We decided to follow up with someone we met at SoCal MakerCon. Back then we didn’t have enough time to get in depth about what they do; the company is Astroprint. In the SoCal MakerCon interview with him I said that their company is just apps and software, so it didn’t quite excite me. But now that we have learned more about it, I have learned that Astroprint 3D Printing Apps Promote Ease of Use, and I actually think it really is exciting.
Drew Taylor is one of the founders of Astroprint, and we had a really good interview with him.
Listen to the podcast here:
Interview – Astroprint 3D Printing Apps Promote Ease of Use
Drew, thank you so much for joining us today on WTFFF. It’s nice to be able to spend some detailed and quiet time with you. It was so noisy trying to talk to you at SoCal MakerCon, so we’re happy to dive back in and get some more details and spend some more time with you.
Thanks for having me here. I’m glad we can sit down when we also have our voices because if I recall, all three of us, or at least two of us, had lost our voices that day.
That environment in the trade show is not a great environment for preserving your voice. Everyone is talking over each other, so the noise level gets so loud.
But it matches the excitement, so it’s worth it.
Drew, as we said, you’re from AstroPrint. Can you start by giving us background on yourself and your company?
This is probably unusual compared to most people in the 3D printing industry. I actually came from the medical field. I was in sports medicine and later in alternative medicine. I was an acupuncturist and a professor at a Chinese medicine school, but I had always had tech start-ups on the side. I had this weird tech habit that I kept in the back of my life. So I had start-ups before.
With this entrepreneurial spirit, I made prototypes that I was going to sell in the sports medicine industry. I bought a 3D printer in order to make these prototypes with more precision. When I bought the printer, I fell in love with 3D printing immediately. That was an old Airwolf 3D printer in 2013. I fell in love with that, but then I saw all the frustrations that everyone was having in the market.
Let’s talk about that. That’s the issue. That’s the impetus for you guys trying to go toward an app-based model, if I’m not mistaken. You may love it, but you get annoyed by it at the same time.
That was exactly it. I’m very technical. I don’t mind reading a lot of tech blogs and figuring out how to do things; it’s not my preference though. But I could see then how many people had bought these 3D desktop printers and became totally deflated by them because they had all these dreams and after getting it, they realized they couldn’t do it. It wasn’t the hardware for the most part; it was that it was so difficult to navigate how to operate the machine and the software and installing Python on your computer to run software for your 3D printer. It was beyond people’s skill level, and I wanted to solve that and make it easy for people so everybody could enjoy 3D printing and the printer could reach a more mass audience.
Do you think that it’s improving? That there are printers that are getting easier and much more plug-and-play?
Absolutely. I think that MakerBot gets flack for some things, but they have done a lot right as well, in terms of sales and growth as a company. MakerBot was the first one to focus on this, and they developed MakerWare. I postulate that what really drove MakerBot sales wasn’t that their hardware was so much better than others on the market—it was above average, but it wasn’t orders of magnitude above average—but their software made it easier for people to use MakerBots. That’s what drove most MakerBot adoption.
The other companies are starting to catch on. MakerBot had a lot of resources, so they were able to do that earlier on.
That’s our experience, too. We’ve said this many times on the podcast. We bought a MakerBot as our first printer. To be honest with you, I was annoyed that we weren’t getting good prints out of it right away because we’d been 3D designing—Tom has been CAD modeling—for over 25 years, maybe even longer. I expected us to be making great designs off the machine really quickly, but it wasn’t happening.
When we bought a different printer later—we finally got some good designs, it took us about six months before I thought it was good enough to Instagram it. So once we got some good prints, we decided to buy our next printer, something that’s more flexible. Maybe it’s the constraints of the MakerBot. That’s what we thought. We thought maybe we wanted to have more than one material at a time, so get a dual-extrusion machine and be able to use other materials where the actual company that makes the machine actually sanctioned using other materials where MakerBot is strictly saying that you void the warranty if you put other materials in it.
