Small businesses and schools love 3D printers even more than techies

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on January 3, 2014

From The News Desk

Techies love 3D printers. They build Terminator arms and 3D scanners and personalized toothbrushes that clean your mouth in six seconds. Hobbyists love 3D printers too and go crazy creating guns and figurines of themselves and full-sized Aston Martin vehicles.

But you know who else loves 3D printers? Small businesses and schools. That's right, other less-techie sectors of society are starting to wake up to the potential of printing (almost) any object from scratch. With more and more affordable printers on the market, the magical machines are becoming integral for local institutions ranging from elementary schools to hospitals.

That's what Braydon Moreno and Coby Kabili realized after putting their printer -- RoBo 3D -- on Kickstarter a year ago. These San Diego State University grads built Robo 3D almost as a lark, expecting maybe 50 orders to come through their crowdfunding campaign. You can imagine their surprise when they received 1,000 orders instead.

"We had a guy locally building it, with the parts ready to go," Moreno says. "But once you get it up to that level, over 1,000 units, we needed a whole new process. We had to find the right manufacturer, make sure they were tech savvy, scale the process up."

At $599-$699, RoBo 3D is decidedly middle market, smack in the middle of the roughly $2000 Makerbot replicator level and the $300 cheaper, smaller brands. Moreno claims the RoBo 3D printer has most of the functionality of a Makerbot replicator though, it's just lacking high tech features like an LCD screen.

Brian Salmon, co-founder of the San Diego MakerPlace, purchased three RoBo 3Ds to complement two industrial 3D printers the shop already owned. "It's a great little machine, very user friendly, and the price point is wonderful," Salmon says.

Since Moreno and his co-founders Kabili and Pilkington are based in San Diego, they're far from the techie world of Silicon Valley. Most of their customers are small businesses. Surprisingly though, said businesses come from all over the world.

"Our second biggest market is Japan and third is Australia," Moreno says. "We just got an order from Kazakhstan. We get orders from some areas I don't know even know how to ship products to."

The range of products that these companies, schools, and organizations build with RoBo 3D is mind boggling.

A sex toy company bought a RoBo 3D to prototype its products before manufacturing them.  A dentist's office purchased one to make molds for teeth. A quad copter business bought one to prototype parts of the quad copters. A toy company called Wowee bought one to 3D print test toys.

"Prototyping costs a lot of money, $1,000 or more," Moreno says. "When you can prototype something for 5-10 bucks [on a 3D printer], you can create something instantly. It's power at your fingertips."

Mid-range 3D printers are also allowing schools to craft a learning experience around the machine. An engineering program bought a RoBo 3D to help students learn about functional parts with different strength ratios. An architecture school bought one for students to practice CAD software. Francis Parker K-12 School in San Diego invested in a RoBo 3D so its young students could learn about design.

"Seeing these kids use the machine, it's crazy, you see their eyes light up," Moreno says. "I can't even imagine having this technology when I was in school. It takes learning to a whole new level."

Jason Kirby, founder of The Right Light Photography, recently bought a RoBo 3D. The company uses it to make everything from lens caps to small attachable features for a GoPro.

He explained that it's a hassle and expensive to go buy these individually. Plus, some of the items he makes on his 3D printer aren't available for retail purchasing-- they're created by other photographers who post the open source designs online.

"At first 3D printers were thousands of dollars, so practicality came into play -- that's dumb don't buy one," Kirby remembers. "But now that it's relatively affordable, under $1000, it became a no brainer."

You would think there's too many 3D printers on the market at this point for them all to be making money. Some are even arguing that there's a 3D printing bubble at this point. That said, there's no signs of it popping just yet -- at least for RoBo 3D.

Moreno says the company is cash flow positive, having pulled in $1 million in sales since its official launch at the start of 2013. The company has been bootstrapping up till this point, and they're working with a law firm to decide whether to raise venture capital or take out credit.

Illustration by Brad Jonas