3D Printers

Executive Interview — Mitch Ackmann

Mitch Ackmann Microboards Technology Afinia Execituve Interview

Mitch Ackmann is the President of up-and-coming US 3D printer company Afinia, and also holds the same position for Afinia’s parent company Microboards based in Minnesota. With a background in electronics he has worked in this area (industry and location) for almost 30 years. Establishing the Microboard’s Afinia subsidiary has seen him develop a company in the 3D printing industry that provides one of the most well-known desktop 3D printer brands in North America with a team of people that are extremely passionate about what they are doing and how they are doing it. They’re also big fans of their users — or the Afiniacs!

3D Printing Industry: Can we start with a little history? Tell us about your background, your journey into 3D Printing with Afinia, the growth of the team and the H-Series.

Mitch Ackmann: It all started several years ago when our team at Microboards started looking at interesting technologies that had large up-side opportunity. We had done something similar in 1989 when we identified the potential in CD Recording and quickly began importing and selling the first CD Recording equipment and media in the US.

Having learned quite a bit about the technology, we then invented the first tower duplicator in the early 90’s, and acquired a manufacturing plant in 2001 so that we could broaden our product line and launch a number of automated CD/DVD duplicating products.

Our experience and intellectual property in duplication automation became the basis of understanding how to improve the 3D printing process. Basically, a CD/DVD duplicator “applies” two-dimensional data to a rapidly-moving platform with very high precision.  A 3D printer is a combination of components that, generally, does the same thing: firmware, software, servomotors and other electronics that duplicate 3D objects. Not a very big leap for us.

We started the 3D printing project with our existing Microboards teams. Marketing assessed the opportunity, players, products, software, customer support, warranty offerings and social media. Engineering brought in the most interesting printers, took them apart and identified one that fit our business plan.

Our engineers crafted a process to improve our selected printer and make it compliant with the demands of the US market. We tightened-up the supply chain and added resources to our customer support group.

One of the things that I have learned about bringing products to market is that the “product part”, which is about 80%, is the easier side of the equation. I’m talking about design, alpha units, the firmware and software needed to make it work well. The really difficult part, the remaining 20%, is what separates a successful product from the others.

This 20% represents the less-glamorous things: a reliable supply chain, a consistent manufacturing process, packaging for shipping, inventory levels, spare parts, installation guides, documentation, warranties and customer support. This is the lower-tech, high-touch part of success that is often neglected.

For example, we have taken the base product of our H-series through some major improvements, namely in the electronics, firmware and software areas. Since July of 2012, we have improved the firmware and software three times for MAC and four times for PC. Many of the added features came to us from our customers – we enjoy the regular dialogue. Our ‘Afiniacs’, are not shy about suggesting improvements – that’s the beauty of working with people who are Makers at-heart.

3D Printing Industry: The H-Series 3D printer is based on licensed technology from Delta Micro Factory in China – Can you explain how Afinia came to take this route and how it is working for you?

Mitch Ackmann:  Although we have a decent-sized technical staff, we chose to do what we had done successfully with CD recording equipment in the late 80’s. We found someone with decent technology, established a good relationship with them, imported the product and readied it for mass-volume shipments. Simply put, it was the quickest way to get to market and see if 3D printing was right for Afinia and Microboards. How is this working? It’s working great!

Although their technology had been previously available in the US, we found a number of ways that we could improve the product. We encouraged our partner to make a number of changes that not only improved performance but allowed for full FCC compliance, as well. Most importantly, we improved customer support by offering a number of options, including phone support. We’ve learned that customers appreciate talking to a real human being when they need help.

3D Printing Industry: In terms of markets and demographics, where are you finding the most uptake of the H-Series 3D printer?

Mitch Ackmann:  Early on, we realized that there were three major markets: Education, Engineering and, those who we call, “Creatives”. We have a group of Education Resellers who had been offering non-desktop 3D printing technology and design software. They have really taken to our H-Series 3D printer and enjoy the ease of setup and use. Plus, we have a generous warranty, personal support and a return policy. I don’t think anyone else in the desktop 3D printing space offers those things to the degree that we do. We have also been chosen as the first 3D printer to be sold online by Best Buy, RadioShack, Staples-Canada, CDW, Tiger Direct and B&H Photo & Video.

3D Printing Industry: The H-Series 3D Printer seems to be a favorite in the maker community and has had some fantastic reviews from press and users a like — what is the stand out feature for you?

Mitch Ackmann: Thank you for asking that question. We have a saying around the office, “We will sell no product before its time.” That’s borrowed from a late 70’s wine commercial, indicates a difference in our philosophy and, probably, why we came out of nowhere last year to be a pretty recognizable brand.

Our standout feature is the experience our customers have when they take the H-Series out of the box and begin to print. A few weeks ago, we had one reviewer say this: “I had it printing within 17 minutes from getting it out of the box, and I was taking photos at the same time.” Now, this reviewer is one of the most experienced on the planet, but typically, our Afiniacs report that are printing within 30 minutes of unboxing.

We learned a couple of things from our CD/DVD duplicating customers: The installation guide must be bullet-proof, the product better darn well work perfectly out-of-the-box and someone has to answer the phone when a customer calls.  We continue to be pleased by the positive reaction we get from reviewers. (Quite frankly, we assumed that all the products and companies in the space were like that. I guess there are some exceptions.)