We bought a more complicated machine, and I returned it within 30 days. It was so much harder to navigate. Every time you turned around, you had to do firmware and software updates or try a different software. It was a ridiculous amount of tech that you had to do, so we weren’t designing anything. It was extremely frustrating for us.
So I am so glad that we bought the MakerBot first and went through our frustration curve with it because at the end of the day, it was still easier, and we would have absolutely given up on the other printers.
That’s a really common story. Or the reverse being a common story. Buying the other machine, thinking 3D printing was complicated, and then never doing anything with it again. Or they think we’re 20 years away from someone being able to use this because they bought a machine that didn’t focus on simplicity.
I believe the rest of the market of desktop manufacturers saw that with MakerBot and are aware of it. They are all trying to solve that problem in their own way. You have a lot of larger manufacturers like XYZ who have resources to try to build their own system to try to make it simpler. The manufacturers that are mid-grade and down are looking at companies like ours to jump on board with because we can provide that simple solution, so they don’t have to have a software team at the level of MakerBot’s to do it.
To go back to your original question, I do see simplicity moving ahead in orders of magnitude year after year at this point. With XYZ and some other machines getting down to $250 a unit, I think by Christmas next year, I think you’re going to see extremely simple-to-use machines that people can go pick up. I’m not going to say every print is going to come out successful, but it won’t be daunting to use the devices.
Drew, with your really difficult experience with your first printer, this was the father of the invention for you for creating AstroPrint. Tell us about how that came about. We’d like to know what you’re offering to those people in the mid-to-lower tier of desktop printers that are not building their own software and ecosystem. How is it that your software helps them?
Our very original idea was to make a site that accentuates Thingiverse: a model repository of designs that are all proven to print. As people know, Thingiverse is all crowd-sourced; 70% of the models would fail on a 3D printer if you didn’t know how to vet it.
So we created a site called 3Dagogo.com, which is still around. It’s exactly that. With 3DaGoGo, what we found quickly is that people are more interested in free designs for some obvious reasons. We realized it wasn’t going to be a business that could really scale the way we wanted to. We were looking for what larger opportunity there is to help the industry.
What we found in doing a bunch of customer surveys is that the printer manufacturers had the biggest problem. They were losing sales because they were selling machines that were too complicated. We modified a lot of the advanced technology that was going to go into the next version of 3daGoGo and turned it into AstroPrint.
The general idea of AstroPrint and how it works and helps these folks is that we have two sides. One side is software that can go into a 3D printer, just like how you can put Windows on your computer or Android on your phone. This is software that could go on a printer. If a printer doesn’t have the capability to run our software, you can put it on Raspberry Pi and plug that into your printer. That becomes a very simple-to-use interface for your machine. You can use your phone or your tablet to control it with a simple touch screen. You can connect it online to the cloud: the way you would expect a 3D printer or any modern piece of technology to work.
I personally misspoke earlier. Although we do work with the smaller 3D printing manufacturers, we also work with the large ones as well. It’s just a slightly different product.
In general, what they do is they can get a branded version. For example, Airwolf 3D has WolfWare, which is a branded version of AstroPrint. There are other manufacturers as well. We give them this ability to connect their brand to their customers at the same time as giving them a simple user experience.
On the other side, we have a cloud-based 3D printing app store. This is something that anybody can go to and use; just go to astroprint.com and log in. You’ll see a number of apps. If you have a 3D printer that is AstroPrint compatible, there are things you can do from that site like remote monitoring from anywhere. You can send prints from Thingiverse using your phone or tablet straight to your computer; all the slicing happens in the cloud. We optimize a slicing process.
The goal with that site moving forward is to expand it into a true app store. We have about ten more third parties in line to release apps on there, including MyMiniFactory and a number of customizers. We see this as being the true place of finding what we want to print, how they want to print it, and just send it to the printer very simply.
Kind of app-based, which is more mainstream simple.
Yes, that’s exactly what we are going for. What worked in the phone industry and computer industry? That’s applications and icons that drive what you want to do. I think it’s important that the applications are developed by third parties. There are other people doing what we do out there that are building all the applications themselves. We made a customizer and a new slicer. That is not our approach.
