type-a-machinesIn 1943, the then president of IBM, Thomas Watson, predicted that there was worldwide demand for just five computers.

Perched on a stool in TechShop, where Type A Machines has its San Francisco office, the company’s co-founder Andrew Rutter says he tries to keep that prediction in mind, and the reality now 70 years later. His company makes 3D printers, a small player in a rapidly evolving space. Rutter revisits Watson’s words because in a space like his with a new technology evolving rapidly, you can’t know what will happen. Seated next to him, R. Miloh Alexander, one of the company’s other co-founders, concurs. You can’t project out logically how this technology will go, he says.

“Today everyone essentially has an IBM mainframe in their pocket,” Rutter says.

And who saw that coming?

Type A Machines, San Francisco’s largest 3D printer manufacturer, was born out of happenstance. This makes makes sense, as it would be madness to purposely set out to bootstrap your own independent 3D printer manufacturing company. Rutter is British and emigrated to America at the end of 2009. He had worked in theater, helping with the technical side of productions, but couldn’t work while he settled up his immigration paperwork. He had purchased a 3D printer and through pure “hubris,” he says, started tinkering in his spare time with altering it. He thought the conventional machines were too rigid, designed without consideration for the person actually using the printer. The printers were “good enough” about 90 percent of the time. For that other 10 percent, they could be agony.

“I looked out at someone else’s machine and saw that there were so many things I could do better,” Rutter adds.

Rutter and Alexander met through the 3D printing club at their local hackerspace, Noisebridge. The two became friends, working together on a crowdsourced effort to 3D print a clock and helping artist John Campbell install a large piece in MOMA. All the while, Rutter kept on building his custom machines. His wife didn’t allow him to keep his printers on the kitchen table so he had to build them to fit in the back of his Mazda Miata. His first effort was marginally too big, so he built another. He had three printers, when someone asked him if they could buy two. He hadn’t considered a company before that.

Type A Machines was incorporated in February 2012. The first run of its “Series 1” line was made with bespoke, laser cut plywood. “Every sale was built to order. We set up a website and launched at Maker Faire. It was dispiriting to see a dozen other 3D printing companies there, but ours was the only one with a working model,” Rutter says.

“We were hoping for a flood of orders after that,” he says. “We only got a trickle. But it was enough. We’ve never been ahead of demand since.”

The Series 1 was critically acclaimed, declared “Best in Class” by Make Magazine. The company made between “150 and 200” in 2012, Alexander says, and “between 350 and 400” in 2013. And as it sets up its San Leandro manufacturing facility currently, has given itself the capacity to make “thousands” in 2014.

“This machine is ridiculously easy to control,” Alexander says.

Type A Machines are telescopic, which means that the printer can expand to print larger objects and isn’t limited to the specific size of the printer tray. New models have wifi connectivity and come with Type A Machine’s open source interface that can be controlled from anywhere and used with any machine.

The company has the capacity to grow rapidly this year, but survives so far on only an unspecified amount of angel investment. It has the double handicap of being a hardware and a 3D printing company, a futuristic product in an already difficult area of the market. Rutter says that he’s had awkward negotiations with VCs he knows have been burned by past hardware deals.

“The best feedback I got was to think about social networking,” Rutter says. “From the start of that, it was years before real money started to pour into the space.”

Even if they understand the reluctance, Alexander and Rutter think that Type A Machines is more than worth the investment. “We can increase our volume by orders of magnitude this year,” Alexander says.

Alexander adds that the market already has the potential to be huge, as is. There are 20 million CAD licenses in the world, which companies pay anywhere from a few thousand to tens of thousand of dollars to secure. Only a tiny fraction of those people have printers. For those companies, a Type A Machine is a mid-ticket item to help them bring these designs to life and spur creativity.

The risk for Type A Machines, as it goes to put some gas on the fire it has started, harkens back to the IBM prediction. As Rutter explains, Type A Machines is constantly fighting two battles. It needs to stay relevant with the pace of technology, making something that can be upgraded quickly and won’t become obsolete too quickly. And it needs to do this while keeping itself future-focused as a company and protecting its designs against the category’s rapid pace of innovation.

Neither Rutter or Alexander, as intimately involved in the industry as they both are, are willing to predict the future of 3D printing. It’s that uncertainty which seems to be both the most awesome and terrifying part of the whole ordeal, at the same time.

[image via Type A Machines]