#DigitalSkeptic's 5 Most Disruptive Desktop Manufacturing Tools

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Small investors are figuring out that manufacturing is getting a lot like them: small, yet interesting.

It's not news that large tool manufacturers are scrambling for a foothold in a new world of smaller, leaner, more automated top-end manufacturing systems. High-end builders such as Oxnard, Calif.-based Haas Automation; Rochester, N.Y.-based Gleason; and Portland-based Small Parts Manufacturing are turning out a new generation of smart mills, lathes and cutters.

And at least based on what I've seen in the past few months, these tools make what Vinnie Martino of American Chopper fame use look like high school metal shop.

Bob Bechtold, founder and president of Harbec, an Ontario, N.Y., high-end prototype tool and injection plastic maker, told me that he predicts a red-hot revolution in smaller manufacturing tools that can be excellent bets for smaller, crowdfund-savvy backers. Bechtold even has a hip brand name for the idea: The "Toolmaker Movement." And it includes a new generation of 3-D printers from the likes of Stratasys, 3-D Systems and Germany's Voxeljet.

To get a feel for how frothy the smaller fab device space is, check out the QU-BD One Up made by Little Rock, Ark., entrepreneur Chelsea Thompson. Right now on Kickstarter she has fetched north of $226,540 on a $9,000 goal for nothing more than a pretty simple 3-D printer that happens to cost less than $200.

And after three months of speaking with designers, manufacturers and investors, the QU-BD is most definitely not the only opportunity shaping up in crowdfunded manufacturing tools.

"The future will belong to the environmentally sustainable integration of all the parts of the production process by skilled product makers and craftspeople," Bechtel said emphatically."The dumb production line will no longer dominate."

Here are my picks for hot fab tools that should be winners in this new world manufacturing order.

Medium Machinery: Medium Duty Benchtop Plastic Injection Molding Machine
Price:
$2,850 from Medium Machinery website

Investors looking at playing the sky-high valuations of 3-D printer stocks such as Stratasys should take note: These tools are not the most important idea coming to the desktop toolmaker revolution."Most things are made of plastic. And most of those are injected into a mold," company founder Levon Fiore said. "I felt that making that injection process more efficient and affordable would be a significant advantage."

What Fiore has done is cleverly combine off-the-shelf parts into an injection molding system the size of a small fridge. The unit heats, then pressurizes tiny bits of different types of generic plastic. Then it injects them over and over into metal molds cut to the shape of needed parts to produce inventory. For sure, the basics of creating quality products still rely on the old-school skills of smooth, properly dimensioned molds, built so machinists can handle them. But done right, Medium Machinery gear offers roughly 60% of the functionality of industrial grade injection machines -- at one-tenth(!) the price.

Fiore, who has a patent pending on his process, is exploring reselling opportunities and developing more powerful models as demand increases. Meaning the smart money should start injecting itself into plastic mold injection soon.

PocketNC 5 Axis Desktop CNC Milling Machine
Price:
Approximately $3,500. Due on Kickstarter in January

If there is a sweeter couple in high tech than the husband-wife team of Michelle and Matt Hertel, I have not met them. Either way, this machinist and mechanical engineer couple has made one sweet investor opportunity: a legit five-axis mill that can cut high-quality parts and molds.

"We started out making a simple three-axis machine. But pretty quick Matt came home and said, 'Michelle, you are not going to be happy, But I think we need to make a five-axis machine,'" Michelle said. "Anybody who wants to make something cut out of metal won't have to spend a fortune at a machine shop to make a quality part."

Their PocketNC, now in prototype stage, bakes in high-quality features such as a dead accurate linear car and rail system and the ability to exactly repeat parts over and over. The Martells say they are creating five production master machines over the next few months, and a full Kickstarter campaign is set for early January.

The business proposition here is astounding: For way less than then the cost of a used car, a combined PocketNC and Medium Machinery injection molder can give rapid prototyping and light manufacturing to really anybody who wants it.

That's the kind of system that will do more than make parts. It will make money.

Hyrel "System 30" 3-D Printer
Price:
$3,995, Now in pre-order

Dan Hutchison is my kind of industrial tool maker. "We don't ship junk," he told me adamantly over the phone.

Hutchison has built his Alpharetta, Ga.-based Hyrel by providing out-of-the-box, ready-to-work rapid prototyping tools for a demanding professional clientele. And his System 30 3-D printer has the potential to bring near-top-flight, professional-grade additive manufacturing to even relatively small businesses.

Investors should know that Hutchison already has solid social fundraising street cred. His first 3-D printer raised $152,942 on a $50,000 goal on Kickstarter last year. And his System 30 takes that ethic to industrial-grade printers. It features a built-in computer controller, plug-and-play electronics and the ability to change printer heads.

"The changeable heads will let you print in clay, nylon, porcelain and many other materials," he said.

Make no mistake, Hyrel is taking direct aim at top-end industrial additive manufacturing with his machines, which cost one-tenth the price. And the plan, Hutchison says, is to access crowdfunded capital for a more powerful device early next year.

"I expect that the capability of these machines will only increase," he said. "The systems are built to be upgraded."

Pensa Labs DIWire Bender
Price:
TBA. In pre-order.

Marco Perry shows the world just how easy it is make things that make other things.

Perry is founder of Pensa, a Brooklyn industrial design shop with design credits that include Playtex, OXO, Samsung and many others. And he stumbled across the idea for his new DIWire Bender as he was trying to designing products.

"We were in the process of creating a series of long, thin kitchen products, and what you see is 3-D printers can print up tubular shapes like glasses or silverware," he said. "But it takes forever, costs a lot and it does not behave the way a bent object does."

So Perry and his team began bending basic tubular iron, stainless, brass and other materials using off-the-shelf machine components. They built a rough bender prototype and quickly realized a full model was within reach. So the DIWire Bender, now in preorder, was born.

The bender is expected to find a lucrative niche with model makers, design shops and small industrial applications. But the tool also shows how rapidly even relatively inexperienced manufacturers can create sophisticated manufacturing systems.

"I see this as the beginning of a generation of quick-to-market tools that enable a whole range of production capabilities," Perry said. "Bending is just the start."

Meaning that just as in software, whatever niches exist in hardware probably won't last long. Timing will be key in desktop fab systems.

Tempo Automation Electronics Factory
Price:
TBA -- "Certainly less than $10,000"

Leave it to a philosophy major to come up with a desktop manufacturing tool that has an utterly different take on fabbing pricey circuit boards. But that's what University of Pennsylvania grad Jeff McAlvay has created.

His "Electronics Factory" really does automate the once-insanely expensive process of assembling finicky, solid-state circuit boards into a machine that costs less than a nice canoe.

"The idea is to streamline the painstaking process of putting tiny capacitors and other pieces of circuits in their exact right spot on a board using an easy-to-control, small robot," McAlvay explained.

At least based on a demo I got last month, McAlvay is clearly onto something. With the use of basic computer software and enough engineering smarts to create a circuit, his Electronics Factory indeed does build high-quality electronics at crazy low prices, with almost no human effort.

For sure, McAlvay's brainchild faces real challenges. He is trying to automate a terribly complex process with many variables, and electronics are never treated lightly in the real world. But he plans to spin up a next-generation prototype by the end of the year and is expected to push out a fully funded model by midyear 2014.

That means the launch of the Electronics Factory may be rocky, but easy-to-construct smart electronics is such deep investor notion, that it is worth waiting for.

This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.

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