My feet still hurt from walking the rows and rows of exhibits at CES as I write this. We just got back from CES, and while it’s fresh in our minds, we are documenting this CES 3D Printing Recap, covering the best and the worst of what we saw at CES 2016.
Let’s just say, that show is gigantic. Thank goodness the 3D printing related companies were not spread out so much. Actually, I really do want to give a shout-out to the CES staff. I don’t know who they are, or if they might ever read this, but I think they did a particularly good job this year as compared to last year with keeping all the 3D printing-related companies in one easy-to-get-to location within the massive amount of electronics on display at CES.
Last year, we had to take a shuttle bus from the Sands Exop Center, which is between the Venetian and the Palazzo hotels, over to the main Las Vegas Convention Center to see everybody because some were there and some were at the Sands, which was very difficult. But this time most everything was at the Sands Expo Center.
Today we are going to highlight the best and the worst we saw at CES, with regard to 3D printing. We will cover some of these companies and products in more detail in the coming couple of weeks because they need a little more attention, especially our first one on the Best list. Perhaps all of the ones on the Best list.
Listen to the podcast here:
CES 3D Printing Recap – Best List
One of our top choices is ROBO3D. They had a fabulous booth, which won fourth overall in all of CES for being a great booth. It got fourth place for Best of all show, not just 3D printing stuff. When you see their display it is very clear why they got this recognition.
What I think was brilliant about their booth is that their signage was visible from a distance. As you were walking into the 3D printing area, you knew where they were. So that was cool. They maximized all of their square footage of show space. It was a booth that you walked all around 360 degrees in four quadrants. There was something different in each quadrant that you could see; it was very well done.
We had a great time talking with two founders of that company: Braydon Moreno, and he has a co-founder who is more on the engineering side, Coby Kabili. They have some development people and some top executive leadership on hand as well. We got a great understanding of their company.
What really impressed me the most is that they have their heads in the right place. They figured out how hard it is to sell at retail, and they are starting to do something about it. ROBO 3D is now in at least 25 Best Buy stores; they have these end cap displays that they are installed to display and sell their products. They are trying to do a lot, and that is hard when you are growing as fast as they are growing, but they have the right mix of people working on that right now, which I think is a great sign for their future.
They showed their main flagship printer that has been out for a number of years, but they also introduced two new printers at CES that will hit the market in the second quarter of this year, I believe around May. That really is a big step forward for them. One is a mini printer, and one is a next generation printer that has two-color extrusion.
That’s not even the most exciting thing that ROBO 3D has, and it really jives with what they are doing at Best Buy. They have created these kits, products that are the size of a typical software box. They are selling these kits that are providing you some materials: the actual STL files that you need in order to print things on your ROBO 3D printer and make for useful products. They are also including an education program that takes you through the whole thing. Some of those kits are meant for education, actually in curriculum programs throughout the U.S., but others are just for the people who are owners of ROBO 3D printers and want to embark on a project.
The coolest one is the guitar kit. I was very impressed. It’s not just a little toy; it’s a full-size, real guitar, it was legit. The kit helps you create a complete working electric guitar with a 3D printed body, a nice design that was really well-done. They showed a completed guitar in a Plexiglas display case at one of the four corners of their booth, and allowed people to take it out and play it with an amp, and it sounded really good. As a kit, this was a very smart choice for an example 3D printing project. I think this can help people understand, “Wow, these are the kinds of things that I could do with a 3D printer.”
ROBO 3D in some ways is starting to solve the question of: What am I going to print when I buy my printer? They are trying to help answer that question and give people options. They are trying to give you exciting projects to do with your printer and help you learn in the process of how your printer works, how the design process works, and how to print effectively. I think that is really great because that provides such tremendous support for their customers.
It is so smart. It just makes sense that when consumers walk into Best Buy, how long do we have to capture their attention? Just a few seconds at most. So you are walking through the store, the display grabs your attention, and you see a 3D printer. Maybe you think that’s really cool. Maybe you even already have one. It may not matter either way. Typically, consumers in other stores with 3D printers are wondering what they can do with it, and if they take the initiative to ask, it is suggested to them, “Go on our website. We have a library of files. You can pick what you want. Download and 3D print anything.” If you try to tell people, “You can make anything,” they get paralyzed and don’t know what to make. So if the example is right there in front of them in packaging and photographs with full-color, it really paints the picture and leads them down the path.
