3D Printing Financing – 3D Printing Start Ups Update. Where are These 3D Printing Companies Now?
Tim Caffrey, an associate consultant at Wohlers Associates Inc., a firm in Fort Collins, Colo., that provides insights into 3D printing trends, says that many of the most forward-thinking startups (often created by young inventors like Ratai) are primarily using crowdfunding (or crowdsourcing) campaigns to not only raise finances to develop increasingly cost-effective technology, but also to rally consumer buzz for 3D printing on various social media sites.
“Crowdsourcing has enabled many personal 3D printer manufacturers to raise capital to develop, build and market their products,” he says. “In fact, four of the top 10 all-time Kickstarter technology products are 3D printers.”
Several years into the creation of 3D printers, Caffrey says he’s seeing even more significant developments in the manufacturing sector among companies that are making their own product prototypes using 3D printing to output models, and tools that enhance their work in any number of fields—like engineering, medical and aerospace.
“The mainstream press has given a large amount of attention to 3D printing,” says Caffrey. “Innovations are not necessarily occurring on the consumer level, but patents are expiring and innovations from industrial 3D printing will likely trickle down to the consumer market. Over the next few years, we’ll see more materials available and probably see systems that are easier to operate and have reliability that approaches that of a 2D document printer,” he adds.
What is driving the technological push toward consumers? Some of the youngest, most inventive startups in the U.S. and Europe today.
The Kinkos of 3D Printing?
Startup company AIO Robotics, based in in Los Angeles, has used crowdfunding to build its latest invention—the ZEUS, an all-in-one 3D printer, scanner, copier and fax machine. While it’s primarily being used in a robotics laboratory to build customized parts, AIO anticipates that consumers will also be able to create their own 3D-printed goods soon with just the touch of a button.
“From kitchen utilities and furniture parts to artistic decoration or customized gifts for friends, people could easily create and share physical objects with others,” says Jens Windau, CEO of AIO Robotics. “In the past, consumers had to buy a separate scanner, go through a complicated set-up process and transform scanning data into printing data before starting a copy process. The ZEUS has automated this entire process and no longer requires users to have technical knowledge.”
With the exception of overly shiny or particularly dark surfaces, the device can be used to copy and send just about anything in 3D. And while Wohlers doesn’t necessarily predict that there will be a 3D printer like the ZEUS in every home anytime soon, he says designers are attracted to the idea of a simple, easy-to-use all-in-one device like this.
“We think the most likely scenario will be 3D print shops, both local and online, similar to the 2D print service stores available today at Staples, Office Depot and FedEx,” adds Caffrey. “Customers can order parts for their designs or from available 3D content, and will not need to be qualified designers or machine operators.”
AIO Robotics is already bracing to potentially become the mainstream 3D print shop in both the U.S. and Europe. “We see a day where there are 3D printing stores (facilities like FedEx Kinkos) in almost every city,” says Windau. “Just like how the Internet changed the way people share intangible digital files, the ZEUS will revolutionize the way people interact with each other by offering the possibility to exchange physical items.”
i.materialise, an online 3D printing service with headquarters in Belgium, is already working with artists and designers at a kind of virtual 3D print shop that doesn’t require users to invest in equipment, but provides them with access to 3D printers. “We see people creating smartphone cases, jewelry, we’ve even seen people creating their very own personalized wedding rings, and accessories,” says Tatiana De Wée, community manager of i.materialise. “We see people—we call them ‘fixperts’—repairing stuff with 3D printing.”
The company, with its growing online database of unique 3D creations, has also been working with fashion designers and artists, creating finished products with access to professional grade printers that users essentially order from online (think of it as the first step toward the Shutterfly of 3D printing).
“Three-dimensional printing will become more and more mainstream,” says De Wée. “We see more and more people starting a business with customizable products and expect this trend to continue. Easy-to-use apps like Twikit [another 3D printing program] make it very easy for other people to order a personalized object that we 3D print behind the scenes.”
