Since MakerBot Industries began selling its first kits in 2009, the commercialization of 3-D printing has been gaining steam, both within the maker movement and in the mainstream media, as an idea with the potential to revolutionize manufacturing.
How and when that revolution will take place, and whether 3-D printers will remain an industrial technology or become household appliances, is the subject of ongoing debate among enthusiasts – a schism personified by two startups in Betaspring’s latest accelerator cohort introduced on April 24.
“The Web is going through an evolution from 2-D to 3-D environments, and we’re seeing this move from bits to atoms, from digital to physical, that’s best embodied by 3-D printing,” said Allan Tear, co-founder and managing partner of Betaspring. “In some ways, it’s consistent with our core philosophy of what Providence is uniquely good at, which is the intersection between design and physical technology.”
The two companies – 3DaGoGo and Mebotics – are the first to attend Betaspring’s program that are developing tools directly related to 3-D printing technology, rather than simply using 3-D printing as a means to develop a product or prototype. Aside from that distinction, however, they have almost nothing in common: while 3DaGoGo, founded in San Diego, is developing software geared toward 3-D printing novices, Somerville, Mass.-based Mebotics works in hardware designed for small businesses and manufacturers.
3DaGoGo and Mebotics are part of a spring 2014 class that includes five other startups and two “Betaspring Fellows.” The cohort was selected from a pool of roughly 300 applications, according to the accelerator. During the first half of the 12-week program, the teams have worked with Betaspring mentors and experts.
Mebotics co-founder and CEO Jeremy Fryer-Biggs came into the 3-D printing space from a background in product development and became interested in the technology because of its applications for making unique, one-off parts that can be used to build almost anything.
“Physical products govern everything that we do in life,” said Fryer-Biggs during his pitch to a crowd of 300 at the accelerator’s spring open house last month. “Products account for $2 trillion in the U.S. economy, but only 7 percent of startups make things because traditionally it’s very expensive.”
To tackle that problem, he and three friends designed the Microfactory, a hybrid 3-D printer and CNC milling machine that combines both additive and subtractive prototyping in one “desktop machine shop” that can shape wood, plastic or aluminum.
According to Fryer-Biggs, it’s the first machine of its kind at a price point affordable for small businesses (the base machine costs $3,195), and it can print in up to four colors or two different materials at once for fast, custom prototyping.
What the Microfactory is not, however, is a tool designed for mainstream consumers. That’s where 3DaGoGo comes in. The cloud-based software they’re developing would walk first-time printers through the process of uploading a file for print and analyze the file for potential problems such as holes in the design that could cause the print to fail.
“We want to facilitate the move from hobbyists to early adopters,” said Drew Taylor, “moving from techie individuals to people who don’t want to tinker for an hour to print something.” Taylor founded 3DaGoGo with Daniel Arroyo and Joshua White.
Currently, Taylor said, someone who designs a 3-D print file from scratch or downloads one from a community website like Thingiverse (or 3DaGoGo’s own online marketplace) uses one of three main programs to prepare a 3-D file for print: NetFabb, Slic3r or RepetierHost.
However, these programs come loaded with more than 100 settings to be tweaked and tuned. 3DaGoGo aims to bring that number down to three settings and move toward a “one-click print” model for 3-D printing.
Using 3DaGoGo still requires a certain degree of technical know-how, Taylor said, and it is geared toward people who are new to 3-D printing but are generally accustomed to experimenting with new technology.
To make the jump to the mainstream consumer, 3-D printing hardware and software will need to become more intuitive, Arroyo added, but by helping to make 3-D printing more accessible to first-time users, 3DaGoGo hopes to fuel what they see as the future of the 3-D printing movement – a microwave-like device accessible to the mainstream consumer and operable at the push of a button.
“It literally will mean a 3-D printer in every home,” said Arroyo. “It will be a $200 machine that you buy at Staples or Walmart that your kids ask you to buy.”
Fryer-Biggs envisions a different future for the technology. Current 3-D printer models are too expensive and too complicated to use, he said, and to take full advantage of the technology requires the ability to design or modify 3-D print files using CAD software. In addition, the products 3-D printers can make and the materials they are made out of (typically plastic) are not of a quality that mainstream consumers will appreciate.
Instead of 3-D printers finding their way into consumers’ homes, Fryer-Biggs said, they are more likely to become widely available through stores and shared community printing spaces, like FedEx or a 3-D printing café.
3-D printing also has commercial applications. For example, Fryer-Biggs said, in the future a retailer like AutoZone could 3-D-print parts for older or less-common automobiles, meeting those customers’ needs without the expense of keeping those parts in stock for the small percentage of customers who need them.
“I actually think that those two viewpoints are where the whole 3-D printing industry is sort of duking it out right now,” said Wayne Losey, creative director at Providence-based Dynamo Development Labs and a Betaspring mentor. “The media has really latched onto the idea of you owning your own capability and making your own product, and the sort of status quo in 3-D printing up to this point has been, ‘This is not for everyone; this is for high-end designers; these are not toys.’”
The companies that ultimately decide the direction of 3-D printing may be startups like 3DaGoGo and Mebotics, Losey said, but Mebotics especially will have to overcome the challenge of attracting enough funding to finance its Microfactories.
After launching an unsuccessful Kickstarter campaign last year to raise $1 million for production costs, Fryer-Biggs said he gained a better appreciation for the challenge of raising capital and is currently exploring partnerships with two large-scale manufacturers to build the Microfactory on their production lines.
In the meantime, MAKE Magazine last November named the Microfactory among the top 3-D technologies to watch in 2014, and although it is not currently on sale to the general public, Mebotics has sold a number of beta units to select local companies who have offered feedback on the machine’s functionality. He hopes his stay at Betaspring, under the tutelage of experts and mentors such as Losey, will provide the momentum needed to take the Microfactory to the next level.
“3-D printing is not only fashionable but it’s captured people’s imaginations,” said Losey. “I think that we’re still in an early spot, still in the pirate days of 3-D printing. … The big winners will be people facilitating use to novice users and people that are helping to advance the science, materials, print technologies and visualization and design.” •