Techtonic 2018

The Future Of Design

Ethereal Machines’ 5-axis 3D printer could alter the face of conventional manufacturing

At first glance, Ethereal Machines seems to be just another start-up: it was founded in a garage in India’s start-up capital Bengaluru by two engineers fresh out of college. Dig deeper and the story reveals different hues. Unlike most Indian start-ups, which take the services route, Ethereal Machines, co-founded by Kaushik Mudda and Navin Jain, is in the manufacturing space. And, in less than four years, the two have made a mark internationally for their innovative thinking. At the prestigious Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2018 in Las Vegas, Ethereal Machines won the Best of Innovation award in the 3D printing category. It is also the first Indian company to ever win this award in any category.

The CES website defines its innovation awards as “honouring outstanding design and engineering in consumer technology products,” and describes Ethereal’s ‘Halo’ as “the world’s first consumer-oriented 5-axis FDM (fused deposition modeling) 3D printer and 5-axis computer numerical control (CNC) router which is designed to bring about a metamorphosis to the world of manufacturing and kick-off the concept of hybrid manufacturing.”

The start-up’s journey from a 250 sq ft space where Mudda and Jain did everything — from sweeping the floor to designing, building and selling their first machine, a 3-axis CNC router — to making it to the international stage makes for an interesting story. But first, what exactly is their Halo all about?

The duo, both 25-years-old, gives a quick primer: manufacturing is mainly of two kinds: subtractive (cutting) and additive (also known as 3D printing). Typically, these two functions are done by two different machines, and the world over, most subtractive and all additive manufacturing is done on 3-axis: X, Y and Z. Ethereal’s Halo, on the other hand, has two unique features. One, it has combined the two functions of subtractive and additive manufacturing into a single machine. Two, it has 5-axis capabilities for both these functions, which allow for more design flexibility, complex parts, and greater part strength.

In a conventional 3D printer, the head moves from layer to layer, depositing a thin amount of extruded plastic, essentially breaking the object into flat slices and then printing those — this means that designs can be severely constrained. But with 5-axis movement, the printer bed moves and the head comes in at very different angles, enabling a completely new kind of printing. “[With FDM] if you put enough force on the Z-axis, it’s going to break. That’s the biggest disadvantage of FDM printing, that’s why 5-axis is important. So imagine something like a concave-shaped cap — it’s impossible to make it with a regular 3D printer because you would need to build a lot of fillers and supports. But with a 5-axis, since the bed itself is moving, it gives me the freedom to print whatever kind of structure I want. A cylinder with fan blades — how do you do that with a regular 3D printer?” explains Mudda.

He adds that the concept of hybrid manufacturing at desktop scale and 5-axis for 3D printing FDM technology are global firsts from Ethereal. While large subtractive manufacturing machines are presently available in 5-axis, Halo has managed to bring that capability to a desktop scale.

Halo, priced at Rs.1.5 million, already has its first buyer — Indian Institute of Technology, Hyderabad. Enquiries are pouring in, says Mudda, from diverse industries such as medical prototyping, jewellery manufacturing, aluminum die manufacturing, injection moulding and so on. Ethereal has also entered into research collaboration with the University of Sheffield in the UK to explore how Halo can be used to disrupt manufacturing processes in the aerospace industry. About 60% of the manufacturing is done in-house with some parts being outsourced to vendors, and the entire machine is then assembled in-house. In majority of the cases, machines are built after receiving an advance from the clients and the company has managed to deliver the machines within the stipulated time of 30-45 days. Its customers can not only save 45-60% on machine costs, but also 30-50% while building prototypes. “Our target is to sell 150 Halo machines by March 2019,” says Mudda. The company is looking to sign onboard eight distributors for the product and the game plan is to penetrate the geographical territory of each distributor by equipping them with vertical-specific applications. They will also assist them with participating in trade shows to increase visibility and create awareness about the product. But Ethereal, Mudda emphasises, is not just about selling machines. “Our mission is to create entrepreneurs. We want to help people set up their own business by using our world-class, affordable machines,” he says. Ethereal itself has been profitable from the day they sold the first machine, he adds. The company expects to clock revenue of around Rs.160 million and profit of Rs.30 million by the end of FY19.

The early days

The start-up, which now has a 20-member strong team comprising electrical engineers, software developers, coders, mechanical analysts, designers, assembly people and others, works out of a 3,500 sq ft space in the heart of the city, and has its roots at the RV College of Engineering in Bengaluru. Jain and Mudda were classmates studying electronics and communications. Both were passionate about building things such as drones and hovercrafts and were continuously at it. They would make these by buying off-the-shelf parts or improvising somehow. But every time they wanted to try out new designs they had conceived or improve the quality of what they were building, they would get stuck. “What we needed was a CNC router. But these were typically imported, bulky (around 8x4 ft), and very expensive (Rs.800,000 to Rs.2.5 million upwards),” says Jain.

In October 2013, when they were still in their seventh semester, Mudda and Jain decided to make a CNC router on their own — one that would suit their pocket and also be small in size. Their friends gave them the much-needed space and the two of them put their minds to work. The first two months were spent on just understanding what parts and materials were required and how and where to source them from. While Mudda is tight-lipped about how much the prototype cost them, he says it was funded by the Rs.100,000 that he had saved from several college debating prize money.

