When I hear about a new start-up company in the 3D printing industry, my first thought is usually to establish which of three categories (self-defined) it best fits into — the band-wagon lot, the legitimate opportunity but mainly business driven crew, or those start-ups that have evolved from a personal passion for the technology. Obviously there can be cross overs between 1 and 2 & 2 and 3, but essentially I find one of these things tends to stand out as the driving force.
When introduced to 3Distributed, a London based 3D printing start-up company, it didn’t take long to establish that this company belongs to the latter of my categories.
Passion is a vital ingredient in the success of the 3D printing industry — most users I have ever met have it in spades. It is most obvious in the RepRap community, those individuals and groups utilising the entry-level machines in their homes, sheds, FabLabs or equivalent! And this is not to negate industrial 3D printer users, who can and do exhibit passion about what they do, but I tend to find it is usually edged with more cynicism. Now, while Adrian Bowyer, RepRap’s original creator, had great vision and belief in terms of how the RepRap concept would evolve, I do wonder sometimes, if he ever foresaw the great passion that he has invoked world wide. [Note to self: question for next time we meet].
3Distributed is an interesting set-up. Andy Shepherd-Waring, one of the three founders, told me the company was first incorporated in April of this year and has since been growing really fast. The company sources or manufactures and supplies 3D printer components and accessories via its online store. It doesn’t sound that ground-breaking when stated simply like that, but there is more to it than that! Quite a bit more ….
The three founders, Andy together with Hugh Halford-Thompson and Neil Gordon, originally engaged with 3D printing individually, and were all keen makers using the technology. Andy and Hugh, who knew each other from university days, met Neil “through the London 3D printing meet-up crowd.” Andy tells me he studied for a Masters in Animal Behaviour, specifically ants, but caught the 3D printing bug instead. In a not unfamiliar story — the trio were constantly looking for the best components for their own 3D printers, and went on to supply other makers in the community when they found (or made) them. As their reputation grew, 3Distributed took shape and the guys now regularly and reliably supply products, which the company website currently characterizes in four ways:
Printed Parts – A suite of RepRap 3D printers at the 3Distributed workshop in London print out quality RepRap parts on demand via an automated system that connects the website with the 3D printers. The system utilizes BotQueue (an independent application developed by Zach Hoeken) to ensure that when a customer places an order, the 3D file is automatically sent to the next available 3D printer at the 3Distributed workshop.
Vitamins — This intrigued me as a category, I had to ask:
Andy: “They are called vitamins because they are parts that the printers can’t make themselves. There is a kind of assumption in the maker community that 3D printers are heading towards being able to self replicate so there are many parallels with biology and ecology. It’s very interesting to see how that silent underlying assumption is guiding the direction the machines are developing in; as if there is some drive for life in them already. For me, this is why 3D printing is so fascinating. It’s how I went from studying ants for my masters dissertation to replicator technology.”
Neil: “RepRap technology is an evolutionary process. Successful designs grow and evolve like living creatures. The term vitamins is analogous to the valuable constituents required to facilitate a living organism. The organism does not produce them itself, rather it sources them from its environment.”
Electronics — This includes heated beds, stepper motors and wiring kits.
Filament — A range varying in type, grade and colour for RepRap 3D printers.
Beyond this core business through, 3Distributed is also involving itself in other projects — helping people to build (and maximize use of) their own 3D printers, as well as working with specific partners. Andy hints at the film industry and scientific research, but indicates he has to remain mysterious about these projects for now, until he gets the green light to talk about them in more detail.
Something (else) to look forward to then!