Saturday, 31 December 2011

Solidoodle ships

You know how everyone loves to watch YouTube clips of excited owners of brand new gadgets, opening the box and unwrapping the wonders within, such as iPads, iPhones and other exotic technology, well: here is an example of one proud owner's experience opening the box of a brand new Solidoodle 3D hobby printer.

"A nice box showed up at my door earlier this week — a long expected Solidoodle" -- Renaissance Engineer

Laura Hall of Solidoodle was in touch via email and told me that the Solidoodle was: "In a nutshell: FULLY assembled, build size 4x4x4 in a box that's 10x10x10, and $700."

The start-up claims that Solidoodle is the least expensive fully assembled 3D printer on the market. "Considering the next least expensive fully assembled printer out there is $1400 (Botmill), we are excited to be creating one for literally half the price."

Click here for a specification of the Solidoodle

Sam Cervantes, founder of Solidoodle, envisages every tinkering dad, every artist, every child, and everyone non-technically oriented person to unleash their creativity using the Solidoodle. "No waiting anxiously for your designed part to come in the mail, and no epic sign-up process to get to a big machine in a university fab lab.  Take it out of the box already calibrated, plug it in, feed in the filament, and start printing.  Easy."  It's a vision that seems to be increasingly shared with other 3D hobby printer start-ups.

How many RepRap inspired hobby 3D printers do we need? I have no idea, but for a device that is intended to be a kind of Universal Object Printer, the community are sure spawning a lot of different variations. Recently for example, PrintrBot used crowd-funding to kick start its business with $830,827 making and delivering calibrated and assembled 3D printers inspired by the RepRap resources.

PrintrBot target $25,000 achieve $830,827 crowd sourced funding to kick start their business

3D hobby printer start-up PrintrBot have used KickStarter to crowd source seed funding for their venture. Their modest goal was to raise $25,000, a sum which would hardly be noticed in the portfolio of most venture capitalists (VC). Yet that figure is actually quite large for crowd sourced funding if one looks at the typical projects that the funding platform, KickStarter, was set up to support. And that is that makes this story even more surprising, because PrintrBot overshot their target by more than 3000%, achieving pledges of $830,827 from 1808 backers. That's an average of $459  per backer, which is itself an interesting figure being about 1/3 or 1/2 the price of a typical hobby 3D printer on the market today. For example, a MakerBot 'Thing-O-Matic' ships for just over $1000. (no final pricing has been announced for PrintrBot to my knowledge)

The Kickstarter outreach project was originally announced to the RepRap collective/community as being the smallest, simplest, cheapest RepRap 3D printer in the world. There must be a lot of 3D printer enthusiasts eyeing what PrintrBot have achieved here with some envy.

Another interesting aspect of this story is a trend I am seeing more and more where the incubation, ideation and initial design phases of a start up are shared with the community using blogs, Wikis and social media to source ideas and guidance from the community and foster a sense of joint ownership and commitment to the outcome. Raspberry-Pi, for example, a ARM GNU/Linux box with a tiny footprint and unbelievable target price of $25, has been sharing its development process from the get-go. Given PrintrBot's amazing funding achievement on KickStarter perhaps I underestimate the power of communities to contribute in this way, but a few questions immediately come to mind.

$830,837 is a hell of a lot of cash! Would the community fund a second, or third or fourth, 3D printer start-up with so much gusto?

How will others feel when their efforts are not funded so generously? Does this not jar with the principles of the open source hardware movement?

PrintrBot is a spin-off of RepRap whose goals are to provide a free 3D printer to a wide community and to share design improvements that emerge from the community as modified 3D models which could themselves be 3D printed for free (if you owned or had access to a RepRap printer and a suitable length of plastic filament.)  How many RepRap spin-off 3D hobby printer start-ups does the world need? How sustainable is an approach that relies on crowd sourced funding?

There is nothing new about communities pulling together to fund important projects, and this has nothing to do with the Internet or with 3D printing. When parents pool their resources to buy new computers for their school they are supporting their community. They are not, however, doing so to create a commercial venture.

Wikipedia points out there are questions about the legality of taking money from 'investors' without offering any of the security demanded by legitimate investment vehicles. Sites such as ArtistShare, KickStarter and Pledgemusic therefore have a failsafe: They hold funds in an escrow account. If the nominated target is not reached, all funds are returned to the backers. That's all well and good, but it does not resolve questions of the obligation a commercial venture has to the original community from which it leveraged both intellectual property and funding in order to kick start its venture. In that sense, what are PrintrBot's achievements?

