There is a revolution upon us in the Maker community. Use of computer-controlled construction methods, such as CNC machines, laser cutters, and 3D printers is on the rise and the cost to build these machines from scratch or from a kit continues to come down towards the point where your average household will soon be able to readily download and print objects the same way we download and print off a document. A major jump in this trend comes from the creator of the Solidoodle.
The Solidoodle is a 3D printer, capable of printing a 6″ x 6″ x 6″ object with a basic price point of $499, and a spool of filament will run you $43. For comparison, there are many high-quality inkjet and laser printers that run for this cost or more on Amazon while the cost of toner cartridges and ink refills run a pretty wide range and can easily cost more than $43. The Solidoodle premiered recently at NY Tech Day and was named the best of NY Tech Day by CNET. I had the chance to sit down and Skype with Solidoodle founder and CEO Sam Cervantes and got some more insight into the printer. He is a very nice guy and talked with me for about 40 minutes so I’ve pulled the highlights below.
McLaughlin: Where are you located?
Cervantes: We’re in the heart of Silicon Alley, Brooklyn, New York. It’s a great scene here and it’s been a crazy week. We actually debuted our product at NY Tech Day last week and ever since then it’s been non-stop. We’re having a blast.
McLaughlin: You have the parts for the Solidoodle and you’re actually doing the assembly?
Cervantes: That’s right, we put them together right here in Brooklyn, New York!
McLaughlin: So how many can you get done a week?
Cervantes: That’s a great question; we’ll let you know when we ramp up production. So far, we’ve had explosive growth over the past week with all the press and since our launch at NY Tech Day. We’re ramping up manufacturing right now and moving into a new facility. It’s going to be a lot of fun over the next few weeks and couple months and we’re ready for it. This is what we live for.
McLaughlin: I’m really impressed with the Solidoodle from the displays in the gallery. I love the Yoda.
Cervantes: Yoda’s great. Everybody loves the Yoda and its a great example of what it can do. Are you a Star Wars fan?
McLaughlin: Yes, but I think that comes with the territory of being a GeekDad. My three year old can turn anything into a Lightsaber. How did you get the price-point down so low?
Cervantes: We sat down with a clean sheet of paper and we really started redesigning the product from scratch. The single sentence answer is good engineering practices. We bring a wealth of engineering expertise and we have some of the best engineers in the world working on the Solidoodle. I’m an aerospace engineer myself and I bring a lot of that expertise. I used to design jet engine hardware and a lot of those principles and concepts are very applicable to the Solidoodle. First and foremost, I’m a hardware guy. Also, so I have the undergrad in engineering and after my time working on engines I went back and got a master’s degree in business with a focus on supply chain management. So how do we source, how do we build a supply chain to support very high volume manufacturing at affordable cost while still maintaining quality. I’m really combining my engineering background with my supply chain background to create a tightly integrated package to produce a great machine at an affordable price. Coupled with my experience in the 3D printing industry, I’ve worked for two different 3D printing companies and learned a lot there. So now I’ve decided to take a fresh look at what a 3D printer really is. Let’s work hard to eliminate the waste in the 3D printing process, make it durable, easy to use, and most of all, affordable so we can put these in the hands of as many people as possible.
McLaughlin: Is it all COTS [Commercial Off-The-Shelf] parts or do you have anything custom made?
Cervantes: Oh, we have a lot of things custom made. For example, out sheet-metal cage is custom made for us.
McLaughlin: So that is somewhere you can fall back on your jet turbine experience and really specify the part precision, gearing ratio, step control and all that.
Cervantes: Exactly, now we’re really talking geek. I love it! One of the things a 3D printer allows you to do, it allows you to take your imagination and tun it into a reality in such a short time. It’s really a paradigm shift in the way people think about and use technology. No longer do we have to be passive consumers and just take what we’re given by big companies. Now we can produce our own products. Have an idea for an invention and make it right there. If it doesn’t work the first time, make another one and keep trying until you get it right. We’re going see creativity, new ideas, new inventions, and new creativity crop up all over the world as we see Solidoodles get into the hands of more and more people. I think it’s really exciting.
McLaughlin: I just recently got to see a 3D printer in action for the first time at the US Science & Engineering Festival and I was just mesmerized watching something being created like that.