Our approach is to be a true platform.
A multi-print-management system is something that is needed. We realize we can build that, and we will, if someone else doesn’t do it. What we would like to have happen is have third parties and multiple groups and companies build their own apps for that and let them compete to make the best ones possible or ones that work in different situations and are better for different customers.
You can really make a less featured printer and expand the offering by being app-capable?
That’s it. I might put that in our pitch deck.
I like that idea. Part of the problem with teaching our young daughter how to 3D print was we had to teach her how to use a mouse instead of a tablet. She could have figured out an app in no time at all, and we would have been up and running.
We’re actually talking to several companies that are making simple cloud-based CAD tools for children to run on tablets. Their next step is once they design something, what will they do with it? With an AstroPrint integration, what they can do is hit a button, and the printer in their house—even if they are not in their house—starts printing it. They don’t have to know about slicing or anything. They can just hit the button, and it works. That’s coming very soon.
There is a version available now on astroprint.com. We have an app on there from a company called 3D Slash. They are a fringe company that made a cloud-based CAD tool for children that uses a Minecraft-style interface.
The way it works on there is you just open it up. They can design something, and then you can save it back into your Astroprint cloud account and print from there.
You can also import models. If you have models already on AstroPrint, you can import it into 3D Slash. It turns it into blocks that you can then modify. A kid can take a pretty blank phone case and customize it and then print it off right there.
The future of it sounds like you will be Android. AstroPrint is Android. It’s the machine that runs the apps and the app store. How will we know if we get a printer that is AstroPrint capable?
Right now, you may not always know. Some would say, “Powered by AstroPrint,” and others may say “Cloud-capable.” Our goal as we move forward will be to solidify the brand name a bit more.
For example, in the phone industry, even if the phone was running Android, but it didn’t say it was, people wouldn’t buy it because they didn’t trust it. So our goal is to build that brand awareness a bit more so people go looking for the AstroPrint-enabled 3D printer.
From the design side, one of the things that we have been looking at is that not having a cloud-capable printer is actually problematic for us. If we are creating wonderful complex designs that took us 100-200 hours, we are not going to be giving them away for free. So we need a cloud streaming version so that we can be paid by the print if we are not going to be paid upfront for these designs.
There are so many printers and service companies, retailers even, where they don’t have the ability to do that. The reality is there are constraints. If they aren’t going to make their own designs, they are incapable of having designs put into them if they aren’t streaming, if somebody is just not ordering them on Thingiverse. Where are they going to get them?
I couldn’t agree more. A point I like to make in a talk I do is that 3D printers are these really advanced, amazing pieces of technology from a hardware perspective. But for some reason, the industry has loved this software that is from the ‘90s. There is probably nowhere else you would go buy a $2,000 piece of machinery that isn’t cloud-connected. Your $40 coffee maker can probably be accessed through an app. Why can’t a $50,000 3D printer not be accessed through an app? Society expects it.
You have a good point. We often use the metaphor that a 3D printer is like a sewing machine. But I love the coffee machine idea. Think about what happens with the Nespresso or the Keurig.
If you don’t have the capability of having every flavor of coffee available to purchase in their little cartridge, then you preclude yourself from an entire audience of people. So you have this great machine that can do it, but you have no K Cups.
Using business terminology, I would say that platforms drive innovation. People don’t think of a Keurig as a platform, but it is. You can start a coffee company that makes K Cups and not be part of Keurig tomorrow, and that drives Keurig sales. We think it’s the same for 3D printing.
I like that analogy. What I like about it is that is relatable to everybody, common people who don’t know CAD. You want an exotic cup of coffee but you don’t want to come up with a recipe and you want it quickly.
The same thing needs to happen with the market going mainstream for 3D printed content. People would be really into buying something that was made just their way or in the color that they want, but they don’t want to know how to print it. They don’t want to know how to model it. Maybe a platform like AstroPrint will help us get there.