By March 2014, Mudda and Jain succeeded in designing and building a desktop 3-axis CNC router that could etch, carve and engrave on various materials such as wood, marble, granite and plastic. It was a first of its kind machine at its size and price point. “Till then, subtractive machines were being made only for big players who could afford the big machines. No one had thought of the market for a smaller machine. We were able to make it cost-effective by modifying the design, using local components, creating our own circuit boards, fabricating and building all parts of the entire machine by ourselves,” says Mudda.

Having identified a gap in the market and found a solution for it, taking it to the market seemed the next logical step. Mudda and Jain reached out to whomever they thought would find their machine useful — people in the signage business, manufacturers of furniture, toys, high-precision machinery and many other segments. But convincing potential buyers to put their money on an indigenous machine conceived and built by two students proved to be a herculean task. They met with 63 rejections before they got their first order in June 2014. This was from Satinder Singh of Ludhiana. Singh’s family had earlier been in the business of engraving on marble; they used to do it manually with a chisel. Singh wanted to continue this line of work but by using technology. “Our USP was the price of Rs.350,000 and the 4x4 ft size. We convinced him of the quality by showing him samples of alphabets engraved by our machine on broken marble pieces that we had procured from a local dealer,” recalls Mudda.

With this breakthrough, their path became easier. By March 2015, they had sold five machines and started building their team. The following year they managed to sell 12 machines. “As we kept working on the machine, our knowledge grew and so did our confidence,” says Jain. Ethereal’s clients included SLN Designing Solutions (wood carving and signage), RK Jindal (trophies and novelty items), NS Glass Planet (custom work in the glass industry), IKP Knowledge Park (start-up incubator for biotech, health care, hardware, software) and the Lalbhai Group’s composites division (fibre-reinforced plastic structures).

Vikraman Venu, head of the Bengaluru facility of IKP Knowledge Park, says Ethereal’s is one of the most used machines at IKP Bengaluru that currently has around 40 start-ups. “We could have imported a CNC router but it would have cost us a lot more,” he adds. Mohal Lalbhai, executive director at Lalbhai Composite Solutions, says: “We had looked at other companies before placing an order with Ethereal for their 3-axis CNC machine. I don’t think there is anything else even remotely close to what they had to offer in terms of cost and quality.”

Lalbhai was so impressed with Mudda and Navin’s ambition of breaking barriers, that he decided to invest in the company in his individual capacity, and in October 2016, came on board as a director. “During our discussions, Navin spoke about wanting to move beyond the 3-axis machine and build a low-cost desktop 5-axis CNC. They also wanted to get into 3D printing, an area I am very interested in. Looking at the tenacity and enthusiasm of Kaushik and Navin, I thought they had a fair shot of delivering whatever they put their minds to,” says Lalbhai, who himself is an engineer in materials science and engineering.

Reaching higher

With Lalbhai’s support, Mudda and Jain got ready to take Ethereal to the next level. They stopped selling their 3-axis subtractive machine, told prospective buyers that they were off the market, expanded their team, and went completely underground. “To succeed in the two new areas we had identified, we required people from different specialties. And given the complexity of what we were trying to achieve, we decided to cut ourselves off from the world and give it our undivided attention,” explains Mudda.

Having already mastered the 3-axis subtractive, it was relatively simple for them to build the 3-axis 3D printing machine, but the 5-axis desktop subtractive proved to be a huge challenge. “At one point we thought that it just wouldn’t happen. It required expertise in too many areas. It was like holding 20 strings together,” recalls Jain. But the duo persisted and within a few months, through multiple attempts, trial and error, building and breaking, they finally managed to get it right.

Soon after that, Mudda and Jain had what they call a ‘eureka moment.’ They decided to stretch further and build a desktop 5-axis 3D printer, again something that was not available globally. “We had learnt how to make a 5-axis subtractive and a 3-axis 3D additive. We felt that to make 3D printing stronger and more meaningful, a 5-axis additive machine was the way to go,” says Mudda. They cracked this in May of 2017.

Mudda’s ambition, however, did not end here. When Lalbhai suggested to Mudda and Jain that they participate in the Best of Innovation awards at CES 2018, Mudda decided that if they were to participate in the competition, they must have something absolutely unique — a machine that had both subtractive and additive capabilities. Jain and Lalbhai bought into the idea and it was game on. Over the next three months, the entire team, including Lalbhai, worked almost non-stop on building this new hybrid technology with, as Jain put it, “no references to look at, nobody to guide them, no sources to turn to.” Like with their earlier efforts, they were relentless till they finally got it right.

Even as the co-founders are basking in the glory of their achievements, they know they have a lot of challenges ahead. They have to bring in further improvements in their machines, ensure standardisation, introduce quality control measures, build the brand and the organisation, raise funds, and so on. In the meantime, they are working on the next milestone — a concrete-laying 3D printer. The cost of these machines for a small work area of 4x4x7 ft will be in the range of Rs.1.5-1.7 million. The additional cost incurred by the clients will be with regards to the mix on which development is underway and the product shall be launched once the testing of materials has been completed. Existing machines enable larger area of printing and aren’t entirely portable. One of the initial uses of this is likely to be for the construction of toilets across India as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Mudda and Jain have another ambitious target in mind: to make 3D printing as easy as regular printing. “Anyone should be able to use 3D printers intuitively,” they say.