Who doesn’t have a special memory of their favorite pet? In this episode of WTFFF?!, Tom and Tracy Hazzard chat with Ashley Saunders, the Brand Manager of PetPrints 3D. Ashley shares how she and her partner, Mary Henin, turned their passion for pets into a successful and growing business using 3D printing technology. We learn about the process, challenges, opportunities, and what it takes to make Perfect Pet Prints. As fascinating as it is to learn about how perfect pet prints are made, this discussion highlights how realistic it is for entrepreneurs to create a new business, find a new market, and provide great value to customers that would not have been possible without 3D printing technology.
Listen to the podcast here:
Perfect Pet Prints With Ashley Saunders Of PetPrints 3D
We’ve got an interview with PetPrints 3D. It seems to be a real functioning business that touches normal people who don’t know anything about 3D printing but with 3D printers.
Let’s share here that WTFFF?! Is Fused Filament Fabrication, but this is not a filament. This is fused powder.
This is one of those high-end commercial type printers that they use.
It’s a better process and that’s one of the things here. Although we call it WTFFF?!, it’s more for fun that that’s the name of it and we want to talk about anything 3D printing. This is one of those where we deviated to a different type of processing. This is where you got to choose the right printer for the process of what you want to get across. You need to get across a lot of detail, a lot of great colors and a little bit of personality too.
It’s a great example of a business opportunity that some people saw and built a business around the process of 3D printing. That to me should be interesting to our readers, regardless of what 3D printing process they use or considering.
We talked about personalization and customized products. That’s what this is. Let’s talk to Ashley Saunders of PetPrints 3D.
Ashley, thanks for joining us. I’m excited to have women entrepreneurs who are doing 3D printing on our show. We’ve had a few but not many. That’s exciting for us. Why don’t you tell our audience a little bit about how you got started?
I went to school for advertising and marketing. One of my teachers was working for a company called Objex Unlimited, who one day decided, “We can make a 3D printed dog. I would like to do something with this.” They brought me in because I’m a big animal person and I didn’t know a lot about 3D printing. They taught me as much as they possibly could and told me to launch a brand for them. We created PetPrints 3D based on the idea that every pet is special. Unfortunately, our pets don’t live forever. We wanted to create little keepsakes and mementos for people.
There’s a huge audience for that because for those of you who don’t know, people spend billions of dollars on their pets because their pets are family. How does the process work? It looks photorealistic on your website.
We have our customers send us photos. Unfortunately, about 70% of our existing client’s pets have already passed away, which is why they’re coming to us. The more we have, the better and preferably a 360 degree of the pet. We have some guidelines up on our website.
How did they do that? Hopefully, they have a bunch of different angles.
A lot of people at least will have one photo of their pet in profile and one of their pet’s face on. At the bare minimum, we can easily work with that. We scanned in a blurry polaroid from the ‘80s and worked with it. There was a lot more back and forth in that case because we only had one photo but if we know the breed of the dog, cat or fish, we’re able to at least find some generic reference photos to help build the geometry.
You’re using the photos just as a reference and are creating a 3D model from scratch for each customer?
It’s a lot of work.
We have good designers.
How big a staff do you have then?
On PetPrints 3D specifically, there are five people. A couple of the designers get carried over to one of the sister companies, which does people instead of pets. Altogether, the parent company has about twenty people, but we all have our hands in each other’s honey pots to make sure that all the work gets done.
Also, you have good shared knowledge about what’s working in creating 3D models and things like that.
The designers come up with a lot of creative ideas on their own for pets specifically. Someone might come to us with an order and they don’t know what they want. Maybe they give an order to Craig or Julia and Julia just goes with it. She’s like, “My dog did this weird thing one time.” We do a lot of experimenting and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
The process that you’re using for 3D printing, is it the paper or is it the gypsum powder full-color process?
It’s Projet 660 full-color gypsum.
You guys have that printer there. Do you have your own that you utilize?
Yeah, we have to.
How long does a typical print take?