It’s the supply model. The machine really is the lost leader. You sell the machine, and the margins are very low because the prices are so far down. If you’re not making your money on the input, if you are not investing in the great design files that you will then be selling, or the materials that are going to become a part of the machine, and you are not gaining your market, then you aren’t leveraging your platform for all it’s worth.
I would agree completely. Material sales go along with these guys as well. It’s all part of what is driving the prices down. I’m excited what that is doing for that industry.
Stepping back, another way of framing where we feel design has been with the industry as far as the consumer, nobody I know is claiming that we are in a full consumer market yet. It is still a certain level of hobbyists, but I feel we are moving out of that and into education, and then we will move into consumer next.
We have to build our consumer base first, and that is the problem. There is too big a paradigm shift for us older folks. Once we teach our kids, they will expect it, and that will be our future consumer base.
Absolutely. It will just be normal.
But with the designs and people paying for designs, in general, a principle of a hobbyist is they value money over time. What I mean by that is a hobbyist would prefer to spend ten hours solving a problem themselves than paying $5 to have someone solve it for them. They enjoy the process of solving the problem.
A consumer that is not a hobbyist values time over money. They would rather spend $10 than have to read tech blogs for 30 minutes to solve a problem. We are shifting to that consumer market. We still believe that as that goes there, and companies like Disney, Hasbro, and others go in to the market—they are getting hammered by us and everybody else to do that—that consumer wave picks up. You will see the design market as an industry explode.
What do you think is holding that back? What is the challenge of getting those kinds of people in?
That’s a tough one. I think there are six or seven different challenges that are slowly being whittled away on right now. Keep in mind, these are really big companies that don’t step into any market unless there is a lot of money to be had. If it’s not a million-dollar deal, Disney won’t step in. That’s how their engine works. It’s not that they are greedy, but there are so many checks and balances and legal check-offs that it costs them a lot of money to get products approved and into the market. They need to make a lot of money on it. That’s a barrier.
What we are working on to solve that is bringing multiple manufacturers into the table. We ran into a lot of manufacturers that went to Disney but couldn’t bring a big enough deal to Disney to bring them in. As we get some more manufacturers on our system, we can work out a deal with Disney to put them on 20 printers at once. Then the deal could be big enough.
There are also other companies solving problems. Source3 is solving problems around royalty management that will be necessary for Disney and Hasbro to get involved. Others are solving security issues. We are solving wireless delivery and the ability to make sure the model will work on almost any machine in the field and the store that it can sell through.
All these different companies are whittling away at all these problems simultaneously. I personally don’t think it’s something that will take years and years to happen. I think it will be a snowball effect downhill. It’s gaining momentum, and then it will break through. Maybe a year or two.
My projection is the end of 2017.
I agree with that. I will put that on record.
The sooner, the better. Those machines that are currently building their entire market on the hobbyists, that market is small. I understand where retail is coming from when they see that, they’re not too excited. When you can then bring this to mainstream America with relevant things they want, then it gets big, and it gets big companies’ attention. That’s where future growth is for sure.
We definitely see signals that that is coming. Without naming names, one company that we’re starting to work with now has been OEM (original equipment manufacturing), meaning they have made 2D printers for some of the biggest names in the industry for decades, but it’s a company no one has ever heard of. They are huge. Other companies stick their label on them. You may own a 2D printer made by this manufacturer. They make a machine, and another company like Lexmark sticks their sticker on it, but Lexmark didn’t actually make it. That’s extremely common in the industry.
We’re starting to work with this company who has worked in 2D printing for decades and is now shifting to 3D. To me, this is a signal that you are seeing companies that already have the connections. These guys are a very large, multi-billion-dollar company, and they know how to produce product at scale. They have all the connections to every 2D printer manufacturer; they can tell them to pick up a 3D printer, and you’re off to the races.
I think that a lot of people in the public think that it will take a lot of time for consumer 3D printing to happen also think that every single company out there has to develop an R&D for machines. It’s not really how it’s likely to happen. There will be manufacturers that already exist that will get picked up by these bigger companies.
