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Friday, April 18, 2014

VIDEO: Solidoodle Finds Success in the New Paradigm of Consumer-Empowered Manufacturing

Sam Cervantes is excited about 3-D printing and with good reason. Since founding Solidoodle in his Brooklyn, N.Y., apartment, he has seen his company move into a bigger facility, update its signature 3-D printer product through two additional release versions, and create 60 new local jobs. And 3-D printing is no longer an industry curio but rather a serious opportunity for American manufacturing.

At a Thursday, Feb. 28, press conference in New York City, Cervantes announced that Solidoodle is expanding internationally, opening up 3-D printing capabilities to manufacturers abroad and establishing the first “3-D printing lifestyle store” in Moscow. Further, the company has teamed with the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Mars Society to provide 3-D printing technology for rugged testing in the Utah desert. Solidoodle has also provided machines to various education institutions and libraries throughout the U.S.

But why 3-D printing?

To hear Cervantes talk about the technology, his answer might have been simply summed up as, “Why not 3-D printing?” As he notes, most of Solidoodle’s customers are “tech dads” or members of the maker community. But the company’s machines, eponymously named Solidoodles, are so inexpensive and require such little training to use, he says, they have already assisted small businesses in manufacturing product components at lower cost. Cervantes showed off various third-party products that used Solidoodle-created parts to cut production costs.

Solidoodle Sign 350x262

This visual clock was produced with components made on a Solidoodle 3-D printer. Source: Brian Lane.

Solidoodle practices what it preaches in 3-D printing: Although the frame of the Solidoodle 3 is made from welded steel, some of the interior parts, including elements of the printing nozzle, are 3-D printed. The Brooklyn factory has a wall of 23 Solidoodles working every weekday, printing parts that will go into more Solidoodles. Doing some quick math, Cervantes pointed out that the wall of printers cost about $11,500, much less expensive than purchasing a large, traditional machine tool and hiring trained operators to run part production.

About 60 employees work out of the Brooklyn facility. The Carroll Gardens neighborhood that surrounds it suggests “brunch” more than “industry,” but Cervantes and his team converted an old warehouse into a compact production facility. Solidoodle’s unconventionally titled director of consumer experience and usability, Raphael Stuparitz, recalled to IMT Machining Journal his first day on the job, sweeping dirt and cleaning out the warehouse to make way for production tables and testing areas.

Cervantes notes that the company has accomplished the task of creating local jobs to construct the 3-D printing machines and export them to all over the world. And the $3 million or so in business the company has done over the past year is not local money switching hands, but rather revenue coming in from across the U.S. and international locations that brings positive economic impact to the local area.

Soon, Solidoodle will have a broader international impact. The company has signed a distribution deal in Brazil, with Russian and Japanese distribution deals in the works. “About 50 percent of our orders are international,” Cervantes explained, but he noted that customs barriers have been challenging, often delaying orders.

Additionally, Solidoodle will soon open an upscale 3-D printing lifestyle storefront in Moscow to show off 3-D printed components and products. This market was chosen because Russia has a growing software development industry and presents a cost-effective location for the experiment. The Moscow store will be the first of several planned stores in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, including shops in Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan.

So convinced of 3-D printing’s future, Cervantes has also made efforts at schools to cement Solidoodle as a brand among future potential manufacturing generations.

Solidoodle has placed its machines in educational facilities across the country. There is a Solidoodle printer in the John Ed Keeter Public Library in Saginaw, Tex., on which children can reserve time and learn to use its plug-and-play software and design parts. Solidoodle has an exhibit at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, Calif. The company has also partnered with a research facility that conducts tests in the harsh Utah desert to plan for an eventual human voyage to Mars. The Georgia Mars Society believes that 3-D printing may be an efficient means for a Mars base to conduct repairs using 3-D replacement parts and create new equipment on the go.

CEO Sam Cervantes 350x299

Solidoodle CEO and Founder Sam Cervantes describes 3-D printing as a platform. “We don’t know what the killer app for 3-D printing will be.” Credit: Brian Lane

Cervantes likes to describe 3-D printing in terms of a platform. As he noted, when Apple released the iPhone, no one had any idea that the “killer app” would be a game called Angry Birds. Similarly, 3-D printing is still so new that no one – including Cervantes and the team at Solidoodle – is sure what the killer app will be for the Solidoodle.

But Cervantes is clear on one thing: Even with all of Solidoodle’s success, the aspect of his business that keeps him excited is the customer feedback. Every day, his customer service team is inundated with e-mails from users who want to show off mods they’ve created for their own printers and parts they have printed.

In fact, Solidoodle users, called “Solidoodlers,” have created online communities to share tips and hacks they’ve discovered with their machines or to show off products they’ve printed. Soliforum and Solidoodle Tips are two such examples.

One of Cervantes’ best customer stories concerns the next generation of 3-D printer users. A 12-year-old boy scrimped and saved up his lunch money and allowance to purchase a Solidoodle. He has sent the company some of his designs and impressed the Solidoodle team. “I like to imagine what I would have been capable of if I had been introduced to this technology at such a young age,” he said, adding that he believes this young customer is already ahead of the curve because he’s thinking in different, creative ways.

Brian Lane

Video shot and edited by Jason Molofsky.

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