It depends on the size of the model and the orientation in the printer. We generally wouldn’t just print one small size pet model overnight. We’d fill it as much as we can with other things. We run a bed between 7 and 11 hours overnight and we’ll come out with anywhere between 3 to 15 dogs or 3 dogs and 2 people, a turkey or depending on what we’re printing at the time.
It’s interesting to see how you can take from a photograph and turn these into these little miniatures that look realistic and have personality. We did an experiment of scanning ourselves. It was terrible in terms of its detail. You are doing something special and getting good detail from both the photographs and the models that you’re creating.
The quality looks good. Our first attempt with 3D scanning, we were a little disappointed with it, but that’s not what you’re doing. You’re not scanning anything.
We’ve tried to scan a dog with an R-Tech and the dog is terrified by the blinking lights in its face. If you’re scanning a pet, you can’t go back in and manipulate the file as easily if you just build it from scratch. You can manipulate the facial expression and the eyes. Your pet doesn’t sit there in terror. They can’t sit still. They fidget a lot.
That’s a good point because we did another interview of a company making a 3D scanner. They’re promoting it as taking more 3D photographs of things than it is the thought of a traditional scanning. They made the same point that a person can sit still for 30 seconds while you scan them, but a pet or a toddler, they’re not successful at all. There’s a real need to change for what you’re doing.
We’ve talked to some people when we did some of our scanning episodes about the idea of when you pull together a bunch of different photographs and create a 3D model. Photo telemetry is sometimes what it’s called. I’m not sure if there are other names for it, but that process is time-consuming. How long does your team take them to process a model from someone handing photographs to getting their output?
It depends. We’ll talk about dogs because they’re the most common. If we have a golden retriever, we’ve got some fur textures in our directory that we can work off of. If it’s a Dalmatian, we’re putting every spot in a particular place and it’s going to take a bit longer. Geometry alone is about two hours to sculpt the dog and then a little bit more time to color them. We have a back and forth with the client, so we allow for some feedback and we can make some changes. We usually only need to do about half an hour of changes at that point after we’ve spoken to the client.
It hadn’t occurred to me that the spots need to be in all the right places on a Dalmatian, but it’s true. It’s what gives your animal the personality where their spots are. We had an entirely black cat and that would be easy, except it’d be hard to look at the detail. The rest of them, we had one that looked like a tuxedo. You’ve got to have that or it doesn’t create that personality.
It’s almost harder with a generic like with a chocolate lab or with a black cat because they all look similar. How do you convince your customer that it’s worth them buying because it’s authentically your pet? How do you know it’s not a generic black cat you can buy at Hallmark? We have a little pet profile questionnaire that people have to fill out about, “What makes your pets special? What does your pet like to do?” It helps us at least get into the mindset for, “It’s not just another chocolate lab I’m making. I’m making Charlie.”
How long have you guys been doing this?
Pet specifically, we launched in April 2014 at Woodstock.
The pet world is another world and we’ve learned a bit of it from other product areas as well that we get more involved in retail and it’s shocking to us. Maybe it shouldn’t be, but it’s shocking to us how big a business pet is, especially dogs. It’s huge.
It’s been going well, I take it?
It’s well. It goes through humps like any business. We were crazy busy at Christmas time. We set a cutoff date and then we took orders two weeks after our cutoff date. Our designers hated me forever, but everything got done and out before the holidays.
Plan ahead. What will your cutoff date typically be?
We’re doing the second week of November. If we don’t have all of your orders and your asset profile information by the second week of November, we cannot guarantee it for a December 25th delivery. The majority of our clientele so far have wanted it for that date.
You definitely have to plan ahead.
Last-minute shoppers, even if you’re waiting until Black Friday, you could be in trouble.
Now your designers are going to hate you because we suggested waiting for Cyber Monday to make your cut off.
It’ll be fine. I’ve already had a couple of people call in and say, “When are you starting your holiday promotion?” I’m like, “It’s not even Halloween yet,” but it’s the shopper world.
Talk a little bit about the learning curve for you because you said you were brought in by Objex Unlimited to start working on a program that was 3D printing. How did you feel about the learning curve of 3D printing? Because we talked about that a lot. Did you feel it was fast? Did you feel frustrated by it?
