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Bram and Brian
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3D Hubs Antwerp
3D hubs host monthly meet-ups with their Hub members, the Antwerp meet-up has over 100 attendees.
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Unlock your City
3D Hubs aren't just set on Europe they're targeting world domination with their Unlock your City campaign.
The most commonly used word I hear from makers and desktop 3D printing industry leaders is without doubt ‘community’. They’re not usually talking about the cult NBC television series, it’s used when discussing the vast amount of maker groups and forums that are dead set on making 3D printing better.
3D Hubs get this. They know what makes 3D printing communities tick and they’re creating a very successful business on the back of it. Bram de Zwart and Brian Garret’s website allows a designer to find a 3D printer near them at the same time as monetising 3D printers that are lying dormant.
They’ve been called ‘the airbnb of 3D printing’ but I caught up with the two fine gents to find out that there’s much more to them than a faceless website…
Can you talk to us a little about your background and how you’ve come to this point with 3D hubs?
Bram: Both Brian and I started working at Freedom of Creation in 2009, one of the first companies to design 3D printed consumable products. We’d worked there for four years by the time it was acquired by 3D Systems, Brian was product and web design and I was involved in product management. In February we decided to quit our jobs and start 3D Hubs.
Have you been surprised by how quickly 3d Hubs has grown?
Brian: It’s actually quite hard to keep up! We get a lot of signups from people with 3D printers from all over the world and we get a lot of models uploaded that we have to check. But it’s a luxury problem to have, so many tractions.
So many people have bought 3D printers and I’d imagine so many of those are inactive 90% of the time. The more savvy of those should check out 3D Hubs shouldn’t they?
Bram: Exactly, so far we have over 250 registered 3D printer owners on our platform and we talk to them regularly and they really love the fact that they can use their printer more frequently. Part of the platform is, of course, the money that they can earn but the other part is they get to use it more, which can give them inspiration for using it themselves. They get to see a wide variety of designs that people want them to print and they also get contact with other makers.
Brian: We even get people contacting us to say “Hey, I saw your website and I’m going to buy a 3D printer and put it on your site, which one should I buy?” We get that question a couple of times a week, so much so that we now have a standard email, which explains all the details about selling models, why you should by one printer over another etc. That’s interesting to us; it’s not something we expected.
The mainstream press often suggest that one day most people will have a 3D printer in their home like the 2D ones they have now. People more au fait with the industry think that it will be more commonplace to have them in groups. I suppose this is where 3D Hubs come in?
Bram: I think the reason why a concept like 3D Hubs is interesting is that in 3D printing you have so many different materials, sizes and qualities that you could never have a 3D printer that does all of those things. So even if you own a 3D printer you may still have needs for a different type of 3D printer.
Brian: You might want to download something and print it in plastic at first and then you might want to try it in chocolate or print it in metal, or ceramics. No printer will ever exist that can do all of those things… except for the one in Star Trek.
At the moment 3D Hubs only concentrate on desktop 3D printing, but there’ll be small companies with the more industrial printers out there, perhaps not in use, could they use 3D Hubs as a side-line?
Brian: Definitely. Small and medium sized companies could use our service to get more projects or clients in. We actually already have, in both Amsterdam and Antwerp, a couple of Z-Corp printers. But as you said at the minute, our first focus is on the desktop machines and get that up and running.
Desktop machines are easier to connect and there are more of them out there. The next step is to connect coffee shops and bigger firms with industrial printers that are not in use all the time.
Do you have a particular desktop 3D printer?
Bram: It depends on what you want to do, if you like to tinker and do something yourself then there’s a huge amount of printers for you if not then there’s ready made plug and play printers for you.
Brian: There are three things; there’s quality, there’s price and there’s usability. You have to decide what you want. You have the 3D Systems Cube which is very easy to use, works almost every time, is a closed system so not great for the tinkerer but it is vplug and play. Then you move onto the Ultimakers or MakerBot machines, which are slightly more open. If you’re a handy guy you can tweak the Ultimaker when building it so that it builds tailored to you. Then you have the more aggressively priced machines like the Solidoodle and RepRap kits. You also have the FormLabs printer coming down the line which is very interesting, professional printing on your desktop? That’s going to take it to a whole new level.
What do you think is the biggest hurdle that faces the layman before they can start 3D printing?
Brian: It has to do with good content. You can’t expect every person to become a 3D designer and modeller. It is a difficult skill. People will want good quality content that they can 3D print at the press of a button. What would it mean if Ikea were to publish 100 things you could print to go with their furniture. Or if Nike or Apple start to get into this 3D printing market, then you have high-end brands and content for printing.
