Checking back in with MatterHackers since our last episode with them, we wanted to talk more generally this time and get a feel for the other things they are working on and where their growth is. They are simplifying the user experience and really developing a plug-n-play system with updates to their MatterControl platform. With over 300% growth from last year to this year, they are definitely headed in the right direction.
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Interview – Making 3D Printing More Accessible
Lars, thanks so much for joining us today on WTFFF. It’s great to have you back on the show.
It’s wonderful to be back. Thank you guys.
You told us that you guys have been growing 300% over the last year since we last talked. That’s amazing, and it’s indicative of what’s been going on in the market. Where are you seeing that growth happening?
We are retailers, so we sell printers, and we have our MatterControl platform for controlling printers. We see tremendous growth in all of those categories. Our retail business has grown hugely. We have added a lot more staff, specifically marketing staff to that group. Our software development team has also grown. We have new developers, and we are continually trying to improve our platform to help people get the best out of 3D printing and get great results.
Let’s remind them about that platform. Your new version of the printer controller is coming out.
MatterControl is a desktop 3D all-in-one printing platform. It allows you to bring your models into the platform, manage the models, do some very light editing against the parts you might have in there, and control your actual printer. It has printer profiles set up for about 60 different printers at this point. You can select those, which are already configured. We work with the manufacturers to make sure we have the best settings for a particular printer. The software can optionally walk you through a calibration process and get you all set up and ready to go.
For some of the printers, it’s literally plug it in, choose your profile for your particular printer, go through a set-up wizard, and you print. In less than fifteen minutes, we had our first successful set-up of a brand-new, out-of-the-box printer.
I’ve been thinking lately—especially as we have been dealing with educators and facility managers with multiple types of printers—if they used your system, and it happens to work with those printers, they only have to learn one set of software once.
One of the best parts is that we have the desktop software available for free on Mac and PC. You can download that and check that out and get used to it. Particularly in an educational environment, the thing about having MatterControl Touch, the tablet that can come with the computer, is that that educator or teacher doesn’t have to talk to IT or worry about whether or not this laptop is configured and has the right software on it. They don’t have to deal with any of those issues. They can literally take that printer and plug it into that device, and it’s ready to go.
For us, that has been a tremendous selling point for these educational institutions. That printer is set up and functional, and you can just wheel it into the next classroom and print with it. You don’t have to configure new classrooms each time. That investment that that teacher or the students have made in learning that environment means that same software environment will work with practically any device they can buy in the desktop market at this time.
I hadn’t thought about it from a student’s perspective. You spend this time learning it, and you maybe get something different at home and have to learn it again. This way, you don’t.
And the other thing we have been working on is getting more tools in place to let people manage those workflows so that once you have a set of designs… For instance, we are partnering with some STEM education programs that will allow us to have curriculum for teachers as well. We currently have the MatterControl Touch controller. We have the printers. We actually have a book that helps people understand how to use MatterControl for 3D printing. We sell all that as educational packages. Pretty soon, we will be partnering with these STEM programs to offer an actual curriculum to these schools that they can use in conjunction with our software and our platform. It’s a complete package they can understand that if they buy it, they will be up and running. The answer is yes. Soup to nuts, you will be up and running. This is the whole platform, and it will take care of you in all of those ways.
I think that is necessary nowadays. It’s getting so complicated.
We have educational packages up now where we bundle the printer with the controller with the book and filament, so you have everything you need to get printing. But I think the next stage for us is to actually bundle it with these educational packages.
The MatterControl Touch T10 is out or coming out?
It will be coming out soon. I think we’re about four weeks away from shipping.
How is it different from the old one?
The MatterControl Touch T10 is like the T7+ in the same way that an iPhone 6+ is just a bigger version of the iPhone 6. Principally over the past year, we have developed the software significantly, and so the MatterControl Touch platform is much better. The MatterControl Touch T10 is bigger. It has bigger buttons, it has a slightly faster processor, it has a little bit better USB connection, and it’s just a great result for the people who are looking for something fat-finger-friendly.
What are some of the developments with MatterControl over the past year?