While we are talking about kits, I would like to give a little shout-out to Debra Wilcox, not related to ROBO 3D. She owns three different 3D printing stores in Colorado, one in Denver, one in Colorado Springs, and one in Fort Collins. They have a website: the3dprintingstore.com.
I want to give a shout-out to her because it is related to these kits. They do many things at her store, and this will be a whole podcast episode on its own; we will have her on. But we had a great time talking with her at a meet-up the first night we were there. We bumped into her in the Titan booth—which is one of those gigantic 3D printers and is really cool; we will do something with them, too—and we invited her to this meet-up. So we got the chance to sit down with her.
She told us about how at her store, people have been coming in and saying, “Hey, I have a daughter who has a bunch of friends, and they are all really techie girls. We want to have a birthday party. What can we do?” They actually constructed a destination birthday party at the 3D printing store and did a project of kits. That’s why it relates to the ROBO 3D thing.
These kits are really a great way to get people involved in 3D printing, whether you are doing a project on your own or are having a little event. You can make your space really useful and make some money maybe if you had these kits and offered these classes. They buy the kit, and you get them at subsidized pricing, so you are able to resell them and make some money there. The kits are a great way for the future growth of education in 3D printing and also for retail support so you really show off what you can do.
Great job, ROBO3D. Kudos from WTFFF?!
Our second choice for the Best of CES: the minis. I love the minis. There were so many minis. It wasn’t like they were scaled-down 3D printers; they have become very well designed 3D printers on their own. I am really impressed with them. There were five of them that I can think of off the top of my head.
- BEE VERY CREATIVE has a mini, and it’s not super mini, but it is very is portable. You could pick it up and take it with you easily with the hidden built-in handle. It’s super streamlined, and there aren’t a lot of exposed parts, which is a characteristic for all of the minis. You just really don’t see a lot of the mechanisms moving, so you don’t feel like you’re going to damage something. BEEVERYCREATIVE is a company out of Portugal. The printer is actually not new; it’s been around for about a year. They had a new printer that unfortunately didn’t make the show because their airline lost their box coming over from Portugal… The packaging of the printer, which is very well-done, is robust and reusable. The printer was made for portability, and had a handle. That one was really cool. I have seen product that comes off of it, which all looked really good.
Note to self: For anyone coming to a trade show, don’t rely on baggage to help get your critical item to your show. Send it ahead of time. Ship it to your hotel in your name ahead of time, or carry it on the plane. These mini printers are small. They have handles.
The Micro 3D printer is super cute. It has great colors, and it’s really small. I think it’s a great entry-level printer. If you’re not really sure if your kid is going to like 3D printing, it’s only $349. It’s such a beautiful design of a printer. While it is really small, we do not regard that as a negative factor. In fact, all of these mini printers have just about the same build volume, about four inches cubed. For a lot of people it makes sense to have a small printer that does not take up a lot of space right at your desk, but allows you to test prints first hand. As needed you can always use a bigger printer from a service bureau later. The M3D was also showing some new materials, which were really interesting. They are more flexible materials, available in many translucent colors. The M3D printer pulls the material into the extruder, so it is an ideal printer for using flexible materials.
XYZ has a mini printer, a new one since we did our interview with Phair Tsai from XYZ. She mentioned one was coming out, but it’s out now. This printer is priced at $249 retail, really inexpensive, and looks very cool. We haven’t been able to use it yet, but it really looks like it’s simplified and easier to use. We will definitely have to get it in for a review.
- Kind of a fun surprise was the mini toy from Weistek. It looks like a minion; I love it. This printer is really different because it’s designed for kids specifically. He said for ages 6-10, really young. It’s meant to be a toy. It looks like a toy. You can have fun with it. They have made the outside surface of the printer such that dry erase markers will write on it, and they want you to write on it. This reminds me of the analogy I use alot that a 3D printer really is like a sewing machine. When I was little, my very first sewing machine was a Simplicity sewing machine, and it did a chain stitch.
