Two lawyers and a HR manager walk into an elevator.
In a corporate office building in Emeryville, California, they are joined by young startup founders who squeeze into the elevator, wheeling a 500-pound chemical drum behind them.
The chemical peddlers' destination is the fifth floor, where an office and a laboratory host the remainder of their team. They're delivering chemicals that they hope will change the world.
In the lab, a young chemist leans over a petri dish, shining a pen-sized laser into a puddle of blue resin. After he completes his movements with the laser, he pulls a newly solid object out of the goo. He seems pleased.
Another scientist walks by in her tie-dye lab coat, taking notes as a mechanical box melts plastic in a specific pattern. At the other end of the room microcrystalline cellulose is mixed with other chemical compounds in a beaker. While the work seems academic and somber, employees are smiling and joking, genuinely enthusiastic about the work they're doing.
This is MadeSolid, a chemical manufacturing company that is planning on fixing what it considers the number one thing that's wrong with 3D printing -- shoddy materials.
This startup located across the bay from San Francisco and just outside of Oakland is an alumni of the Y Combinator accelerator and hosts employees from a wide variety of backgrounds. Instead of the traditional startup uniform of t-shirts and designer jeans, they wear lab coats and safety goggles.
3D printing is exploding in popularity. According to Canalys, the market for 3D printing services and materials will grow from $2.5 billion in 2014 to $10.8 billion in 2018. If MadeSolid is able to satisfy this growing demand with a superior product, they will have the opportunity to play a key role in the transition of 3D printing from a commodity product to a serious consumer and business tool.
Starting the journey
MadeSolid CEO Lance Pickens got his start with 3D printing by making prints that were right in line with his chemistry PhD at the University of Southern California.
"At the time I was interested in taking these molecular structures that scientists had created from crystallographic data from the protein databank, and I wrote some software that would transform it into this file structure that was capable of being 3D printed," Pickens said.
Pickens spent about a year of his life writing that software and developing the business that would end up printing these structures. He launched the company in May 2012 at Maker Faire and received a ton of new orders.
"I noticed that, as the complexity of the molecules went up, that the failure rate was going up; to the point where the service bureaus weren't able to actually meet my needs," Pickens said. "I just completely stopped. I shut the company down."
This led him to ask one question.
"What the hell is the problem?"
The problem, it turns out, was the materials being used at the time. According to Pickens, the state of the art at the time was "spraying super glue onto drywall, calcium sulfate." So, he began rebooting his chemistry background at a hackerspace to see if he could fix the problem, and the seed for MadeSolid was planted.
Pickens then began frantically trying to source chemicals, looking everywhere from local ceramics supply store to eBay. As it turns out, the words hacker and chemist were not a combination that inspired trust and understanding from chemical suppliers. Some of the chemicals, especially the ones ordered on eBay, were shipped to him in plastic-zippered bags with handwritten labels.
"It was absolutely breathtakingly difficult in the beginning to get chemicals," he said.
It was around this time that Pickens met co-founder David Rorex and the pair decided to build their own 3D printer. The company incorporated in January 2013 and initially operated as a service bureau (i.e. the companies that print things for other people). After a few months they started to realize that they couldn't change the world by printing other people's stuff, but they could with better materials. So, they decided to discontinue operations as a service bureau and go directly to the public with materials.
Brian Martinez later joined as a co-founder, quickly seeing the value in building better materials for 3D printing.
"All the 3D printer manufacturers are making small changes to the way the printer works," Martinez said. "They're making it slightly faster or making it so it can handle a slight bit more heat. But, changing the material you put into it or developing new, more advanced materials is really what's going to drastically alter what you're able to produce."
The group moved into a dingy warehouse in Oakland that they shared with food startup Soylent. After some early success, they decided to shoot for the moon and apply to Y Combinator. According to Pickens, they believed they had a snowball's chance in hell to make it in, but they did.
Approaching the product
The MadeSolid team usually begins the day with a quick gathering to discuss the problems they are working on or the roadblocks they are running into.
The lab team starts with a set of properties it wants to achieve in the chemical mixtures, and they work on achieving those levels. Pickens said that they will typically spend 6-7 hours working on chemicals in the lab, followed by 1-2 hours of testing. All of this happens in parallel, in the aggregate. So, some chemists are working on chemicals as others are testing. They spend a lot of time testing, which Pickens said is the most important part.