There are a lot of very technical developments that have happened, but the significant ones that are very useful to anyone is something like a cloud library. If you have the desktop version and are using it with your home printer, and say you also had a printer at school, you can log into your same account, and all of your prints are available. So you won’t have to synchronize them back and forth.
I have a MatterControl Touch in the garage. My wife doesn’t like to have that noise in the house with those. I can drag my files onto my desktop version and walk into the garage, and they’re already there. That makes it very easy to use.
Another thing we have added is file control. You can actually monitor and start and stop a print from any web browser, whether that is on your phone or while you are at work and your printer is at home.
We also have picture monitoring. Every two minutes, it uploads a file of the print so you can see the status of it. Is it spaghetti, or is it working correctly? In the future, we will be adding video support so you can watch the printer printing. That’s not in yet.
You have to log into your web browser on your phone to do that. You don’t have an app yet?
We don’t have an app, no.
How about this curriculum? Can you give us any details?
Right now, we are just getting into discussion, so I can’t get into too much depth yet. Basically, it’s a curriculum that the school would buy for a printer or a classroom. That provides everything they need: the teaching documentation, the student documentation, the 3D printable models, and the coursework.
If this were something for a physics class, it might be the lessons that would be part of understanding mass. If the students would print out the stuff, and there might be a balance and other items with that, along with these printable parts would also be the curriculum for the students and the teacher.
We have been finding in discussions that there are some classrooms that are focused like that. They have the printer in the classroom. But there are also many schools where it crosses classrooms due to common core collaboration. Are you thinking about doing curriculum that might cross subjects?
Absolutely. One of the things that is so exciting about this printer is that it can be used for customizing things for students if they were in a design class or a CAD class. But it is also an on-site manufacturing device. One of the biggest problems with schools when they buy these custom pieces of curriculum is they can go missing quite easily. Some of those parts are very expensive. For instance, some of the pieces we were looking at are anatomy pieces or geological pieces. The students can look at these things and hold these things. If they are broken or lost, you can reproduce one. Instead of having a $20 or $50 product that you have to order and wait two weeks for, these are two-hour prints. So they can come off the printer and be an instant replacement.
I had a great example. My daughters go to a charter school. One of the teachers had Hands-On Equations, which is a math tutorial for elementary and junior high school students. They have these parts, and it takes seven pieces for a whole set. The teacher came to me and said, “I don’t have seven. I only have six of these parts.” She did not ask me to 3D print it, but I told her that I could make it. I made one, and she said, “They are supposed to be matching colors. I am so sorry.” So I sent her like fifteen of them, and they were thrilled.
How awesome to give your kids that opportunity. Now they will come to you every semester with those kinds of problems.
If that education had been in the curriculum designed for 3D printing, all of those physical components would already have those files prepared for them. If a part goes missing, it’s a non-issue.
Are you teaching your girls 3D printing?
My ten-year-old is on Tinker CAD all the time. She designs doll furniture and has me print it out for her.
We started our six-year-old earlier in the year. She is just getting used to how it works. Everything she makes looks like a crown. But the fact that she likes it and starts to think the world is 3D printable is a great mindset.
My older daughter is 14 now, and she is getting into cosplay and costuming. When she is designing something, she is like, “Dad, I need a belt buckle.” She expects that to happen. That is a whole different universe. She thinks it’s reasonable for me to print her a custom belt buckle that is going to fit on this piece of cloth that I just cut out.
I think that’s a great mindset, but I’m excited for when these younger generations will make it themselves instead of asking you or me for it. Because they are getting it in so young while their imaginations are so ripe, the future of that is they will be thinking of design, engineering, and fabrication methods we have never thought of because we are too hampered by our paradigms of how things work.
They both blow my mind. I can’t even believe the difference between when I was a kid and now. They think they can make stuff out of anything the whole time. They pull out aluminum wrap and start making helmets and gloves. The craft videos available on YouTube blow my mind, and they go do it. They have been making miniature Barbie Band-Aids that actually work. The Band-Aid is half an inch long with backing strips that you can peel off.
