Interview: Solidoodle founder sees a coming 3D-printed age

Each day, 3D printing seems to become more popular. Since the original MakerBot brought us the first consumer-accessible 3D printer, the whole market has exploded with new niches and new ways for people to print their own objects. These days you can print just about anything your mind can imagine.

Last April, Solidoodle was the first company to introduce a sub-$500 3D printer. What started off as an affordable printer for everyone has become a popular printer among schools in particular, and a viable manufacturing method in its own right. We had a chat with Solidoodle founder Sam Cervantes to talk about what the 3D-printing business is like, and to pick his brain about where he thinks 3D printing will go next.

TechHive: How did you go from being an aerospace engineer to working in the 3D-printing business?

Sam Cervantes: Well, it’s funny, because my first experience with 3D printing was when I was an aerospace engineer. I was working as an aerospace engineer maybe 10 to 12 years ago. Somebody had printed a part of a jet engine, and they threw it in my lap—it was about the size of a TV tray or a cafeteria tray—and they said, "Here you go—and by the way, it’s potentially toxic."

At the time I realized 3D printing had a lot of potential. The part was very high resolution, and it was a big part. I realized that 3D printing had a lot of potential, and that it had a long way to go. The material at the time was slightly hazardous, and the part was really expensive—I think it cost $5000 just for one printed part.

So that was my first experience. Fast-forward to 2008 or 2009: I sold my first consumer 3D printer, and I thought it was really cool. The first time I saw a consumer 3D printer printing, I couldn’t take my eyes off it for hours. I was so captivated by this wonderful new technology that was affordable and within reach of the consumer.

Solidoodle
A close-up of a 3D printout compared to a quarter.

TH: What made you decide to start up your own 3D printer with Solidoodle?

SM: I worked with a few other startups and then I ended up starting my own company, Solidoodle. At the time, there was no other 3D printer that was both affordable and easy to use. My goal with Solidoodle was to make a printer that was fully assembled for just $499, and nobody had ever done that before. I worked really hard, I cut out waste, and I achieved it in April 2012 when we launched the Solidoodle 2. It just took off beyond our wildest expectations.

TH: What are some of the best uses of 3D printing you have seen come out of your own printer?

SM: One of my favorite things to see is fathers printing out toys for their children. In addition to teaching the kids about technology at an early age—in their developmental years—it is just plain fun. It’s a family experience.

Taking it back to my early years, my dad always had the latest computer, whether it be the TRS-80 or the Mac 512K. And we would play computer games, and he’d teach me to write little computer programs. That was so instrumental for me when I was growing up. So, now dads have a new technology for playing with their kids. Dad loves it because it’s hot new technology, and Mom allows him to buy it because he can play with their kids.

Solidoodle
The Solidoodle 2.

Another big use of our printers is in schools. Teachers love to buy our printers, put the printer in the classroom, and teach kids about technology. Kids can print out little projects; if they’re in a drafting class, they can print out prototypes of whatever they are drawing.

The third really cool use, to me, is designers and engineers—people who design professionally for a living. Designers, engineers, and architects use the printer to print out stuff for work. They probably have [another] 3D printer they can use to print at really high resolution, but it’s really expensive, and it’s a lot to lend [it to] some department somewhere. They have to get authorization to use it, and it's really tricky to use; it’s complicated.

Ours is affordable—an engineer can afford to put it on his desktop. Engineers will print little designs, parts, or new ideas. The cool thing is that they can quickly prototype. They don’t need to get the design right the first time, because it is so inexpensive to prototype.

Solidoodle

TH: Are there any specific 3D printing projects that you have liked in the past?

SM: Sure. We printed a tyrannosaurus. We had to print a number of different sections and then glue them together. It was a little project, but it was a lot of fun. I want to say it was 12 to 14 inches; this thing is huge. That’s probably one of our favorite prints here.

We also printed a soccer ball. It’s made of a number of different little pieces that snap together. It’s actually the size of a soccer ball, and you can kick it around because of the springiness of the material.

We had a customer that started a business. They printed little, really high-resolution game pieces. They started a game design company that created a Monopoly-style board game, each with the little board pieces—and they not only make prototypes, but also small production runs.

Next page: 3D printing in homes, factories, and elsewhere

TH: Do you see 3D printing becoming more tied in with everyday life, like a common household appliance?

SM: Absolutely. Almost every home that has a computer also has an inkjet printer or a laser printer. I see 3D printing becoming the same thing. I look back to what we were promised in the 1980s. Where’s my humanoid robot? Already we see that starting to happen with a company called Rethink Robotics.

I absolutely see 3D printing becoming more mainstream as we go forward. Entire ecosystems are being developed around 3D printing in terms of not only the printer but also the raw materials (such as the filament), as well as the 3D content and 3D-printing services. I absolutely see the 3D printer becoming an integral part of homes, and it’s already happening.

