My Printeer Back Story (Part 1)

In the next few days we will be launching our first product, Printeer. For me personally, this is such a huge milestone, as it is something I’ve been working toward in one way or another for almost three years.  I am extremely excited for what comes next. However, I also think part of understanding a person, a product, or a company is understanding its past, so for the benefit of those who don’t know me well, here is the story of how I got to where I am today.

me, summer 2011

me, summer 2011

Three years ago I was in a very different place wearing a very different hat. Literally. I was an officer in the US Navy, operating nuclear reactors onboard the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, based out of Norfolk, Virginia. My five years of military service ended in late 2011, and I spent the following six months enjoying my independence with long trips to South America, India, Australia, and China. It was also during this time that I decided definitively on what I’d been pondering for a long time: that I wanted to start a tech company in the field of 3D printing.

After returning home, I had a very tough decision to make: go to business school at MIT, where I’d recently been admitted, or jump straight into starting a company with the mantra, “There’s no better way to learn something than by doing it.” I decided on business school, but it turns out I really split the two options, because after completing just the first year of my two-year MBA program, I took a leave of absence and moved to Santa Barbara to work on Mission St. full time.

Those were the early days, when Mission St. was just an idea – a passion, a drive, a plan – but nothing concrete. What made it a reality was building a team, and that started with my co-founder Gabe. Gabe Rosenhouse and I have known each other for a long time; we met on the first day of 6th grade. We were best friends in middle school in Portland, Oregon, and we were science project partners for two years when we measured the speed of sound in various conditions. Gabe and I drifted when we I transferred high schools, and then drifted even more during our college years. However, I always thought of Gabe as one of the smartest people I knew (and still do), and I also knew that he had a passion for problem solving and computer programming – both of which would be at the core of Mission St.’s future.

We actually reconnected at Gabe’s parents’ Hanukah party right after I left the Navy, and then I visited him before business school in Chicago in the summer of 2012. He was a PhD candidate doing neuroscience research, but he was also very intrigued by 3D printing and my desire to make the technology more capable and accessible. However, I still didn’t really have a viable product idea, and I was just starting business school, so for the next six months, we were just old friend who bounced business and technology ideas around on the phone from time to time.

That all changed in early 2013.  Starting my second semester of business school, my focus shifted and honed, and so did my need for someone like Gabe to be on the team for real.

In early 2013, the Mission St. business plan coalesced around the need for a more accessible 3D printer for those who aren’t well-funded institutions or dedicated tinkerers.  K-12 education became the focus, because 3D printing has something to add to everyone’s lives, and it all begins with exposure and education. Our product would be an integration of 3D printing software and hardware components in a way that would be radically more accessible and inviting to kids, parents, and teachers.

Around this time, I also started talking about running an internship over the summer to build a product prototype with the help of some undergraduate engineers. To pull this off, though, I needed an experienced programmer to lead the software team, and after several phone calls, emails, and a trip to Chicago, Gabe agreed to join me in California for the summer.  Together we recruited seven interns, and on June 17th, 2013, we began working full time in an aqua-blue house on West Mission Street in Santa Barbara, California.

house

Our home on Mission St.

A Valentine’s Day Story

Valentine’s Day may not seem a likely match for a 3D printing company blog post.  Most people would think a chocolatier, a flower company, or a national restaurant chain would be a more likely candidate to trumpet this often over-commercialized holiday of love and romance.  However, I was recently told a very true love story that in part reminded me of why I’m so excited about 3D printing, and I cannot think of a better day to share it than today.

Last Friday I visited my 91-year-old grandmother in her assisted living home in Santa Cruz, California.  She moved there in December, so she is still getting settled in.   I could tell immediately upon seeing her that having a visitor and a familiar face in this new community of strangers meant the world to her, and I was happy to have made the four-hour drive to be there.  We walked around the facility, I introduced her to my new puppy, and we ate two meals together.  Her hearing is intermittent, and sometimes so is the logic of her sentences, so much of the time I found myself simply listening to her talk about everything from the lack of butter in the dining hall to the history of her blue china dishes to the habits of her cat (who is always hiding under the bed, in case you were curious).

