Q&A | Adithya Menon, Department X

Salt Flats Blog

At Salt Flats, our purpose is to make businesses smarter and faster, while helping turn new ideas into business innovations. Our members are the forward-thinking leaders who understand that the best way to prepare for the future is to create the future. 

We’re excited to introduce you to our Salt Flats team, who come from diverse backgrounds, are experienced in disruption, and have the expertise to collaborate with you to build your company. This week, we’ll hear from Adithya Menon, an emerging leader in providing design, prototyping and testing services for corporate clients and start-ups. 

Q: What’s your background? 

Born and raised in Malaysia, I grew up knowing I wanted to be an engineer. I actively pursued my passion and came to the United States to study and find opportunities to become an engineer. I graduated from the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in 2016 with my Bachelor’s in Mechanical Engineering and my Master’s in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. 

Q: Tell us about some career highlights.

My first engineering job was with a start-up, VG SmartGlass, designing, fabricating and prototyping different kinds of mechanical systems that can be used with VG’s proprietary film. After working there for a year and a half, VG went through funding issues. The CEO and I started doing design and engineering consulting work on the side to keep the lights on. 

Meanwhile, we founded ST Labs, with the main goal of offering prototyping as a service to entrepreneurs, startups and corporations. There seemed to be a clear need for such a service, with the number of business incubators, startup accelerators and ideation spaces increasing in the Chicago area. People are having more and more innovative ideas but need an outlet to explore them. These innovators and inventors don’t necessarily have the engineering background or finances to build a prototype that validates the idea and use case. ST Labs’s goal was to offer quick prototypes at a low cost to accelerate the innovation that is happening here. In July 2017, ST Labs prototyping service was acquired by Salt Flats with me leading the prototyping division, Department X.

Q: What are the major benefits of rapid prototyping? 

The advancements in digital manufacturing processes such as additive manufacturing, laser cutting, and CNC machining have enabled quick turnaround times to prove whether an idea can be turned into a product. For startups and entrepreneurs, speed is imperative. Rapid prototyping accelerates the timeline for someone to develop a minimum viable product. Having a functional prototype increases one’s value proposition and provides valuable feedback from the market, which increases the chance of getting funded. 

Q: Explain the process at Salt Flats. 

At Salt Flats, we have access to the latest digital fabrication machines. Combining this with traditional machines like manual mills, lathes, conventional woodworking and metalworking tools, we have the ability to literally build anything. Having an office at IIT also gives us a talent pool to recruit from when we receive a project that requires a certain skill set that our core team lacks. 

When we receive a project, the first step is to clearly outline and document the client’s needs. Once the idea is determined viable to build, we form a team of industrial designers, mechanical, electrical and software engineers. A proposal is created outlining our approach and breaking down the project into phases. The first phase is the design phase, followed by creating a bill of materials and identifying sources, fabricating and assembling, testing, and finally deploying the prototype to be tested in an environment it was envisioned for. This is our end to end prototyping as a service approach. ]

Q: What rapid prototyping trends do you see emerging in 2018?

Technology is increasing at an exponential rate according to Ray Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns. New technologies are enabling us to develop newer technologies. People are coming up with new ideas to simplify or elevate their life, finding innovative solutions to solve complex problems, forming new ideas that lay the groundwork for the next breakthrough technology. These ideas need to be transformed into something workable, the first step being a prototype. Corporate prototyping divisions are plagued by delays and long lead times, forcing them to explore alternate paths to get a prototype made. Serial entrepreneurs are always coming up with new ideas and need a prototype made without needing to hire a full time engineer or buy expensive equipment. In order for these ideas to be validated, tested and into the market, rapid prototyping as a service offering allows innovation to progress and technology to continue advancing at an exponential rate, which is exactly what you’ll find at Salt Flats Innovation House. 

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