Donal Reddington on mass customization, crowdsourcing and digital manufacturing

Ponoko announces European manufacturing partnership with Formulor

February 5th, 2010

New Zealand-based 3D printing online marketplace and service provider Ponoko has partnered with German-based fabber Formulor to open a making hub in Berlin. It means EU-based creators using the Ponoko online making system can now choose to have their products made in Berlin – paying just a fraction of the shipping costs which has made ordering products from Ponoko’s US and Pacific-based making hubs prohibitive.

The development also opens up the European market for creators around the world. Items can now be produced in the EU and shipped locally, reducing the cost – and environmental impact – of long-distance shipping to the EU.

Ponoko CEO David ten Have says the Berlin hub is a departure from the existing making hubs in San Francisco, California and Wellington, New Zealand which are owned and operated by Ponoko.

Formulor has 12 years’ laser cutting experience, with support from leading material supplier Modulor. The Modulor name is well known in Germany – creative professionals have been using them to source materials for more than 20 years.

“It provides a glimpse into what we see as the future of Ponoko,” he says. “Over time we see our role expanding to be about connecting creators, digital fabricators, materials suppliers and buyers of goods rather than simply providing manufacturing services ourselves.”

“So just like eBay provides the marketplace for buyers and sellers to engage, Ponoko provides the world’s first marketplace for buyers and sellers of product designs – and now digital making services.”

The benefit of Ponoko’s online making system for fabricators like Formulor extends beyond accessing pre-paid making jobs from Ponoko’s 25,000 users. “Our automated online quoting system puts an end to manual quoting on a job by job basis,” says Ponoko strategist Derek Elley. “It also means standardized design file formats and automated job status alerts resulting in a much more streamlined and profitable making and customer service process.”

Ponoko says it is working with other digital making service providers to add more making hubs around the world.

Christmas Greetings

December 25th, 2009

image of sun shining through timber fence onto snow covered ground

Happy Christmas from Ireland to all MadeForOne.com readers, where ever in the World you may be.

2009 has been a difficult year economically for many, we can only hope that the lessons learned from past mistakes will help to make a better future for all.

Best wishes

Donal

Chocri brings customized chocolate across the Atlantic

December 22nd, 2009

Chocri logo

Chocri is a German startup (founded about a year ago) that customizes chocolate bars.   By combining a base chocolate with your choice from over 90 toppings, there are more than 10 billion possibilities to create the chocolate bar of your dreams.

Chocri was founded by entrepreneurs Michael Bruck and Franz Duge in early 2008.  It was Franz who had the “light bulb” idea to start a custom chocolate bar company when he couldn’t think of a personal gift to give his girlfriend on her birthday.  At the time, Franz and Michael were running a chocolate fountain company, so Franz came up with the idea of using the liquid chocolate from that company, and turning it into a bar, which he topped with his girlfriend’s favorite snacks: gummy bears and trail mix.

When Franz’s friends heard about his creative chocolate concoction, they asked him if he could make some for them too – and that’s how Chocri was born.

Within the first year of launching, chocri sold over 120,000 bars of chocolate in Germany.  Currently, the chocolate can be shipped to Germany, Austria, Netherlands, France, Luxembourg.

Having achieved initial success with its German language website, the company is now expanding to the United States, launching on January 11 with a new website for the U.S. market at http://www.createmychocolate.com.

image of chocolate products by chocri

Some of Chocri's chocolate creations

Chocri uses only fair trade and organic chocolate, and donates a percentage of its revenue to an organization that supports kids on the Ivory Coast (where their cocoa beans come from).  Customers are also encouraged to donate at checkout.

Chocri is not aware of any other  food mass customizer that has embarked on an expansion across the Atlantic.  The company is also planning to expand to Ireland and the UK in the first quarter of 2010.

EGO3D – making a 3D printed bust direct from 3 photographs

November 11th, 2009

From Germany comes news of a new 3D service: EGO3D, which creates real busts from just three normal photographs.

Company principal Robert Fischer says: “With this service we are in a niche between the photographic and the 3D business.  In comparison to other 3D manufacturers, we create a 3D mesh from the customer’s photos (a 3D-scan is not necessary) and then the bust will be manufactured with a 3D printer. ”

“We started our business in July 2009.  Initially, EGO3D had offered this unique service only in Germany, but it is now available Europe-wide.”

