New Matter

It’s not long ago that the average consumer couldn’t begin to describe or even conceptualize 3D printing. Today, that’s hardly the case, with dozens of companies fighting to put user-friendly hardware unites in every home and mainstream media routinely reminding its viewers that the technology is the way of the future.

The two biggest challenges at this still early stage in the consumer 3D printing category have been the cost of the devices and the complexity of designing and printing high quality products. To put it simply, we have yet to see a complete 3D printing solution for the Pinterest crowd.

That may be about to change.

Pasadena-based New Matter, a year old startup incubated within Bill Gross’ Idealab, today introduced its MOD-t printer and accompanying design marketplace that will be available, initially, at just $149. Far from the $500 to $1,500 price points of current consumer 3D printing options, the MOD-t is fully within impulse purchase range for millions of potential users.

“My dream is for a 3D printer in every home and in every classroom,” Gross said in a statement today. “The potential for transforming both manufacturing and education is unfathomable.”

The company launched an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign this morning – more on that choice in a moment – with the goal of raising $375,000 over 35 days. The first units are expected to ship in Q1 2015, with full commercial availability (at a yet to be finalized price point in the vicinity of $200 to $249) coming later next year.

For New Matter, inexpensive doesn’t mean cheap, according to co-founder and President Steve Schell, a Caltech mechanical engineer with nearly a decade of 3D printing and robotics experience. The company landed on several design and manufacturing innovations, particularly in the area of the printer’s motion control system, that enabled it to dramatically simplify the design relative other devices currently on the market. The result is a less manufacturing complexity, greater reliability, and a far lower price.

Most 3D printers move their extruders (the unit through which the material is “printed”) in either two axis – left/righ (X) and forward/backward (Y) – while moving the build platform vertically (Z), or move the extruders in three three axis along a fixed build platform. New Matter has taken a new (patent-pending) approach by moving the build plate along both the X and Y axis and thereby only mov the extruder in the vertical Z axis. It seems like a simple change, but it required an entirely new motion system design which reduced the number of parts by two-thirds over conventional systems, hence the affordability.

Make no mistake about it, New Matter expects to make “hardware profits” even at its low prices. It also promises to produce comparable quality products to printers costing several times as much, something that will be difficult to verify until production units are made available for testing. As for specifications, the MOD-t will feature built-in WiFi, print speeds of 80mm per second, and layer resolution selectable from 0.2 to 0.4mm (perhaps its biggest weakness), while printing objects of up to four-by-six-by-five-inches in size out of Polylactic Acid (PLA) plastic and a fused deposition modeling technology.

The device features a wide base (in either black or white) and a clear, removable outer shell, making it look a bit like a rectangular aquarium with a small tattoo gun inside. That potentially unflattering description aside – ignoring the fact that Schell has numerous tattoos – the MOD-t is very modern in its appearance and would look respectable on display in any home.

In addition to its relationship with Idealab – which has founded 125-plus companies since in the last two decades, including dozens of hardware ventures – New Matter partnered with with frogVentures – an investment arm of global product strategy and design firm frog – on both the industrial design and user interface design of the MOD-t. The company also partnered with Dragon Innovation to iron out its production, fulfillment, and go-to-market strategy, walking away with a “Dragon Certified” seal of approval. New Matter raised an undisclosed sum of seed funding from First Round Capital*, Alsop Louie, Idealab, frogVentures, Biotechonomy, and angel investor Scott Banister.

“I’ve always been a 3D printing naysayer, at least from the perspective of broad consumer adoption,” says frogVentures’ Ethan Imboden. But when he learned about what Schell had in mind and the price points he could achieve, that attitude began to soften. “I realized that once you solve the price issue, the next challenge is to put more emphasis on what you can do with the printer, the use cases. In that way we can deliver something that’s accessible, easy to use, and relevant to the end user.”

While the MOD-t hardware design is “manufacturing ready,” New Matter’s software platform is still taking shape. The company has outlined its vision for an online marketplace that will feature a library of custom designs that users can print directly to their machine. The company hopes to cultivate a community of designers that will list their 3D-models and print instructions to the Web-based platform like a digital version of Etsy. Users will then be able purchase these designs and send them directly to their MOD-t or, in the case of a gift, to a friend’s printer.

“The New Matter store’s social and sharing capabilities will enable users to send physical objects to friends as easily as sending a text message, or subscribe to a personalized series of curated 3D objects to be delivered on a regular basis,” the company writes.

Advanced users can further modify these existing designs or create their own, but the goal is to offer a dead simple option for novices looking for their first taste of 3D printing. The company must also still finalize its pricing and rights management model to determine, for example, how many times a buyer may print a purchased design, on how many different printers, and over what time period. The answer will likely be multiple options to be selected at the seller’s discretion.

While this all sounds like a compelling vision, New Matter is only in the early stages of building it out its software platform. The company has produced wireframes – as displayed in its Indiegogo video – and is mid-way through developing the back end. The good news is that it has nearly 8 months until it’s expected to deliver a working software product, alongside its first MOD-t machines. The bad news is building Web applications in addition to hardware and associated firmware makes for a lengthy to do list.

The company must also build out its designer community and its library of available product designs if it wants to avoid the empty room problem upon launch early next year. Depending on how well its crowdfunding (aka pre-sale) campaign goes, New Matter may be able to entice designers with a built-in audience of thousands of new users eager for something to print using their fancy new hardware.

That said, New Matter faces competition from nearly every direction. Today, the company has the lowest-priced printer on the market, but a lot can change in the eight months between pre-orders and delivery (assuming a best case scenario timeline). On the software front, it’s even more of a wild west situation.

Schell’s isn’t the only company looking to build a software hub around which consumer 3D printing will revolve. Nearly every hardware manufacturer in the space has shared aspirations to build some version of an “iTunes for 3D printing.” Autodesk, for example, recently released its open source Spark platform with a strategy that has seen it described as the “Android of 3D printing.

Coming back to the Indiegogo campaign, I asked Schell about his decision to choose the platform over competitor Kickstarter or the option of running a proprietary pre-sale campaign. Schell said that the notion of a DIY campaign was out simply for the administrative hassle, let alone the lack of existing traffic. As for choosing among the two crowdfunding leaders, he acknowledged following Pando’s ongoing coverage of the Healbe “scampaign” closely and being fully aware of the ethical concerns raised. That said, Indigogo’s greater flexibility in campaign structure and its “dramatically better customer service,” in Schell’s words, were enough to sway his loyalty in its direction.

Crowdfunding campaigns can be pivotal for nascent hardware companies, not only for the obvious revenue they bring in under advantages pre-order terms, but also for the brand awareness and loyal early-adopter user base that they can generate. With that in mind, we’ll know a lot more about New Matter’s long term prospects 35 days from now, but in all honesty it won’t even take that long. If the product is selling well in the first 24 to 48 hours, expect it to ride a major wave of momentum into its 2015 commercial launch. If things go slowly, it could mean a far more conservative trajectory.

Sub-$200 consumer 3D printers and a universal 3D design marketplace both seem like inevitabilities. But, New Matter is just one of several thoroughbreads chasing after the same prize. The only guaranteed winner in a scenario like that is the consumer, which benefits from greater choice and more rapid innovation. For the rest of the market participants, let the games begin.

[Disclosure: First Round Capital is an investor in Pando.]