As one of the most far-reaching categories on our Most Innovative Companies list, the companies that make up our manufacturing list are addressing some of the biggest problems facing society. From manufacturing a better vial to carry COVID-19 vaccines in, to devising a biodegradable packaging, to offering on-demand fabrication that reduces waste, these companies are creating a better world by rethinking the ways we create product.
1. SiO2 Materials Science
For applying an impossibly thin layer of glass to vials in order to deliver the COVID-19 vaccines
The race to distribute COVID-19 vaccines had an unexpected hang-up: a shortage of glass vials to deliver them in. That’s why last summer Operation Warp Speed invested $143 million in SiO2 Materials Science, which uses plasma technology to create a microscopic layer of medical-grade glass inside plastic vials. The advantages are numerous: Plastic is light, durable, and quick to produce, while the glass layer keeps the vial airtight. “We went from doing maybe 10 million vials a year to 10 million vials a month,” says chief business officer Lawrence Ganti, achieving a scale in 90 days that would take glass companies 18 to 24 months.
For detecting defects quickly
Instrumental pairs cameras installed on manufacturing lines with AI to instantly detect problems in physical products (from missing screws in wearables to glue degradation in circuit boards) and pinpoint where they are happening. In 2020 the company introduced Discover AI, a machine learning solution that can pinpoint issues after analyzing just 30 product units, allowing companies to make fixes sooner and cut down on waste. The company estimates that on average, Discover AI reduces “regrettable scrap” by 40%. The platform also allows designers to evaluate products and detect defects remotely, cutting down the need for engineers and designers to evaluate products in person and speeding up resolution times.
For manufacturing custom lighting on demand at its massive 3D printing farm
In early 2020, lighting company Gantri released a line of beautiful floor, wall, and table lamps made in partnership with design firm Ammunition. The seamless, 3D-printed lights were lauded for their chic design and affordability—but the project also demonstrated why Gantri is poised to shake up the lighting industry. The company opened a massive factory in San Leandro, California, with 1,500 3D printers (more than any other single location in the world). It rolled out several hardware and software innovations including Dancer, a proprietary machine that prints four times as fast as its competitors, and Gantri Plant Polymers, the world’s first plant-based PLA (polylactic acid) plastic that can be used for lighting products (which reduces carbon emissions 75% per kilo). The farm will allow independent designers to print lamps in complex shapes (including cylinders, spheres, and asymmetrical designs) on demand.
4. Arris Composites
For inventing Additive Molding, a process for mass producing high-strength, lightweight composite materials quickly, cheaply, and sustainably
Introduced in 2020, Arris Composites‘ Additive Molding technology combines additive manufacturing (aka 3D printing) with molding techniques to make parts that are stronger, lighter, and cheaper than metal. The process significantly cuts down on the cost of super-strong carbon fiber products (traditionally only available to performance applications like the aerospace and automotive industries), and can be produced on a mass scale.
For optimizing COVID-19 nasal swabs using digital design techniques and 3D printing
Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, digital manufacturing platform Carbon partnered with Resolution Medical to design and launch a better nasal swab for testing in just three weeks.The Lattice Swab is a flexible, hollow cage structure with a smooth exterior that allows for comfortable and efficient specimen collection. The highly intricate swabs were put through clinical studies with experts at institutions including Stanford Medicine and Harvard teaching hospitals, and were deemed effective—and applauded by patients and healthcare workers for their comfort and ease of use. Resolution Medical now has capacity to print more than 1 million swabs per week, using Carbon’s printers.
For swapping out plastic for abundant and eco-friendly calcium carbonate in packaging
Okeanos‘s Made From Stone updates environmentally taxing single-use packaging by mixing in calcium carbonate, a naturally abundant, renewable resource. The pellets of finely ground stone can be integrated into most existing packaging manufacturers’ production lines, and Okeanos’s latest iteration can replace 50% to 80% of the plastic in packaging with calcium carbonate. The company estimates that increasing the amount of calcium carbonate in wrappers, chips bags, and other throwaway staples reduces degradation times from hundreds of years to months.
7. Ford Motor Co.
For revving up PPE and ventilator production with its assembly know-how
As the world shut down, Ford revved up its assembly lines to design and manufacturing essential PPE including masks and ventilators (which the company designed in-house in just one day after tapping its air-conditioning experts). By Thanksgiving, the company had made 87 million masks, 50,000 ventilators, and 20 million face shields. The company has pledged to reinvest all PPE profits back into COVID-19 products and distribution, and is still accepting requests for mask and PPE donations.
For cutting metal affordably, on demand
SendCutSend opens up the world of metal cutting and fabrication to hobbyists and small scale entrepreneurs. In a play to provide more accessible service than traditional metal fabrication vendors, which only take orders in mass quantities, SendCutSend is a cloud-based manufacturing company that provides design software and cuts metal and aerospace materials on demand. In 2020, the company revamped its software for faster processing and better project tracking, increasing order accuracy to 99.4% and reducing manufacturing time to just 58 minutes per product, on average. The company estimates that revenue more than quintupled in 2020.
For 3D printing metal for aerospace, aviation, semiconductors, and more
In 2020, metal additive manufacturing company Velo3D continued to innovate in the burgeoning space. Known for providing printers to SpaceX, Velo3D released Sapphire, the tallest metal laser-powder printer on the market. The company also worked with Honeywell Aerospace to qualify the printers to manufacture parts for aircraft, and began working with Lam Research to print semiconductors.
For simplifying furniture assembly with a slide-and-lock system
Lockdowel specializes in slide-to-lock and snap-lock fasteners for wood furniture, which make assembly as easy as clicking two latches into place—a system that’s estimated to reduce assembly cost and time by 60%. In 2020, the company rolled out two more specialized fasteners, and signed on a major U.S. office furniture manufacturer.