Yet close to the end of my visit, my grandmother surprised me with a clarity of thought and emotion that I had not seen from her in years, and one that made my entire trip worth while ten times over.  I had just returned to her room from my car, where I had retrieved a red, heart-shaped box of chocolates and a card to give her as an early Valentine.  She was sitting on the side of her bed so I sat down next to her.  She took the box and read the card, and then she pointed to the top of the dresser in front of her and the three objects sitting on top.  Two of them I had seen many times: a photograph of her in an Army uniform during World War II and an adjacent photograph of my late grandfather wearing his Navy uniform from the same era.  My grandparents met under a palm tree on the island of Guam in 1945, and so these two pictures always remind me of their story.  In front of these two photos, though, was something I had never seen before.  My grandmother reached out and grabbed it – a piece of 8 ½ by 11 paper in a clear zip lock bag – and brought it close to show it to me.

grandparents photo

It was a black and white printed graphic of a large heart surrounded by a border of many smaller hearts, and across the middle it said in ornamented text Let Me Count the Ways.  Without prompting, my grandmother explained the significance.  “A while back your grandfather purchased a computer and a printer.  You know, I had no idea what it would be used for, but he liked to tinker and figure it out.  On the first day he got the printer working, he printed this out and gave it to me.  I thought it was wonderful, so I put it in a plastic bag and I have kept it ever since.”

She paused, took a deep breath, and then continued.  Holding the paper between her frail, boney fingers, she spoke about my grandfather, who died after a long bout with Alzheimer’s more than a decade ago, in a way more personally than I had ever heard her speak before.  Slowly, emotionally, but without any confusion in her voice, she spoke about how she had never expected to grow old alone.  She spoke about how even in the midst of his disease, my grandfather had never given up.  She spoke about how she has never and could never love anyone else beside him.  I just sat there, rubbed her back, and, I’ll admit, fought back tears from coming to my eyes.

Eventually she stopped talking and put the plastic bag and the relic within it back on the dresser, and we both just sat there for a moment together in silence.  And that’s about when it hit me: looking around her small studio apartment filled with the hundred or so knickknacks, pictures, and paintings that she brought with her to her new and potentially final home, these three objects may just be the most important possessions left in my grandmother’s life: two old photos, and a simple black and white printed sheet of paper given to her by her late husband decades ago.

Much can be said, and will be said in due time, about the relative value people give to high quality vs. personally created products.  In due time, I will offer my own opinion on the subject too.  But for now, today, this Valentine’s Day, I will simply be thinking of the great love my grandmother shared for over fifty years with my grandfather, and how an otherwise simple sheet of paper helped reveal to me that this love continues as strong as ever, even to the present day.

Happy Valentine’s Day

Thoughts from the Garage

To an inventor, tinkerer, or hardware entrepreneur, there are few places as sacred as a garage.  Yes, government funded labs, research universities, and private R&D facilities have no doubt produced greater quantities of innovation over the past hundred fifty years than garages, but those innovations are usually of the top-down variety.  Bottom up innovations – those intended to meet the immediate needs or curiosities or passions of everyday people – usually come from those people themselves and whatever humble workspaces they can find.  The super-sonic jet, for instance, was not made in a garage. But the original Wright Brothers Flier was.

x-1 WB Flier

Lots of other great inventions, companies, and industries can trace their beginnings to garages, homes, and dorm rooms.  These are safe places where innovators can try, fail, and try again without needing to explain themselves to anyone else.  This sense of operating outside convention – outside grades, performance reviews, budget line items, and the hours of 9 and 5 – this is what makes garages so powerful and so creative.  You can dream as big as you want in a garage, and nothing but the dirty rafters above you have to know about it.  Millions of ideas are born in garages, and most of them never breathe life outside of one.  Yet a few, those rare few, escape the garage, spread their wings, and just like the Wright Brothers Flier go on to change the world forever.

Garage companies

I’ve been thinking a lot about garages today, because I find myself alone in my garage for the first extended chunk of time since I moved to California three months ago to work full time on my startup.  Don’t get me wrong; sharing this space with my interns, friends, and co-founder has made for a wonderful and productive summer that I will always remember fondly.  Yet for the next four days they will all be away, and only the rafters will be here to keep me and my big dreams company.  I’m actually really looking forward to it – to the freedom to delve deeply and work and dream completely undistracted.  Maybe, just maybe, if I’m really productive over the next four days, and weeks and months to follow, I can even wrestle one of these big dreams into a concrete idea, package it into a wonderful product, and push it through the big garage doorway and into the unknowing world beyond.

