Steve Schell balances a pair of purple 3-D-printed statuettes of his daughter, Chloe, in his open palms, just about the only parts of his athletic forearms that aren’t elaborately tattooed.
Each hard plastic bust of Chloe reflects a hard-won forward leap in the year-long evolution of Schell’s passion project: the birth of the MOD-t, an affordable, easy-to-use 3-D printer he hopes will usher 3-D printing out of nerdy maker obscurity and into every home, office and school.
The veteran mechanical engineer’s first attempt at a Chloe figurine was far from accurate. The nose and eyes were warped, coarse and incomplete. Over time, as Schell, improved the printer's hardware and software, so did his attempts to properly replicate his daughter’s likeness, one ultrathin layer of 200-degree poly lactic acid plastic at a time. The second Chloe was a step up, though not exactly a spitting image.
It was the third Chloe -- a sky blue one -- that was the charm. She’s practically perfect -- perfect enough to showcase. Instead, Schell chooses to display the first and worst Chloe print on his makeshift standing desk, comprised of a wooden door laid over two filing cabinets. Keeping it there keeps him humble.
“I keep the old one on my desk because it reminds me of where things started and how much work there is left to do, how important it is to keep improving,” he says.
Thrown together with spare office parts -- that’s how most all of the desks are at Idealab, the pioneering Pasadena, Calif., tech startup incubator that’s home to Schell’s 3-D printing company, New Matter. Schell, the company's CEO, co-founded the venture under Idealab’s guiding wing in January 2014 with the incubator’s founder, Bill Gross. Together, their goal is to push at-home 3-D printing into the mainstream. They want to give the everyday consumer, from kids to grandmothers, from enthusiasts to novices and everyone in between -- the ability to easily generate beautiful, custom 3-D-printed objects in the click of a button.
A printer for the people
The MOD-t, named in an aspirational nod to Henry Ford’s democratizing Model T and which nabbed New Matter a CES 2015 Innovation Award, is anything but thrown together. Unlike the many boxy, milkcrate-shaped 3-D printers that came before it, the MOD-t is a sleek, fully enclosed tabletop machine. Resembling a stylish aquarium tank that Apple might concoct, it’s clean, classy and New Matter’s sole product.
In the year since its founding, New Matter has grown from one employee to 19. Last month, the company closed a $6.5 million Series A funding round from Alsop Louie Partners, Arden Road Investments, Biotechonomy, Dolby Family Ventures, First Round Capital, frogVentures and, of course, Idealab.
Seeking help from others, in the form of funding or otherwise, didn’t always come naturally to Schell.
“As a young engineer, I was super arrogant,” says the 35-year-old avid Crossfitter and father of three. “I thought I could do everything better than everybody else, so I’ve never asked for help, and it took me years, but it eventually got through my thick skull that teamwork is a huge part of successful entrepreneurship. Recognizing what you’re good at and what you’re not, where your blind spots are and hiring or partnering with others to fill them is really valuable.”
With help from frogVenture’s Frog Design arm, New Matter successfully launched the MOD-t on the crowdfunding site Indiegogo last May. The printer was offered for as low as $149 for early-bird backers and as much as $249 for others.
The campaign nearly doubled its funding goal, raising $683,804. According to Schell, it ranks as the most funded 3-D printer project ever on Indiegogo.
In total, New Matter pre-sold more than 2,500 machines through Indiegogo, giving the startup a foothold in a market that could be worth as much as $16.2 billion by 2018. The printers, which are manufactured in Asia, are expected to begin shipping to customers this September, a few months behind initial estimates.
Moving forward, Schell says future units will retail for less than $400, though he's hesitant to quote a specific dollar amount. He credits the printer’s streamlined design, mainly its modest size and atypical minimalist use of parts, for its affordable pricing. The lack of components also improves the MOD-t’s reliability, he says. Fewer parts equals fewer parts that could fail.
But the printer itself is only half of Schell’s consumer-friendly vision. Customers will also have access to an eclectic curated online library of hundreds of fun and functional 3-D object designs calibrated specifically for the MOD-t.
The idea, Schell says, is to render the entire user experience simple and smooth, end-to-end, zero complicated Photoshop, CAD software tricks or special knowledge required.
Several 3-D designers and artists are contributing designs to New Matter’s Internet browser-based online design marketplace, which the startup partnered with Frog Design to create. MOD-t users will be able to download printable designs from the New Matter Store for everything from chunky bangle bracelets to funky smartphone protectors, to mod light-switch plates and more. The designs, targeted to beginners and experienced enthusiasts alike, could cost around a couple of dollars each, though designers will set their own price points. Some designs will be offered for free.
While the MOD-t was made to extrude colorful, customizable cinch-to-print objects (up to 6 x 4 x 5 inches in size), it certainly won’t pump them out fast. Quite the opposite, actually. Schell says it takes approximately 45 minutes to produce a smartphone cover and around 3-1/2 hours for a lion’s head-shaped coat hook about the size of a large apple.
Snail’s pace print times are generally standard for most at-home 3-D printers, though some inventors are trying to change that. Just two weeks ago, a startup called Carbon 3D unveiled a printer that forms objects from pools of liquid resin within minutes. Led by co-founder and CEO Joseph DeSimone, the startup claims its advanced system prints 25 to 100 times faster than traditional 3-D printers (“There are mushrooms that grow faster than 3-D printed parts,” DeSimone says). In addition, an Australian startup called Gizmo 3D might be able to produce objects even faster through a similarly oozy process. Neither company has revealed the pricing for their forthcoming printers.