The process begins with the customer placing the order and uploading three head and shoulders photographs – one taken from the front and one from each side.

EGO3D then optimize the photos for creating a 3D-model.  Then, a threee dimensional mesh is generated.  For this purpose, EGO3D use specialized software which is also used for special effects in the film industry.

Creating the 3d mesh

Creating the 3d mesh

However, the software, good as it is, does require some manual rework 0f the 3D mesh to complete the detail work before the next stage.

The blank of the bust is then created in a 3D printing machine layer by layer.  The 3D printing system used by EGO3D uses a mineral powder, similar to that used for prototype work in the automotive industry for a number of years.

Forming the bust in the 3D printer

Forming the bust in the 3D printer

Unlike clay or stoneware, busts created by EGO3D are not baked.  Instead, they are imbued with a hardening liquid so that they become hard as chinaware but not as fragile.

Applying the hardening agent

Applying the hardening agent

Delivery time is around a week, and the current price is €69.90.

EGO3D is an interesting, if slightly unusual use of 3D printing technologies for a consumer product.  The website is in German with a translation to English.

Speciality Fabrics Review article on mass customization

October 15th, 2009
The October 2009 issue of Speciality Fabrics Review contains a detailed article on mass customization

The October 2009 issue of Speciality Fabrics Review contains a detailed article on mass customization

Specialty Fabrics Review is the official publication of the Industrial Fabrics Association International (IFAI), a not-for-profit trade association with more than 2,000 member companies representing the international specialty fabrics marketplace.

The October issue of the magazine contains a detailed article by Janice Kleinschmidt on the increasing use of mass customization in the fabrics sector. (I was asked to contribute some views for the report.)

I was struck by the variety of fabrics companies that are using mass customization to deliver unique solutions in both consumer-oriented and business-to-business markets.  The article notes the following examples:

GGBailey.com, the direct-to-consumer division of Racemark International, a made-to-order floor mat manufacturer based in Calhoun, Ga.  Consumers enter the year, make, and model of their vehicles and then view the appropriate shape of mat as they select a mat color, trim, heel-pad shape and color, and personalization or logo.

Globe Manufacturing Co. of Pittsfield, N.H., uses a Gerber low-ply cutter to produce customized firefighter suits. The GearBuilder configurator on its website allows customers to select features ranging from the type of moisture barrier to pockets.

SIF Technology Co. of Sarasota, Fla., which digitally prints custom images on leather, is fine-tuning its process and production line to the furniture market, reports Chris Cudzilo, vice president of sales. “We give [customers] the ability to take the design element of the overall project a step further than they have been able to do,” he says. “We can image and color leather within a 24-hour turnaround.”

Joe Pine, co-founder of Strategic Horizons LLP and author of the landmark book ‘Mass Customization: The New Frontier in Business Competition’ advises enterprises of the gains that can be made by adopting a mass customization model:

“If you break apart your processes into modules that allow you to do different things for different people by picking modules out of a bin, then you can efficiently give customers everything they want…I do strongly recommend companies look at flipping the switch.  Get rid of finished goods inventory and do a full mass-customization model.  Because, done well, it actually can lower costs.”

My own contribution focuses mostly on highlighting the findings of research in the area in a way that hopefully makes it accessible to readers.  I referred to the importance of maintaining learning relationships with customers, and the need to provide an effective system to allow customers to specify their exact needs.

My thanks to Janice Kleinschmidt for asking me to contribute views for her  very interesting article.

CloudFab – matching product designers to digital manufacturing services

October 15th, 2009

CloudFab logo

CloudFab.com is  a new distributed fabrication service that connects buyers who need digital fabrication (3D printing, laser cutting/etching, etc.) to the sellers who have the capacity.  The goal of the project is to provide a central marketplace to connect buyers and sellers in the digital fabrication sector.

The ethos (if that is the right word)  behind CloudFab is that a vast reservoir of spare capacity exists in digital manufacturing resources, waiting to be tapped by latent demand.   Similarly, many people have ideas, and design skills for individualised parts and products, but lack the means to produce them.  Therefore the CloudFab platform has been developed to enable those with the fabrication equipment to share their machines with the greater public.

The founders of CloudFab are Nick Pinkston and Steve Klabnik.  I asked Nick to tell me the story of the founders backgrounds and how CloudFab came into existence.  This is his response:

“My background is  more in making physical things. I started out with Lego, moved to rocketry and when I last had free time I loved developing / tuning automotive turbocharger systems.  My car hobby showed me how difficult / expensive it was to access the equipment that I needed to complete my projects.