Full-tilt 3D Printing

If you stop by the Mission St. house in the evening, you’ll find a mixture of work and play.  Some of us might be hacking on a work task we just couldn’t put down.  Others might be playing a game from the latest Steam sale.  Often we’re tinkering with a side project related to 3D printing.  It’s an atmosphere where crazy ideas can nucleate.  Ideas that start out sounding technically infeasible, prohibitively expensive, or not right for our customers, but still are fun to think about and talk about.  And sometimes, maybe, they might just be worth chasing down.

Here’s an idea that solves two big problems in low-cost 3D printing.  It’s probably a bit too crazy for us to pursue right now, but I hope someone picks it up.   Because it’d be awesome to see it come to life.

First, some background.  One big problem with existing low-cost 3D printers is that of printing overhangs.  Printing in plastic means melting it, squirting it out a nozzle onto another surface, and letting it cool and harden.  The first layer is printed onto a flat “bed” and the later layers are printed on top of the prior ones.  But if there’s no surface underneath the plastic, say when printing the top of a dome, gravity can pull down the molten plastic and the final part will be droopy.  There are some workarounds, like printing support material that can be broken off or dissolved away, but that is time consuming and frustrating.

A second problem with such FDM 3D printers is that they only work well when the print bed is level.  If your kid knocks your printer off your desk, or maybe the delivery truck hit a pothole, then the bed can be thrown out of alignment by a fraction of a degree.  With even a small misalignment, the plastic layers won’t be formed with the right height.  Instead of building up your part layer-by-layer, you get a growing glob of goop that sticks to the print nozzle rather than the bed.  But to re-level a misaligned bed, a one needs a screwdriver, a keen eye, and a lot of patience.  None of those are prerequisites for using a 2D printer.  Why should you need them when 3D printing?

With these two problems in mind, we showed off some recent progress to a friend who stopped by yesterday after work.  When it came to bed-leveling, he asked a great question: “why fight the tilt when you could use it?”  That launched an exciting conversation with some crazy ideas.  Why not design the bed to tilt, and actively control it?  Our customers would never need to level the bed by hand, and since the printer could angle any already-printed layers at will, it could print overhangs at almost any angle without droop.

I love moments when a good idea hits.  It takes me a few seconds to process, and then my mind goes in a thousand directions at once.

We started talking about a few of those directions last night: How do we tilt the bed?  (servos? linear actuators?)  How would we know where it is?  (Hall effect sensors?)  How would we modify the printing software to utilize this kind of hardware?

The answers aren’t easy, and we have a lot of other things we’re working on.  A quick web search shows that we’re not the first people to think of this idea, and we probably won’t be the first to implement it.   But it’s one crazy idea I can’t wait to see made real.

[All images from Wikipedia]

Our first developer’s blog

John Xia, one of our summer interns, wrote the following blog post about developing an easier way to 3D print.

I’m currently an intern at Mission Street Manufacturing.  We’re a 3D printing company that’s trying to streamline 3D printing. If you’re not familiar with 3D printers, imagine building up an object with a hot glue gun, carefully squeezing out layer upon layer of plastic. Now imagine a robot doing that.

One of the problems we are fixing is that you have to jump through a ton of hoops to print something. Making a 3D model is hard. Once you have a model you have to turn that into instructions for your printer, and once you have the instructions, you have to actually print them. We hide most of this on our server so nobody has to deal with it.

You can’t hide the actual modeling, so we’re making tablet apps that make simple 3D modeling really simple. We’ve got a few in the works. Let’s take a look at one that turns your finger drawings into real things that you can hold. Its code name is FourthApp.

First you draw something. It’s kind of like Paint. No spray-can, though.

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Then you hit print preview. We turn it into a 3D model and send it back down for your perusal:

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If it turns out satisfactorily you can choose to print your part:

3

 

Which ends up looking like this:

4

 

You are, no doubt, curious as to how this all works. I’d love to tell you, but first we need to understand the basics.

Click here to read the rest of this post on John Xia’s personal blog.