I still learn something new every morning I go into work which is also because I have asked them to put me a little bit more in the tech field. I’m learning a little bit more of the software. I wouldn’t say I understand the technology 100% still, but I can explain it to somebody at a trade show who knows nothing about it. If I’m having a conversation with you guys, I might say the wrong thing and you might be able to call me out on it.
Tom does that to me all the time. One time, I said sled instead of raft and he calls me out on it because he’s our technical guy. I totally get that. For 3D printing to go mainstream, have a bunch of Etsy shops who use 3D printing in their process and have companies and brands like yours take off, there has to be an easier language discussion and way to demystify 3D printing. By making it something accessible and understandable like, “How special do you want this?” You don’t just want a figurine of any dog or just your breed. You want your dog, and 3D printing is perfect for that. That’s in a way an entry point for conversation.
The majority of people that we talk to who know nothing about 3D printing, as soon as you say, “It’s your dog. This is how we do it,” we always try the analogy of making a sandwich. You put different layers down until you build your final. It’s additive manufacturing. Additive manufacturing is probably a less talked about term in the general public than 3D printing because everyone has seen something about 3D printing.
Most consumers, what they care about is it’s personalized and customized just for them. That’s the key thing. I don’t think they care how the printer runs because in their case, they’re getting what they want out of it. There’s a process that they’re involved with. You’re keeping them involved along the way to make sure that there are checkpoints. It’s demystifying it. It’s making it a simple streamlined process, but it’s getting them involved enough to realize there is a lot of work and creativity into it.
The thing that people have a hard time understanding is the amount of work that goes into it. We don’t just scan in a photo in a 2D scanner and some magic software goes poof and spits out your dog. There’s a person who sets up a print bed and a person who takes the part out of the printer, then it goes through an in-house finishing process. I have to make sure it’s perfect and then yell at someone if it’s not. Mary and I will box stuff and put so much bubble wrap in it that you can’t even get the box open by the time it gets delivered at your house. We’re shipping models to Australia and to South America, so we want it to survive.
That’s one of the things that we talked about here. There’s a lot of companies who are trying to make a business and make profits in 3D printing. They need to understand that you have to find a niche in which you can deliver the value for that amount of time that it takes to develop this. There’s a lot of work involved in creating the model in your case and making sure that it has the personality. There are a lot of people involved in that and a lot of man hours or woman hours.
I was impressed when you said it takes maybe a couple of hours to make the model of a dog, especially if it’s something that your team is used to. That seems to be fast.
We have experiences with a lot of models and of we create geometry from scratch here. We’re creating things that don’t exist. It’s not already an animal or it’s not already a person. We spend 200 hours on a design sometimes, but to get that value across to a client and have them start to understand it because the result is so special, that’s helping 3D printing as an industry.
It’s the entire personalization and customization you can create. It’s not just us telling you need it and putting it on a big box shelf. We’re trying to bring the art and the creativity into 3D printing, so it’s not just about manufacturing. That’s what you guys do too. You create things from scratch so you understand it, but a lot of people need the conversation to understand what is happening.
I’m sure they do because there’s a cost to it. It’s not the cheapest thing in the world. If you want to buy a common dog figurine, go to Hallmark or something that you can buy one for maybe $10 or $20, but that’s not what this is. You said the holiday time was a big-time for you. Do you ever have a request to configure them into Christmas ornaments to hang on a tree? Can you facilitate that or is it just sit-on-a-shelf type of objects?
We haven’t been asked to do that yet and that’s mainly because the majority of our clientele have pets that are no longer with us and they don’t want us turning their deceased pet into a novelty item or a decoration. They want the statue and the memory. They don’t want a little key chain or trinket. They want their pet captured as a piece of art because they miss their pet. I’m going to miss my cat when my cat dies. It’s going to be horrendous.
We’ve been through a few ourselves, so we know it is horrendous. There’s such a wonderful way in your process because you’re involving them in taking the photos so that they have to take a certain set of photos or find a certain set of photos. They’re involved in the creation process more than maybe some other 3D printing where you just request something in a special color. Because you’re involving them more in the creative process, they’re getting more invested into the labor, time and detail. That’s helping to sell the value and that’s a good example for a lot of companies going out there to build a 3D printing business around personalized or customized products. If you aren’t getting across that there is this art and design process to it, then you’re not showing the real value of it.
