by Andre Tiemann | Jan.7, 2013
If the almost unheard of gains in publicly traded stocks is any indication, there's money to be made in 3D printing. It is also clear that there is a growing number of industries using this fast-developing technology. This said, not everyone using 3D printing keeps a printer nearby. The cost and experience necessary to produce high quality prints remains a deterring factor for many.
The interim solution seems to lie in the burgeoning service bureau industry. Shapeways has expanded its manufacturing capabilities with a new factory in New York City, Sculpteo recently raised 2.5 million in an effort to expand production and Staples just announced an ambitious plan of their own.
Still, there are those that view these services as being too costly for the designer on a budget. The unfortunate reality is that the high-end machines, materials and operational overhead is expensive.
This is where Draft Print 3D come in.
After building two RepRap Prusa Mendels with a friend, it became clear to me that the hobbyist market had matured into something valuable. It was evident that a wide range of high quality prints could be produced once the unavoidable technical limitations were considered.
With this in mind, I went ahead and purchased the original Replicator to see if it was in any way superior to that of its RepRap predecessor. I immediately discovered that, while output quality was comparable, print repeatability together with fewer maintenance issues suggested they could be used in a production environment.
So finally, after securing some flexible financing, I moved forward by stocking up on the newly released Replicator 2s (with a Form-1 SLA unit on the way). The plan is to start small and grow organically as demand dictates (fingers crossed).
Then, shortly after putting together the draftprint3d.com in mid-October, the orders started coming in.
There were stretches in November when all of the Replicators were buzzing away day and night with FDM friendly designs (this basically means a flat base with few overhangs). And since I was already experienced in file preparation, it didn't take long to transform their models into clean, sturdy prints. My enthusiasm was through the roof.
But the trials and tribulations of a newly launched startup soon surfaced.
I started receiving requests for tiny printouts that were difficult to produce on current prosumer level machines. Then orders that required a great deal of supports started popping up.
These issues, however, were dealt with simply by being honest with the client.
If time allowed, I provided a sample photograph of a portion of the requested job and explained any issue that might arise. If unsatisfied, I would direct the client to other, more established service bureaus like Shapeways (or to Toronto shops if they found Draft Print 3D using local channels).
So far, it seems, this honest and straightforward approach has worked out.
In mid-December, for example, I directed someone to a more sophisticated shop when they had concerns about plastic residue left over from the support structure. Believing I had heard the last from this person, I received a followup email the next day. He had changed his mind.
At first I thought this was because of the low price I was able to offer, but I later found out that he did indeed contact other shops, and they all refused because his printouts were just too small.
Considering the high resolutions possible on those machines, it is reasonable to believe their rejection had more to do with the lower margins possible while working on small orders. And truthfully, I may not have been able to spend the time I did for the price quoted in busier times. But going above and beyond is always a good strategy, so I did what I could and the client was happy with the results.
This leads to other growing pains I have been discovering early on. My current cost structure is something I am still tweaking and a bit of variability occurs as a result. Charging by volume has both its benefits and drawbacks and I am fast realizing this. I am considering charging by print time instead.
Finally, deciding how much and when to start charging for file conversion, cleanup and design tweaks is something that needs consideration.
While reading Chris Anderson's book Makers, I came across some very relatable words of wisdom. On making a profit with a startup, he writes, "One of the first mistakes budding Makers make when they start to sell their product is not charging enough. They want the product to be popular, and they know the lower the price, the more it will sell."
As a first time business owner, I can suddenly relate. He pushes ahead by stating, "Such thinking may be understandable, but it's wrong. Making a reasonable profit is the only way to build a sustainable business."
Another important factor while starting up was quickly touched on during a recent Reddit AMA by billionaire Mark Cuban. When asked what everyone should know before starting a small business, he replied "It's not about the idea, its about how prepared you are. Everyone has ideas, most don't do the work required to get the job done."
It is with these words that the original feelings of enthusiasm returned. My small team and I are truly committed and experienced enough to produce the highest quality prints with the technology available to us.
So with this confident sense of preparedness and a determined work ethic intact, Draft Print 3D hopes to push forward in our just opened downtown office space and take on any challenge in the years to come.
Here are more of our 3D printed models:
(Chineseball, 0.1mm layer height, thingiverse)
(FireHall, 0.2mm layer height, designed by Andre Tiemann )
Posted in 3D Printing Services
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Ahmad from Lebanon wrote at 1/16/2013 6:42:52 PM:
Thanks for the prompt reply, much appreciated. Regarding your demand, have you thought of narrowing your target market? It could actually be of benefit to you if lets say, you focused on the architecture/engineering/design students within your vicinity. Begin with marketing your service ONLY to the universities, institutes, schools etc. For example, here in Lebanon, architecture students alone would use this 3D prototyping service AT LEAST bi-weekly. Lets not forget that the education industry will never die. New students enroll every year. Demand will always be there. The question is, how can YOU exploit this? After having mastered the students, you could move on to phone cases, then glasses, then anything you want. In my opinion, you should narrow your service down (and set print standards) as there is an entire untapped market (the students) that are just waiting for an opportunity like this. You must capitalize on the REAL users of prototyping, if increasing your demand is what you really want (ofcourse it is!) Food for thought. Keep us in the loop!
Andre Tiemann wrote at 1/15/2013 2:37:37 PM:
Hi Ahmad, I have a Replicator Dual, and two Replicator 2s at my disposal (with a Form-1 arriving soon). Unfortunately, they are not running day and night at the moment because I don't have enough clients for that to be happening. This said, there was a period in late November when it was the case that I was running the machines for around 20 hours a day for several days straight. They seem to be able to handle the workload.
Ahmad from Lebanon wrote at 1/14/2013 9:08:17 PM:
Indeed a great article!! Great inspiration! One question though, so far how many printers do you have operational, and are they really working day and night? Thank you again and I understand if this question cannot be answered. Keep us in the loop!
Andre Tiemann wrote at 1/8/2013 8:48:12 PM:
Thanks for the support! I'm doing my best to move ahead with the plan. So far, so good.
Niks wrote at 1/8/2013 1:51:19 PM:
A Great article, specially for other entrepreneurs who are thinking to start similar service in other parts of the world! Thanks!