Expanding The 3D Printing Ecosystem

Now shit’s constantly hot, on my block, it never fails to be gunshots

-2Pac (My Bloc)

Last week I wrote about how startups wanting to leverage 3D printing to attack existing markets need to think about the technology. This week, it seems reasonable to start talking about the ecosystem developing around the entire 3D market. The support structure for creating content and distributing content has been booming and feeds the raw material for the printers.

Creation (Scanning)
3D scanning is currently time-consuming and inaccurate. Scans often fail and certain items don’t scan well, compounding the problem. Small items can be scanned accurately using a $2k desktop scanner in 15 seconds to 3 minutes depending on the resolution. The larger the item the longer the scan takes and the less accurate it becomes. Adding small movements, poor lighting or reflective materials throws the technology off pretty badly. A scan I did of my foot with a detailed desktop scanner took ~15 scans. Each scan took about 3 minutes of me holding my foot still and the resulting 3D model is still not perfect.

Luckily there are some new technologies that leverage Kinects, Leap Motion Controllers and other lower cost 3D sensors to do quicker scans. Arden Reed for instance is using Kinects to do full body scans in just a few seconds.

This technology is absolutely critical to the ecosystem because it enables people with no design skills to get 3D design files (replacement parts for instance). More interesting to me, it allows us to start customizing add-on products to the world around us. You cannot customize something to work with other things unless you know what the other things look like (insoles, clothing, medical devices, jewelry are all relevant examples)

Creation (Digital design)
For years the only way to create 3D models was through cumbersome software that required specific, high-learning-curve, skills. This has limited the power of creation to those super interested in the technology and prevented the power of the crowd to directly drive content creation. This has begun to change, albeit slower than a lot of people would like. On the one hand you have new technology like Sketchup and Tinker CAD which make it easier for people to start designing in 3D. On the other hand you have educational Preston Middle School in colorado which is specifically teaching students to build 3D models and shows them how to print them. Will some future generation be considered the “3D printing natives” and truly democratize the power of creation in whole new ways? Mainstream companies are jumping on the bandwagon and offering custom solutions that leverage 3D printing, like eBay’s Exact app.

Sharing & Distribution of Content
Do any of you remember what we were using to share video and music in the 90s before Youtube and Spotify? It was the Wild West of applications, from Napster to email (and burned CDs). It’s exactly the same today for 3D models. We know that companies like Youtube are incredibly powerful because they are the intermediary by which people consume and share their content. Many companies are trying to solve this problem from a variety of angles. The manufacturing companies, and the outsourced printers, have competing services. Shapeways has a marketplace where every item can be printed and mailed to you, Makerbot has Thingiverse where any item can be downloaded for free. Then you have startups like Sketchfab which is taking a more “utility” approach to the problem by providing a place to host 3D models and rock-solid software that makes viewing the files online fast and pain-free. Previously if you want to view 3D models time-consuming plugins were needed and each file took a lot of time to load. Now you can simply upload your content to Sketchfab and then use their code to embed your file anywhere across the web. Their catalog of 3D models are browsable on their site too, and they’ve got some amazing things in there.

Printing Software
All of the things we just spoke about develop the content pipeline that feed the printers. We’re approaching a point where access to 3D designs and printers is widespread. The content pipeline is set to explode. Another problem that people, like 3D printing manufacturers, are running into is that workflow management software for 3D fabrication facilities blows chunks. The model where you create thousands of unique pieces at the same time is the antithesis of a traditional manufacturing facility. Managing orders, post-production, packing and quality control are all completely different. I’ve not seen a single company with creating this software for sale as their sole purpose. Josh is taking the Parts Press idea in this direction now. It’s an opportunity to be the glue that 3D fabrication facilities run on.

Expanding The 3D Printing Ecosystem

Searching For The 3D Printing Application Layer

I’m searching for today, instead I found tomorrow.

– Lil Wayne (Nightmares of the Bottom)

Additive manufacturing technologies like Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) and Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) are enabling enhancements to way we manufacture physical goods. The biggest issue is that few companies have found and commercialized products that can be mass-manufactured profitably using today’s 3D printing technologies. Either they need to be able to produce the parts at a lower cost or with features that aren’t possible with traditional manufacturing techniques. Much like when the iPhone first came out and there were very few applications, it took years for an “application layer” to emerge which leveraged the technology to create value in different verticals.

People are experimenting with different 3D printed products now, from fashion to aviation and everything in between. There are a few use cases where 3D printing has advantages over traditional manufacturers:

  1. Need for customization – We’re talking about where customization is either required or adds significant value. Braces, hearing aids, prosthetics, art and orthotics are all good examples. Bad examples include coffee mugs and iPhone cases, customizing as a novelty is not a long term competitive advantage.
  2. Designs that can only be made with 3D printers – Complex meshes, intricate internals and other features are sometimes only possible with additive manufacture. This art piece is a good example. When those features also add a competitive advantage to the product, then it creates real differentiation.
  3. Cost effective – In some cases, 3D printing is actually cheaper than traditional manufacturing. This is rare, but will be less so as the technology develops.