I also think there’s a lot of potential in easy to use apps, I think in the next five years for every 3D printing application you’ll have an app. So you want to make gears or jewellery or anything you can think of? There’ll be a simple app for it; within a few clicks you can make exactly what you need. I think there are some signs of that already but it’s not quite there yet.
There’s also easy to use tools like TinkerCad, which I think is the WordPress of 3D modelling, it makes it so easy for people to create their own designs and own products. I think now that it has been saved it will make a real big impact.
Bram: I think that what really holds people back is the access to 3D printing. Yeah you can buy one but that’s going to cost you over £1,000 and that’s too high a threshold for some people. Of course you could go to Shapeways but then you’ve got to wait two weeks for your part and there’s no direct communication between the designer and the person operating the 3D printer.
Brian: You’re not seeing 3D printing with a service like that, everything exists in the cloud. Whereas with a local service like 3D Hubs there can be a dialogue between the designer and the printer to get prints to be the best they can.
Rachel Hoat said at the MakerBot factory launch that she saw New York as the capital of 3D Printing but surely the Low Countries are challenging them for that crown? Why do you think there’s such an uptake in 3D printing in Belgium and Holland?
Bram: I think Materialise have played a huge part in the popularity here. They’re based not far from the Dutch border (in Belgium), which allowed them to supply 3D printed parts to the Netherlands. They’ve been really well known in these parts for a long time. I think they helped 3D printing to gain popularity here.
Brian: Freedom of Creation played a part too, the founder of Freedom of Creation, Janne Kyttanen found the MGX label for Materialise then he branched off into Freedom of Creation for his own reasons. That has been going on since 2000 there’s been a lot of exposure to 3D printing in Belgium and Holland for the past 13 years on television, in newspapers, at exhibitions and all kinds of media. Also the economic climate in Europe for starting your own business is pretty good, just like Ultimaker or Leapfrog.
Is there enough room for all the competitors you have, the obvious one that springs to mind is makexyz.
Bram: I think the biggest difference is that makexyz focuses primarily on the US market while we are focussing on the European market. We’re in good contact with Nathan, one of the founders of makexyz. We’re both trying to build a similar platform so we do talk. We both have the same goals; to make production very local and to connect makers with each other. But we’re not exactly competing there are some big differences.
We have a big focus on cities, we have our ‘Unlock your City’ campaign, we only accept orders in a city if we have at least ten 3D printing locations, or ‘hubs’ as we call them. This takes 3D printing truly offline, you can always take your bike and go a visit your printer. makexyz printers are really spread out there’s little chance you can go and see your item being printed.
Brian: I guess that’s the difference between the US and Europe, the US is so spread out whereas Europe has a lot of dense cities quite close together. It is a lot easier for us to create our networks in Europe.
The city approach means that we have strong local communities, in Antwerp we have about 100 people who join our meet-up every month and we plan to do that for every city. There’s a lot of people who are interested in 3D printing and want to meet the people behind the 3D printers, they want to see it, to experience it, maybe they want to buy a printer themselves and then become a Hub. That’s fine by us!
I think overall this sort of setup is a nice combination, really local network, with offline communities and an online market place.
Keeping it local is a big thing for 3D Hubs, I’d imagine there are a lot of people who’ve met up and formed a designer/printer partnership?
Brian: Precisely, for instance at the next Antwerp meet up it has been proposed that everybody brings five metres of filament and do a big colour swap at the event. You can’t do things like that online, it’s great to have a community spirit.
Bram: That’s why you’ll see on our landing page “Local and social 3D printing”, social part comes hand in hand with the local part.
It’s all very nice and it seems like you have a great community but how do 3D Hubs ensure the highest quality for the consumer?
Brian: We’ve just painted a beautiful picture of our community but of course there are end users who are really inexperienced with 3D printing. We get files that don’t pass our netfabb check and we sometimes get things that do pass the check but are still not printable.
Luckily the people operating the machines know their own machine best and they’re not going to print something that they know is going to fail. We also check some uploads ourselves before sending them to hubs. We have some things in the pipeline that are aimed at improving and automating that service, to make it even simpler.
In the end it is not about telling somebody that their design is wrong or not producible it is about helping them to make it printable. I think you’re more likely to facilitate that if you have a more local approach where people can meet and help out. This is more likely to work than if it is just like a mail order service.
If 3D Hubs has one main ambition what is it?
Brian: Our end goal is to share 3D printing with as many people as possible, we’re using the internet to accelerate the adoption of 3D printing in general. So instead of having to wait five to ten years for everybody to own a 3D printer, we’re bypassing that by creating this platform.