Companies like i.materialise are also making it possible for the average Jane and Joe to use the technology without actually investing in sometimes cost-prohibitive 3D printers—something many analysts believe could make the technology become more conventional as users become more comfortable with the outcomes. This startup is also offering workshops and online tutorials about 3D printing techniques to help educate consumers and professionals alike.
“When you go to our website you will find design guides for the most used materials,” says De Wée. “A month ago, we organized our first 3D printing hangout to teach people some basic 3D printing skills and give them a chance to ask questions.”
De Wée expects to organize more of these casual hangouts, as well as continue to connect with colleges and universities around the world—like Appalachian State University in North Carolina and Griffith University in Australia where i.materialise has assisted in creating 3D printing workshops for students and faculty.
“I think people need a mind shift to realize 3D printing usually happens on command,” says De Wée. “If you would order a pair of jeans [for instance], they’re not ready-made or in stock. You’ll need to wait to get your pair. So, on one hand, people will understand the technology better and realize that 3D printing on professional printers takes more time than 3D printing on a desktop 3D printer (maybe a CAD course in every school would help?). On the other hand, lead times will go down in the future, which will make ordering a 3D-printed design more appealing.”
Built on the Dining Room Table
The founders of RoBo 3D experimented with the technology where many would-be inventors first do: at home. But if Kickstarter is any indication of how hungry the industry is for innovations in the 3D market (the company’s Form 1 became one of the most-funded tech campaigns of all time on the crowdsourcing site) startups like RoBo 3D could become the most unlikely, most independent innovators in the still-elusive industry.
“RoBo 3D was started just like any other traditional startup,” says Founder and CEO Braydon Moreno. “We found out about personal 3D printers and decided instead of forking up to $2,000 [which they cost at the time], let’s just build our own.”
Moreno, along with the company’s CTO Coby Kabili and RoBo 3D’s COO Mike Pilkington started working on what would become their first 3D printer model on the dining room table. “It was an ‘a-ha’ moment,” says Moreno. “We decided to focus our energy on developing an affordable, amazing-quality machine that could provide exceptional features for the user.”
Moreno, a kind of evangelist for the technology, realizes that 3D printing is still in the early adopter phase. But he says he’s finding ways for such a printer to be used for both the business and consumer marketplace. “We are really focusing on how to make these machines practical for one’s life so we can open doors of opportunities,” he says. “Right now, 3D printing is limited to certain materials, but hopefully with expansion of this side of the business, the list of possible prints and creations (normally limited to the material available) will begin to grow. If someone wants to print a shoe, then that will be possible in the near future.”
Medicine is also pursuing some of the more enriching outcomes from these 3D printing darlings, like prosthetic limbs for amputees. What might be a $50,000 prosthetic can realistically be printed in 3D at a cost of $1,000 or less. “This is extremely powerful, and really shows what these machines are capable of,” says Moreno.
Taking a page from other successful startups in the industry, Zeepro created the Zim, the first dual-head Wi-Fi 3D printer that’s plug-and-play. With a U.S. marketing office in Connecticut, the company began collecting funds on Kickstarter with a goal of $300,000 for the first production batch (better-known companies like Formlabs, comparatively, asked for $100,000).
“We’ve been working hard on developing Zim,” says Philippe Guglielmetti, Zeepro’s CEO. “3D printing is not yet mass market—retail stores which propose products only sell two or three units per month—so prices stay h
igh due to those small volumes and the necessary retail margin. Crowdfunding has been a good solution because it allows people to have access to projects such as Zim at affordable prices.”
The challenge for a startup like Zeepro is transforming its Kickstarter momentum into a successful retail model. This requires high sales volume from the get-go to offer this consumer-friendly device at a reasonable, cost-effective (yet profitable) price point. Mainstream printers from Cubify and MakerBot are selling between $1,600 and $2,800 in retail. And while the first Zim 3D printers from Zeepro are expected to hit the market in March 2014, the question is whether retailers will embrace the technology and how much it will actually cost consumers.
Guglielmetti and his team have been meeting with specialized retailers and department stores in cities across the country, including Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston and Chicago.