Obviously I think Sols is a perfect fit in buckets 1 & 2 and probably fits in bucket 3 against some of our competitors products (but not all). I’d love to hear about other products that people think are a fit.

Searching For The 3D Printing Application Layer

Doubts Cloud The Storyline of 3D Printing

It seems like every time you come up
something happens to bring you back down

– 2Pac

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, it’s been pretty difficult to avoid all the news about 3D printing. Each day there is another article on how people are harnessing the power of additive manufacturing in amazing ways. From ultra-strong casts, to a prosthetic face, giving a man his fingers back and saving dying babies with innovative new splints. Hidden in these articles is an invasive use of language that injects doubt into the viability of the technology. When I read titles like “Is the future here or is it just paper thin progress” it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. In articles singing the praises of the new technology you have asides like “but will this technology be able to do ___ and ___.” and other kinds of conjecture. Instead of debating what the technology can and cannot do, the amazing thing is covered and then the author challenges the world to come up with something else. As if each new use is a miracle, that the technology is living beyond it’s stated life cycle already.

The issue I have is that it’s proving intellectually difficult for journalists to accept the widespread disruption that 3D printing offers. They don’t use the same language of doubt with other technologies like Gene Therapy.

Let’s start using new terminology and inspiring a world where people have access to make anything they can imagine with the push of a button.

Doubts Cloud The Storyline of 3D Printing

The 5 Dysfunctions Of a Team

Hate a liar more than I hate thief.
A thief is only after my salary
a liar is after my reality.

– 50 Cent (I’m A Hustler)

One of the lessons from school that has shaped my thinking about team building is the “5 Dysfunctions Of A Team” concept. It’s a powerful lens by which to view the culture you are building and something that I’m constantly reminded about. Here is the pyramid:

five-dysfunctions-pyramid

This obviously doesn’t require a lot of explanation. Suffice it to say that as you are building your team, or scaling it up, think a lot about how you baseline those relationships and nurture trust, encourage dissent, promote commitment all while keeping people accountable and humble.

Culture is the most important advantage a startup can have. Sometimes it’s easy to lose track of that, something I learned the hard way. A long time ago I had this paper up in my office, when I setup my new office it’s getting its prominent spot back.

The 5 Dysfunctions Of a Team

Moving To NYC

Case I wake up in the morning and it’s all gone
Best believe I’ma get it right back
Thats the hustler in me I know you like that

– Young Jeezy (Leave You Alone)

With 4th of July upon us, I felt it was time to be a little more public about my next moves. As many of you know, I’m in the process of moving to NYC to launch a new company. There is a deep love in my heart for Colorado, and Boulder in particular. In many ways, my closest friends and family have found it hard to believe that I’d leave a place that I love so dearly. At the end of the day there are 3 reasons that I’m going: 3D printing, a new startup opportunity, and family/friends.

For many years, I’ve had a fascination with the intersection of the physical and digital worlds. How do things we create digitally get manifested in the real world. Card Gnome was my first experiment. Over the last couple years, and more intensely over the last few months, 3D printing has become an obsession. NYC is the epicenter of this new technology. Not just for the US, but for the world. Makerbot, Shapeways and 3D Systems are 3 of the largest players in the space and all have headquarters in the NYC metro area. Stratasys, the other behemoth from Israel, recently acquired Makerbot to be it’s consumer brand and they aren’t moving from NYC. Makerbot and Shapeways even have their manufacturing facilities within the city limits. 3D printing changes the manufacturing cost calculus, allowing producers to optimize for geography rather than labor costs. What better location than metro NYC to show the world that labor cost optimization is dead.

About 1 month ago I was doing due diligence on a company that I was interested in and met Kegan Schouwenberg. She is an amazing entrepreneur and the former head of US operations for Shapeways, a true thought leader in 3D printing. She had this crazy idea that she could use 3D scanning and printing to create custom orthotics that aren’t just functionally better, but are better looking and easier to buy. She’s an industrial designer by trade and was looking for a business partner to handle distribution and business operations. I was really intrigued and after about a month of thought have decided to join full time as a founder and COO for the new business we’re calling Sols.

Lastly, my family and many of my friends still live in the tri-state area (Philly, NJ, NYC) and I’ve been neglecting those relationships for many years. I can’t remember a time when I was close enough to home for casual visits since I left for college and I’m looking forward to being closer. My heart is stil in the outdoors and NYC and its environs just cannot fulfill that need (although I’m still going to try). My hope is that in the future I’ll be able to move back to Colorado (or California) where I’ll have easier access to the backcountry adventures that I love.

At the end of the day, I’m not “leaving Colorado”, I’m just living in New York for a little bit. If you are around Boulder next week on the 11th I’ll be doing happy hour drinks at the West End Tavern starting at 4pm. Come say hi.

Moving To NYC