A few years back, 3D printing was one of the hottest tech trends all over the world – and as expected, Singaporeans weren’t about to miss that bandwagon either.
In May 2013, three young Singaporean graduates and a professor created a Kickstarter campaign to bring 3D printing into people’s homes.
Their campaign’s successful run made the news for raising USD$1.4 million in just one month.
Yes, I’m talking about Pirate3D and their highly-anticipated 3D printer, The Buccaneer.
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But they met a variety of problems such as hardware and cash flow issues, and they were unable to fulfil all of the promised orders on the crowdfunding platform.
We reported a quick rundown on their mistakes back in 2015 and you can read it here.
You can see the gravity of the situation, with backers still asking for a refund even in 2018!
However, after all that hype surrounding the trend, it seems like 3D printing has since backed away from the limelight and taken a backseat.
We just don’t hear much about it in mainstream media anymore – why?
I asked Francis Regan, co-founder and CTO of Ionic3DP, and Hisham Bary (24), co-founder and CEO of Ideal Factory, on their thoughts about the current state of the industry.
How Did 3D Printing Become “Mainstream”?
I did a little research, and found out that 3D printing had been a thing since the 1980s, but it wasn’t heavily commercialised then.
Francis explained that in the 1990’s, Stratasys, a 3D printer manufacturing giant, owned the patent to the Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) technology, which expired in 2010.
It is because of the expiration of the patent that probably explains the sudden popularity of 3D printing, Hisham reckoned.
Many new companies were able to now, “mimic that technology using much lower cost components”.
The industry then started to grow quickly, but leaned towards large engineering companies that produced industrially.
“It was definitely big enough to warrant a number of those companies investing in printers that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to [serve] clients in packaging manufacturing, product design, [and] architecture…to name a few,” Hisham said.
Francis recalls that Makerbot, an American desktop 3D printer manufacturer, was one of the first companies to rise after the Stratasys patent expired.
“It was acquired by Stratasys for more than $600 million,” shared Francis.
That acquisition gave hope to other companies like Pirate3D who had “hoped (for) the hype to continue” so they could also get “acquired by big companies like HP”.
3D printing opened up many possibilities in prototyping and manufacturing, and the emergence of consumer-level 3D printers, which allowed engineers and designers to produce their prototypes for a fraction of the cost and time particularly helped to boosts its popularity.
What Happened To Pirate3D?
The first few 3D printing companies in Singapore like Pirate3D and Creopop (now backed by a venture capitalist) raised a substantial amount of money through crowdfunding but they either failed thoroughly, in Pirate3D’s case, or have little presence.
I asked them what they thought went wrong.
Francis, who was one of Pirate3D’s first engineers, saw the “effort that went into building [the] Buccaneer”.
However, he admitted that raising money through crowdfunding wasn’t a good idea unless you have already computed all your manufacturing costs and other expenses.
“Sales in crowdfunding sites are usually considered as promotional activities to get the name out, but making a profit or breaking even is almost impossible,” he said.
But he doesn’t discount the fact that large orders in crowdfunding is advantageous for crowdfunders when they bargain with parts suppliers and factories.
In his opinion, funds raised in crowdfunding should only be used for production.
“Unless there is continuous evolution of the product through proper goals, accountability and vision, the company is not going to pull through. This applies for any hardware technology startup,” he said.
Still, he understood their vision, “Pirate3D was the first in the world to introduce a 3D printer for everyday consumers. [If] you needed a new utensil, you can 3D print it on the Buccaneer instead of heading over to a store to purchase it.”
The idea is great, but it was impractical three years ago. Moving forward into 2018, it is still the same. [They] had a vision which the world was not ready for, but they tried hard and failed. Well, that’s what startups are about.
From a third-person’s perspective, Hisham reckons the failure happened because of two factors: first, the “lack of focus as a company”, and second, the “inherent difficulty of building a machine at scale”.
On the second point, Hisham said they have never had a project that succeeded the first time.
“Big corporations don’t and small startups practically never do. You have to build a unit, test it, review and then repeat again until you get favourable results – and that gets expensive quick,” he explained.
Hisham noted that after Pirate3D had built their “successful machine” they had to “scale up to manufacturing” the Buccaneer.
“That is a whole other process that requires multiple iterations in itself, only now it’s A LOT more expensive.”
Francis had a similar sentiment; because Pirate3D had made a “huge commitment” to their Kickstarter backers, it was hard for them to manage the research and development, and production all at the same time in Singapore.
“The units that were sold in Kickstarter [were not profitable] and R&D takes a lot of time and money. Even though they were backed by VCs, they did not have enough to pull it through to the end,” he said.
He likens crowdfunding backers to investors, “as time goes so does their patience”. He also emphasised on the importance of planning and setting milestones to achieve.