"Ultimately, you have to print it. All theory goes out the window when it's time to do the real world stuff. You have to test it," Pickens said.
All of the cofounders have a software background, which plays into the way they approach product development at MadeSolid. They see chemical research and development (R&D) through a similar lens that software developers see iterations of their product.
"During YC we launched a product that was good, but not good enough," Pickens said. "We realized, 'oh shit, we have to do something about this.' So, we started mulling over the idea of well, if this was software we could patch it. You release an update, you download it, and it works. And then we thought, 'well, maybe we could do that too.'
"So, we figured out what the problem was. We figured out that, as long as they had this particular volume that they hadn't used, that we could come up with a patch kit where they would mix in this little vial of chemical with a little holder to put it in. Shake it up and then, after an hour so, it would be ready to go, and they would have the upgraded version of the resin. We launched it and all the users who had the patch kit were pretty happy that we were able to do that. We think we might have released the first chemical patch in history, [but] we're not sure."
The majority of popular 3D printers typically use one of three methods: fused deposition modeling (FDM), stereolithography apparatus (SLA), or selective laser sintering (SLS). FDM is what most people think of when they hear of 3D printing, it being the MakerBot-style machine that melts a line of plastic filament that looks like weed whacker line refills. SLA uses a UV laser to cause a reaction with a resin, turning it into a solid. SLS shoots a laser into a powdered material, typically metal, and turns it into a solid.
MadeSolid currently offers three materials for 3D printing:
1. PET+ Filament (FDM)
2. MS Resin (SLA)
3. FireCast Resin (SLA)
When it comes to FDM, most materials offerings are either polylactic acid (PLA), a compostable plastic used in some plastic utensils, or acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), the type of plastic used to make lego bricks. MadeSolid's PET+ material is more flexible than PLA or ABS, doesn't shrink as much, is more heat resistant, and is 100% recyclable. They even put together a test video to show it off.
"They have developed a fantastic product that provides the advantages of PLA (biodegradable, not petroleum based, ease of print) with the advantages that kept me using ABS (strength) and some of the properties of Nylon (flexibility) without the difficulty of use," said Odie, a MadeSolid customer.
While they do produce and sell a lot of their PET+ product, MadeSolid focuses most of their time on developing their resins. Their MS Resin is a UV curable photopolymer suitable for SLA style printing of a finished product. Their FireCast Resin is also for SLA printing, but is specifically brewed for investment casting, meaning it can be used to print molds to be filled with metal to create jewelry or machine parts.
"We use their products for all types of uses," said Bobby Lambright, one of the co-founders of Elite Imageworks Corp. and the designer of the Deep Imager 5 3D Printer. "We use them for prototyping mechanical parts because of the very low shrinkage. We also use it to produce 3D prints for the jewelry industries because of the ability to produce very high resolution prints; and the repeatability is excellent."
As far as Pickens can tell, MadeSolid has about 300-400 customers that they sell to directly. The total number of customers is difficult to pin down, as they work with Amazon and another reseller market to distribute their products. One of the most interesting statistics is that more than 30% of their sales are international.
"Surprisingly, China is one our largest customers for our resin product," Pickens said. "They don't order by the bottle, they want to order by the drum. For us, I never dreamed that we would be in a situation where it's 2014 and we are an exporter to China for 3D printing."
Pickens said that it seems like 3D printing is almost growing faster in China than the US, and he wouldn't be surprised if China overtakes the US as one of the top countries for innovation in 3D printing. He also noted that there is a huge market for 3D printing in Europe, especially Germany and Scandinavia.
MadeSolid is in a unique situation in a growing market, but 3D printing still has miles to go before it becomes a household consumer tool.
3D printing has the potential to change many aspects of the global economy. For example, starting a business requires a lot of capital, but 3D printing can help lower the capital requirement by making it easier to prototype or print a first run of a product.
Martinez said that he believes it also is capable of changing the economics of lower-income regions, especially if they don't have access to big manufacturing systems. It will also allow for customization of items that currently lack the ability to be customized. For example, shoe midsoles for feet that aren't exactly the same size, custom fit orthotics, casts for broken bones, glasses frames, or bodily implants.