While New Matter’s MOD-t is one of the first lower-cost consumer 3-D printers, it’s not the only one. MD3’s similarly minimalist, user-friendly Micro -- launched last May in a smash-hit $3.4 million Kickstarter campaign -- is currently available for a $349 pre-order. Meanwhile, San Diego-based XYZ Printing is selling two Da Vinci home 3-D printers, one that can scan an object before printing included, for $500 and $800 at Amazon, BestBuy, Newegg and elsewhere online.
'My goal is not to create a tidal wave of plastic parts'
No matter which 3-D printer you settle on, at this point, you’ll likely end up using it to make stuff, well, for the sake of stuff. But it won’t always be that way, Schell predicts.
The majority of the 3-D printed objects created by consumers today, he says, are created sheerly “for the purpose of creating it.” But, as the industry matures and develops and as more complex designs become available, Schell foresees almost limitless possibilities for more customizable, more meaningful and less novelty-driven use cases for items printed at home.
“My goal is not to create a tidal wave of plastic parts that are just overtaking somebody,” Schell says. “The spectrum of what you’ll want to and what you’ll be able to 3-D print is going to open up, so it’s not going be this, ‘Well, I’ve already got five or six [3-D printed] tchotchkes in my house and I’m kind of tchotchke-d out.’ Instead, we’ll see more and more ways to make use of the objects through some kind of practical application or something fun or something decorative, a precious, personalized object that people will cherish or something truly useful.”
For example, if a button falls off your Xbox One controller, you might be able to print a replacement without the headache of ordering and waiting for one from Microsoft. Or, if your child loses her retainer, you could obtain the image file from her orthodontist and simply print a duplicate on the fly. There’s also the case for gifting 3-D prints to friends and family.
“If I know you have a MOD-t and it’s your birthday and you really love roses,” he says, “I can find a nice, beautiful rose design and send it to your 3-D printer as a birthday gift, as a memento.”
The early days
Schell isn’t a Johnny-come-lately to the consumer 3-D printing bandwagon. He’s been a key player in the scene for years, going back to when he launched his engineering career at another disruptive Idealab-backed venture, Evolution Robotics, fresh out of the California Institute of Technology in 2001. iRobot, makers of the Roomba vacuum robot, later acquired the company in 2012.
It was there, in Schell’s four years at Evolution, that he first experienced one of the biggest the benefits of 3-D printing: faster gratification. Back then, he was able to order custom parts from industrial 3-D printing shops and receive them within four or five days; ordering from a machine shop would take several weeks.
“That’s when I first fell in love with 3-D printing, as an engineer and as a user of the technology, though it was still a commercial, industrial type of technology, well before the idea that it could be a consumer product.”
Eventually, there was a large enough demand for 3-D printed parts within the Idealab startup ecosystem for the companies to band together and buy their own 3-D printer to share. The unit was like most early 3-D printing rigs -- big, bulky and expensive.
“It was a roughly $30,000 unit and it was the size of a refrigerator,” Schell says. “The moment it was turned on it was overloaded with demand. Everybody was using it. Engineers were fighting over who got their part in the queue...and there was bribery and all kinds of crazy things happening to try to get their part done first.”
Fast forward to 2004 and 3-D printing fever catches on enough within Idealab for the incubator to create Desktop Factory, its own 3-D printer manufacturing company. With Schell as technical lead on printer design in 2005, the startup’s aim was to build and market a relatively affordable ($3,000 to $5,000) desktop 3-D printing model for small businesses, specifically engineering, product design and architecture firms.
Schell left Desktop Factory in 2007 to work at yet another Idealab startup, this time a solar tech firm. In the meantime, Desktop Factory was acquired by South Carolina-based 3D Systems, which now sells the $999 Cube home 3-D printer and a several other personal and professional 3-D printing units.
Between 2008 and 2009, the fledgling home-based 3-D printing market Schell had wished existed when he was at Desktop Factory had finally begun to emerge. This is around when the first commercially available home 3-D printer kits arrived. Then came MakerBot Industries’ Cupcake CNC and a wave of other kit-based and pre-assembled 3-D printers. The movement was gaining momentum.
Fast forward to today and, outside of the buzzing at-home market, 3-D printing is exploding across the medical, food, aviation and apparel industries. All kinds of wild 3-D printable projects are making headlines, from an entire apartment building in China to electric cars, from replacement windpipes to artificial ears and beyond. Just this week, a little girl in Southern California received a freshly 3D extruded prosthetic arm that cost only $50 and took less than 24 hours to print.
Schell, who is in talks with several retailers, is as passionate about 3-D printing as ever and deeper in than ever before, never having abandoned his dream of bringing a mass-marketable household machine to market. In his mind, now's the time. The past decade has changed everything. Today, when he tells people he's built a 3-D printer, he doesn't have to spend 10 minutes explaining what that actually means.
“Now people say, ‘Oh, yeah, I saw one on the news. It’s really cool.’ Or they say, ‘My son’s high school’s having a fundraiser to buy one.’ They understand the technology and they’re interested.”