Located in an historic pipe organ factory in the Eastern Mission, Other Machine Company nearly collapsed after the government’s shutdown last year, but on Valentine’s Day, it shipped its first computer controlled mills.
The company started in 2012 as a team within Otherlab, a small tech firm specializing in robotics and alternative energy. Many of Otherlab’s projects are funded by government research grants, and when the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Project Agency was looking for proposals to teach manufacturing in high school, Otherlab was awarded the project. That was a high point.
Danielle Applestone, a former battery engineer and MIT graduate, was hired to run the team, which was spun off as a separate company. They hired their own engineers and staff and spent a year developing computer controlled manufacturing tools for classrooms.
One of their first ideas was a machine that could use a simple X-Acto knife blade to cut complicated shapes out of cardboard, doing the work of an expensive laser cutter for a fraction of the cost. Another idea was a small and easy to use mill – a machine which uses a
drill bit special bit called an “endmill” to cut 3-D models from anything solid.
After a year of testing and development, they hit an unexpected problem. In the winter of 2012-2013, as the government failed to reach a budget agreement, the wide-ranging automatic cuts called “sequestration” went into effect, and Other Machine Company’s grant money, supposed to sustain them for three years, disappeared.
For a time it seemed like the company might vanish. Applestone had to lay off half her staff, some of whom had just left other jobs to join the company. They took consulting work and searched for funding. The design for the X-Acto cutter was put on hold, as the team’s engineers focused on refining the mill.
With money running out and no funding to be found, in May of 2013 Other Machine Company decided on a last effort; they would run a crowd-funding campaign on Kickstarter and try to raise $50,000 dollars to manufacture a few of their computer controlled mills, now christened the OtherMill.
The campaign was a gamble. It specifically appealed to hobbyists and people looking to make custom circuits. While an order of magnitude cheaper than other computer controlled mills, many of which can cost $10,000 or more, the OtherMill was still not a cheap project.
People would have to commit at least $1,000 to a project that might not deliver, but amazingly, hundreds did. At the end of a month, the funding campaign raised over $300,000, and more than 200 orders for an OtherMill.
Over the next seven months, Other Machine Company refined their design and started manufacturing the machines, building many of them at their offices in the Mission, but eventually contracting with another California-based factory once demand outstripped what they could produce in-house. The small mills are assembled by hand, but formed by massive industrial mills in a cycle of robotic reproduction.
This Valentine’s Day, Other Machine Company shipped the first batch of finished mills to the people who supported them in the Kickstarter. Soon they hope to open general sales and “become a real company” says Applestone.
Despite that, Other Machine Company is working to get back to an educational product. Applestone says that everyone who had joined the company was there because they wanted to be providing educational tools to kids, and learning that their mill wouldn’t be in schools was “crushing”.
Still, their success has been reassuring. “When you’re sitting in a lab all day by yourself, you don’t have a lot of feedback, and it’s just a relief to know that people actually want the thing you’ve been working so hard on.”