Everyone thinks they can be a maker these days. It’s a very easy trap to fall into. Even I took home the office’s Cube and got a little over optimistic about the idea of setting up my own maker empire – this was short lived when it took me three impatient attempts to print a simple inch-tall design.
But for those with a little more enthusiasm and endurance, the promise of a 3D printer can make you feel like the world is truly at your fingertips – and why wouldn’t you? Countless marketing campaigns have told you that’s exactly true, manufacturing your dreams from your desk. But what about when it comes to taking the leap to set up a real business – is a MakerBot, flashy logo and a decent website, enough to make it?
3D Print UK is one of the UK’s leading 3D printing service providers. Set up in 2011, the company is now churning out around 2,000 parts a week to customers across art, robotics, engineering and just about every other industry in between.
Founded by Nick Allen, the former engineer and self-confessed making enthusiast, says his experience of freelance design projects led to his love of the technology.
“I studied product design and really enjoyed it,” Nick told TCT. “I ended up being an engineer for a few years but still wanted to make stuff on the side. Through freelance projects I found 3D printing was a really good solution for a lot of the projects that I was doing.”
After spending a year researching all machine possibilities, delving into spreadsheets and working out what was actually going to make money, Nick decided to set up the South East London based bureau. True to our modern world where you can get a book on almost anything and learn something from watching a few videos online, Nick tells a similar story.
“I actually learnt my business skills from a coffee table book called ‘How to set up your own coffee shop’ and YouTube videos. So you certainly don’t need a business degree to do it.”
Starting out there was no MakerBot in sight. In what Nick described as “beg, borrowing and stealing” to secure funding, he managed to get together enough money to buy an Objet 3D printer.
“I saw that there was absolutely no way you were going to be able to be a bureau with a MakerBot - it’s like saying I’m going to print magazines with my inkjet printer. They’re brilliant machines but they’re not bureau worthy and people wont be willing to pay that much.”
Flying the flag for the promise of desktop manufacturing, the 3D Hubs community has been at the forefront of bringing localised 3D printing solutions to the market since 2013, giving 3D print owners the opportunity to become their own 3D print service provider. Currently, there are more than 17,400 3D printers registered to 3D Hubs, making it the world’s largest 3D printer network and that number continues to grow daily. 3D Hubs Head of Community, Filemon Schoffer says the network does much more than just provide a platform to sell their 3D print services, it provides them with the vital tools needed to set up a reputable and successful business.
“We see more printing businesses going live each month,” Filemon explained. “Normally, most of them build their own website, generate their own traffic, conduct their own marketing efforts, setup customer support, etc. This repetitiveness can be considered a waste of valuable resources. We aim to kickstart our Hubs by providing exactly these things.”
Nick commented: “3D Hubs is fantastic because you’ve got people offering very competitive prices for FDM parts and FDM is a fantastic way of manufacturing stuff quickly, easily and cheaply. It’s if you want to go to the next level when you start using SLS, I would say FDM is for drafting more than anything and then SLS is for getting your final prototypes together.”
As with any new business, for 3D Print UK, starting out proved a bit of a challenge and it took a few years to acquire the investment needed to take the business forward. Back in 2011, the 3D printing boom hadn’t quite found the media attention it would later achieve and the only people that were really educated about the technology were fellow engineers and designers. Nick tells us that the company was comfortably turning over around £5,000 a month, but turning away a staggering £20,000. Post-3D printing boom, that has certainly changed and now the company can deliver anything from architectural models to more consumer-based projects like the infamous Iron Man masks which most 3D printing bureaus are bombarded with on a daily basis – but it’s still about managing people’s expectations.
“Most phone calls start with “I’ve got a bit of an odd one here”. If it’s normal then it’s odd,” Nick explained. “Now people know a lot more about 3D printing, people are generally happier with parts. When we first started, people’s comparison was comparing 3D printing with manufacturing as opposed to comparing 3D printing with 3D printing and trying to get people to understand that is a long and slow process.”
As 3D printing finds its place on the manufacturing landscape, the capacity for this technology has never been more prominent signalling good news for 3D printing bureaus which have been around since the start. 3D Print Bureau is one of the newest names to the scene and though you may not have heard the name, you might be familiar with one of the faces behind the company, Gary Miller. Proving you can in fact stick an old head on young shoulders, the former IPF man is now using his 20 years of experience to head up the new Cambridge based bureau.
“You start with a blank canvas,” Gary explained. “We’ve been able to invest in the technology that we know works for a bureau. I’m not restricted. It means we can grow it in other directions with scanning and multiple models. We want to push digital manufacturing so we actually want to be producing real life items for everyday use. It’s all about options really. You’ve got to have a toolbox and that toolbox has got to be filled with a variety of machines, you can’t just put yourself in a box.”
So what is the recipe for success? If you’ve got the startup capital, the right machines and can learn business skills on Google, what else do you need for a successful business?
Nick says trust is number one and 3D Print UK maintains that by ensuring they tell customers to seek out the competition first, a somewhat unconventional but effective method when the company was starting out.
“Don’t try and sell something for the sake of selling it,” Nick explained. “What brought our business up to its success is the fact that we called it something people Google. There are so many companies starting with very ‘in the now’ phrases that in five years time are going to look stupid. If you’re going to call yourself a name, call it something timeless. I think just trust behind you and your clients is the best thing and being friendly. Don’t always be so formal, we’re not a university accounting service, we’re people who make stuff for people who want stuff made so people are genuinely excited about 3D prints so keep that excitement going.”
3D printed scale coal mill model - 3DPRINTUK
Gary says flexibility is key to providing a good service. The bureau is no nine to five job, clients can become friends and heading into the office on a Saturday afternoon so they can get their part by Monday is not uncommon.
“When I left school I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I knew I wanted variety,” Gary commented. “I was colour blind so I couldn’t join the police service and I guess I found my own industry where no two days are the same. Every single day is different with different challenges.”
Ultimately, choosing the right partners and filling that blank canvas with in-demand technology that works well is vital to proving valuable service and staying ahead of the competition..
“Reliability is key,” Gary explained. “I have always had fantastic support and help from Tri-tech and these are the people that I have bought some of the equipment through. Your machines have to work all day, your clients are not going to sit and wait for you to fix your machine, because as much as they might like you, if the service isn’t working they need their model, they’ll go elsewhere.”
Reliability, a good support network, a name you can Google and a toolbox full of possibilities – just some of the factors you need to consider before registering that domain and investing in a your dream machine. Whether it’s a multi-skilled workshop or a desktop solo operation from your shed, the shift towards manufacturing means the demand for these technologies is on the rise and with it, the success of the bureau industry.
Gary commented: “When I first got a printer, we had one material to print with but now those materials are probably in their thousands. I’ve seen in the last couple of years a move towards manufacturing. Before, everything was prototyping and one offs and now we’re printing runs of 4,000 little rubber bunds or hundreds of casings.”
Nick added: “Every month this year’s been a record month so it’s pretty good. We’re going to be going into a new facility hopefully at the end of the year – a much bigger one so it should be very exciting.”
3D PRINT UK and 3D Print Bureau will both be exhibiting at this year's TCT Show + Personalize, September 30th - October 1st 2015. REGISTER FOR FREE HERE.