So what makes us stand out as a company is our simple philosophy of a great product, at a great price with great service. And we don’t just say it, we do it. Our warranty and return policy are the best in the industry. Those things keep people happy by giving them a better-than-expected experience, which leads to a strong reputation. I find it hard to believe that a leading 3D printing company can offer a couple of weeks or a couple of months for a warranty and get away with it.

3D Printing Industry: 3D Printing is still one of those technologies that has to be seen to be believed — particularly for the uninitiated — how do you connect with your target market(s)?

Mitch Ackmann:  We do quite a few trade shows and have invested in a lot of video and social media content. It’s funny, I still see people at shows that are completely transfixed when they see a 3D printer operate for the first time. I guess that’s part of what makes this industry so much fun. We also appreciate the Maker Community. Those are the people who, in effect, drive the world’s economy. They believe that everything can be improved and nothing is impossible. What a great bunch of people to associate with! We get a never-ending stream of product suggestions from them.

3D Printing Industry: What’s next for Afinia?

Mitch Ackmann:  We’ve been fortunate to have a high acceptance rate by Educators, Engineers and Creatives.  They give us an increasing number of ideas for product improvements, and we are working hard to make those things a reality.

3D Printing Industry: Have you personally engaged with 3D printing — do you have your own 3D printer?

Mitch Ackmann:  Microboards bought its first 3D printer in 2009 to make product prototypes. I think we paid more than $30,000.  Now I understand why people visit our trade show booth and say things like: “I was across the aisle and looked at a $30,000 3D printer. How many of yours can I get for that price?” This is an actual quote from a School District Superintendant — she went on to buy twelve of our H-Series 3D printers and a bunch of filament.

3D Printing Industry: There is legitimate excitement and rapid uptake of 3D printing technologies, but there is also a great deal of hype, what is your personal opinion on this and how do you/Afinia combat inflated expectations as a result?

Mitch Ackmann You’re right, there is a lot of hype. To understand Afinia, one needs to understand Minnesotans. We don’t do hype, it only leads to disappointment. We probably are the least flashy people in the US. We do what we say, work as hard as we can and get the job done.

A reviewer once said something like, “The Afinia isn’t the world’s sexiest 3D printer – it just plain works.” That really sums up what we are all about. When you are straightforward about what your product does and you deliver, your customers are delighted and you get referrals. That’s pretty Minnesotan and is a good indication of how our Afiniacs are as people.

3D Printing Industry: What is the best reaction you have seen to someone seeing a 3D printer for the first time?

Mitch Ackmann:  Early on, I was at a Maker Faire and a fellow gave me a USB drive with an STL file on it.  He had been to five other 3D printer booths and none of them could successfully print his design. I loaded the file into our printer, and it ran perfectly – the guy was pretty shocked. It was a stand out moment for me — I was very pleased because it showed me that what we have is really special.

3D Printing Industry: In terms of 3D printing applications, do you have a favorite and will you share it with us?

Mitch Ackmann: 

As far as software applications, products from Sketchup, Autodesk, Solidworks and others cover the needs of the beginner to the expert.  It is really great that these providers offer either free or discounted packages to educators. It gives our young people the opportunity to Make More and Consume Less.

As far as an application of 3D printing technology, we have a customer who is taking CT scan data and printing pre- and post-op models of vertebrae to help a client market a stem cell-based bone growth hormone. I’m always amazed at how our customers put our technology to work.

3D Printing Industry: What is your vision, including personal predictions, for the next 5 years for 3D printing in general; and for Afinia in particular?

Mitch Ackmann: Of course, I see a bright future for 3D printing and Afinia. It looks like we may become the only good-sized, independent 3D printer supplier, due to some acquisitions that may be in the works. I also see the industry becoming less about hype and more about reliable equipment and great customer support.

Here’s our view of the market. There is some overlap between layers:

  • Commercial 3D Printers: Used for complex manufacturing operations, sophisticated prototyping and advanced educational use, typically costing in the tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Well-established suppliers.
  • ProSumer Printers: Used for basic commercial prototyping, very small-scale manufacturing, general educational use and upper-end maker/hobbyist applications. These 3D printer suppliers have mature supply chains, and customer support infrastructures.
  • Kits & Other: Used for some ProSumer applications. These are newer market entrants that are in the process of establishing their infrastructures. They may also rely upon forums and/or discussion groups to support their customers.

We are firmly situated in the ProSumer market segment. This is illustrated by the major corporations and educational institutions that have invested in multiple pieces of our equipment.

We see a shakeout occurring in the ProSumer segment as the hype and great expectations are tempered by larger numbers of consumer’s posting their after-sale experience on social media. This is happening now.

As far as future products, there are a number of patents that will expire in the next few years, which will open up even more opportunity in the 3D printing space. It will be interesting to see what people come up with.

We will also see increased competition from 3D printers manufactured in the Far East. These companies tend to develop products and attempt to drive them into the US market on price alone – and in most cases you get what you pay for. Desktop 3D printers are designed to simplify the prototyping process.  Since every application is unique, you need a versatile product offering and skilled staff to put the right solution to work in each situation. We pride ourselves on having great pre-sale and post-sale support for exactly that reason.

There is also some risk to our industry from the growing number of crowd funded 3D printer start-ups. Some of them have done their homework, assembled a team, solidified their supply chain and staffed-up to provide a great customer experience. Some haven’t. Things will shakeout pretty quickly. I just hope that it doesn’t hurt our industry too much, in the process.

Speaking of start-ups, Afinia was effectively a start-up last year. We’ve done pretty well since then due to our ability to piggyback on what we’ve learned in the last 20 years from Microboards.