Cervantes: I remember the first time I saw a 3D printer print. I just watched it for hours, couldn’t take my eyes off of it. This magical process, this little machine obediently creating a part. It’s really magical to watch the first time you see it. I still sit and watch it. I have to be careful because I could still sit and watch it for hours.
McLaughlin: Now that was going to be a question: time. What is the time difference between a .1 mm resolution print and a 0.3 mm resolution print?
Cervantes: We haven’t done a lot of printing at the 0.1 mm resolution, we’re still working out the high-resolution setting but preliminary results are really encouraging. The 0.1 mm prints look great. As far as the time difference, I would say a 0.3 mm print would take about 1/3rd of the time as a 0.1 mm print. We don’t have an exact number but I would say that is a good rough guesstimate. It does take a good bit longer but if you want top-notch prints, that’s the way to get them. Do you want to see it print?
McLaughlin: Yes, absolutely!
Cervantes: So right now, we’re going to print a bottle opener. The bottle opener takes about 15-minutes and is about 2″ long, can actually open bottles, and there is probably about $0.15 worth of plastic in it. It’s a great first print for everybody because everybody needs a bottle opener.
McLaughlin: How many Solidoodles can you produce at a time? Well, I guess the better question is, how far are you backordered?
Cervantes: We’ve got quite a number of orders. It’s grown so much faster than we had hoped for, which is a great problem to have, having a huge demand for a product. Right now, we haven’t started production yet. Right now we’re in the phase where we are ordering materials. So once the materials get here in a few weeks, we’ll start firing up the assembly lines and start putting our operations wizardry to work.
McLaughlin: One of the reasons I find 3D printers so exciting is that I am not great at building things with my hands. I can make a nice box but that is about it. I can, however, use software to build a model of something, so being able to design and print a case for an electronics project is an exciting application for me.
Cervantes: I love it, I think that is a great application for a 3D printer. You know, something I love about 3D printers is that it is so easy. If you don’t want to design parts you can download tens of thousands of designs online, most for free. Or, if you want to start creating your own parts, its really easy to use Google Sketch-Up. Google Sketch-Up, if you don’t know how to use it, is probably the easiest to use 3D software. You run through some tutorials on our website and you can be up and running in an afternoon. Kids can even produce their own parts.
McLaughlin: I was watching the video of the skull printing on your website and was just amazed at the quality and how it came together as the skull finished printing.
Cervantes: The skull on the website, I believe and if I’m not mistaken, we downloaded it from the internet and it was actually a real MRI or some other kind of 3D imaging x-ray and it just shows how this is something doctors could use. You know, print out a patient’s bone structure and give them a copy. I think we’re just scratching the surface of what 3D printing can be used for. In the same way that no one could predict a hit such as Angry Birds when Apple Computers was just starting out, we just can’t know all the ways this technology is going to be used. We have to put the technology out there and see what is going to come out of people’s minds. See what the eager young minds of tomorrow are going to come up with. A few years, say 5 to 10 years down the road, I think we’re going to see 3D printers ubiquitous in the home and it’s going to be hard to live without one. It’s a really exciting time.
McLaughlin: Now of course a big movement is the trend towards open source. Is Solidoodle open source? Are you opening your specification at all?
Cervantes: Right now, all of our electronics and software are open source. We’ve published it online. We’re committed to software and electronics being open source.
McLaughlin: The objects you’ve printed and show in your gallery are great.
Cervantes: We really like the US Capitol. We downloaded this from Google Earth. Almost any building you want in Google Earth you can download, convert it in Sketch-Up, and then print it out on our printer. Architects love it.
McLaughlin: I can see why. What’s your favorite thing that you’ve printed so far?
Cervantes: That’s a hard one. My favorite is probably the castle. It’s great, it’s a toy that you can print it and give it to your children to play with and demonstrates what the Solidoodle can do. I just love it. Plus, my Dad designed it so I’ve got an attachment to it. We’re very excited to see what people will build with this platform we’ve created, what people are gonna do with it. We’re just working to keep it as easy to use as possible and as affordable as possible so as many people as possible can unleash their imagination. It’s a really exciting time and the future of 3D printing is really bright.
I want to thank Sam for talking to me. For more information on the Solidoodle or to buy your own, check out the Solidoodle website.