Steve has been programming for the vast majority of his life.  He’s used to building digital products as both the current maintainer for the Hackety Hack project and director of the open source operating system XoMB.  When I told him about the digital fabrication scene, he was blown away by the future that the movement was ushering in.  He’s excited to be able to use his computer skills to facilitate “physical compiling” “.

On the origins of CloudFab:

“We started out trying to build something like TechShop in Pittsburgh, but we quickly found that the numbers don’t work very well.  That’s why we started HackPittsburgh – Pittsburgh’s hackerspace – so that we could get a shared workspace up and running locally.  We wanted to tackle the problem on a broader scale though, so we looked into how we could better utilize existing equipment to make it more accessible for the rest of us – the idea was born.

We received some financing from a State program funding technology to give us money to develop the original concept and later were accepted into the AlphaLab program, Pittsburgh’s version of Y-Combinator.”

Now, it’s fair to say that the easiest part of an online venture to match buyers and sellers is the design of the website.  It’s the business of convincing enough of each to register that is the difficult part.  The founders of CloudFab haven’t simply built a website in the hope that business will come.

Beyond the website, they’ve started by forming a local microcosm of the market by signing up all the local fabrication shops and design firms in their local area of Pittsburgh USA, as well as talking to local hobbyists and artists.  Nick Pinkston says:

“In the beginning, we’re focusing on 3D printing processes, and will soon be moving into laser cutting, CNC, etc.   Also, we’ve been building a lot of relationships with others in the industry and maker community.

Now that we’re going into private beta, we’re opening it up for both sides.  We’re excited to hear back from people and interate from there.  Also, there will be some new features and services coming in the following months.”

CloudFab, like any other marketplace matching buyers and sellers, earns income from trade through the website.  It’s current advertised rates are determined by total gross transaction cost, following this schedule:

  • $0 – $100: No commission charge.
  • $101 – $300: 6% of cost
  • $301 – $1,000: 5% of cost
  • $1,001 – $3,000: 4% of cost
  • $3,000+: Flat rate of $90.

It’s remarkable that two separate services have appeared within a few weeks of each other, linking buyers of digital fabrication services with providers of those services.  Whereas the 100kGarages.com joint venture between Ponoko and ShopBot (see previous post) initially links buyers with providers of CNC routing services, CloudFab’s current focus on 3D printing services means that the two will not be going head-to-head in direct competition for the present.

So, the new age of online trade continues to gather pace.  It could be argued that the inclusion of Microsoft Internet Explorer with the Windows 95 operating system was the tipping point for the explosive growth in the World Wide Web that occurred from the mid-1990′s.  The big question is, what will be the tipping point for digital manufacturing?  It may be the growth of online marketplaces like CloudFab, but no-one really knows.  That’s the thing about tipping points, they only become obvious after they happen.

Ponoko and ShopBot announce distributed manufacturing partnership

September 28th, 2009

New Zealand-based online making system Ponoko and ShopBot Tools, a U.S.  designer and manufacturer of affordable CNC tools for digital fabrication of wood, plastic and aluminum products, have combined to launch 100kGarages.com which will serve as a network of local digital makers that will enable users to get “almost anything custom made and delivered”.

David ten Have, Ponoko’s CEO, is quoted as saying: “By partnering with ShopBot we bring together more than 20,000 creators and over 6,000 fabricators to use a powerful online service to design, make and deliver goods locally”.  (These figures appear to relate to the overall number of users of Ponoko, and fabricators who are users of Shop Bot equipment.)

Users of the 100kGarages website can get their ideas made locally by owners of ShopBot equipment, and delivered within a few days.  It is powered by Ponoko’s online ‘click to make’ system and users of ShopBot digital fabricators.  While there are users of ShopBot equipment in 54 countries around the world, the 100kGarages website currently shows a list of registered fabricators that have signed up to participate.  These are located mostly in the U.S., but also include fabricators in Canada, Mexico, Australia, United Kingdom and Sweden.