There wasn’t this whole complex threading process. And that is what a lot of these minis have in common. They really feed easily, they’re very simple, and they don’t have a lot of complex features. But that’s not what their point is. Their point is to get kids and people started 3D printing. The Mini Toy runs off an app on a mobile device. That’s a very important feature. They are making it easy for kids to use it in language and format they understand. If you remember, we talked a couple months of ago about our six-year-old daughter and getting her into 3D printing by using Tinker CAD. One of the toughest things out of the gate was getting her to understand how to use a laptop computer and a mouse. She had never really used a mouse before, but she has grown up using a tablet. Here they are talking in tablet language to these kids who have grown up that way, making it easier for them to use the 3D printer. They can actually do it themselves; that’s the whole point of it. The price point is really good here, too.
- The CEL ROBOX. I want to give it a shout-out. It’s a little bit bigger
than a normal mini because it has a slightly wider build plate. It’s more rectangular, but it’s still very small. One of the cool things they have is an impressive two-color system. On the technical side of things, for people who are into the technical, especially people who are into more-than-one-color extrusion, these guys have done something that I have not seen anywhere else, and I have looked really hard. If you know us, you know we have tested
several two-color, dual-extrusion printers and have been very frustrated with the amount of plastic that bleeds. They have come up with a system that has valves and actually shuts off the flow of the extruder that you aren’t using. Your separated colors in your print are really clean and well defined as a result. They had a lot of examples there to demonstrate this. They are sending us one of these printers for review within a couple of weeks, and we will check it out and put it to the test because we have had a lot of issues with this very feature on other
printers. This would be the fourth two-color printer we have tried, so let’s see how this fares. I’m very excited for it, and I have high hopes for it. It’s a good price point too for a machine with so many features. It’s $1,500 for one color with a $300 upgrade to two colors. There were a lot of other specific technical details that are different. So it’s slightly above a mini, in terms of its size, but I still wanted to give it a shout-out here.
We decided we should do a battle of the minis. Sometime in late winter/early spring, all of these companies agreed to submit a printer for review. We will get them all in here and do a side-by-side mini battle. We will check them out over the course of a month and give our opinions and ratings between them all. We are very excited to do that.
Our last Best of CES is: A material company named 3D Fuel. 3dfuel.com is their website. They are out of Mississippi, and are a part of a larger chemical company.
They had a beautiful booth, very attractive. Most of the companies who had material booths just had the drapes on the pipe behind them and a bunch of filament. It didn’t attract you at all. But theirs definitely commanded your attention and drew you in.
They have algae-based materials that are much more environmentally friendly. The materials that they are working on all seem to be really advanced. They have really thought this through. They have flex materials that are hard enough so that they can run through a standard 3D printer, which is awesome. Think about that, folks. We don’t want to underemphasize this. Most flexible materials cannot be used in your standard Bowden-type printers. Those are printers where you have a motor pushing the filament from somewhere else in the printer, usually on the back, going over the top through a little white tube and being pushed into the extruder. Flexible materials don’t work well in those machines.
This material is rigid in its filament state going in, but then it comes out and is flexible. It was really impressive. They have tested and cycled this stuff thousands of times. It apparently performs very well. We are going to be getting some material in to test that out.
The husband and wife team, the Zellers, were a lot of fun. They were really passionate about their product. They have a good view of the environmental impact and friendliness of the materials, which is why the algae is such a good material.
The Algae based filaments are very sustainable. I was really surprised, as I hadn’t really thought that through before. Even if you are making PLA that is a plant-derived plastic, if it requires just as many petrochemicals to process it, to harvest it, to turn it into plastic, then does that defeat the purpose? As we understand it, the algae-based lines don’t have that situation. They are much cleaner and greener in terms of material.
And they have an interesting color composition. They don’t start out with pure white underneath it, so they have a grayed-out, earthy sense. If you get lighter colors, they are pastel-ish; that would be the way I’d describe it. Their colors don’t look like your typical primary 3D print colors, which is refreshing to me.
