has the potential to make factories more efficient, accelerate time to market, and drastically cut the cost of production from prototype to end-use.
It revolutionises the newest technologies for metal 3D printing, but it won't just be limited to metal 3D printing in the future. It can in theory also be applied to plastic and composite 3D printing, opening up a whole new world of manufacturing applications.
But for now, it's all about metal, and it can't come soon enough for an industry dominated by machines that are unaware of what they are making.
“You have Henry Ford and the car, the steering wheel, the pedals. Fast forward 120 years later, my car has got the same steering wheels and the pedals, and I still have to drive it,” Greg Mark, CEO of Markforged, analogises, “My co-founder has this beautiful Tesla P100D, it’s so awesome, and you hit the button and it sees the cars around him, it spins the pedals, it does the whole thing, and it drives. And every six months it gets better at driving, and in a handful of years, he’s not going to have to touch the wheel at all. We’re doing that for factories.”
A beautiful vision, Mark, and one we'd also love to see come true.