Seattle startup Modica turns shipping containers into software-driven microfactories
Watching stacks of shipping containers come and go from Seattle’s waterfront, you might wonder what’s in them, where they came from and where they’re headed. One Seattle startup isn’t filling the brightly colored boxes with merchandise and is instead using containers to house microfactories that can churn out products anywhere in the world.
About Modica: Launched in 2018 and based in Seattle’s SoDo neighborhood, Modica builds factory-as-a-service modules. Founder and CEO William Gibbs has worked in aerospace, food processing and general factory automation and robotics. He previously ran and then sold a small systems integration firm called Corvus and Columba.
Systems integration is basically the building of factories, where a company determines what product you need to make, which robots to use, conveyors, custom tooling and more. Modica is adapting modular construction technologies and generative design techniques to the way entire factories are built, in order to build them faster and prevent shortages like many experienced early in the pandemic.
Tech HQ recently called the microfactory “the next big thing in manufacturing,” enabling the setup of small-to-medium scale, highly automated, technologically advanced manufacturing possessing a wide range of processes.
What’s in a name? Modica takes its name from the word modicum, which means a small portion of something. Gibbs says Modica is “many small things repeated many times. It plays into what we do — we modify shipping containers so the ‘mod’ part makes sense.”
Why shipping containers? Gibbs said the modular form factor can be parallelized and pre-built and then brought together. They start with containers because they’re compatible with global logistics and you can get one virtually anywhere and send one virtually anywhere.
“If you’re making small devices, most of the equipment you’d use would fit in a container,” Gibbs said. “It also turns out to the extent that factories aren’t completely automated, there’s still people in factories. The container can actually modify into a workspace. You can join them together and stack them and make human workspaces.”
Example of current business: Containerization of existing business processes include Modica’s work with a metal supplier that does short runs of metal — small amounts of sticks of metal that are cut and packaged. They usually operate out of big warehouses and Modica can create a micro-warehouse that has a subset of their full inventory.
“The value that’s added is you can get your production, or at least your microfulfillment, closer to the use centers,” Gibbs said. He also foresees the ability to locate a microfactory closer to a disaster zone for quicker production of necessary goods.
Cost: The range is huge for Modica’s services because it depends on what’s going inside the container. A very basic container modification, with a single 3D printer sitting in it, for example, might be about $8,000. It goes up from there, depending on what it is you want. The sky’s the limit for a tightly integrated, full spectrum of automation with custom parts.
High-tech restroom connection: When Amazon made news earlier this month because its delivery drivers were admitting that they had to resort to urinating in bottles because they couldn’t find the time to use public restrooms, Modica’s name came up in talks of a solution. The company is actually building connected units for Washington, D.C.-based Throne, whose high-tech restrooms rely on an app that reserves and unlocks a free-standing restroom.
“As we ramp up production, we’re actually designing microfactories that will be making these entire Throne units,” Gibbs said. “So it’s really a kind of an eating-our-own-dog-food sort of experience so far. We just shipped some of the early units. There will be many, many more.”
Funding: Modica was mostly bootstrapped until being accepted into the STANLEY + Techstars accelerator program focused on AI in advanced manufacturing. Demo day for the accelerator was Thursday.
Team: Modica employs seven people currently and plans to double that headcount this year. Peter Biddle, an early Microsoft employee who spent almost 17 years at the software giant, joined as a co-founder in 2019.
Last word: “I really couldn’t describe Modica without mentioning both the hardware and the software,” Gibbs said. “We don’t just want to hang our hat on the shipping container. It just turns out that it’s one of our form factors that the software design tool we use can work with, to help modularize and do this systems integration. They really go hand in hand and the concept would be kind of incomplete without both.”