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

8 Amazing Materials That Can Be 3D Printed

I can design an engine
64 miles to a gallon of gasoline
I can make new antibiotics
I can make computers survive aquatic, conditions
– Flobots (Handlebars)

Our Startup Weekend team has been spending a lot of time researching the capabilities of 3D printers and being absolutely amazed. Almost everyone who read my post has asked me what can and cannot be printed with our current technology. So I figured I’d elaborate a bit.

The technology has come a long way since I first heard about it years ago. It isn’t just plastics that can be printed, check out this partial list of printable materials (hint: the links are to some cool videos and pictures):

Plastics (Thermoplastics like ABS and PLS / Acrylic / Alumide)
Metals (Titanium, Gold, Sterling Silver and many other metal alloys)
Other (Wood, Ceramics, Glass, Sands like quartz for molds, Resins)

Amazing right??

8 Amazing Materials That Can Be 3D Printed

Introducing Parts Press, Our Startup Weekend Winning Project

3D printing has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything

-Barack Obama

Last weekend I participated in Startup Weekend, a business competition where you get 54hrs to create a business from nothing. Attendees pitch ideas on Friday night, the group votes on the 10 best ideas and then teams form around those selected ideas. The ideas cannot have been worked on previously. I pitched a half-baked idea I’ve been sitting on to help companies reduce their spare part inventory balances by manufacturing parts on-demand using 3D printers throughout the world.

An amazing team came together with all the right parts: a kickass developer, an innovative designer, 3 tech strong business developers and 1 mechanical engineer with experience using 3D printers. We spent the weekend learning about the market, validating our assumptions and building a minimum viable product. As we learned about the space and spoke with people in the industry, we shifted our business model and approach a couple times. We ended up coming up with what I, and the rest of the team, see as a truly revolutionary idea. It has gotten me super excited. Here’s the basic pitch.

One of the largest problems corporations face today are high balances of inventory. This inventory ties up cash, costs money to maintain and may one day become obsolete. Companies keep inventory because it’s currently cheaper to manufacturer products in bulk and then ship it from a central location when it’s needed. 3D printing technology is going to change that, making it cheaper and easier to manufacture products exactly where, and when, they are needed. 3D printers do not require significant labor, so manufacturing facilities closest to the customer in developed countries will be competitive with overseas factories. In some cases, this is already true for high-margin, low volume products such as medical devices and aerospace parts.

Parts Press is an API that integrates with existing ordering systems and allows companies to print parts on-demand instead of drawing product from inventory. The API will route the order to one of our 3rd party printing partners based on their price, capabilities and how close they are to the end customer. The printing partner will print, pack and ship the product on behalf of the company within a given timeframe. The potential of this technology to revolutionize the supply chain cannot be understated. Reducing inventory balances in-and-of itself will free up trillions of dollars of cash for active investment, reduce lead times for manufacturing, decrease shipping costs and eliminate the vast majority of material waste.

If you know of, or are, a 3D printing company or a manufacturer that currently keeps inventory of spare parts, we’d love to talk to you. Send an email to joel at partspress dot com.

Oh, and check out this video we recorded with Paul at 23rd Studios:

Introducing Parts Press, Our Startup Weekend Winning Project