The creator of the first sub-£350 3D printer tells us what to expect from 3D printer makers in the future.
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.
DA: How did you go from being an aerospace engineer to working in the 3D-printing business?
SC: "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 $5,000 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.
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.
"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."
TH: Are there any specific 3D printing projects that you have liked in the past?
SM: "Sure. We printed a tyrannosaurus (below). 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."
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."