Some people, especially those doing dinosaur bone reproductions, the material actually lends itself to looking more natural in that situation. But they have other lines. It’s not just the algae line.
They are a pretty comprehensive company. They have a lot of good materials. We will be getting some in to review. I think that they have a bright future, and I am excited for them.
We want to make a shout-out to another filament company, to our friends over at 3D Printlife, Joel and Buzz. In an earlier episode of our podcast we interviewed Buzz to talk about their Enviro-ABS filament. They now have a more environmentally-friendly PLA, called PLAphab; they gave us a spool to take back from the show. We will be testing it really soon and letting you know how it performs.
But today we really want to talk about the unusual spools they use for all of their filament at 3D Printlife. If you 3D print as much as we do, then you go through a lot of filament. I think in December, I had a dozen empty one kilo spools and a several empty one-pound spools. I didn’t throw them away for a while because I wanted to do something with them. I didn’t know what, but there were too many kicking around taking up space, and I had to get rid of them. So I recycled them. There were no recycle symbols on the plastic spools, and there is no way that that plastic is not recyclable. It’s black thermo-plastic of some kind. I put it in the recycle bin because what else could I do but throw them in the trash? I hope they got recycled, but you just don’t know.
The way 3D Printlife spools are made is with a tin core and two pretty thick chipboards. It’s not like corrugated cardboard. They are much more durable, kind of like the back of a pad of paper, but about 1/8 of an inch thick. There are a couple of interesting things about that. When you are done with the spool, you can separate the tin from the two chipboard sides, and all three parts are very recyclable and will actually get recycled, which is great. They also print with soy inks on them so they have done a lot to be completely environmentally friendly.
But there is another advantage that Buzz showed us about this spool. When you have a partially used spool, you take the filament out of the machine, you are wrapping up the filament, and you want to tie it off so that it doesn’t unwind and get tangled. Every spool has a couple of holes on the perimeter to do it, but oftentimes those holes don’t end up in the right orientation. They are a little too long or a little too short. You end up wasting a lot of filament one way or another.
Because of how 3D Printlife’s spool is constructed, you can put filament through the hole, and then you can spin the cardboard sides so it tightens it up the rest of the way. We told Buzz this spool should be everywhere! Everyone should license it; it’s such a great spool. It’d be so much better. At the end of the day, if you are making those in large quantities, it is so much better and so much cheaper in the long run.
CES 3D Printing Recap – Worst List
Now we need to move on to our worst of CES list. The thing is, our top worst pick was almost our best. They were so close to being our best, and then they ruined it by what they told us about their company, and their business plan (or lack thereof).
It’s a company called NewPro3D out of Vancouver, Canada, and they have this cool SLA process that is super fast. They printed one of those tiny Eiffel Towers, about five inches tall, in less than 20 minutes. It was probably closer to 15 minutes. The 3D printer is using standard resins on the market for SLA printing, and these guys have invented a new process. Apparently, even their build plates aren’t limited to being as small as the typical SLA printer, although the one there was typical.
The technology there, two things specifically, is why they almost made my Best. They have a way of focusing the light in their printer over a very wide area. On other SLA printers, the light is focused in the very small center of the build volume. When it gets out to the four corners of the build plate, it suffers a bit. Apparently Newpro3D has come up with a way to maintain the intensity of the light throughout the whole build platform.
They said the rest of the technology is an algorithm and how they process the model itself so that they can go fast through the areas that don’t require a heavy concentration of that light and then just go back and forth with light over the areas that require more intensity.
If you kept an eye out for all the news developments around 3D printing in 2015, around mid-2015 or even earlier, you saw there was this big press release about the Carbon3D clip printing and how that printed so fast. It was a similar speed, but I don’t think it was faster than this. They had some time lapse videos. I believe this one is supposed to be faster.
So here is why it makes our worst list. There are two reasons. 1) At the end of the day, there has been no resin improvement, so it’s still a resin that deteriorates over time. It can never be an end product; it’s always going to be a prototype.
