It is common for large companies to push code updates dozens or even hundreds of times a day. This speed of iteration is akin to corporate metabolism and varies greatly depending on the industry. Manufacturing time is a huge part of why hardware companies have iteration cycles on the order of weeks to months. Our mission at Plethora is to accelerate the pace of high-quality CNC machining, reducing the iteration time and increasing corporate metabolism for hardware companies. Ultimately, this means that new products like self-driving cars or life-saving surgical robots are delivered faster.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeremy Herrman, co-founder of Plethora. As a leading company in the emerging field of Manufacturing as a Service, Plethora utilizes cutting edge algorithms and AI to automate manufacturing processes, starting with CNC machining. Jeremy co-founded Plethora in 2013 and has since raised over $40M to make advanced manufacturing faster and more accessible to all.
Thank you so much for doing this with us, Jeremy! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
One fortuitous night in the summer of 2008, a new friend popped open the trunk of his car and handed me three strange objects, setting off a chain of events that eventually led to a cross-country career change and the birth of a company.
The first object my future Plethora co-founder, Nick Pinkston, handed me was a complex plastic lattice structure about the size of an apple, whose fragile thin connectors were broken in some places. Nick told me that this part was produced through a type of 3D printing called Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), where plastic filament is melted and precisely deposited, layer by layer, until a finished part emerges, sort of like a computer-controlled glue gun.
The second object was a two-link chain made of strong, translucent plastic links. Although each link was a separate piece, they both were created simultaneously in a single 3D print job thanks to the oldest version of 3D printing called Stereolithography (SLA), where a vat of photosensitive liquid resin is cured to hardness with precision light sources.
The final object was the most impressive — a hollow metal sphere with a hexagonal lattice surface that acted as a cage for a small metal ball within. I noticed there was no hole large enough for anything to get inside of the sphere, so I asked him how that metal ball got in there. His answer was, of course, 3D printing! This time in the form of Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), where a laser fuses small particles of metal powder one layer at a time until the desired shape emerges.
All three of those objects represented designs that are extremely difficult or impossible to produce with traditional manufacturing processes, and that fascinated me. After that encounter, I threw myself into the world of 3D printing, scanning and modeling, which ultimately led me to a career in digital manufacturing.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
When we were first starting Plethora, less than a week after I quit my previous job and before any investment had been raised, my co-founder and I were scheduled to present at a conference and introduce our company to the world and industry leaders. I really wanted to show them the latest capabilities of the alpha version of our software for instant manufacturability feedback, so I stayed up late several nights leading up to the live demonstration programming it. The alpha version wasn’t perfect, but it was able to show our vision in a real way.
During the presentation, about three-quarters of the way through our CAD integration demo, something bad happened: we encountered a glitch and crashed Autodesk Inventor — right in front of Autodesk’s CEO!
Luckily, we had already shown off most of our demo, which was impressive enough to spur a follow-up meeting with Autodesk and which eventually led to a $250K investment in our seed round. We used that money to hire a great team and I’m proud to say that we now have the best instant manufacturability analysis in the industry.
That experience taught me some important lessons. The first is that live demos are usually a bad idea. The second and more important lesson is that waiting until things are perfect can result in missing great opportunities.
Can you tell us about the “Bleeding edge” technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?
Plethora is an industry leader in the automation of CNC machining, a subtractive process where the final part is cut away one chip at a time from a block of metal or plastic, like a computer-controlled sculptor.
Despite many decades of progress in machine and software automation, CNC machining has a dirty secret: creating the machine instructions requires hours to days of manual work from highly-skilled machine programmers. In addition to programming the machines, most parts require custom designed and fabricated support structures known as workholding. The immense amount of effort that goes into producing the first part means most CNC shops have large minimum order quantities, making it difficult for customers who only want to order one or two pieces. At Plethora, we have spent years tackling the toughest problems in subtractive manufacturing with advanced algorithms and AI.
Placing an order for custom machined parts is another big challenge for customers, usually involving emailing files back and forth for days, several phone calls and rejected orders. In order to simplify this process, we’ve created software that can provide instant design feedback and pricing, so clients can upload a 3D model and place an order within seconds. Our goal is to help companies innovate and get to market faster. By designing smarter software and tools to manufacture their parts, we’re enabling them to stay ahead of their competition.
How do you think this might change the world?
My background is in Software Engineering, and in that industry, it is common for large companies to push code updates dozens or even hundreds of times a day. This speed of iteration is akin to corporate metabolism and varies greatly depending on the industry. Manufacturing time is a huge part of why hardware companies have iteration cycles on the order of weeks to months. Our mission at Plethora is to accelerate the pace of high-quality CNC machining, reducing the iteration time and increasing corporate metabolism for hardware companies. Ultimately, this means that new products like self-driving cars or life-saving surgical robots are delivered faster.
Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?
“Black Mirror” does a great job of following existing technologies to their dystopic extreme. These technologies typically have many uses, with the classic dual-use example of nuclear technology for both civilian (nuclear power) and military (nuclear bombs). Artificial Intelligence has been dubbed an “omni-use” technology since it has applications in civilian, military and commercial areas, and there’s no shortage of fear, uncertainty and doubt about the future of AI, some of which “Black Mirror” has already covered. The tools of invention and manufacturing are also omni-use technologies, and the controversial example of 3D printed guns has shown us a glimpse of what’s possible when anyone can make anything easily.
While I think it’s essential to consider the downsides of omni-use technology and discourage misuse through certain regulations, we can’t accept the status quo with our current generation of manufacturing technology. In a way, we’re living our own episode of “Black Mirror” now where the powers to invent are limited to the rich and educated, and even those who have that ability are presented with persistent roadblocks on the path to a final product. I want that to change!
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?