I love the creativity. The next generation will blow our minds. It shows you how far ahead educators need to be in their thinking to be able to deal with these kids.
This is what Tom and I have noticed. When we were in college at RISD, they had just gotten their CAD lab up. Some people like Tom have had experience with CAD before, but others were new. The CAD curriculum was not integrated into the classroom programs yet; it was just a lab that you could use to do what you needed to do for your classes. There weren’t assignments. By the time we graduated, they brought these programs in. The problem was the educators had to catch up to format the curriculum and include those things. And they had to learn them themselves. It was very overwhelming. I think we’re at the same stage now with 3D printing.
I think it is. The biggest problem that we’ve heard with classrooms that get 3D printers is that in the very limited time they have, the teacher isn’t able to get that printer up and functioning quickly enough to make it a part of the process that they have.
The next stage is when they get to that point, they don’t necessarily know how to integrate it into the curriculum. Our goal really is to satisfy both of those things: to get them the tools they need in the form of a printer that is effective, functional, and useful, and something like MatterControl Touch where this printer is self-contained and can be completely effective without plugging it into anything else.
Your software is unique in that it goes across any printer. By reputation and what I hear from other companies is that you guys give a lot of support especially for engineers, and the education space is very different. How are you finding that difference? You must be setting up different printers for early student users than you are for companies. Is that fair?
That’s true. Some of the printers that are very effective are so in both environments. Some that are reliable, that don’t jam, that are easy to get calibrated—those are common to both environments. Some big differences are that a school needs a printer that works out of the box, whereas some of those engineering companies can take a printer that needs more tuning or assembly if they are trying to save money and have a larger build environment. They may choose a printer that needs more work.
It’s different requirements. It’s interesting to think that students may very well be using the exact same printer in industry.
I remember when we talked last that you were rolling out some personalizing features on MatterControl where you could do text. Did you roll those out?
We did, and they have been very effective. The Image Converter is the tool that we sell. That allows you to take any image. We have been working on a new feature for that, which will allow it to import PDFs, specifically for education. We have an Alpha out with MatterControl, which has improvements across the board to just about everything.
The Image Converter has been an effective tool. One of the things I am excited about with the new version is that MatterControl can automatically add sets of models together when it’s slicing them without any internal errors. For something like Image Converter or Text Creator, these internal tools, you can take a bunch of parts, aggregate them together on the print bed, and no matter how you push them into each other, they will print perfectly.
It won’t try to print plastic in the same place twice?
Exactly. It does perfect unions now. It can be described very technically, but the most interesting way to describe it is you can put whatever you want wherever you want, and the print will work. That allows you to have all types of features. You can put disks down at the bottom of corners to hold your part down. You could grab a Lego guy and shove him into a horse, and it will print him sitting on top of it. Doing those operations in a 3D modeling package can be very error-prone. Doing them directly in MatterControl is very robust.
That’s a huge development. Tom and I have a vision that 3D printing will get to a stage where the 3D printer is self-sufficient. Someone can have a tablet and be able to walk into a retail space where they can control something. You walk into the UPS store or your local trophy shop and say, “These are the models to choose from. I can put my name on it.” The next thing you know, it’s starting to print, and they can come back in a couple of hours to get it. That world needs what you have there. Those people can be trained to run the machine and get things going, but to be able to be trained in complete CAD and all those issues, that is too much.
That is one of our longer-term goals. Even a couple years ago, we had plans to do a very robust repair software. We have been iterating our way to that very slowly. We have had other development priorities that have gotten in the way of that being our first thing. The current state of the market is that a lot of these people are engineering-based companies and can handle that complexity.
Our long-term version is that if you can see it on the screen and it looks like the thing you think you want, that will also be the result when you print it. That is where we are working to. We want MatterControl to get to the point where if you are a beginner, it does what you expect. When you are an expert, it allows you to do what you want.
We get these inquiries from teachers all over the map. They’re looking for solutions. Can they get in touch with anyone at your company to get some assistance?