PrintrBot owner, Brook Dunn, claims that his design "does away with the finicky calibration and adjustment from which most 3D printers suffer". So the company is bringing in new innovation in that regard. And Dunn's team appears to be expanding. Using the funds they now have pledged, Laine, Alex, Carl, Brook and Brain are planning to set up a bot farm, a kind of 3D printing production line for 3D printers!

Is this a business, or an experiment? The main idea is to build a simpler 3D printer. They used that idea to crowd source the funding? For what purpose?

The PrintrBot Kickstarter page lists what it will do with the cash. If you pledged $1 you will receive a thank you on the PrintrBot website. For $5 you'll receive a personalized thank you card. For $89 you get a "Full set of printed parts to build a Printrbot - just add hardware". For $232 you get a "Bare Bones Kit: Printed parts, bearings, rods, belts, bolts, nuts, including an assembled extruder. (no motors, electronics, or hot end)." For $499 you get "Everything you need in one box to assemble a Printrbot Lasercut ("LC") and start 3D printing." And so the list goes on.

I'm confused. This looks just like a list of advance orders for PrintrBot parts and kits. Won't all the cash be spent shipping out a slew of early orders? How much is genuine investment?

In the Kickstarter round of funding for PrintrBot there were 1808 backers. That's 1808 orders PrintrBot now have to fulfill? Will PrintrBot be able to fulfill all these pledges? And is this really what seed funding is best used for? Replication for commercial success is not the same as innovation. Or does that just happen along the way as the ride continues?

In the world of Venture Capital, $830,827 is a very respectable seed or even Series-A funding round. Those investments would not be regarded, however, as advance orders from end users. VC funding would be used for product development and/or marketing. The Venture Capitalist would bring expertise and resources to the business. A Venture Fund is a partnership between the start-up and the expertise needed to grow the business. That's not something you can get from crowd sourced funding mechanisms such as KickStarter.

Long before PrintrBot decided to use Kickstarter, the founders already knew they could build a 3D hobby printer, after all, RepRap and others had showed the way. What PrintrBot did not know was whether they could sell such kits to consumers. And they faced a common problem in any assembly business of needing funding to source the component parts before any kit or assembled product could be sold.

Crowd sourcing has given PrintrBot a way to avoid investing its own resources. It leveraged the community to fund its own supply chain and simultaneously to validate its market through a batch of initial orders. Nothing wrong in that, but here's the rub: Fulfilling those pre-orders and meeting 1808 pledged obligations is likely to become an all consuming task for PrintrBot. Will it detract from the innovation they need if they are to flourish by distinguishing themselves in the market?

I am not convinced that crowd-funding is a terribly good way to fund a 3D printing start-up business. Even if it works out for PrintrBot, it is unlikely to be repeated. To my eye, innovative 3D printer start-ups should be looking to work with established and resource rich VCs who are able to distinguish between experiments and long term business opportunities. VCs use the rigor of the market and analysis of trends to determine the appropriate level of funding at each point in the development of the business.

I am not a VC nor do I have any links to VCs or commercial interests in any aspect of 3D printing. I am however passionate about the potential. I feel that rather than leveraging the community to crowd source funds for a small number of 3D printer start-ups like PrintrBot or other RepRap spin-offs, I believe that the RepRap Community itself could use crowd-funding to sustain its forward momentum to the benefit of all. For example, what could RepRap do with $830,827? I would put the focus on crowd sourcing the ideas for spending that money, if it were available to the community.

Like parents choosing to buy computers for schools, crowd-funding seems more suitable for community decisions than it does for commercial enterprises. But what do you think? If you are a member of the RepRap community, or work in or around a 3D printing start-up, please add your comments below. I am genuinely interested in understanding the views of the community on how best to avoid a possible rash of poorly equipped RepRap spin-offs many of which may fail to stall beyond the initial orders they receive.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Buildatron and the Alpha One Labs hacker collective in NYC Brooklyn

PCMag has posted a comprehensive behind the scenes look at yet another 3D Printer start-up Buildatron.

Like me, PCMag see parallels with the early hobbyist computer industry of the late 70s and early 80s. However, PCMag is going to have to be careful to scale back hype and claims that 3D printers can print themselves. Some simple parts perhaps, but certainly not all and certainly not the important ones. That future is a long way off.