When we started PetPrints 3D, we didn’t have the back and forth with the client because we had the fear that it would turn into twenty rounds of feedback and it would slow down the process and then people would be upset because we’d miss milestone dates for them. As we progressed with the company because it was brand new, we decided that people felt the value was definitely added. The price point was more justifying for them if they could say, “I’m seeing it before it hits the printer. I’m not just going to open the box,” and maybe be disappointed, which we never want to happen, but you don’t create a company without hitting a few speed bumps on the way. We’ve got it wrong before and we’ve had people tell us we got it wrong. Our in-house mantra is if we don’t get right, call us or send it back and we will remake it for you from scratch. We’ve remade a few dogs and we’ve become better because of it.
That’s the point I want to make to other readers looking at starting a personalized item company, no matter what it is. Being afraid of that dialog is going to hurt the process because it devalues the money and time that goes into that that you’re selling.
The other point to make for that type of person is that it seems that certainly with this business, it’s a highly service-oriented business. You’ve got to get involved. If you’re trying to do a business where you do little customer interaction, then the perception with consumers is going to be that it should be cheap or less expensive. This adds that value along the way and justifies because it is not a fast process. That’s the biggest mistake that most people think, “3D printing, you just turn on the printer and you print something out.” It doesn’t work like that.
That’s what we learned through the scanning process. When we scanned ourselves, the model was useless at the end of the day because you still had to do all the repair and you had to build the understructure. You had to fill in on the outside what’s missing from the color profile, which is when you print it out. It’s what gives you that personality. When so much is missing, it makes it impossible. What we realized is that there’s an art to taking, in that case, the scan and in your case, it’s taking the photographs. There’s an art to that and having the proper start or having a system for repairing are the critical components.
There’s a lot more art to putting the color information on a 3D model than people realize.
Color is a tough one too, because what you see on the screen isn’t always what’s going to come out of the printer, and you’ve got to be a creative problem solver. Our designers have become good at giving me a model that might be off on my screen, but we both know it’s going to print perfectly on the printer. Explaining that to a client when you’re asking them for client approval, they’re like, “That’s not the right color.” We’re like, “It’s not showing up on your screen like this, but we can tell you that it’s going to end up like this. Are there any other feedback changes you want to give us?” It’s tough because it’s a new enough technology to people who haven’t been around it. Like me some time ago, I wouldn’t know anything about 3D printing. I’d be like, “It’s like paper? You stack paper on top of each other?”
You’re talking about Projet 660, the colors end up more muted in my experience. They can tend to be more pastel in other things. You have to compensate for that when you’re choosing an output color. That in and of itself is an art. We have the same issue when we’re talking about fused filament fabrication. In the FFF printing, you have limited filament color and it’s frustrating because of that. The technology is starting to get better at that and they’re starting to get to be tools where the translation is there. Before, you could say, “I picked this web color and then this is what the CMYK output is.” You have a correlation, but it’s not there yet. Each company has to work through their issues. When you sell at trade shows, it’s a little easier because you can show them a sample of what it feels and looks like, but for the most part, your customers don’t know what it feels like.
For the most part, all they know is what they can see in our photo gallery on our website or what it says. It feels like a ceramic statue. That’s the easiest way we can explain it to people who don’t know what a 3D printed gypsum dog would feel like.
That’s a fair representation.
It’s lightweight because it’s hollow inside, I’m assuming.
We hollow them as best as we can to keep material costs lowered and to not have to raise prices for extra material. Sometimes, they don’t hollow all the way in which case we just have to plug them with the drain hole and hope that the drain hole doesn’t unplug in shipping, which has happened before. The models got out covered in white powder and we have to redo it.
You need a tiny little vacuum cleaner.
We have one but it doesn’t always do its job properly.
It needs time and shifting and UPS tossing it around a little bit. I know those fragile models. Tom has this 3D printed tie, so we keep worrying about shipping it to places. It’s like, “Can we bubble wrap it enough?” We understand that.