I don’t know if that is clear to everybody. We focus more on FFF printing, but we love all things 3D printing, so obviously we talk about it here. The resins that are out there, and I was actually not aware of this until this show, and I checked with three different resources at the show of really highly technical people who know, and they all said the same thing. All of the resins used in these resin-based printers, those resins are not very stable long-term. They will continue to cure and get more brittle and break. If you are using it for prototyping, like Bridgette Mongeon, who is an artist and is making 3D-printed things to cast in metal or some other material, and it is just a part of the process, then great, no problem. For real prototypes that are not meant to be used as products, that works well.
But end-use product? You can’t do it because it’s not stable. It won’t be the same a year from now if you print it today. That’s disappointing to me. The resin technology just hasn’t come around, and it hasn’t gotten to the point that makes it equivalent to using an FFF printer or any of those things.
2) The second reason is the attitude of the guys who were running this booth and invented this technology. They were like, “Yeah, we’re not taking orders. We don’t know if we are actually ever going to make it. We’re not seeking investment either. We’re just exploring.” I was thinking to myself, If I was an investor…
It sounded to me, to be honest with you, if you read between the lines of what they are saying, it sounds like what they are trying to do is get acquired really quickly so they don’t have to concentrate on what they’ve invented here because it is not their core business. They want to get somebody to offer them tons of money, so they are trying to be nonchalant about it.
Instead, what it made me think was: I don’t want to be in business with these guys. I wouldn’t want to invest in them; you couldn’t make me invest in them because of that attitude and because of that lack of focus.
It definitely seems like a real lack of focus, either a lack of actually having a clear business plan or a lack of having gone through a process and identified what you’re really best markets are. It almost seemed like they were showing out of sequence in their business plan.
Maybe it was just to get a lot of attention in the media? But then just say that. It felt so dishonest, and I really didn’t appreciate that.
Here’s the thing. Everyone walking up to this booth, including me, saw this process and said, “Okay. How much is it? We want to buy one.” Even though I’m not a big resin printer fan, printing that fast, I would be interested.
The worst thing about it is there will be an obscene amount of money thrown at them, and these guys can’t run a company. I sincerely hope whoever invests in them just buys them out because they should not run a company. Buy the technology, and then use it where you know it can go.
So for a while, it was almost on the Best list. But unfortunately it fell short on the business side of things.
Our second worst is actually a category of exhibitor at CES, the many foreign importers or distributors (they can be from the U.S. as well) that come in and have these over-crowded booths of materials and machines. You don’t know what they are selling. It looks like the convenience store version of 3D printing. I can’t explain it any other way. It looks like you’re walking into 7-11 or the dollar store.
We wouldn’t have noticed ROBOX if they didn’t have a really cool-looking printer that stood out on its own. Because their booth looked crowded with too much tchotchkes and many of the same old prints made from Thingiverse models.
I really think that if you’re going to spend the money at a show like CES, you need to have a message. That is why ROBO 3D won fourth best exhibit of CES. They had a message they were conveying, they had a lot to talk about, and the whole booth was focused on delivering that message.
If you’re going to spend the money, especially if you’re coming from another country to a show like CES, it’s a good thing from an international presence standpoint. There is a lot of press that comes in to the 3D printing area, and it’s good to be visible. But no one is going to stop and look at you if you don’t have a message.
I think a lot of the message comes down to your brand message and your brand. I think a lot of these importers don’t really have a brand. They haven’t really even thought about what their brand is and what that brand identity is communicating to their audience, whether their audience is distributors or users. They think, “Oh, showing here at CES is the key to business success.” Well, it can be a key to business success if you are showing at the right time, using it properly, doing it in the right sequence, and you have a well thought out business plan, brand message, and a good brand promise.
Downstairs from 3D printing was what we called the Indiegogo area. It was all of these rough start-ups who are maybe on Indiegogo and have gotten some initial funding and have gotten their technology through the testing/prototype stage, so it looks good and is functioning. But 90% of them have no clue as to how they are supposed to go about marketing their business.
That is exactly where a lot of 3D printing companies are, too. They don’t have any marketing plan; they don’t know who their audience is; they don’t know where their focus is.
That’s really the same problem here: you have to have that thought through before you spend that kind of money on CES.
