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

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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