By Eric Peterson | Feb 27, 2020
San Francisco, California
Prototyping and machine shop setup
Industry: Contract Manufacturing
Products: Prototyping and machine shop setup
After graduating from the Colorado School of Mines, O'Griffin cut his teeth designing museum exhibits at the Exploratorium in San Francisco in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
With that design and fabrication experience under his belt, he launched APROE (short for Advanced Prototype Engineering and pronounced "ay-pro-ee") in 2006, but quickly found he had more to learn. "Exploratorium design doesn't really sell well to tech and other industries," says O'Griffin.
That led him to take a job at Google-funded Makani Power. O'Griffin helped the kite-based, wind energy startup get off the ground. "I helped them build their machine shop," he says. "I kept my business going in the background."
That experience led to a niche of machine shop setup at APROE, which became O'Griffin's full-time focus in 2010. The company now offers help with layout, equipment sourcing, and training. "We started with small makerspaces," says O'Griffin. "We're working currently on large R&D laboratories."
One flagship project is the multi-million-dollar machine shop at AutodeskTechnology Center at Pier 9 in San Francisco. The shop at the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator is another. Same goes for one at New Lab in Brooklyn, along with machine shops in R&D labs at Google and Facebook.
Education and training "is typically the last phase of a shop setup project," says O'Griffin. It makes sense for large companies to use APROE in this regard, as it's typically a one-time need.
APROE's customer base for its prototyping and product development services is diverse, and that's by design. "We try to spread it around to automation and factory equipment and product prototyping," says O'Griffin.
Past projects have included coffee processing equipment, self-driving vehicles, and kiosks for BART. The common thread? Complexity. With automation clients, "We would solve a problem and they would bring us new challenges," says O'Griffin. Another common type of client is "a VC-funded company that's got one challenge, and they're not repeat customers."
Operating out of a 4,500-square-foot shop in SFMade's Manufacturing Foundry at 150 Hopper, APROE is capable of low-volume manufacturing. O'Griffin points to Robomart, maker of autonomous "mobile mini-marts" in Milpitas, as one example. "We built a really cool vehicle for them from scratch," he says, and also cites product development work with Otherlab in San Francisco and Spark Grills in Boulder, Colorado.
A current top-secret project for "a big tech client" involves manufacturing 1,000 units of a new device with the help of a network of local contract manufacturers. "It's complex and pretty expensive," he says of the soon-to-be-unveiled product.
The balance of prototyping and machine shop setup business "fluctuates pretty wildly from year to year," says O'Griffin. "It's really hard to forecast which one's going to be popular."
Regardless, the model of having two distinct business areas has proven a good hedge, he adds. "That's one reason why we're still in business -- because we have multiple companies in one," says O'Griffin. "There's a lot of crossover between engineering and shop setup."
Challenges: "The hardest thing for me is advertising," says O'Griffin. "Finding a way to get the words out and find new clients is my current task." Some paid ads generated "zero hits," leading him to back off of that strategy. "There aren't any magazine or trade shows that are specific enough for what we do," he says. "It's all been word of mouth."
Opportunities: "I feel we're at the pinnacle of the shop setup universe," says O'Griffin. "I'd love to bring the prototyping division into a similar standing, but it's more difficult to do that." The big constraint, he notes, is the ongoing need for investment in cutting-edge equipment.
He sees a possible opportunity to do more contract manufacturing, but the variable order volumes are challenging. "We've tried to offer parts fab services," he says. "Because of the fluctuating work amounts, it's hard to keep someone on."
Needs: "We're in a pretty good spot," says O'Griffin. On the wish list: "We're trying to save up for a waterjet cutter. It's a great first-stage prototyping tool."