Custom metal casting is a multi billion per year business in the United States. A 5% market share would give the company revenues in the order of hundreds of millions of dollars. The foundry business (the business of casting metal parts) is a trillion-dollar global industry. In the United States, foundries do more than $120 billion annually. Metal casting is one of the few industries left in the world that has not been highly affected by computerized processes. Soligen's technological advances are the first high-technology paradigm shift in casting applications to enter the foundry industry. The company has been able to reduce the time and cost involved in building and testing prototype engine blocks, cylinder heads, manifolds and other metal parts by several orders of magnitude--literally reducing the parts delivery time frame from 6-9 months to as fast as 10-15 days. The company's machines have successfully built, directly from CAD files, everything from functional engine blocks to golf club heads. Furthermore, parts made directly from CAD via Soligen's machines are often more accurate, i.e., closer tolerances and overall dimensions, than those made by conventional prototyping techniques.
Soligen concentrated primarily on automotive prototype parts at first, because management believes that establishing a foothold among automakers is the quickest path to establishing a large, enduring franchising program for its technology.
Soligen's technology has the potential to literally change the entire industrial process, enabling much more rapid product evolutions than were possible just a few years ago. The winning car of the 1998 Daytona 500 utilized an intake manifold made at Soligen's facilities from metal tools rapidly created by Soligenšs equipment. The company's machines literally make possible the production of parts--previously conceivable only in the minds of engineers and scientists--that could not be fabricated due to the complexity of their inner cavities and geometry.
Custom metal casting is only the first stage of Soligen's business model. The company intends to launch a program to joint venture with foundries in the high volume metal casting production business, with Soligen making the production tools (steel molds capable of producing thousands of parts) directly from CAD files. For example, an engine vendor recently contracted with Soligen for the production of thousands of complex marine exhaust manifolds first prototyped in a Soligen machine just a few months earlier. With Soligen's technology the production tools of this manifold were quickly produced and launched at a mass production foundry working in a joint venture project with Soligen. The result was a significantly reduced cycle time of prototype to production -- a process that would normally take 6-18 months was accomplished in a matter of weeks.
By first establishing the value of its proprietary technology, and making its use a "routine" practice, management believes that production engineers will request steel tools made by the same process in order to shave months or years from the metal parts development cycle. Management believes that by causing this reduction in Time-to-Market, Soligen will become the premier maker of these complex high quality steel production tools, thereby being in a position to select and establish joint ventures with foundries for the mass production of automotive parts. (It is important to note that the company's unique tool making process is still in the development stage and substantial work remains to resolve all technical issues.)
Soligen believes that once a manufacturer or parts developer realizes the benefits of the paradigm shift Soligen offers, they will never leave it. The company's business plan calls for evolving its prototyping business into parts production contracts with the dozens of automotive manufacturers already on its client rolls. It hopes to do this as a logical evolution of its prototyping process by fabricating the production tools (steel molds) required to mass-produce thousands of parts after the Soligen-created prototype is successful. Soligen has demonstrated its ability to create these expensive and difficult production tools using the same process it uses to make its functional metal prototypes. This leverage (adding production tools and production contracts), when successful, has the potential to expand Soligen's revenues dramatically. Instead of only producing prototype and short runs of metal parts, the company plans to also produce the metal molds that will produce many thousands of complex parts.
Borrowing a design aesthetic for industrial function from nature is just the beginning. The living world will also become part of our industrial infrastructure. Nature has already discovered how to fabricate materials and to finesse chemistry in ways that are the envy of human engineers and chemists. Many companies, both established and start-up, are now focusing on harvesting enzymes from organisms in the environment for use in industrial processes.
Popular examples of high-strength materials fabricated by biology at low temperature, pressure, and energy cost are spider silk and abalone shell. Yet increased resource efficiency and biomaterials are only the first steps in a revolution in manufacturing. Beyond using biology as a model for the structure and function of industrial production, the year 2050 will see humans using biology as the means of production itself.
Whereas most manufacturing today is highly centralized and materials are transported long distances throughout the assembly process, in the year 2050 human industry will use distributed and renewable manufacturing based upon biology. Renewable manufacturing means that biology will be used to produce many of the physical things we use every day.
In early implementation, the organism of choice is likely to be yeast or a bacterium. The physical infrastructure for this type of manufacturing is inherently flexible: it is essentially the vats, pumps, and fluid-handling capacity found in any brewery. Production runs for different products would involve seeding a vat with a yeast strain containing the appropriate genetic instructions and then providing raw materials.
To be sure, there will always be applications and environments in which biological fabrication is not the best option, and it is not clear how complex the fabrication task can be, but biology is capable of fabrication feats impossible for any current or envisioned human technology to emulate. In some ways, this scheme sounds a bit like Eric Drexler's nanotechnological assemblers, except that we already have functional nanotechnology--it's called biology.
Also see Intentional Biology Homepage - By Intentional Biology we mean a rational and, as possible, controlled human interaction with the living world. This requires an ability to observe what is happening in biological systems, an ability to understand what we observe, and an ability to affect biological systems based upon our understanding. An intentional biology will allow humans to leverage the existing molecular infrastructure and cellular architecture to produce food, energy, and materials with greater efficiency than is currently possible.
Manufactured products are made from atoms. The properties of those products depend on how those atoms are arranged. If we rearrange the atoms in coal we can make diamond. If we rearrange the atoms in sand (and add a few other trace elements) we can make computer chips. If we rearrange the atoms in dirt, water and air we can make potatoes. Today's manufacturing methods are very crude at the molecular level. Casting, grinding, milling and even lithography move atoms in great thundering statistical herds. It's like trying to make things out of LEGO blocks with boxing gloves on your hands. Yes, you can push the LEGO blocks into great heaps and pile them up, but you can't really snap them together the way you'd like. In the future, nanotechnology will let us take off the boxing gloves. We'll be able to snap together the fundamental building blocks of nature easily, inexpensively and in almost any arrangement that we desire. This will be essential if we are to continue the revolution in computer hardware beyond about the next decade, and will also let us fabricate an entire new generation of products that are cleaner, stronger, lighter, and more precise.