Drawing the Plans for a 3D Pen
One day Pete Dilworth was printing a part for a new toy concept. But when the printer made an error, Dilworth, the founder of 3Doodler, found a way to literally fill in the gap. “The evolution of the 3Doodler into a pen form developed from there,” says Daniel Cowen, the Boston company’s cofounder. The pen, which allows users to draw a 3D model, is now in its seventh prototype iteration.
“We had originally set out thinking the 3Doodler would be specifically aimed at the maker, crafts, DIY (do it yourself) and design community (which includes 3D print enthusiasts),” says Cowen. “But the appeal goes beyond this and we have seen significant interest from professionals, including architects and engineers, schools—both for general application and in the teaching of the blind and partially sighted by using the 3Doodler as a way to create instant, tactile objects—as well as jewelry makers and even garden planners.”
Not only is the pen portable unlike large printers requiring software, but it also can be used as a companion to other 3D printing devices. “We hope [it will] create a bridge for those who otherwise would not have gotten into 3D printing at all,” says Cowen, who notes that by the end of 2013 the company will have almost 30,000 3Doodlers on the market.
Presently, only a small group of beta testers have actually used the 3Doodler, but the company expects that thanks to a popular crowdfunding initiative, pre-order buyers will be using the device for a range of projects: engineers for sketching models; choreographers for human movement for dance instruction; teachers for design and geometry; as well as for repairs, decorating everyday items, jewelry making, 3D calligraphy, gardening, home décor, wedding cake adornment, stop-motion animation, making substitute board games pieces, or adding to existing 3D-printed items. The pen enables self-expression of just about any object-based idea for those without access to CAD or who don’t draw well.
“Crowdfunding not only allowed us to be financially independent and get proof of concept early on, it also allowed us to build a community out of the gate,” says Cowen. “That’s really important to us, as the creative potential of the 3Doodler will be most significant in the hands of an active and sharing community. The feedback and support from that community has also been a huge morale booster when we’ve been flat out. It has given us great food for thought and direction when it comes to planning and prioritizing for the future.”
Producing Nearly Anything
ZMorph was among the first startups to propose an affordable answer to 3D printing technology with its RepRap machine. Today, the fabrication concept has been developed into the Zmorph 3D printer, which supports everything from ceramics, plastics and food (yes, food) printing. “It’s not about one specific use,” says Przemek Jaworski, founder of ZMorph, in Poland. “It’s about being able to deliver ways of producing almost everything.”
During the early years when Jaworski was testing out prototypes for what would become the hallmark of ZMorph’s 3D printing machinations, the idea of rapid prototyping was nothing new. He says that there has long been a curiosity about the technology—and one that is fueled by viral campaigns that showcase exciting prototypes being printed at the touch of a button.
“People are often asking about the perfect solution for their specific needs,” he says, “which often vary greatly from printing mannequins to compressed air engines, advertising gadgets or architectural models. The scope is wide, but I believe that is key to understanding this phenomenon, this so-called ‘long tail,’ where various needs can be fulfilled by one technology.”
But will consumers realistically be printing at home or will the technology serve manufacturing industries alone?
“Certainly the 3D printing industry, especially the segment of affordable 3D printers, is waiting for either a special customizable object, or invention of new material—something that will change the game completely,” says Jaworski. “It might be a product that will allow easy, at-home self manufacturing, a thing that is more expensive or hard to get otherwise. We don’t know what this product/material combo will be, but it might have a lot to do with personalization. My guess would be shoes, glasses, jewelry or must-have tech gadgets. Implants and medical products (prosthetic limbs, for example) are another example of something desirable, expensive and highly personalized for individual use. I see a lot of potential here. I believe this will happen within the next two to three years.”
Admittedly, in the consumer world, 3D printers still have a long way to go before they will seamlessly be integrated into the home office in the same way that photo printers have been. “We need to work toward creating a more user-friendly product,” says Moreno of RoBo 3D. “How do we create a plug-and-print 3D printer? That is the key.”