TH: Beyond hobbyist projects, is 3D printing becoming a more common manufacturing alternative?

SM: Definitely. Solidoodle is a case in point—we actually use the printer to print some of our own parts. For manufacturing, 3D printing is really a game changer.

If you imagine—take $10,000, and it will buy you 20 Solidoodle machines. With those 20 machines, let's say each machine can print out 20 parts a day; 20 times 20, that’s 400. With a $10,000 investment, you have a manufacturing system that is capable of printing out 400 parts a day.

That kind of production was previously attainable only by other processes such as injection molding. With injection molding, for just the mold alone you’re going to pay as much as $50,000.

I think you’re going to see it more and more in the home, and also in manufacturing environments. The great thing about it is that it is flexible. For example, if you want to create an iPhone case made with an injection mold, you are going to spend $50,000 on the mold—and then you can’t change it. If you want to change the design, you have to scrap the whole mold. With a bank of 20 3D printers, you can simply reprogram the printers, no problem.

TH: We already have some 3D-printing services out there, such as Shapeways. Do you think 3D prints will become a digital good, like plans for an object?

SM: I think you’re going to see, in the future, a whole market for 3D content. We’ve created a platform in much the same way when Apple created the first iPhone. At the time, we didn’t know, or could not know, what the end use would be. All that we knew was that we had this amazing new platform.

Fast-forward to today: We put the 3D printer in the wild. We don’t know, or we can’t know, what our customers are going to use it for. We do know that we are creating a game changer, and that’s really exciting. We’re already seeing new uses crop up, apart from the ones I’ve already mentioned. I think we’re definitely going to see different markets for 3D content spring up.

TH: On the flip side of that question, do you think potential copyright issues will arise when anyone can print their own objects?

SM: With any new technology launch, you have some opportunities but also some challenges. Look at the music industry: On the one hand, it has made it possible for new artists to get started more easily than ever. The Internet has allowed artists to launch careers in ways never thought possible. It lowers the barriers for creating music. At the same time, I’d say the big record labels are more profitable than ever.

There are obviously a number of challenges in the music industry in terms of intellectual property, and I’ve been to a number of summits—I think it was a couple of years ago I went to an event called 3D/DC—and the idea was to get in front of all that with the 3D-printing industry. How can we move constructively forward in a way that allows as many people as possible to take advantage of this new technology, while also putting a regulatory system in place that spurs innovation and protects creativity?

People are already thinking about that, and I’m going to another regulatory event coming up pretty soon. It is definitely a challenge going forward, but if the music industry is any lesson, there will be many wonderful things ahead for both content originators and the ultimate consumer.

Examples of 3D-printed creations.

TH: As 3D printing becomes more important in the future, do you have any plans to support schools?

SM: We’re already supporting schools. I believe we have taken orders from 44 different schools all around the country, and we definitely have plans to expand that. Education is a huge segment for us. I remember when I was in the second grade there was an entire classroom filled with Apple II computers, and at the time they could do only two things: They could play Oregon Trail, and they could do some silly little drawing game.

But the idea was that it got us familiar with technology. As a second-grader, I grew up with this idea—"Hey, a computer is approachable, and it’s within my grasp." In a lot of ways, growing up with that idea got me where I am today. I am very committed to supporting educational institutions and schools.

We’ve donated a printer to the Georgia Institute of Technology that they can use in their Mars Society research program. These Georgia students are going to take the printer, and they’re going to put it in the Utah desert for a couple of weeks to test it in a harsh, simulated-Mars environment [while] wearing spacesuits and all sorts of cool stuff. We’re very committed to education and supporting the eager young minds of tomorrow.

TH: Would you like to share any future plans for Solidoodle 4, or Solidoodle as a whole?

SM: At Solidoodle, we stand for two things: The first is "affordable" and the second is "easy to use." With the products we’re going to put out in the future, I think you can expect more of the same. We’re going to continue to keep the machine affordable and make it even easier to use. That’s our goal here.

As far as the next generation of Solidoodle, I’ll let you know when we know. We’re still in the process of developing our next product, and a lot of it is determined by our customers. The main thing is, we sell direct to the consumer, so we get customer feedback every single day, and our customers tell us what they want. I see bright things ahead in our future. I wish I could tell you, but we haven’t fully figured it out yet.

What I can say is, we have a really good team here designing these products. We’ve got a really great team of 60 people right here in Brooklyn, New York, in the USA. Very creative and intelligent minds. And we also have a really good customer base that feeds us information, so I think you should expect really exciting things moving forward. We’re just getting warmed up.

TH: Do you have any tips for someone just getting into 3D printing?

SM: Have fun with it and let your imagination run wild. The possibilities truly are limited only by your imagination. With a 3D printer, you can create nearly everything for your home, your office, or your next million-dollar invention. Don’t be shackled by any preconceived notions of what society tells you is possible. This is a hot new technology—have fun with it.

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