Easel and Shapeoko

Inventables put Shapeoko 1 – its $300 computer controlled mill – on sale in April 2012. Next week, coming up on two years later, CEO Zach Kaplan will go on stage at SXSW to announce Easel, new software that could make its machine, and others like it, easy to use for the first time in history.

It doesn’t seem logical that a machine could go to market and usability not be taken care of for two years. But as the sun slowly starts to rise on a new era of digital manufacturing, this usability lag is one of the strange dynamics of emerging technologies.

“CNC milling has a long history in industry,” Kaplan says. “But only since the Shapeoko did it start to get traction with individuals. I think if you go back to the industrial revolution, you see that initially a new technology has significant costs that only industry can afford. Then it gets cheaper and cheaper and cheaper until it becomes free or essentially free to start.”

For Kaplan and Inventables, the Easel software platform plays a key part in the second part of that curve, giving people practical access to a newly affordable technology in order to further drive growth in the market.

Zach Kaplan started Inventables – which is based in Chicago and billed as an online hardware store for digital makers and designers – in 2002. A decade later, his business changed from servicing big companies he all knew the names of to also include thousands of people he never heard of. The Shapeoko machines were compact and sold for $650, where otherwise you could pay tens of thousands of dollars for a hulking thing. The machines had to be self-assembled and drew a rabid response from a small, specialized audience of “gearheads and hobbyists” as Kaplan describes it.

“I think when we launched we had about 1,000 people on the mailing list. We sent out a survey and 950 people wrote back within 24 hours. On the forums for these machines, if you posted something at 3:30 a.m. you’d have an answer by 4 a.m.,” Kaplan says.

Shapeoko 2 went on sale in October 2013. It was a success for Inventables and the industry. But to put that in perspective, across both runs the company has sold only 5,000 of these machines. It’s the same tale as with all the potentially disruptive new manufacturing technologies: 3D printers, millers, laser cutters. They’re economically accessible on a whole new scale, but virtually unusable for nearly the entire population, requiring detailed knowledge of computer assisted design and manufacturing systems.

Easel’s path into this world began when Kaplan was invited to host a hackathon at the University of Chicago. He says he told the crowd that the software to run these machines was terrible and he wanted them to make something better. The winner was eventually employed as the lead designer on the Easel project.

For Kaplan, it didn’t involve just wanting to be the first person to develop better software for the machines. There were a range of hurdles to overcome to make it happen. New interfaces had to be dreamed up and the preconceptions of how experts had long felt that the software should work had to be set aside.

“We had to throw it away and start from scratch. We’re trying to put this tool in the hands of folks who are approaching it for the first time. They’re not interested in rustling through the settings, they just want to go ahead and make the thing,” Kaplan says.

The Easel software takes a complicated backend and hides it away. The software is cloud-based, used within an Internet browser and sends designs out to work on any machine. It takes out the complication of working in 3D by having people design in 2D and converting that in real time. So as you draw, you see it come to life. The idea at least is that people with no specialist knowledge will be able to have made something within five minutes.

The new offering will be completely free to use. But Kaplan says that with consumer digital manufacturing in its infancy, this isn’t so much a business decision to drive sales of Shapeoko as it is something that needs to happen for the industry he’s worked in for 12 years start to reach for mainstream adoption.

“We have to make people more confident using these machines,” Kaplan says. “We’re not competing with $10,000 specialist software packages with this. We’re competing for people’s attention who might otherwise be on Facebook or Twitter.”

The success of Easel will not be clear for a while. Kaplan hopes that it removes barriers so when people want to try DIY digital manufacturing techniques, they’re not turned away. But he refers to the often used line that this market resembles the PC market in the 1980s. There’s a way to go. “Although I believe it is going to catch up faster because there’s a whole computing infrastructure now that we didn’t have in the 1980s,” Kaplan says.

Manufacturing is changing and people like Kaplan are working in the strange gap between trying to bridge the space between what people understand and what people hope the consumer digital manufacturing market will eventually turn into. For Inventables with the Easel software, bringing these two sides closer together is not an easy goal. Usability will be the next big play in this space for a number of companies. But such are the barriers to entry, it’s a good first step down a very long path.

[Image via Inventables]