Our phone number is at the top of every one of our webpages. We will happily take your call and give you advice about what printer you want to be looking for and will be the right solution for your situation. We are very proactive about our email support and our voice support. When engineering companies call us with problems with their printers, we have people on-site who can answer that call and help them out.
That’s the biggest thing people need today: resources who can help them with answers to their questions. It’s one of the things we urge all the time. Especially if you’re new to this, you need to find yourself a great support system for that.
We can’t really travel that far. Locally, we do help out schools and engineering companies here. We have done work with Oakley and local schools. We are very available. When we can’t be local, we have online resources. We write articles all the time describing features and functionalities of printers and common errors with solutions. We have a great forum online where we are continually engaged. You can send an email to support @matterhackers.com, and we have a phone number.
Sounds like things are going in the right and good direction for you. We have seen many companies shifting to the education space in the last year. I think that’s the future right now. As those students grow up, they become more of the future consumers. It’s good you’re growing a market. You’re also building in your capabilities so that when they are beginning, they are learning, and they are getting what they expect. As they grow, they won’t outgrow your system.
We have said it’s like the early PC days. Those first computer hackers learning the computer system didn’t necessarily know what they were going to do with it and where it was going to go, but it has been such a hugely important part of where we are right now. With 3D printing, people were super thrilled about it, and that has cooled off a bit. We don’t think anything about the fundamentals has changed. It’s still this incredibly important part of the future of manufacturing, of education, and of customized and personal design. Education is a great way to get in there, and eventually we will understand what those other applications are that drive 3D printing and make it important for individuals.
Thank you so much, Lars. We appreciate your spending some time with us today, and we’d like to do it again in the future.
Tom and Tracy’s Final Thoughts on Making 3D Printing More Accessible
I want to talk about something technical quickly before moving on. In that feature he was talking about, about being able to put a bunch of different models in their 3D build space in their software on the platform, and have their software, without you having to combine them in a CAD software, have it combine them and print them properly, that is really not a small thing. That is a huge advantage for users out there.
That is the one thing, as we looked through and tried MatterControl, is that they pack advanced features in a really simple way. Now they are really packing a bunch of new functionality that you don’t even have to think about or worry about. It just does the right thing for you. It makes perfect sense. If you were to put several different STL models in their software on the build platform, and you’re going to have them overlap, you don’t mean for it to print plastic twice occupying the same space. It won’t work. Your computer will crash, and it will be a mess.
Here, you can do it, and it does what it should do. That is a user experience simplification that I think is going in the right direction and is critical to the growth of 3D printing. We talk about how the vocabulary is ridiculous in terms of the terminology we have never heard before. MatterHackers understands that because they have come out of that hacking community, but they have turned it out in a way that those things are still there, but they’re hidden. They’re there if you need them, but if you don’t need them, this stuff just works. I really like that because I think it makes 3D printing more accessible.
It’s the same thing with certain model repair functions. The better software automatically repairs model errors for you. The fact that they can be repaired automatically makes me think why any programs would do it without repairing them or make you repair them manually. It doesn’t make any sense. Clearly you intend to print a solid model, so if there is a problem, it should fix it. The better ones do. This is along those lines.
I think this is a good thing that is happening. We talked about the growth of the education market in general. Every single vendor exhibiting at CES was saying their target market was education. It wasn’t their primary market, but it was one of the top three. Education and prosumer. But education was a big one.
The reality of schools adopting 3D printing and the education market being so significant is that is naturally going to make software and hardware providers simplify things, make them easier to use and implement. I don’t think education is the biggest market in the big picture of this industry going forward. It will be a big one, but not the biggest. Right now, it being so big is doing great things for the industry.
Not that we want things to become so simple. There gets to be a point where you want to do more advanced things. You will have kids who want to be in the 3D print lab every single day and do advanced things. So you want to have a broader range of capability. If you limit yourself to buying just the most simple plug-and-play versions for your education system or for your business, you limit your possibilities for the future. If you can simplify that, learn one thing, and not have to relearn every time you bring something new in or have to bring in extra advanced machines, that helps the growth happen naturally in an environment. And that’s what you want.