While the potential for 3D printing is huge, there are still quite a few issues holding it back from mass adoption. According to Martinez, outside of the materials problem, these are the three main issues facing 3D printing today:
1. People don't trust printers
2. It requires complicated CAD software
3. Lack of imagination
Consider the 1999 comedy film Office Space. In the movie, the character Michael Bolton has a long-running frustration with the company printer as it constantly presents him with the error "PC Load Letter." After battling with the machine for the majority of the film, Bolton and his colleagues take a baseball bat to the printer in an open field as the Geto Boys song "Damn It Feels Good To Be A Gangsta" plays in the background.
Think of the jokes about how often standard paper printers fail. Those printers fail all the time, and they have been around for decades. So, imagine that you are printing a three-dimensional model that has to work when it is finished to keep your operation afloat. Right now, there isn't enough trust in the technology to consistently produce a working product.
"What I see happening currently in the consumer space is that when we go to a CES show or a maker fair and people come up and they grab the prints, the first thing that they try to do naturally is break the prints," Martinez said. "This doesn't happen in any other industry, I don't think. No one goes to the new iPhone booth and starts slamming the iPhone on the desk, or throwing it against the wall to see when it will break."
There is a general perception that 3D printing doesn't produce functional items, such as working cogs for a machine. So, when people are shown 3D printed products that are functional, it begins to change their perception about what 3D printing can accomplish.
There are also problems on the manufacturing side. Pickens said that 3D printing is full of companies making grand claims in their marketing materials that their products can't live up to. Some people are just importing plastic filaments from China and reselling it with a new label. MadeSolid often buys and tests their competitors' products to see how theirs match up, and it has led to some interesting results.
When MadeSolid first started, the team wanted to work on some photopolymers to make lenses. So, they definitely needed something that would end up clear. They purchased a competing product and tried it out.
"We got some of our competitor's material, because they said it was transparent, or clear," Pickens said. "It says it right on the bottle. So, we printed with it on our machine and tried it on a couple machines we bought and none of the prints were clear. They were yellow, like safety glass yellow. So, we were like, 'What the hell?'
"We printed out two identical lenses. One in that material and one in our material, and put them on top of this photograph and took a picture of it. You could see that ours was completely transparent and theirs was yellow. Then we posted it online, and our competitor, they got a bit pissed off. We think they're still angry because of that, but they changed their label to say 'uncolored' instead of 'clear' as a result of that particular incident. We just want people to be honest in what their product does."
Conversely, Pickens wants MadeSolid to under-promise and over-deliver, and not the other way around.
In addition to competing with cheap, re-labeled plastics, companies like MadeSolid are having to battle misconceptions perpetuated by the way 3D printing is marketed and written about. To a certain degree, people expect 3D printing to be a clean process. Some consumers don't understand that it is a manufacturing process and that burning plastic will still stink up their house.
"Manufacturing is dirty, and people are basically doing manufacturing in their house; but, there is a disconnect," Martinez said. "They think that this form of manufacturing should be way cleaner than the other forms of manufacturing, which is partially true, but you're still doing manufacturing."
3D printing often requires cleaning up afterwards, but that is not something that most people are usually aware of. When you do SLA printing, you have to clean liquid off of a finished print. With SLS printing, powder must be blown off of powder-based prints.
Another misconception that Pickens has noticed is that many people see 3D printing as further along in development than it currently is.
"One of my friends played a prank on a guest over at his house," Pickens said. "What he did is he took a MakerBot and he started printing a bowl. He left with the guest and then, while he was gone, he had one of his friend switch it with an already printed bowl that was filled up with milk and cereal. The friend comes back in, and the guest completely believed that it could print that.
"The fact people think that we are already at that age of Star Trek replicator technology is not very helpful to the field, because people are going to be let down. We're not there yet, and there's a lot of work that needs to be done."
For that work to be done, it will take effort from the 3D printing manufacturers, the material producers, and the 3D printing advocates -- and Pickens wants MadeSolid to lead the charge on the materials side.
"We're focused on functional materials," Pickens said. "We want a future where everything is printed and we're, essentially, one of the few companies that's doing the heavy lifting in the field to make that happen."
Conner Forrest has nothing to disclose. He doesn't hold investments in the technology companies he covers.
Conner Forrest is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. He covers Google and startups and is passionate about the convergence of technology and culture.