To use the 100kGarages service, users can search a map for a local garage workshop, or alternatively submit a request and then choose from bids placed by a range of ShopBot owners to make almost anything.  The service is free for everyone to search and submit requests, and for fabricators to post profiles and bids.  Interestingly, the user (or ‘maker’ in the terminology of the venture) does not have to upload an actual design file;  they can enter a description of the job, including their ideal purchase price and the delivery deadline.   The maker is advised to describe the project in detail so that fabbers can make an informed bid.  The request can also include links to relevant images, for example a sketches of your idea.

Examples of the wide range of products being created includes things such as tables, chairs, cabinets, car parts, signage, boats, musical instruments, gaskets, sheds, housing.  Materials include wood, plastic, metal and composite materials.

The press release announcing the new service quotes ShopBot President Ted Hall as saying:  “Ponoko’s making system gives our ShopBot owners the ability to receive a new stream of work from a wide range of customers.  Our partnership also means everyone now has easy access to their own local 3D fabricator.”

At the moment, the 100kGarages  system is confined to work involving CNC routers (tools that create by cutting away or subtracting material).  Over time, the partners hope to incorporate more types of tools into the 100Kgarage network.  (Ponoko itself already provides laser-cutting services).

The new service is a significant step for Ponoko, which has produced over 30,000 DIY, hard to find and consumer goods.  Until now, Ponoko’s existing manufacturing resources have been centralised in New Zealand and San Francisco, which can mean expensive shipping charges for buyers not located close to either of the manufacturing locations.  The 100kGarages project will add the ability to transfer the manufacturing of custom-made products far closer to the end customer, reducing transport costs, delivery times, and the carbon costs associated with delivery of the finished product.

The phrase ‘democratisation of manufacturing’ generally refers in various ways to the transfer of manufacturing away from centralised industry to a more distributed model where design data can be easily transferred between the customer and a local supplier who will turn the design into a finished product.  The spread of democratised manufacturing reflects the fact that, for some products, advances in affordable manufacturing technology have cancelled out the financial advantage which had been associated with centralised manufacturing for the last 100 years or more.

Democratised manufacturing capacity is measured not in terms of the size of one factory, but the number of local producers who are networked together and the extent of geographic territory covered by this network.

With 1ookGarages.com, Ponoko and ShopBot are taking a step towards the realisation of democratised manufacturing on a very large scale.

Of course, the flexible systems that enable democratised manufacturing are also associated with another concept that is an closely linked to mass customization – it’s called ‘Economies of Scope’ – where manufacturing systems are flexible enough that it is financially viable for the manufacturer to make every item to the customer’s requirements, with no two alike.

Webinar on Paid Crowdsourcing

September 14th, 2009

An online expert discussion on the future of paid crowdsourcing in business will take place this Thursday, Sept. 17 at 9am PDT.   The panel of industry experts will look at how and when paid crowdsourcing will become a mainstream component of business operations.

Paid crowdsourcing is currently in the “innovators and early adopters” phase with the market suffering from lack of awareness, skepticism around getting results for such low costs and no familiar use cases. The panel will address the current state of the market and what’s coming next. The panelists, all experts in the crowdsourcing area, are listed below:

  • Jeff Howe, Contributing Editor, WIRED, and author of the book “Crowdsourcing”
  • John Winsor, VP/Exec Director, Strategy & Product Innovation at Crispin, Porter+Bogusky, and author of “Baked-In” and “Spark”
  • Lukas Biewald, Founder, Dolores Labs
  • Eckart Walther, SVP, LiveOps
  • Brent Frei, Founder, Smartsheet

The Moderator is Marshall Kirkpatrick, ReadWriteWeb

SmartSheet, which provides online project collaboration applications, will also release the first-ever research report on paid crowdsourcing.  Attendees of the online event will get the report just beforehand.  The report includes 50 vendor rankings, 15 categories, six adoption hurdles and five predictions for the future.

Event registration and details are available at:  http://www.smartsheet.com/crowdwork

Mass customization links for 14 September

September 13th, 2009

1. During the summer, Forbes magazine interviewed Jeffrey Housenbold, Chief Executive of Shutterfly, the online supplier of customized photo-based goods. It provides an interesting overview of the way the company addresses the question of ‘how much choice is enough choice?’ and preventing situations where customers get overwhelmed by the level of choice.

It (the degree of customization available) is a balance between providing the flexibility and the choice, but also making sure customers are going to be delighted with the end product. So, in our photo books, we offer a custom path [that lets] you change every background, template, layout, font. But then we also offer express books, or locked books, where we’ve actually chosen all that, and all you have to do is put a picture in.