No question. These students are where the future market is. Making things work better for them, whether it’s making them easier to start or giving them the advanced tools, features, and functions they want as they get better at it, you’re going to win over that customer base.
We do say a lot that we recommend a plug-and-play first printer. We do still recommend that. But it depends on your needs. If you’re really learning CAD and 3D printing, that’s why we recommend that. You just plug it in and print it. You don’t have to worry about slicing and crashing. However, the exception to that is if you are really a designer and learning to 3D print, or if you’re an engineer learning to 3D print, or an advanced student learning to 3D print, these are the kinds of things you have to be aware of. This is going to make your life so much easier in the beginning as you’re getting your feet wet.
I agree. I hunger for more advanced features than are available on 3D printers today. I want them to do things that they don’t do because my creative mind can think of what I want to accomplish. I have limitations of what can be done. But it is getting better and better. And you don’t want to have to crash. Every time we brought in a more highly featured printer that can do advanced functioning, the learning curve is outrageous. Learning how to use that machine is ridiculous. If you can skip that because you have something that already helps you and you already know that part of it, you would be so much more productive. It would make it more viable to buy a new printer or a second printer to do something different.
I got a question from my mother today in a text that is related to this. My mom has a horse farm. She was down in Tennessee because some of her horses are down there for some reason. One is having a baby. She asked me if it would be possible to 3D print these hoof boots, these rubber covers that go over their hooves and protect them. I said absolutely. She said, “But they wouldn’t be rubbery?” I said, “There are flexible materials. If you have the right printer and the right flexible material, you can absolutely do that.” Even when they are molded, these boots don’t last very long. If they’re not going to last very long, they would like to be able to print them as they need them and not have to wait for them to be delivered.
When you were mentioning certain applications, if you were just that horse farm in Tennessee and you waned to print one thing repeatedly, maybe scale it differently, and you wanted to print it out of a consistent rubbery material, you could get set up and do that one print over and over again. That would be helpful to your business.
They could go one step further and put what foot it’s supposed to go on and the horse’s name on it so you would know these ones belong to this horse if they lost it. Yeah, I don’t know if there is a difference from back to front or left to right, but you’re right about what horse they belong to or what owner owns them. That would make sense.
We are going to see more interest in 3D printing and applications like this where a business might just have one thing they want to 3D print. They have their reasons for wanting to 3D print it. It could be cost savings, personalizations, sizing, or just convenience.
Lars was talking about when they have this game in the school classroom and they were missing one piece. Just to be able to reprint that rather than having to order another game from somewhere is so much simpler and better. I think the simple side of things is not just for the newbies, but it’s also for companies that are not engineers or designers and will not be printing a different thing every day. They want to print one thing consistently.
That’s why I am so hyped about the market. That’s why I keep going out there and speaking to groups that know nothing about 3D printing so that they can hear how exciting this is. Here is always going to be an aspect of most businesses that could be improved by this, that could find innovation in this. The easiest way is to get started. Only you can see the power of what you could do with this for your business. Also get started in the right way with the right resources.
You were talking about service with Lars and how service was so critical. I could see a company like that horse farm going to a company like MatterHackers and said, “I need to make this simple horse hoof cover.” MatterHackers would find someone to help them make the model if they wouldn’t make it themselves and set them up with the right printer material and the slicing code to do it. You want someone with service so that you can concentrate on what you do best. If you’re managing and servicing your horse farm, you’re not going to get into the 3D printing business. But you want to be able to help yourself.
You have to think of it like IT management. You set up your computer systems and have someone come in to service them in your businesses, or you have someone in-house. This is the same thing here. You want to have someone service and help you and be available so that when things go wrong, they can help you, but they can also set you up from the get-go so you have more immediate success.
If there is anyone else in the past interviews that you feel we should follow up on, please send us a message on 3dstartpoint.com or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We are always trying to interview new people, but at the same time, some of these companies that we have already interviewed have new things going on.
- Image Converter add-on in MatterControl
- Text Creator in MatterControl
- Horse boots
About Lars Brubaker
Lars is the CEO of MatterHackers and has been in the industry since 1997.
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