We originally wrote this story for Make Magazine as the first in a series of four installments about starting a business using maker-accessible 3D printers as a production tool. Our original post is still up on Make here.
It’s five in the morning and I’m in a freezing Seattle basement designing 3D printable molds for a customer. In the room next door, a trio of 3D printers are whirring away in the warmth of house’s heater, printing products we sold earlier that day. Bilal, Sarms and Ilan are sprawled out next to me on the floor, and everything I own in this world is packed away in duffels on the roof of my car. It’s dark in this basement, and I can’t help but grin.
Two months ago and half the world away, my good friend Bilal and I were standing on the roof of my house, grilling portobellos and marveling at Rancho, my Makerbot Thing-o-matic, cranking away next to us. Bilal had just finished a project and I’d just quit my job. We spent our days playing with the Makerbot and our nights worrying about what we’d do next. In between mouthfuls of mushrooms, we started talking about how there’s lots of low-cost 3D printers in the world, but very few people were selling the things they printed. Come to think of it, we could think about people printing kits for more printers, but we hadn’t heard of anyone designing products specifically to print on these cheap printers. “Holy crap!” shouted Bilal, spraying spores and portobello gills. “Why don’t we just do this?” I took a gander at Rancho, who’d just spat out another part for a robot I was building. “I bet we could fit this in the trunk of my car and run it off an inverter while we drive,” I said. “Why not take the show on the road?”
And so, buoyed by optimism, incredibly powerful technology, wanderlust and a world of possibilities, we settled on what to do next–we’d fill my car with low-cost 3D printers and drive around the country designing, printing and selling what we made. You hear about technomads–computer programmers who wander the world with their laptops, programming and making a living wherever they can find internet and a power outlet. The way we saw it, a community of talented makers had taken a powerful technology–3D printing–that was capable of making any imaginable shape, and they’d democratized it, engineering and re-engineering to make it cheap, simple and good, until it came within the grasp of unemployed 26- year-olds. The machines were out, and they’d only get better and cheaper. The only question remaining was, what are you going to do with them?
So we planned our trip. Ten cities in a month. We’d release a new product every week while we traveled. We’d keep a spot in our car for a Passenger-In-Residence to drive parts of the trip with us and help us create designs. Makerbot donated a couple printers to the cause(thanks, guys!). We stole an Up! printer from Carl Bass’ desk. And we had Rancho, my Makerbot. We looked up craft fairs, flea markets and coffeeshops where we’d sell our products. We wrote blog posts and fired up CAD software to design products. We kept our printers running around the clock, printing different designs, seeing what printed well, how the printers would fail, how to keep them purring happily, and how to tweak our designs so they’d print cheaply and reliably. I drove my Makerbot across the country and down into Baja on a test
drive. We prepared for the trip from opposite ends of the country, and in our skype calls, we’d ponder the same questions over and over–would anyone actually want a product that comes off a $1000 printer? Would anyone care how the product is made? What does 3D printing add to a product that other production techniques can’t?
We started our trip with three products that we knew how to make–iphone cases, belt buckles and 3D portraits. iPhone cases were a serendipitous stroke of luck. We’d originally wanted to make more niche products–3D printable robots, software that takes a scan of your head and turns it into a geared object a la cube gears. As it so happened, I was describing this to my relatives over Thanksgiving and watching their eyes slowly glaze over. My grandmother started brandishing a broom at my makerbot, threatening to sweep it off the counter and out of our conversation, when my aunt asked, “could you print me an iPhone case?”
Out came my calipers, up came my CAD software, and an hour later, the machine was printing out an iPhone case, layer by layer. My family was captivated. My 14- year-old cousin kept watching the build progress meter and shouting requests for things to print on a case for his phone. This phone case has been our bread-and- butter product for the past week. There’s a very special thing that happens when a customer can pop an object out of our printers and into their pockets; into their cars or clothing or wrists or lives. It took me a while to recognize it, but this idea of immediate utility was my first glimpse into the future of 3D printing, a future where technology is cheap but utility is rare.
Well, we left San Francisco a week ago and just about everything went wrong. My old inverter breathed its last, and we weren’t able to power the printers in the car. The colder air up north made our prints warp and fail often, causing our yield to plummet. I took on a custom design job that payed too little for far too much work. Seattle got hit with its largest snowstorm of the last millenium and the city shut down just as we rolled into town. Hello Pocket Factory, goodbye power. Our printers needed some tweaking, but so did the web page, the products, our schedule and our social media. There were three of us, but it felt like we were outnumbered. It’s hard to start a business, and we were starting a factory, a product design group and a road show, all at the same time.
We didn’t really have a plan for how to sell parts at first, and it showed. We’d set up the printers in public and start cranking out prints. Sure enough, we’d draw a crowd–the printers are mesmerizing to watch, and as soon as we turned the printers on, people would gather around. But for all the conversations we had about the technology, people didn’t really want to buy our products. At first, we tried to sell customization–we’d work with a customer to tweak one of our stock designs to something that was uniquely their own. In practice, though, it was too open- ended, and we didn’t really capture customers’ imaginations. We’d show examples of stuff we’d done–putting profiles of our faces onto phone cases or debossing text into the case, but it was hard to to get people excited about the open-ended world of possibilities. The customers came, they chatted, and they walked away.
But in the midst of all the chaos, some things went right. We met some extremely welcoming hackerspaces, cafes and art galleries who gave us great places to print and helped us pull in people. Somewhat to our surprise, most people on the street had seen 3D printers–”Cool, that’s a 3D printer. Just like on TV!” was a chorus we grew to know well. Some customers got it right away–they were thrilled at the idea of having their products made right in front of them. They were excited to work with us to customize their designs, and the look of delight as they watched their prints grow on the printers was straight from my cousin’s face.
And now we’re in Seattle. The streets are covered in snow, and we’re heading up to Canada tomorrow. We’ve been doing this for a week, and it’s damn hard to make things on these machines that sell. But it’s not impossible. We sold $250 worth of products we designed, perfected and produced. We covered our gas and some groceries. And we’re getting better. We’ve got great Passengers-In-Residence helping us (Sarms “The Hammer” Jabra can smooth-talk our printers into any cafe in the country, and Ilan Moyer is a designer extraordinaire). We’re constantly aided by an incredible community of enthusiastic makers and friends who keep us printing, housed and fed. We’re designing and making new, great things on our printers daily. And we’re loving it.
Like everything, 3D printing is a world full of possibilities, of distractions and promises and excitement. The more we print and the more people we talk to, the closer we get to the juicy nuggets of Truth in 3D printing; the intersection of printers and people. The better we get at using our tools to make things that people love. The more we understand that And the more we believe in a future where other designers are no longer constrained by money or connections or resources–a future where the only thing standing between a great idea and an impact in people’s lives is a little white button labeled ‘print’.
We’ll be posting weekly on Make about our progress creating and selling products on these Maker printers, and we’re posting daily updates on pocketfactory.org. Check out what we’re making in pocketfactory.org/shop. And if you happen to glance out your window and see a beat-up silver Prius covered in snow and heading East, please be a dear and mail us that roll of ABS filament that fell off the roof rack. We’ve got printers to run!