“For a technology startup, R&D must continue…with a focus after understanding the market’s need. Failure to pivot upon receiving feedback from the market will lead to disaster,” Francis advised.
Which brings us back to Hisham’s first point: Pirate3D’s lack of focus as a company.
Regardless, he thought it was laudable for the Pirate3D team to come up with a “whole ecosystem built around the printer”, an ecosystem that included a website where users could download models.
“But what this does is it takes resources away from what they really need to be focusing on, which was the core product, the printer itself,” he explained.
What Led Them To Startup Their Own 3D Printing Companies?
Then came the question – why take leap into 3D printing themselves?
For Francis, it happened while he was working together with three other NUS team members on a car wash project in June 2015.
In May 2016, after they had made good headway into the car wash project, it struck them that they could “integrate the concept into” a 3D printer.
“Three sleepless nights later, we 3D printed our 3D printer to test out the concept and functionality,” Francis told me.
They realised that no one had used this concept in a 3D printer before, so they tested further and discovered a few advantages.
After 3D printing several versions and designs, they settled on one they were satisfied with, and went right in to built the mould and their first machine – the Kappa.
According to Francis, the Kappa was made for makers, tinkerers, and engineers.
The design of the Kappa has been made open source so others can learn and improve on it.
They also integrated the Scott Russell mechanism into their design which makes the Kappa compact and foldable.
“This not only eliminates complexities in assembly, but significantly reducing raw materials used, contributing to our cost advantage and, saves storage space for our customers,” Francis explained.
“The semi-assembled nature of the design allows for scalability in size without affecting the manufacturing costs drastically, which is crucial for our future models and expansion plans.”
For Hisham, the start of Ideal Factory was a long overdue outlet for him to channel his creativity and ideation into.
His dream of “realising ideas” was shelved until he took a Diploma Plus in Design Thinking at Singapore Polytechnic (SP).
In that course, he met like-minded people who would eventually form the Ideal Factory team.
“We all loved the idea of an entity that helps people build their ideas but also, our own ideas. We actually took our first concrete step (in starting up) accidentally,” he recalled.
It happened when Hisham and his co-founder, Jahaan, attended an entrepreneurship talk in SP where the CEO of Servolve, George Mathew, had offered to “make a company” right there and then.
“We looked at each other, and Jahaan’s hand shot up and we went to the podium where Mathew was. I put my particulars into the ACRA registration forms in front of an audience,” and that was how Ideal Factory was born.
The team started work on their “first real project” right after graduation, and it was to build a Wireless Water Sampling Data Station they named, Sensoria.
Hisham admitted sheepishly that they had no idea what they were getting themselves into, and had, essentially, threw themselves into the deep end.
They faced a lot of delays, hardware issues, and code that wouldn’t work, but the company they worked with were nice enough to walk them through. They completed Sensoria in phases.
“Eventually, we managed to deliver a working system to them that fits their requirements. It set the precedent for how we manage projects and many aspects of admin work that comes with running projects like this,” Hisham said.
Ideal Factory has made a special effects prop for a dance recital, a custom laboratory equipment for government research labs, props for cosplayers, and even a clip-on microscope for smartphones for a dermatology company.
“We seem to work really well with entities like companies or research groups that need a specific piece of equipment or use-case prototype. Basically, anyone who needs something built can come to us! If we can’t do it, we’ll find a way,” Hisham said.
What Has Changed/Stayed The Same In The Industry?
Francis thinks that hardware startups would still find it difficult to get prototypes due to budget constraints, and to make it, they have to look for factories in countries such as China and Taiwan.
3D printing in Singapore is still on the rise, but their usage in the consumer industry has not picked up.
Likewise, Hisham also believes that the the need for 3D printing in “industrial applications and remanufacturing” has stayed the same.
“What is changing, though, is the public’s view on 3D printing, especially in Singapore. [They might not] know that there are a number of companies offering 3D printing services in Singapore but at least they know what the technology is,” he said.
Francis cited persistence as Ionic3DP’s survival in the industry, as they started this as a hobby.
They poured in most of their resources to start Ionic3DP, with some help from NUS, and launched on Kickstarter in October 2017.
They surpassed their funding goal and spent only one-third of their cost on marketing.
Hisham attributed the survival of Ideal Factory to a variety of factors – “including luck!” he chuckled.
What Is The Future Of 3D Printing In Singapore Like?
From what the interviewees mentioned, it seems that for now, it’s more prudent to look at commercial entities as compared to trying to appeal to regular consumers.
The failure of Pirate3D has also served as a lesson to many other businesses in 3D printing and even other related industries.
What do you think? Will 3D printers ever have a place in our homes, or are they most likely to flourish in factories? Let us know in the comments below.
Featured Image Credit: 3Dprintingstudios.com