Congrats to the UK: a 3D printer in every school

As part of an overhaul in the national curriculum, the British government has implemented several changes in their Design and Technology curriculum; the most exciting of which is the requirement for all secondary schools to have and use a 3D printer in the classroom. This change aims to make British children more competitive in the global economy and provide future workers with the ability to design, make, and test their own ideas. As Design and Technology Association Chief Executive Richard Green said “[the overhaul provides] essential skills for [students] to participate in an increasingly technological world.”

math graph

Preparing students to participate in a technological world is increasingly more important for UK students, as they ranked 30th of 65 countries in math proficiency. In addition, this overhaul should allow the country to fill the current shortage of workers for technology jobs and may even boost the nation’s GDP. According to a Harvard Kennedy School report, a country such as the UK, with math proficiency similar to the United States’, could increase its GDP by 0.5% per year if it increases the math proficiency of its students by 10%. To put this in context, at the current US GDP of 15 trillion dollars; that’s 75 billion per year of expected gains in economic output.

recess

While increasing the GDP is great, we at Mission St. want to focus on what kids are already great at: playing.  Since we all already agree that every elementary school student’s favorite subject is recess, we believe that a similar combination of imagination, activity and creativity can also make technology fun an engaging.  Our integrated 3D printing experience enables kids to learn real world skills like designing and testing ideas while also playing and having fun. This not only keeps parents and teachers happy as their children engage in something educational instead of just watching TV or disrupting class, it also cultivates skills within children that will make them more successful in navigating the technical workforce of the future.

So congratulations UK!  Our 3D printed hats are off to you.

NASA is betting on 3D printing

NASA may be best known for putting a man on the moon but it is really here on Earth it has had the most effect. Technology and research developed to support the space program have spawned over 6300 patents and led to many everyday items we take for granted. Consumer products in nearly every aspect of life from invisible braces and water filters to better cordless power tools have their origins in the research conducted by NASA. So what’s one of the most innovative government agencies experimenting with now?  3D Printing.

From sponsoring a $125,000 grant to experiment with 3D printed food (of course, they’ll start with making pizza) to helping Made in Space, a 3D printing company, design and test a 3D printer that will work without gravity, NASA is betting on the potential of 3D printing.

3Dpizza

A NASA study found that nearly 1/3 of the parts replaced on the International Space Station could have been 3D printed, which would have prevented billions of dollars in spare parts from being stored on the station. The potential causes such excitement that there have even been discussions on 3D printing an entire space station or space ship, but that seems to be many years away at this point.

floating 3d

While Mission St. does not see itself in space (well, not yet) we do see ourselves as the first 3D printer many of the future designers, engineers and scientist who are going to 3D print the first space shuttle will use. By making the 3D printing experience fun and exciting we hope to inspire a new generation to 3D print the world and help NASA get one step closer to again changing our lives.

 

Parents and Kids Agree: 3D Printing is Awesome

“No more 3D printing until you clean your room!” – Moms and Dads, 2014 and beyond

I can’t count how many times during my childhood my mother implored, bribed, or bargained with me to get off the computer and stop playing videogames. My mom, like so many others, wanted me to be a well-rounded kid. And to her, part of this meant playing with physical toys instead of just clicking a mouse and staring endlessly at a screen. Blocks, Legos, and even the spare building materials lying around my father’s workbench were better play things in her mind than a screen that felt so distant and detached from reality.

Fast-forward to today and I see the same struggle being played out between my older cousins and their 3- to 10-year-old kids.  Now the grand bargain is about iPad time.  “No iPad time until you help unload the car,” I heard my cousin recently say in a stern tone to her 5-year-old son.  Will there ever be a cure for this generational feud over technology? Just maybe.

Enter 3D printing

This weekend my coworkers and I had the great pleasure of manning a booth at the Santa Barbara Tinkerfest, a daylong technology fair for families.  It was also our chance to show off 3D printing to kids and parents who had never seen it before.  The response was as impressionable as it was universal – both parents and their kids love 3D printing!  Why is this?  Well, I have a pretty good hunch.

Parents were excited because, to them, 3D printing is an exciting new technology – something they’ve either read about or seen recently in the news.  They were even more amazed when we told them that soon a family would be able to buy a 3D printer for only a few hundred dollars, and that their kids could design and make their very own toys with it.  Kids, however, didn’t need that much convincing.  Upon seeing a 3D printer’s robotic motion and a physical object appearing layer-by-layer, they would quietly move in closer and just stare unblinking as if hypnotized.