It depends on the use occasion, the sophistication of the customer. In stationery, we want to make sure they’re following the appropriate etiquette. That the font is going to apply to the background. That the end product is going to be beautiful and delightful. And so, in that case we’re limiting the choice, so that we increase the overall satisfaction.

He goes on to describe how the company engages with its customers to research the questions described above:

Q. What kind of testing do you do? Do you get 20 people in a room together and have them fiddle with this stuff for an afternoon and figure out if they like the end product? How do you find that perfection?

A. It starts with involving the customer throughout the whole process. We do a lot of upfront prototyping and testing with customers. Then we actually create the creation paths, and we do usability studies. We’ll do in-home ethnographic studies. How people are using stationery in their lives? Where do they have trepidation or anxiety? Where [do] they want to be creative?

Then we put it out there, and we see how it works. Right, we’re a Web company, so our ability to change on the fly and move more quickly than the established commercial printing industry is much greater. And so we can be more responsive. But involving the consumer in the whole process is key to success.

This description reflects very closely the idea of ‘building a learning relationship with the customer’, which is seen in academic literature as an important component in the information cycle between the customer and the enterprise that uses mass customization.

2. The WATBlog, which provides news and information to connect the web, advertising and technology sectors in India, recently ran a ‘Saturday Startup‘ article which examined an Indian t-shirt company called Scopial that uses the crowdsourcing business model. In Scopial’s crowdsourcing system, submitted designs are voted by the community members on a scale of 1 to 5. Every fortnight, a design is declared winner and the respective designers get a reward of Rs. 20,000 cash. The designs are printed on T-shirts and made available on the website for sale.

This article is a little eye-opener to those of us in North America and Europe who perhaps limit our horizons sometimes when looking for examples of enterprises that use interesting business models.

Boston USA – a hotbed of mass customization

September 2nd, 2009

The Boston Globe newspaper has a recent feature on the number of companies in the Boston area that are currently using mass customization. There are ten companies on the list, with some additions by readers in the article comments.

It appears that the region is something of a hotbed for enterprises using the mass customization model, perhaps aided by the presence in the region of Babson College (a business college which focuses heavily on enterpreneurship) and of course MIT.

MilkOrSugar spreads the word on product customization

September 2nd, 2009

A new ‘customization portal’, MilkOrSugar has recently been launched by ILUMY, an Amsterdam based agency of designers and entrepreneurs.

The MilkOrSugar website

The MilkOrSugar website

At MilkOrSugar, visitors can check pricing, shipping destinations, payment options and the number of basic models for each vendor. The site only publishes products that can actually be completely ordered, paid and shipped online. So car or kitchen configurators are, for now, excluded. Anyone can suggest a site for inclusion in MilkOrSugar.

Via the links on the MilkOrSugar website, visitors can create customized version of a huge variety of products, including a sleeping bag, Samurai sword, bicycle, dress, drums, shoes, skate board, Scrabble board, watch, machine parts, perfume, lingerie, wallpaper or Lego model.

The site also contains reviews of a build to order products, some of which you might not expect: fire extinguisher, guitar, radio controlled car, protein shakes, robot, canoe, with many more products in progress. The site will publish new vendor reviews daily.

In a press release, Stefan Hoevenaar of MilkOrSugar said: “We researched perhaps all websites that offer customized physical products. In many categories, affordable quality products can now be customized, ordered and shipped to your home. The range of things that can be customized is widening rapidly. New manufacturers appear almost every day.”

In some categories, multiple vendors are competing, with most vendors offering customized bags, shoes, computers, candy, dresses and books. Most vendors ship worldwide.

Often, customization is going beyond a print on the outside or choosing a color. Hoevenaar continued: “This is not just some paint on the outside. It’s about assembling or creating your own shapes, about choosing sizes and materials, creating textures and blends. The artisanship of some manufacturers enables their buyer to really become a designer. The concept of Mass Customization, coined in 1987 and promoted by Joseph Pine in 1992, is now becoming reality.”

I discussed MilkOrSugar further with Stefan Hoevenaar, noting that it appears to be more consumer-focused than the other online database of product customization, the Configurator Database. Stefan noted: “We also had a look at the Configurator Database and it seems mostly aimed at researchers. We decided to only include sites that offer customization with direct ordering, incl. payment – as a kind of proof of the pudding.”