There are not enough packing peanuts or bubble wraps in the world to keep that safe.
Blow in foam, we’ve come up with all sorts of wild things when we’ve had to package things for clients.
It’s a calculated risk. Nine out of ten that it’s going to get there. Maybe even 19 out of 20.
Are there any learnings that you had in the process of getting into 3D printing or advice you can give our audience?
I’m still learning all the different printers because we have thirteen different printers that can print in ten different materials at the shop. I’m still trying to figure out all that. I would say for advice, don’t expect anything you try to be perfect the first time you do it because it doesn’t matter how much you know about the technology or how much you think you know about 3D printing, hiccups happen. Humidity is a big thing in the summertime when you’re dealing with powder printers. That was something we had to learn to deal with. Power surges happen. Take it easy. Take your time with it and don’t be upset if you have to print a dog twenty times before you get the color right because it happens to all of us.
It’s good advice because in a way, the industry itself is in an experimental stage and your brand is in an experimental stage, so you have to take all those factors together. Businesses are 2 or 3 mistakes away from disaster sometimes. If you don’t have an extra special disaster plan and extra time built into your process or I’m going to make you happy no matter what guarantee, at the end of the day, you may not be able to make it through that experimental business venture. That’s good that you guys recognize that. You’re prepared for it, rolling with it and have developed a process to express that to your clients.
My other piece of advice is, don’t be afraid to admit failure. We have failed a few times. Mary came from college with me and we had a marketing program together. She got pushed right into the finishing room and had no experience with printers in her life either. Within a week, she figured it out and probably broke about 30 models in four days. We’re not going to punish somebody for that. You’re teaching somebody a process. Our boss, Steve, is amazing. He said, “If you haven’t broken it yet, you don’t know how it’s going to feel in your hand, so just go out there and break it. Figure it out and then we’ll fix it later.”
That’s one of the things that we think is great about 3D printing from an educational standpoint. We have young daughters and we keep encouraging that we’re going to be teaching them 3D printing as they get older. One of them is about to start and she’s learning modeling. The idea that you will have a successful failure, that doesn’t happen in the normal educational system that often. When you have an opportunity to learn that, it’s great because it teaches you to be more innovative and more process-oriented. There are many things that it teaches.
It teaches you to become a problem solver. Failing isn’t the end. It’s just part of the story on the way.
I think about failures like, “This poor dog’s leg.” It’s a lot of fun. People like to see a disaster as much as they like to see success, so you never know.
On my first day, I broke a guinea pig.
We saw on your site that you’ve been doing a lot of horses and we saw a snake. You’ve got some wild pets out there.
In our first year, we had a lot of dogs and a few cats because all of our staff members have cats. We had some example models and a lot of our clients were dogs. We were like, “Why are we just doing cats and dogs?” We decided we were going to do some work on horses because we’ve learned that horse people appreciate fine art, and the fact that they can get customized fine art. A lot of the people we’ve talked to are excited about it. Something we didn’t know about reptile people until we went to the Canadian Pet Expo, with reptiles, it’s more about the breed itself than the pet. You might get an emerald boa or a gigantic piebald python, which is an $18,000 snake. To have a model of one that breed, that is what’s more important to reptile people.
I would think those reptile people, seeing those pets are so expensive. As well as the horse people, that’s an expensive passion. The realities of the cost of these custom printed models of their pets might not seem high in comparison.
That’s a great market area. It’s good that you’re figuring out not only how to run this processing side of your business, but you’re starting to figure out where all the interest lies as well with your clients.
We’re always looking for different opportunities. We started doing flat cameos like little circular faces of pets. It looks like a picture frame with the 3D pet in it. We didn’t think that that would be appealing to people. We thought they’d all want a 360 view of their pet. The people that have seen the cameos have been excited about that too. It’s all an adventure and if someone calls us tomorrow and asks us to do something we’ve never done before, we’re going to do it because why not?
Let’s keep experimenting. That’s how you’re going to find more business opportunities.
This is such a fun business. I’m glad we get to talk. We did talk to a lot of people about software and other things going on in 3D printing, but this is a product. This is something you can hold at the end of the day.