I actually think it will be the same thing for design. The holdback on the market in general thinks that either the Thingiverses of the world are good enough, or they think that they will have to build it themselves. That is a mistake; you can’t develop that core competence overnight of what is retail capable. It is a consumer product at the end of the day.
I completely agree. People don’t realize what it takes to put a consumer product compared to what it takes to get a model up on Thingiverse that looks good and works. What can break off and become a choking hazard. There are so many factors. It is a large and complex engine when done correctly.
Think about it from the standpoint of multiple manufacturers and challenges and retail constraints. There is actually a very big attraction for retail to want to have 3D designs and print-on-demand products because the inventory carrying costs are so low. An ornament for the holidays or a ring holder for Valentine’s Day. The carrying costs on that are at least a $2.2 million initial order for a national chain promo buy for the holidays.
On the side of designing it and printing on demand, you are talking about maybe a $20,000 investment. That is pretty incredible. Maybe you have licensing and royalty fees, but you have to be capable. That’s why what you are talking about and what Source3 is working on is perfect. You have to be capable of tracking every print that is made so that designers are paid fairly and are assured of the security of their license.
A friend of mine’s company is doing some things with Wal-Mart, a company called GROM. It’s a phone case customizer on Walmart.com (I think). You can customize and have the phone case sent to you. It’s not for home printing.
You see these retail giants stepping into it. There are a couple companies creating kiosk systems that they are hoping to get into Toys-R-Us.
Another way of looking at the market and the way times have changed… I’m 42, and my generation in general is the way you got things, you went to the store and saw what was there. You picked from your options.
But the younger generation, everything is different. It comes from the way Internet has evolved. Everything is dynamic. Your Facebook page is the way you want your Facebook page. Who you want in is who you get in. Everything is customized. So it makes sense for the next phase is that all physical objects should be customized, too. It’s what is expected.
That is the case. We cite these statistics all the time in product design and retail. 78% of purchases begin online first. Maybe it’s in a research level or a comparison level. But 78% begins online first is across every age demographic. It’s extremely large if you talk about a millennial generation. But it is across every generation at this point.
Yeah, I didn’t know that stat. That is amazing.
Absolutely. Now that so many things can be customized easily, it will be expected more and more. I am not a doom-and-gloom for retail. I don’t think 3D printing is going to put Wal-Mart out of business. But I do believe you’re going to see these retail companies incorporate a lot of this, whether there are customizers producing things for you in the store through 3D printing or designing and creating clothes for you in the store. There will be significantly more of that as we move forward. We are still away from that.
Boy, isn’t this an exciting time we are living in though. Drew, thank you so much for spending some more time with us. It’s been great to have a deep dive into this arena of your company’s platform. Platform drives innovation, that’s great.
Thank you for having me. It’s very fun and insightful; I enjoy your insights.
Tom & Tracy’s thoughts – Astroprint 3D Printing Apps Promote Ease of Use
That was a lot more interesting and exciting than what I thought it was going to be. I like that we are finally getting some people who are as big on retail as we are. He seems really to be significantly realizing that that is a future market and tactically seeing how we’re going to start to get there.
As we were just chatting with him after the recording ended, he was saying that he saw at CES that last year was all about hobbyists and this year was all about education. He and I both expect that in the next year, it’s going to start to turn toward consumerism. He was saying that every company has said, “Who is their target market?” That was the key thing. Last year it was hobbyists. This year, everyone was saying the education market. Why? Because the educational institutions are really spending the most money buying 3D printers and putting in curriculum standards.
I think that’s a mistake for people to put that in their mind. Their focus on the sales part is education right now. But on the R&D side, it better be consumer, or they are going to be behind. I agree because the product development cycles are so long, but also figuring out the nuances of how you’re going to reach the consumer.