“We’re about to include some non-direct-order products like cars, at least for their often exciting customization experience. However, we’ll clearly indicate if payment and home delivery is possible.”

All the links on MilkOrSugar go directly to the websites of the companies concerned – they are not affiliate links. (Affiliate links are advertisements that provides a commission to the website owner whenever a user clicks on a link and subsequently makes a purchase.)

MilkOrSugar is currently maintained by Stefan and his colleagues Tako, Sybren, David, Ritchard, Myrte, Bramantya, Alexander and Melissa, who are a blend of ILUMY and MilkOrSugar staff. It is hoped that it will soon be 100% maintained by MilkOrSugar personnel.

It takes more time and effort than you might think to find and evaluate websites offering product customization, to determine if they are suitable for inclusion in a customization portal. I know this from personal experience, as I made an effort to set up such a portal a few years ago as part of this site, but had to discontinue the project as I could not give it the time that was required.

Stefan and his colleagues deserve praise for developing a very comprehensive and well-presented site that will help to spread the idea of customized products to a wider audience.

Mass customization by MyTego.com

April 29th, 2009

A company called MyTego.com, based in Winnipeg, Canada provides an interesting example of a company using the mass customization business model.

A Nintendo DSi with a MyTego.com skin

A Nintendo DSi with a MyTego.com skin

The company provides custom-made vinyl ‘skins’ (self-adhesive covers) for personal electronic devices.  Customers can create a Tego skin using images from the extensive online MyTEGO catalog, or they can upload pictures from their computer or digital camera. Each one is then manufactured individually to the specifications of the customer.

The MyTego skins are precision cut and cover the majority of the device. The device remains fully functional with specific cut-outs for screens, buttons, keys, as well as cutouts allowing access to the device’s battery. Tego skins can be easily and frequently replaced to remain up to date with fast changing trends.

MyTego.com says it has developed a complete patented production system that allows for individual manufacturing with infinite customer choices, with similar economies of traditional mass-production manufacturing where the customer receives very limited or no choices for personalization.

Among the devices for which MyTego skins are available is the Nintendo DSi, which went on sale in early April in United States as well as the United Kingdom.  MyTEGO.com picked up an example of the white version of the Nintendo DSi when it was first released in Japan a couple months ago. They released the online template for the DSi two months ago so customers could start designing the skin for the much talked about Nintendo DSi and order their custom skins in advance.

The MyTego.com website (in seven languages) provides skins for a large variety of cell phones, game systems, MP3 players, game consoles, laptops, PDAs and electronic organizers.

The guitar which had a once-off MyTego skin applied (Picture via Trans World News)

The guitar which had a once-off MyTego skin applied (Picture via Trans World News)

Recently, MyTEGO.ventured beyond its usual area of activity, when it designed and produced a once-off vinyl Tego skin with pictures for an acoustic guitar, to mark the release of a new CD by country music singer Johnny Reid.  However, it remains to be seen if the company will extend into this area of business.  Producing skins for guitars in particular may be difficult.  While major musical instrument brands such as Yamaha or Fender may produce guitars to an exact replicable template, many acoustic guitars in particular are generic, with no specific branding that can be used as a reference to identify their exact shape and thus produce a skin which will fit accurately.

Developments in 3D printing hardware

April 22nd, 2009

Continuing on from my previous post on the Mcor Matrix 3D printer that uses paper as its raw material, I hope to provide here a review of other recent developments relating to 3D printing hardware.  Not all of these are immediately relevant to the idea of consumers printing objects in their own home, but do illustrate an accelerating pace of development, and gradual reductions in costs for 3D printing technologies.

First off, Objet Geometries launched the Alaris30 Desktop 3D Printer, which can create smooth surfaces, complex geometries, small moving elements, fine details, stand-out text and whatever else the design demands.

The Alaris30 is based on Objet’s Photopolymer Jetting Technology, and the company says that the strong model material and highly accurate printing enable thin walls and small moving parts.

The Alaris30 3D printer by Objet Technologies (picture via Manufacturers Monthly (Australia)

The Alaris30 3D printer by Objet Technologies (picture via Manufacturers Monthly (Australia))

The Alaris30 operates as a network printer, allowing multiple designers in the office to send their files to be printed. The 300 x 200 x 150 mm (11.81 x 7.87 x 5.9in)  build tray enables large models or many small parts to be built simultaneously. As can be seen in the picture, the Alaris30 is (relatively speaking when compared with some 3D printers) small and lightweight enough to fit in any office, on a desk or with the stand Objet offers with the printer. It uses sealed 1kg cartridges of resins and the printed models are fully cured on the build tray.