IMG_0571

Yet the real point of engagement was still to come. Once visitors began showing up, we pulled out two iPads with our first simple 3D design app we call “Cookie Cutter.”  Quite simply, the app allowed users to drag a finger across the iPad’s screen and in a few strokes generate a 3D cookie cutter.  Another tap on the screen sent finished designs to one of three waiting 3D printers, and fifteen minutes later young designers could hold their own 3D creations in the palms of their hands.

IMG_0575

We needed a lot more iPads.

The crowd around the table quickly swelled to over twenty visitors, and at times parents were forced to police how much time their child spent perfecting his or her design before handing the device to the next person waiting. I looked on with a mix of delight and worry – delight that our app was such a hit and also worry that at the going rate we may never get a chance to print all the designs before the Tinkerfest ended.  We eventually got everything printed, and we happily sent home a few hundred new fans of 3D printing.

IMG_0576

This is just the beginning

My experience at Tinkerfest reminded me of a great story I heard at a 3D printing store in New York City a few months ago.  There, a young employee recounted how his Saturday morning 3D printing class for 8-year-olds had frequently ended with crying children dragged off to tee ball practice before the 3D object they designed had finished printing.  It also reminded me of the countless pictures I’ve seen of kids captivated by this technology when they’re first presented with it.  To me, this all goes to show that the younger generation – today’s kids and tomorrow’s young innovators – will not see 3D printing as a new and futuristic technology, but rather as an empowering and fun tool that has existed for almost as long as they can remember.  And I strongly believe that it is these people who will use 3D printing to truly change the world.

In the meantime, though, 3D printers may just be that silver bullet to please moms who want their children to engage in the physical world and kids who just want to have fun with the latest technology.  I know my mom would have loved having one around the house to entertain me when I was a kid – and I would have loved it a whole lot more than videogames.

Why Picasso would love 3D printing

Every child is an artist.  The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.

- Pablo Picasso

 

picasso1picasso2

We all too often find ourselves trapped by our experiences. We know what has worked in the past and what has not worked, and live our lives accordingly. One of the great artist of the 20th century, Pablo Picasso, was able to create some of the most eclectic and sought after artwork in the world by experimenting and challenging traditional art. Like Picasso, children are not confined by past experiences; they explore, learn, create and have fun in the process.

We see kids using 3D printing much like Picasso used his paintbrush. Most adults are confined to figure out something useful to create that solves an apparent problem. What we, as adults, design we judge based on our experiences of what others have designed and created before us. We compare ourselves to pre-defined standards. Kids do not have this problem. They can create and design without preconceptions, without standards, with full freedom and flexibility. 3D printing is the new canvas upon which artists, engineers, and scientist and will experiment and create tomorrow’s world.

3D Printing offers a way for children to play and create like never before. It’s building an epic sandcastle every day, not just during beach vacations. It’s expanding their imagination and allowing them to bring it to life. And more importantly, it’s providing a blank canvas for new ideas that have not even entered their minds.

sandcastle

For the rest of us, 3D printing is a way to get back to being a kid, unbiased, uninhibited and free to design, create and play. 3D printing allows you to create what you imagine –now imagine what you can create.

3M and Google’s example can improve education

3M instituted 15% time in the 1950’s which allowed employees to spend 15% of their time working on pet projects which led to the creation of one of its most iconic products: Post-Its. Google gives employees 20% to work on projects not in their job description and has been rewarded with products like Gmail, Adsense and Google News. What both of these companies have figured out is that allowing talented people the time and resources to play and create makes their companies and employees better.

post-itgmail

While such a sweeping change through education is unlikely, there are some educational institutions that could benefit from these kinds of changes. After school programs and private schools who are less tied down to state-wide curriculum could dramatically change the way they approach project based learning. Educators could ask students to work together to solve a problem; not a math problem or a multiple choice history question but any problem they want. Then, students control their learning experience (with subtle direction from their teachers, of course). Through brainstorming together, devising various fixes and testing their solution, students would stay engaged and would learn skills valued by employers. Who knows, maybe they even design a customizable splint to provide medical care in developing countries like high school student Ian McHale.

splint

Mission St. is built on the premise that we can set creativity free by providing everyone affordable access to 3D printers with a simple experience they enjoy. Whether it is designing a toy, mocking up a historical battle, or helping students stay engaged in the classroom and interested in STEM, 3D printing can help. As Ian, 3M and Google show, giving talented people access to resources is never a waste of time.