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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.
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. Around the same time I also met Tom Mackin, a mechanical engineering professor at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, who loved the idea and wanted to be involved, specifically in helping me connect with other bright, motivated engineers. Together, Gabe, Tom and I 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Then you hit print preview. We turn it into a 3D model and send it back down for your perusal:
If it turns out satisfactorily you can choose to print your part:
Which ends up looking like this:
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
Everyone can see that the 3D printing industry is in a state of flux. First off, the public has become rapidly aware of this technology over the last two years, even though it has existed for over two decades. Publicly traded 3D printing companies are becoming Wall Street darlings, and new startups are setting crowd funding records on Kickstarter. At the same time, low end Rep-rap inspired 3D printers are beginning to challenge established industrial players in the rapid prototyping industry. While two years ago The Economist featured German 3D printing company EOS in its “Print me a Stradivarius” cover article, it was newcomer Makerbot that graced the cover of Wired Magazine last October.
So what does this mean to someone looking to buy a 3D printer? It means buyer beware. Who wants to buy the last $80,000 machine before it is rendered obsolete by a $5000 alternative?
This is particularly true of larger, more expensive machines capable of producing large 3D printed parts. Those machines can top $200,000 without break a sweat, but don’t think they aren’t also under pressure from disruptive new platforms.
All of this is to say that the days of investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in one machine to be the flagship of a company’s 3D printing fleet are also dwindling. And this means that once again, large format 3D printing is kept inaccessible due to the sheer lack of machines capable of building large 3D printed parts. Clearly a new solution is needed. Something more flexible for the owner and operator, and something that can be upgraded rapidly as new advances in 3D printing hit the market.
3D printer material cost: limits of a razor & blade business model
Most people are familiar with a razor and blade business model. Made famous by Gillette, first a company sells people the razor (or whatever the base unit is) at or below its true cost, and then the company charges a high premium on the blades now that it controls a large market share. As business strategies go, razor and blade is a pretty great approach because it allows consumers to get what they want now, and also guarantees a continued revenue stream for the producer in proportion to how much the consumer actually uses its product. This is the same strategy used by HP with printers and ink, and it can even be seen in electronics, such as cell phones or the mobile payment device Square, where the hardware is cheap but the associated service is controlled by the hardware maker or its partners, who make their real profits from a device’s use, not its sale.
It is no big surprise then that 3D printer manufacturers went for the same razor and blade strategy with their machines. Especially as a new type of industrial hardware in a price-sensitive enterprise marketplace, getting that initial sticker price down was important. It was almost certainly the difference between selling and not selling. So in other words, I don’t blame them. There’s just one problem. That is, for many types of 3D printers, the “blade” is really just a spool of plastic.
Fused Deposition Modeling, or FDM, is the 3D printing technology behind the Statasys line of 3D printers. Stratasys alone is a pretty big fish (the #2 3D printer manufacturer in the world), but the reason I focus on FDM in particular is because it is also the basis of the Rep-Rap, and in turn nearly all of the low-end, next generation hobbyist 3D printers that have come along in the last five years. And the thing is, FMD is really quite simple. It is essentially a hot glue gun being controlled by a computer, except that instead of extruding hot glue, it extrudes melted plastic. And what is the input to this extruder? You guessed it, nothing but a continuous filament of ABS or PLA plastic, usually coming straight from a 1kg spool.
So what’s the problem with this? What does FDM or a razor and blade business model have to do with large format 3D printing? Let me tie it all together. First off, as I explained in my last post, industrial 3D printer companies made the decision to focus on precision and cost during the last 20 years of development. Part of that cost strategy was to get the price of buying a 3D printer as low as possible, so they sold the units at lower margins and then made up for it with high margin materials. 3D printing was new, only a few players were doing it, so it was easy to control the supply of build material to customers. Besides, how would a customer know he is paying a 10x markup on plastic? High material prices were simply accepted, and they were factored into pricing across the industry, to include 3D printing service companies, through which most small firms who can’t afford their own printers get their 3D printed parts made. And what did this mean for ordering or making large 3D printed parts? They were expensive. Really expensive. And so designers making large prototypes continued to use methods other than 3D printing.
Yet today, with the Maker Movement gaining steam and low cost 3D printers popping up everywhere, the game is nearly up. While Stratasys and 3D Systems will no doubt continue to charge huge markups to their installed industrial customers, companies like Makerbot will eat away at many of their low end customers. Not only is a Makerbot Replicator 2 one-fourth the price of the cheapest Stratasys machine, its materials are one-fifth the cost ($48 vs $250 per kilo) – and that’s if you buy directly from Makerbot. A quick search on Alibaba gives prices closer to $25 per kilo.
All of this is to say that while the true cost of an industrial 3D printer might actually be higher than the sticker price, the true cost of printing something (i.e. the material cost) is much, much lower. And this means that large format 3D printing isn’t nearly as crazy of an idea as those experienced with 3D printing might think it is.
Large format 3D printing – what is holding us back?
Want to 3D print large objects? I mean, really large objects? To most people who are experienced with traditional rapid prototyping, this still means something only the size of a basketball, because the mere thought of 3D printing something larger than that makes them shudder. Why is this?
There are several reasons, but namely this is because the pain points of current 3D printers amplify greatly for objects bigger than something you can hold in one hand. Rapid becomes slow, cost-saving becomes expensive, and ultimately a convenient tool becomes a capital-intensive mammoth. Yet each of these pain points are self-induced by the same businesses that currently lead the 3D printing industry. Limitations on large format 3D printing are more the results of business decisions than physical limitations of the technology, and therefore most if not all can be overcome with a new approach to 3D printing.
Below I will discuss the first of the three major obstacles to large format 3D printing as I see them: build speed.
3D printer speed (or lack thereof) – a logical choice, missed opportunity
In the 1990s, NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin coined the phrase “Faster, Better, Cheaper” for the space agency’s approach to building and launching missions to Mars and other faraway places. Unfortunately for him (and played out over a series of failed missions, including a rover that crashed directly into Mars due to botched unit conversion), any engineer worth the paper their diploma is written on knows this is not actually possible. You can get two of the three attributes – faster and better for instance – but it always comes at the expense of the third (i.e. much more expensive instead of cheaper).
The same basic quandary faced 3D printing companies in the 1990s. Apparently they decided that an industry known primarily as rapid prototyping didn’t need to worry about being too slow for anyone, so “better” and “cheaper” were the areas to concentrate their R&D. The problem is, once that became the thrust of their products, that’s also what their customers expected more of. So machine costs came down and precision went up, but speed more or less stayed the same. And the thing is, this is exactly what their installed customer base wanted because they were designing tiny things for which build speed didn’t matter. Waiting overnight for a four-inch tall prototype seemed completely reasonable to medical device companies and small-scale product designers. In fact, these people loved rapid prototyping, and they still do.
So throughout the 1990s and 2000s, as surely as one class of designer reaped the extraordinary benefits of 3D printing, everyone else was left out, specifically those who wanted to 3D print something larger than a basketball.
In my next post I will discuss how I see artificially high material costs and disruption on the low cost end of 3D printing also keeping large format 3D printing from taking hold.