Maybe they have given it a lot of thought. We don’t know what’s in the minds of these people, but it sure is surprising to see so many companies there who have invested a lot of time and money coming from overseas to the U.S. They have put up a small to significantly big booth space, and they only sort of have some pieces of the puzzle in place in terms of a business plan to execute. 3D printing is not a mature enough technology to be price-competing and thinking some big store buyer will just start shopping. It’s not like that right now.
Lack of Retail Support
Our third worst of CES is the obvious the lack of support from retailers. Sculpteo and Staples have a joint venture, a business relationship. When you buy stuff off of Staples’ website and you contract their services, and it’s being printed by Sculpteo and shipped to you. That was announced at 3D Printshow in Pasadena, California in August. There was not a single Staples logo on Sculpteo’s CES tradeshow booth; it is very clear that Staples is not supporting the relationship.
The only sort of retail level business that was visible at CES was UPS. And that was an exception in my mind. The UPS Store took the initiative to invest in their own booth to help spread awareness of the fact that they are there as a resource and as a service bureau. There are 62 different 3D print retail locations that are UPS stores, so they were there spreading the word. They said they thought they would have people who knew things about 3D printing would know UPS Store was in the business. 90% of the people they handed out their little keychain samples to didn’t know: “The UPS Store 3D prints? Really?” They were surprised.
Getting their message out and getting that support out from a retail support level is extremely important. Where is Staples telling people that they have a 3D printing service? Not being at CES or not supporting the vendors within your store… Best Buy should have had a big logo support for ROBO 3D. They didn’t. There is a co-branding opportunity that these retail stores need to exploit to say, “We are supporting this technology. We are cutting-edge.” Unfortunately, thus far they are not.
Just say, “Hey, we’re in the business.” To me, that is a marketing department miss at the best, and at worst, it’s not really understanding the market and the opportunity here at CES to help support some of the people you are doing business with. This is a short-sighted assumption that 3D printing is not ready for primetime yet, that retailers are making.
The UPS Store was the first one I ever heard of doing 3D printing in the U.S. I know Staples was doing it overseas with Mcor paper printers. They’ve been doing that in Europe, and we read about that because we are in the industry. The first one that I ever heard of on a retail level was the UPS Store, and that was a couple years ago when they did their first store out of San Diego. Here, a couple of years later, they are still trying to get the word out that they have these services.
It’s an incredibly difficult marketing effort. The longer you take to get into it and do it, the harder it’s going to be. It really seems that other than what UPS Store is doing at CES, it’s really up to the local franchise to make sure that to every customer that is coming in to the UPS Store to ship a package or have something printed up in their copy center area or get their mail, they should show them, “Hey guys, we have this other service, and it’s relevant to your business in one of these ways. You should consider doing that.” So it’s really up to them. It would be nice if a bigger organization like UPS, a multi-billion dollar company, could support them, and they could support their franchisees. They really should do more. Kudos to them for doing it at all though.
I think they need to do it in a more consumer-related environment than CES. It’s not really consumer-related, but to do something like that would be extremely important.
So that’s our best and worst. The Best: ROBO 3D, minis, 3D-Fuel, algae, and other types of materials. The worst: SLA, the fact that you don’t have your messaging and branding together, and that there is a lack of retail support.
But it was a really great show. I’m glad we went. The quality of the show overall was very good, much better than last year. I was excited to be there. You know what?
Besides these best and worst, there are at least half a dozen other companies that we will be doing a specific podcast on their product/service. Tune in for those in the future. Just because they didn’t quite make the best list doesn’t mean they’re not worth talking about.
We definitely will have a follow-up on food printing; I talked to the Sugar Lab people. We have had a lot of emails from you guys out there asking what the status of that is. We will do an Ask Us on that.
There was another company that was showing at the 3D Systems booth that was doing this eyeglasses thing, which was very cool. Tracy got scanned, and we got some video of that. I was very excited by that. We have some questions for them, so we will do a special podcast on that.
Lots of good things coming up. Also some great reviews on tap from this show. This winter and into the spring should be really exciting on WTFFF?!
- Mini Toy -Not available yet
- ZYX 3D Printing
- CEL ROBOX
- 3D Fuel
- 3D Printlife
- The 3D Printing Store
- The UPS Store
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