A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Innovation, genius at work as NKy’s Blackwood Labs aims to change world, revolutionize manufacturing

Paul Saleba, Jim Blackwood and Tom Kruer are "having fun changing the world" at Blackwood Labs in Boone County.

Paul Saleba, Jim Blackwood and Tom Kruer are “having fun changing the world” at Blackwood Labs in Boone County. (Photo by Judy Clabes)

By Judy Clabes
NKyTribune editor

Not far off I-75’s Mt. Zion exit, onto Gunpowder Road in Boone County, up a steep private drive then onto a narrow winding gravel path to a nondescript building, you will find Blackwood Labs.

If you were expecting a traditional kind of laboratory, you will be either disappointed or surprised. . .and profoundly curious.

Leave behind your preconceived ideas and step into another dimension.

Genius is at work

If you think that doesn’t happen in a place like Northern Kentucky, think again. The area is replete with innovative start-ups like Bexion Pharmaceuticals, 3DLT and CitiLogics, “Why Not?” people pursuing big ideas at accelerators like bioLOGIC, UpTech, NKU’s Inkubator and College of Informatics, and creative thinkers doing business-not-as-usual like those at BLDG, Braxton Brewery and data company Clear Measures.

Blackwood Labs is awash in innovation, “Why Not?” people, and business-unusual creative thinkers.

The folks here are having a lot of fun changing the world. And enjoying every bit of the boyish “joke’s-on-you” humor in the process. What happens here is comparable to what is coming out of the best research and development labs around the world, sometimes better. Definitely more fun and faster paced.

Blackwoodlabs_NkyTrib_1.16.15_secondary_300Jim Blackwood, the proprietor, develops and builds prototypes for new products – the whole shmear from concepts drawn on napkins to advanced process equipment with thousands of moving parts – for outside clients and for himself. He has spent a lifetime developing his skills, including becoming a patent attorney because he wanted to know how to apply for them. By profession, he’s really a tinkerer. A very skilled, up-the-scale, and creative tinkerer, but tinkerer nonetheless.

He has helped develop revolutionary irrigation devices (cutting water usage by 96 percent); experimental future-concept vehicles (including solar-powered), high-speed sortation equipment, computer hardware/software gee-gaws, and equipment to manufacture ocular lenses – to name a few that neophytes might be able to translate. His friends say that Jim can build just about anything, and his history proves it.

For his latest project, Blackwood has teamed up with a number of other professionals who compliment his skill at prototyping. Together like modern-day “MacGyvers” they are challenging how things are done by looking at them in ways others don’t. In fact, Jim and his associates like to prove that the things everybody says can’t be done actually can.

Then they do it faster too

Their new company, +Mfg, LLC is about to launch a system that will revolutionize manufacturing. All the experts said it couldn’t be done but the joke will be on them, right?

Basically, and this is the engineering 101 explanation, they have developed a 3D printing, or “additive manufacturing”, process and are building advanced machines that will allow manufacturers to build metal parts of any size and shape on the spot. Within minutes.

“What we are doing will make mechanical design and manufacture faster, lighter, stronger, better, safer and more environmentally friendly,” says Blackwood. For example,“parts made on these machines will provide up to 40 percent better gas mileage in an automobile, because of weight reduction and thermal efficiency that can be achieved.”

Their patented process uses proven technology that “doesn’t require a rocket scientist to operate” or maintain, they say. Model shops or builders of race car engines can make one part or 1000 parts for the same marginal costs. And the +Mfg. machines can make one part then add design tweaks for the next incrementally different one just by changing the computer design.

This technology won’t replace a process making a million parts – yet – but it can make faster and less expensively the injection molds and stamping dies used to make the million parts.

Currently 3D printing is directed toward building parts in plastics and metal, is small scale and uses expensive lasers and electronic beams with powdered metal that is a health and safety hazard. It is also very slow and expensive.

No more

These modern-day MacGyvers and their “impossible” invention will change all that.

With the “additive” method, you actually start with nothing and build something up, rather than starting with a piece of something and taking away parts of it to get the shape you want. Thus, way less waste, cost, and cluttering up the environment.

“There are unlimited applications for this method,” Blackwood says. “We haven’t even imagined all the possibilities yet.”

As he and his associates developed the concept, they started with common household items – like stewing pots and cookie sheets. Then, moved to a more sophisticated step, building a prototype of cardboard. That may sound offbeat, but that “CAD” (Cardboard Aided Design) model served to greatly speed the process of getting everyone to understand how the advanced robot for the machine had to be designed.

The design was then turned into a highly accurate computer representation using CAD (Computer Aided Design) software previously used to design aircraft and wheelchairs. These guys obviously know what they are doing.

It was smooth sailing from there to a machine whose 11 different modules, made by 11 different vendors, can be assembled on site by anyone handy with two to three wrenches. This innovative method of assembly and collaboration with vendors has eliminated the need for building a dedicated manufacturing facility.

Their “advisers” are all over the place. They got engineering advice from Fortune 500 companies who became convinced of the possibilities and can benefit from the success of this “impossible” machine. Others, with specific expertise have weighed in as needed, plugging knowledge gaps and contributing to the greater good, all seeing success on the horizon.

“Decentralizing the administrative structure is just another innovation,” said Blackwood.

“We do not intend to build a monument to ourselves. A high tech, expensive building does not align with our main focus of providing service to our customers and changing the world.”

And it gives the whole team a sense of pride of ownership.

As for Blackwood and his team, they are ready to get this transformational machine into the marketplace so they can move on to their next transformational concept.

It will revolutionize the aerospace industry.

Stay tuned.

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