But to me, this is the interesting thing. When you think about brick-and-mortar retail—Drew may have said this on the interview, I don’t remember—he was talking about how he doesn’t think that online and 3D-on-demand print manufacturing is ever going to replace brick-and-mortar retail relevance. I agree with that, but it is going to be a much bigger part of it. I think if you just look at the statistic you laid out, Tracy, which is 78% of purchases begin online. Whether they are purchased in the store or not, they begin online.
You don’t want to drive to the store unless you know you have them in stock. You’ll check online. You’ll also comparison-shop and figure out which store you want to buy from, or should you just order from Amazon right now? These are things you do in the process. It’s a normal course of action for just about everyone in every age demographic today.
When you think about that, aren’t you going to be so much more excited when you say, “Oooh, look at that color! Not available in store. Only available on demand.”
To me, the fact that 78% of purchases begin online, thinking that 20 years ago, online didn’t even exist. Most consumers didn’t even go online at that time. How much has that changed: how people buy things today. And I think this percentage is actually an old one. I’ve been using this percentage for at least two years in the market when I give presentations on retail and what’s happening there. It’s across all age demographics, but it’s probably out of date, and it is probably higher than that.
I think it’s natural that as time moves on and younger millennials grow up and become more of the purchasing market out there, that number will naturally go up. I think it’s also an indicator that there is going to be this natural evolutionary move toward wanting it your way, especially with the millennial generation, and print-on-demand is going to be a part of that, and 3D-printed products on retail will be real.
I love the idea of what Drew is offering. I love the idea of an Astroprint app being right on my printer, and I don’t have to do anything but click on the app on my tablet, search through my catalog, and say, “That’s what I want today.” It’s irrelevant where it’s coming from. It’s not like I have to sift through it; I just pick whatever app I’m most interested in.
It may not even be relevant where you’re having it printed either. Right, it doesn’t have to be my printer. It can be a service bureau print-on-demand. A lot of things have to line up in order for it to happen, but this is going to happen. That’s really exciting.
I think it’s very smart what they’re doing with the company in making it a platform and having that platform really be the conduit to help bring a lot of pieces together to help move the market. It’s going to take companies like Source3 and AstroPrint to move retail because it’s such a titanic move that has to happen. You have to have someone who is going to leverage the cost of many manufacturers because if each little printer manufacturer had to get retail to support them, it’s not going to work. Same thing with designers and products and software. It’s just not going to happen. So when you get these guys who are consolidating all of that and making it happen, that’s the most promising.
It is really exciting to understand that there is a company at Wal-Mart who is doing these customized phone cases on demand. I didn’t know about that. Even the world’s largest retailer is dipping their toe into it. And they should be. Everyone should be testing it. Staples has their test, and Wal-Mart has theirs, and Target did a test with the superheroes and little gingerbread man over the holidays in some of their stores.
Those tests, from what I understand, have gone very well for the most part; at least, those are reports I heard back from many manufacturers. They might have had conservative projections that they are doing very well on, so doing really well, compared to retail metrics, may still be relative. But they did better than they projected they would do. That’s natural. They’re not going to get it right the first time; they have to figure out what works. Be tenacious about it because you really have to move this among many product categories and areas of a retail business in order to make that happen.
But I think that the biggest paradigm shift that has to happen is someone has to think about Wal-Mart as less commodity and more as the ability to offer something customized. I think that’s the bigger problem with these guys doing a phone case; yeah, Wal-Mart has a really broad range of consumers, but how many consumers value customization there because they don’t think of Wal-Mart as customization? That’s the shift that they have to make first. There’s an irony there. So that’s where you have the paradigm shift that has to happen in that these large retailers have to say, “We’re not just the place for mass retail products. We are the place for something special, too.” “We want to be the place for something you want to buy. It doesn’t matter what it is.”
I’m really excited about Astroprint’s apps and the things they have going on in the future. You should definitely check them out at astroprint.com, and we will have links to things he mentioned in the show notes, which you can find at 3dstartpoint.com.
- XYZ Printing
- 3D Slash
- getGROM 3D Printed Phone Cases
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