Nothing says successful manufacturing business like an assembly line humming with activity. But the cliché of constant activity belies the reality of unused capacity. Time is a perishable resource on factory floors, and in addition, as many makers (and frustrated Kickstarter backers) have discovered, access to proper facilities can be an issue in the age of DIY manufacturing. That disconnect between unused factory capacity and smaller concerns clamoring for access led MakeTime founder Drura Parrish to try and find a digital solution to a very analog problem.
"We just want to be the largest U.S. machine shop that anybody has access to," he says.
Based in Lexington, Kentucky, MakeTime is an online marketplace that connect makers with manufacturers, factories and assembly lines, offering up unused production capacity to companies of all scales. The distributed manufacturing concept is a play for flexibility and affordability, according to Parrish, and a way to make American manufacturing more lean, accessible, and efficient, improving the vendor selection process and selling manufacturing capacity in hour increments. It does seem to be filling a gap; since launching last November, MakeTime already has more than 1,000 buyers and sellers in the system and has grown from four to 28 employees.
Capacity at factories has always been thought of in a linear way, according to Parrish, part of a third-generation manufacturing family from Henderson, Kentucky. But with better technology allowing companies to plot out when machining and manufacturing will be in demand, firms can get more out of the massive capital investments they've made in high-tech gear such as CNC milling machines. Companies often treat their smartest pieces of equipment like their dumbest pieces of equipment, he says, but now, they can make extra money renting them out.
"There's a huge, burgeoning world, we call them pro-sumers, of engineers, architects and designers, people who have the dream and ability to make things such as a table or drones," says Parrish. "They're industries in the waiting. On the other hand, you have industry that will penalize a supplier for stopping a production line for just a minute. We're trying to be the bridge between those two, which is difficult. We're operating in a mid-volume place."
Parrish's idea for a shared marketplace came to him during architecture studies in the early 2000's at SCI-Arc in Los Angeles. He spent lots of time in workshops collaborating on school projects, and recalls noticing some of the bigger, more sophisticated pieces of equipment in these facilities always seemed to be standing idle. He began asking to rent out time on these machines for personal projects, eventually contracting small runs of his own work, such as lawnmower parts.
"The machines are digital, and they don't care if you're just an aerospace company," he says. "They're agnostic. You can run anything on them."
Lured back home to Lexington with a job as a Professor at the University of Kentucky, Parrish continued working on part-time projects in local shops, serving as a go-between under the name Parrish Productions and connecting designers with excess machine time. At a certain point in 2014, a friend jokingly asked Parrish, "if he had heard of the internet." Parrish took the hint and started working on what would become the beta version of MakeTime. The company completed a Series A funding round of $2.65 million earlier this year, and has been steadily growing since then, according to Parrish.
MakeTime works like a marketplace, and jobs vary by machine and material. For example, a specialty bike company may need a small number of very specific brake parts; they'll ask for a specific number of hours on a CNC milling machine for a small run. They can either put the request up on MakeTime and negotiate with factories and machine owners making bids for the job, or buy factory time at a fixed rate from suppliers who have posted availability on the site. MakeTime takes a 15 percent fee for the transaction, which comes from the supplier's take.
Parrish says a variety of industries, from automotive and aeronautics to small-time makers, have utilized MakeTime for small runs and last-minute projects (he wouldn't name specific companies due to confidentiality reasons). Parrish's vision for the company, an on-demand virtual factory, would, in his mind, just be a great example of neighbors helping neighbors; manufacturers can find a trusted partner, and small machine shops can book the extra work they need to stay afloat.
"The problem historically has been there's such a degree of complexity in the transaction, that both sides, the makers and the manufacturers, haven't realized they have something each other needs," he says. "Manufacturing has become such a loaded, opaque term. The U.S. economy is driven be manufacturing, but many people don't know how to get their goods manufactured."