In January, The Dimension 3D Printing Group, a business unit of Stratasys, Inc. launched the uPrint Personal 3D Printer (priced at $14,900 USD).

Like the Alaris30 described above, the uPrint is designed for the desktop,  requiring only a 25 x 26 in. footprin, and features an 8 x 6 x 6 in. build envelope.

The Dimension Printing uPrint

The Dimension Printing uPrint

Stratasys developed the rapid prototyping process known as fused deposition modeling (FDM).  The process creates functional models and end-use parts directly from any 3D CAD program using ABS plastic, polycarbonate, PPSF, and blends. Using FDM, uPrint builds models with Stratasys ABSplus — a material on average 40 percent stronger than the company’s standard ABS material, making it ideally suited for testing the form, fit and function of models and prototypes.  uPrint also features a soluble support removal system, allowing for hands-free removal of the model support material.

uPrint is being targeted as an alternative to using external prototyping services – the company says it makes 3D printing “immediate and convenient through every design iteration, with no waiting in queue for a shared printer and no waiting for models to arrive from an outside service”.

In an article on the uPrint in MCADCafe, editor Jeffrey Rowe asked

“Does the announcement of the uPrint Personal 3D Printer finally usher in the era of 3D printing for everybody? At $15,000 it’s still a bit out of the price range of casual users, but might be the start of the 3D printing revolution that has been promised for a several years now by some vendors and industry pundits.”

He goes on to describe some of the other projects aimed at developing low-cost 3D printers, including RepRap, Fab@Home, and the somewhat troubled Desktop Factory (of which more later).  It is clear that 3D printer with a price of €15,000 will never be a consumer product, but it continues a general downward trend in hardware prices.  It is this trend, rather than the current generation of 3D printers themselves, which fuels the belief that commercially produced 3D printing hardware will eventually become accessible to consumers.

The RepRap and Fab@Home projects are, of course, already accessible to individuals in terms of cost, but the requirement that the customer assemble their 3D printer is likely to be an obstacle to their mass-market adoption.

Meanwhile, Desktop Factory has encountered difficulties with its technology and financing.  In March, Desktop Factory CEO Cathy Lewis issued a statement that the company was “forced to reduce our spending and focus on just the most vital activities to preserve our cash”.  This followed a period from October 2007, during which the company had to deal with major technical issues.  Assessments of this issue pointed to the need for a redesign of the company’s imaging sub-system.  Work on this continued during 2008, and the re-design was ready for customer acceptance testing in February 2009.

The Desktop Factory 3D printer

The Desktop Factory 3D printer

The statement went on to describe issues with  investor financing:

“From a macro view we have done well with $2M raised and another $1 million needed to finalize the round. However, we had not planned for the extreme deterioration of the financial markets and need to comply with an important ‘contingency’ from the venture capital firm. The contingency stipulates that no monies go into the round until all monies are available, which is the crux of the problem. We still need $1M and sufficient time to find the third investor in this difficult economy.

While we continue to aggressively work this issue we have judiciously delayed the customer beta. We need to make certain we have the right resources available to meet with our investors and that we are able to fully support our customers during a rigorous beta process.”

The Desktop Factory 3D printer, which has a list price of $4,995, uses an inexpensive halogen light source and drum printing technology to build robust parts layer by layer from composite plastic powder.  Notwithstanding its current difficulties, it appears to be lowest-priced commercially produced 3D printer to date.  The outcome of these current difficulties may have a bearing on the future direction of the 3D printing hardware sector as a whole.  If Desktop Factory does manage to get a 3D printer to market at the price indicated, it would be a significant step towards consumer accessible commercially produced 3D printing hardware.

MCor Matrix – Paper goes 3D

April 15th, 2009

Over the last few months, I’ve noticed that 3D printing technology, and the businesses that are based on it, are receiving a much higher level of attention in the mainstream business and technology media.  Coupled with this is a noticeable expansion in the number of companies that are engaged in the provision of services to consumers based on 3d printing technologies.

The development of more affordable 3D printing hardware continues to gather pace, and the 3D printing concept is being expanded to materials beyond metal and plastics.