Today, the only parts a hobby 3D printer can print of itself are a few basic plastic components that are used to join various far more important parts together. Indeed, I don't think the vision of 3D printers printing themselves is even that important to the future of 3D printing.

Buildatron hangs out in hacker space called Alpha One Labs in Brooklyn. A lot of these hacker collectives are popping up all over the world. Another, also in Brooklyn, is called the NYCResister, and was founded by Bre Pettis, also founder of MakerBot Industries.

Hacker collectives are important to the 'maker culture' - epitomized by magazines such as MakeZine - because they let individuals share expensive tools and exchange the knowledge and physical experiences of working in the world of real ("made") things, and not just the rather more ephemeral "digital" world.

Out best wishes to Buildatron and to all the other 3D Printer startups listed in this blog. There is no doubt that some will move beyond maker experiments and become a permanent fixture of the coming 3D print revolution. Is there a 3D Print "Dell" out there?

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie 3D Printed Toy Car

This tiny 3D printed car was printed on the Objet Eden 3D printer and scaled down from 4cm in length to a tiny 1cm in length. Even in the tiniest car, the wheels remain fully functional and there is no deformation of walls or loss of fine details.

3D Printing collapses the loop between the customer, innovation, realization and sales!

Fishman Acoustic Amplification works with the world's top instrument builders, artists and retailers. Using its Objet desktop 3D printer, Fishman can print mechanically accurate guitar amplification device prototypes that customers can't tell apart from real production parts. In-house 3D printing allows Fishman to go through multiple design iterations in a single day, enabling the company to rapidly perfect its designs without compromising on quality or missing sales cycles. Here is the story in their own words:

Books about 3D printing start to appear on

Books about 3D printing are starting to appear on Amazon. Expect a lot more over the next few months and years. How many? A LOT more!

Sample of 3D printing books on


Monday, 12 December 2011

The Economist reports from EUROMOLD 2011

Points mentioned in the article:

  • 300 exhibitors working in 3D print/additive manufacturing
  • 3D printers the size of cars, many desktop units
  • Building up products layer by layer or drop by drop in plastic, powered metal
  • Exhaust manifold, artificial leg, aircraft door hinge, shoes, fashion
  • 3D products have flowing lines, more like art with an organic look
  • Some 3D printed objects copying nature, human aesthetic 
  • 3D printed bones have curves to precisely fit the patient
  • Titanium printed bones can replicate lattice-like internal structure of human bone
  • Bundles of vertical filaments can make objects light and strong
  • Heat exchanger optimum design like a fish gill
  • A car mirror 3D printed to include channels for wiring
  • Gearbox hydraulics could be 30% lighter if 3D printed
  • An unmanned aircraft drone in laser-sintered nylon incorporating a geodetic structure - possible with 3D printing
  • Layers are laser sintered into solidity or cured with heat or UV
  • Clock mechanism made 'in one go' in a 3D printer
  • Compound materials - rubberlike at one end fading to stiff at other
  • Camera body soft where gripped, hard where the lens is mounted
  • Fashion applications - shoes, smart phone cases

An ATM skimmer made with the help of a 3D printer?

In July 2011, a customer at a Chase Bank branch in West Hills, Calif. noticed something odd about the ATM he was using and reported it to police. Authorities who responded to the incident discovered a sophisticated, professional-grade ATM skimmer that they believe was made with the help of a 3D printer.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Will Maker Culture spark the next tech boom?

The Economist has run a piece on maker culture, automation electronics and 3D printing. As in this blog The Economist has also noted that "The parallel with the hobbyist computer movement of the 1970s is striking".

"It is easy to laugh at the idea that hobbyists with 3D printers will change the world. But the original industrial revolution grew out of piecework done at home, and look what became of the clunky computers of the 1970s. The maker movement is worth watching.
(My thanks to Stephen Low for spotting this story)

Thursday, 1 December 2011

BNN interview: ZCorp and Terry Wohlers, Additive Manufacturing Consultant

Video interview here:

Wohlers: "Boeing has 20,000 parts on fighter jets without a single failure."
BNN: "How many of those parts were made with 3D Printing?"
Wohlers: "All 20,000 parts were made with 3D Printing"

Get the latest Wohlers report here