My entry point into the world of traditional manufacturing was a bit backward compared to most people: I got my start with 3D printing then learned about how older subtractive processes like CNC machining work. When I was taking my first CNC machining course at TechShop, I expected it to be a similar workflow to 3D printing because both use 3D models as input and machine instruction code as the output.
As our class came to the point of converting the 3D model to machine instructions, I realized that we weren’t in for a push-button experience like in 3D printing. It turned out that it takes many hours using expensive CAM software to program those machine instructions by hand. Additionally, the program’s success is not guaranteed — it’s common to need several iterations that result in hours of wasted time and costly material. It was obvious that this process could be vastly improved with new software, which led to the ideas that helped form Plethora.
What do you think will lead this technology to widespread adoption?
The pace of innovation is unending. Our customers are always looking for ways to stay ahead of the competition. One way is to decrease the cycle time for product iterations so that they can either introduce the product faster than others can or create a better product in the same amount of time. Since manufacturing time significantly impacts product iteration time, I expect any technology reducing that time is destined for widespread adoption.
What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?
Many of our customers are in highly-skilled fields like product design and mechanical engineering. Any outreach to these expert groups must be on point, useful and not tone deaf. As such, we strive to create content that’s educational, informative and ties into our manufacturing service. These posts and how-to articles can come through a variety of channels including blog posts, email newsletters, and paid advertisements. Topics range from different material characteristics to part design for manufacturability guides and more.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
The path to success is never a straight line, and there’s no better way to see all of the ups and downs than to start a company. I’ve been blessed with a fantastic support group over the years including an unflappable co-founder, astute investors, and a tremendous team at Plethora. Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my soon-to-be wife, Amanda, who has been my rock and inspiration over the past two years.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
At Plethora, we sponsor various community events and groups that align with our desire to help everyone invent. We supplied tools for Science Hack Day to help kids and adults make the future in one non-stop weekend and sponsor local high school robotics teams for the FIRST Robotics Competition.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Don’t expect customers to change their workflow, even if yours is better.
- When we first opened our manufacturing service to the public, we didn’t accept 2D dimension drawings that typically accompany 3D models. In our minds, customers should embed that dimension data directly on the 3D models — a more modern convention that is at the heart of Industry 4.0’s “digital twins” concept. Since digital twins is still a nascent technology, requiring customers to add that data to the 3D model is a step too far out of their standard workflow. We now accept standard 2D drawings and are working to make it easier for customers to call out critical dimensions in 3D as well.
- Embrace specialization, especially if you’re a generalist.
- Startup founders have to wear so many hats: fundraiser, leader, programmer, mentor, supervisor and janitor, just to name a few. Being a generalist is an asset when a company is just getting started, but it doesn’t scale for long. By the time a generalist realizes he or she needs a specialist to take over one of their roles, it’s usually late enough that some damage has already been done. Pay attention to where generalization is slowing your business down and hire a specialist to help you scale to the next level.
- Buy good libraries; build great products.
- Scrappiness is key to surviving the early days of starting a company. We originally relied on several free and open source libraries for geometry processing, which seemed like a great alternative to paying expensive licensing fees for industry standard libraries. We encountered bugs and issues with the free alternatives, which wouldn’t be a problem except for the lack of official support from the project maintainers — support that we were willing to pay for but wasn’t available. We quickly moved to industry standard libraries with fantastic support teams, and the additional speed gained from not hunting down bugs has more than paid for the licensing fees incurred.
- For better or worse, what you allow will continue.
- Company culture thrives or dives based on the actions that are encouraged or discouraged. When bad behavior is tolerated, it sends an unspoken message to the entire team that this behavior is acceptable and part of the culture. It’s never easy to give negative feedback to a teammate, but it is essential maintenance for a positive, inclusive culture.
- Companies are like Soylent Green: They’re made of people!
- Even with the best technology, investors, and advisors, a company can face huge problems without a fierce dedication to individuals and everything that goes into supporting them. Hiring a People Ops leader early on can help retain key talent and save many headaches later on.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I am passionate about making the tools of invention more accessible. Technology is making its way to “the next billion users”, presenting a huge opportunity to help people around the world create their own inventions that make an impact in their communities. Inventors in Nigeria use locally sourced components to create power inverters that connect to car batteries for automatic backup power during the frequent outages. Women in India encourages better health practices by inventing a sanitary pad dispenser that can be built using 3D printers.
To reach more of this emerging demographic, software tools of invention must be cheap or free, something unheard of among the multi-thousand dollar price tags typically found in the CAD and manufacturing software industry. These high prices are due to the complexity of the programs, as well as the licensing costs of the software frameworks that act as building blocks.
I would love to see high-quality, open source alternatives to these industry frameworks in the areas of geometry kernels, constraint solvers, and multiphysics simulation kernels. By making these building blocks open source and free, a new generation of tools can reach the next billion inventors.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. You can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.
Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.” — Steve Jobs
I think the heart of what Jobs was saying is that the main barriers of invention are vision and perseverance — not intelligence. If you have an idea, you can manifest it into reality and even help others through it. Make no mistake: vision and perseverance are neither given nor easy. When tools of invention are more accessible, people can focus more on the vision and less on the barriers.
Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
Think beyond 3D printing. Digital manufacturing is a large and diverse ecosystem of many different manufacturing processes and machines. Each process has specialized advantages, as well as varying levels of automation in both instruction preparation (e.g. programming) and operation (e.g. robotic machine tending). Currently, 3D printing leads the pack with fully automated instruction preparation, and many older processes like sheet metal bending require hours or days of programming. There is a huge opportunity to help usher in the next era of digital manufacturing and make older processes as easy as 3D printing, like what Plethora is doing for CNC machining.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jherrm
Follow Plethora on Twitter: @plethora
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.