A perfect example of this latter trend is Mcor Technologies.  This Irish-based company, founded in 2004 by brothers Dr Conor MacCormack and Fintan MacCormack, has developed 3D printing technology called the Mcor Matrix, that uses ordinary paper as the raw material for the creation of three dimensional objects.  This company has received a wave of media attention in Ireland and elsewhere.  The Irish Independent newspaper reported in December how:

The Mcor Matrix prints physical 3D models from digital data using A4 paper, water based adhesive and a tungsten carbide blade. Models have the appearance of a wood-carving and are “tough, durable and eco-friendly”. The final models can be treated to give them a smooth, shiny finish and make them more durable. The Mcor Matrix is currently installed in several universities in Ireland and the UK, and the company has received sales enquiries from Dyson, Nintendo, IBM, Stanford and Cambridge.

The Mcor Matrix’ consumables consist of ordinary A4 paper, adhesive and blade.  It uses a special commercially available water based PVA adhesive, and the blade is made from cemented tungsten carbide.  In an attempt to reduce the capital cost of the machine, it was decided at the conceptual stage to use blade technology instead of lasers.

The Mcor Matrix 3D paper printer (image via Fabbaloo.com)

The Mcor Matrix 3D paper printer (image via Fabbaloo.com)


The Mcor Matrix has a patented adhesive dispensing system that deposits very small dots of adhesive onto the paper substrate.  It applies the adhesive selectively, depositing higher density on the part cross sections and lower on the waste. This enables easy weeding (separating off) of waste material.  It then uses the blade to cut out the part profile.

The finished parts have similar tactile characteristics to a wood carving – perhaps not surprising given that paper is derived from wood.  Media reports state that the price of a Mcor Matrix about USD25,000.  However, the running costs of the machine are extremely low, at €0.01 per cubic centimetre of production – said to one fortieth of other leading 3D printing solutions.

Spreadshirt closes €10m in financing

March 3rd, 2009

Online custom clothing company Spreadshirt, recently announced an investment of €10 million by Kennet Partners, a leading private equity firm, and existing investor Accel Partners.

Spreadshirt allows customers to personalized goods to purchase for themselves, with a minimum order of one.   In addition, Spreadshirt extends this capability to partners, large and small, who want to offer personalized shirts and other apparel to their communities and customers.  Partners range from individuals with a blog, to the world’s largest brands.

Spreadshirt says that it will use the funding “to add new products and capabilities to its online platform, to strengthen its international footprint, and for innovative messaging to the massive market of people who wear clothes” – looks like they’ve given up on conquering the nudist market then…

Jana Eggers, CEO of Spreadshirt, is quoted as saying: “Spreadshirt mixes an online ‘Web 2.0’ platform with the offline worlds of fashion, mass customization, and real-time manufacturing.   Combining this with our global coverage means we require a financing partner with a range of experience to contribute more than simply cash.  Kennet, and specifically Managing Director Max Bleyleben, demonstrated their partnership mindset, and past results.  We were sold.”

In turn, the press release quotes Max Bleyleben as saying:  “Spreadshirt is an example of a capital-efficient business that has built not only a strong leadership position in Europe, but also quality leadership in North America.  The entrepreneurial team behind Spreadshirt — founder and Chairman Lukasz Gadowski, founder and CTO Matthias Spiess, and CEO Jana Eggers — have built a dynamic, innovative business for mass-customized eCommerce.”  Mr. Bleyleben was elected to join Spreadshirt’s board.

“As a post-bubble entrepreneur, it is great to see our idea come to this stage of growth financing,” said Lukasz Gadowski, Chairman of Spreadshirt.  “I am looking forward to working with the Spreadshirt team, Accel and Kennet to take personalization and self expression to new heights.”

Accel Partner Harry Nelis underlines the fit with Kennet, pointing out its experience with businesses that want to accelerate growth: “Since 2006, Accel has supported Spreadshirt’s development as it has become the market leader for creative apparel in Europe, and established itself in North America.  With Kennet joining the shareholder group, we have additional expertise to take Spreadshirt across the chasm into the mainstream on both sides of the Atlantic.”

It is something of an achievement in itself for Spreadshirt to successfully conclude a funding of this size in the current economic climate.  Spreadshirt’s main rivals, Cafepress and Zazzle (Both U.S.-based enterprises) have dominated this sector between them in the United States.  This new investment may assist Spreadshirt in making more significant inroads into the American market.