It brings together the technology and average people.
Thanks, Ashley, for joining us.
Thanks, for having me.
That was great to know about Ashley and Mary’s experience. One of the things that’s interesting is they only started about the same time that we started 3D printing ourselves. Look at a full-fledged business, a full-fledged brand is going already and it shows you the power of getting the right what.
There’s another thing for all of our readers out there that have businesses or considering launching businesses involving 3D printing. To me, Ashley and Mary’s story highlights that doing something you’re passionate about is critical too. They’re all pet people. They’re passionate about pets. How could they create a concept for a business that involved their passion for pets and memory of people’s pets and have found a way to produce real value for consumers using 3D printing? It’s not just using 3D printing, it’s using 3D modeling skills. The whole artistic aspect of that is not easy.
Their pricing takes into consideration the value add and their market is appropriate for that. There are some that aren’t appropriate for it and that’s the mismatch that’s happening with some of the proposals we had in our mentorship contests. It was a mismatch between the personalized product idea and what they were going to make out of it, whether or not there was enough value for the amount of work it takes.
The value proposition isn’t always there and that’s a careful consideration with any business plan.
They have a great value proposition and then they’re proving that value proposition by their customer service process that they’ve used throughout it. They’re continuing to interact, letting people have an input, make choices, and understand that certain things can’t happen and certain things will happen. That all along the way helps you feel like you’ve got your money’s worth.
It’s probably a constant battle trying to explain because you always are trying to find new customers out there and reach to people that don’t know anything about it. They constantly have to explain that but to understand that this is truly unique and this is not something you’re going to be able to buy at Target or Walmart or even your Hallmark store that does little statues and figurines all the time. They sell the same ones in every single store. Here, you’re getting your customized personalized one.
It’s not just that but they’ve also gotten into a market by choosing pet people, dog people, horse people, reptile people or whatever it is. They are entering a community that’s going to help refer because when you see your friend has this monument to their show winning horse on their mantle, you want one. That in and of itself helps. I guarantee you a lot of these people are Facebooking them, tweeting them and sharing these models because they’re proud of them and they miss their pets. I see it all the time that you get, “It’s a year anniversary after my pet passed away,” and there’s a great little picture of it. You can see how that would get shared. That helps sell it. They’ve created a great business here. It’s a great value and that they’ve got dialed in their customer service to support that value. That shows the power of what 3D printing can do as a tool to create a great small business.
They’re still learning and growing, even though it looks like they’re doing well and they’re legitimately established. She talked about the cameos and things like that. There are lots of opportunities and ways to grow that business.
We got to think about what family members are going to get as gifts this year. My mom might be getting a model of our horse this year. Chase Away might be immortalized. We have the family dog. Our daughter’s car says dog mom at the back of her car.
Something is wrong about that. This is the passion and people spend all kinds of money on their pets, it’s shocking sometimes, but it’s a good market.
Think about all the money we spend on our toddlers and our kids. I wish I could preserve Vanessa in that little baby photo. I wish I had taken more angled photos of her so we could preserve her at that age. You never know.
With photos, you could do it, but I don’t know that I want to see her altered a little bit as a 3D print personally.
I know but I think about when they’re babies and they lie down with their little behinds up in the air and they’re sleeping. That would be such a cute print to have. There’s a whole little burgeoning industry for things that you want to capture time, capture a personality and the endless possibilities of 3D printing amaze me every day so I feel lucky that we get to do this episode.
You were finding out something you couldn’t have done unless you hired a more expensive sculptor to do a one-of-a-kind thing that might cost tens of thousands of dollars. Now you can do something for a couple of hundred dollars maybe.
If you guys have any great business ideas you want to tell us about or something great that you purchased in 3D printing, we’d love to hear about it. Whether we turn it into a podcast, tweet, Facebook and Instagram it, it doesn’t matter. The best way to get in touch with us is at @HazzDesign everywhere.
At our website at HazzDesign.com, you can send us a voicemail or an email. There are many ways to get in touch with us.
We’d love your feedback.
Thanks for reading, everyone.