Monday, March 9, 2015
3D Printing Redux: How Idealab's New Matter Wants To Bring 3D To The Masses
Story by Benjamin F. Kuo
3D printing is all the rage in the maker and do-it-yourself hobbyist market, but how do you truly take 3D printing to the mass market? Pasadena-based New Matter (www.newmatter.com) is developing a 3D printer, the MOD-t, which it says will help bridge the world of 3D printing experimentation with the consumer. We spoke with CEO Steve Schell on how Idealab believes its past experience with starting up a 3D printing company--and some new ideas on how to create a marketplace of 3D designs--are the key to making the leap from hobbyist to the mass market.
Talk about what New Matter is working on?
Steve Schell: New Matter is aiming to make 3D printing accessible to everyone. We're doing that through really a low cost, affordable, elegant looking, and easy to use 3D printer designed for consumers, not just professionals. We made it easy, by integrating the 3D printer with an online design marketplace, so that even users who don't have the capability to do their own 3D designs themselves, can go to an online store, find a design uploaded by talented designers and artists, and with a single click can send that print job over WiFi to their 3D printer.
How far from shipping product are you?
Steve Schell: The company is just over a year old, and was founded at Idealab, by Bill Gross, last January. We launched on Indiegogo for about sixty days. Since then, we've been very busy staffing up the company, finishing our product, and getting it into production, and also have raised a Series A funding. At this point, we're in the process of bringing our factory online in Asia, and expect to be shipping product over this summer. We expect we'll be shipping all of those 2500 units we have on preorder, and expect to have product in hand by September.
What's different about your product from 3D printers out there now?
Steve Schell: The MOD-t is consumer oriented. It's really designed as an easy to use product, to maximize the likelihood of customer success with the 3D printer. We've kept the build envelope to a fairly modest size, with objects 6x4x5 inches. That's medium size, but that makes it more affordable. It prints using PLA, Poly Lactic Acid, which is a fairly common plastic for 3D printing. It's one of the nicer ones, because it can be sourced from renable sources, and because during printing, it does not produce an offensive odor. It doesn't smell like burning plastic, because it operates at a lower temperature. Plus, our simpler hardware really improves the reliability of the print process. What's unique about the MOD-t, is we have a patent pending motion system for two of our 3 axis of motion. It requires very few components to produce that motion, which reduces the machining and shafts, bearing gears, and belts required for those mechanisms. We've stripped out about two third of the parts needed in a motion system, which allows us to manufacture the product very cost effectively. It also improves reliability, because there are fewer places to fail.
What was the idea behind the crowdfunding campaign?
Steve Schell: There were really two things we wanted to accomplish with the crowdfunding campaign. First, you get a very clear signal, whether your product concept has merit, and how attractive it is to the market. It would be a shame to invest lots of time and money in a product, and not have it attractive to customer. The other thing was a little more nuanced, but important. The idea is that we're creating a two sided marketplace, where you have customers using the 3D printer, at at the same time, improving that experience by creating a marketplace of designs, with designers contributing to that marketplace. It's very difficult to get one without the other. Without customers, no designer wants to participate. And without designers, it's a lot less attractive for customers because there's not much to print. Looking for a way to solve the chicken and egg problem, of having two sides of a marketplace, was really helped by the crowdfunding campaign. That's allowed us to take orders fairly long in advance of product delivery, and we can use that time while we're launching our product to reach out to the design community. We can tell them, look, there's no marketplace today, but we'll soon have products shipping and we already have 2,500 users looking for a marketplace where they can purchase designs to download. That allows us to get more interest from the design community, as well.
Steve Schell: I glad you brought that up, Idealab and Desktop Factory. I have a long history here at Idealab, and have been involved in four different ventures, all the way back to 2001. I have been in and around this building for a very long time, and was actually the lead engineering on the Desktop Factory product. We were working on 3D printing before 3D printing was cool. I remember, telling my friends and family in 2005 that I was working on a 3D printer, and their eyes would glaze over. Only if I talked to another engineer, would they understand what the technology was about. How that influenced both me personally, and Idealab, was the experience of mass production, the success and trials, and all that it taught us about the 3D printing industry as a whole. It was very clear at that time, that the technology was on the trajectory of getting better and better, and the costs of the equipment were coming way down. Just as importantly, the capability of 3D design software, and the capability of 3D printers to take 3D designs was getting better. Even ten years ago, when Desktop Factory was at Idealab, we could see that eventually, this was going to be a consumer technology. It was clear at the time however, that the time was not then. Back then, we saw the future was something like New Matter, but we were concentrating on a product for small businesses. In the last few years, both myself and Bill Gross had kept an eye on this industry, paid attention to where the technology was going, watching to see how close it would get to be a consumer product. It was just about two or three years ago, that we thought it was the right time for New Matter to be born.
Speaking of consumers, what do you think it will take to get from the Maker/DIY crowd to wider, consumer distribution?
Steve Schell: I really believe it's a product like the MOD-t, and I'm not just saying that in a sales-pitchy way. The product is build around an ecosystem, to help answer that question, of what is missing that prevents 3D printing from reaching widespread consumer adoption. To hit the bullet point, you need to first have affordability. The MOD-t will cost below $400 tihs year, which puts that in the price range of a gaming console, and something consumers will tolerate. It also needs to be designed like a consumer product. That means it has to be modern, have a great user experience, and everything from the industrial design to aesthetics is important. You need that machine to look elegant and fit in well with the home. We've also included features like built-in-WiFi, which allows you to connect this with some great cloud services, like most technology today works. I think that's what consumers expect, which is a really connected device. Anything short of that will really disappoint. Third, it must be reliable and easy to use. We really spent a lot of time on the MOD-t trying to reduce complexity, and also improve the reliability of the machine. If one out of every three print jobs doesn't work, you have a big problem. Hobbyists might be able to tolerate that, but consumers will not.