Creating the right prototyping lab, makerspace, or service bureau is something innovators worldwide are steadily figuring out. Obama said 3D printing would “revolutionize” manufacturing and mega corporations such as HP and Deloitte have finally invested in other aspects of additive, but there are still major opportunities somewhere in the space between the individual hobbyist and corporate action. In one of my relevant past roles as the VP of Solutions and Professional Services at MakerBot, I have spent the last several years building these businesses (to include a service bureau), creating and selling a makerspace solution, and consulting on how to improve operations. Along with 3D Printing Industry, I want to create a dialogue to help share lessons learned to drive successful creation and growth of makerspaces and service bureaus.
The genesis of this idea occurred a few weeks ago, when I had yet another request to discuss pricing by an ambitious business looking to diversify into service bureau operations with a few 3D printers. While I have done this professionally for years, I have no trade secrets to keep since my past employer, MakerBot has largely shifted away from this business.
I plan to draw from three general areas of knowledge in this series:
- Design and service bureau functions I built, previously branded Design Services and 3D Printed Products.
- The MakerBot Innovation Center, a somewhat turn-key maker space and service bureau that we partnered with universities around the world to implement.
- Knowledge of what makers are doing in the wild. I will tell you what I know from my network, and I also ask for your input. I welcome contribution of your opinions or rules of thumb for running a successful makerspace or service bureau and we can share it with the community. Do you agree, disagree, have more to add? Please share so we can all improve!
Set up 3D Printed Products and Design Services
The first and most relevant source of information on design, printing, and post production on products is that I did just that as a business from within MakerBot. The story is about two different departments built from within the company and I will tell you about both. Again, neither of these are active business units.
3D Printed Products was born from our internal colloquial termed department “BotFarm.” We had hundreds of 3D printers to just print all our needs for shows, marketing, experimentation, and so forth. We realized that our customers sometimes needed prints, lots of them, so we created an optimized capability to use hundreds of 3D printers in unison to produce many different items or many of the same item. We did print runs for nearly 50,000 items in a single job for major companies. I communicated substantially with service bureaus such as Harvest Technologies and Solid Concepts which later became Stratasys Direct Manufacturing, but we found that our model was quite distinct. We had a specialized team of technicians and had to figure out labor, depreciation, overhead, costing, pricing to build a business like this. While it experienced success and informed much of the solution we later built, it ultimately would experience more success outside of a corporate atmosphere when it was spun off and sold to the Layer by Layer software founders as a new Brooklyn, NY startup called Voodoo Manufacturing. This story is how we made a business out of a bunch of printers, and I expect these learnings will be particularly interesting.
3D Design Services was a separate department also initially created as an internal capability. It was possibly the most extensive team of 3D Poly and CAD modelers focused on FFF or FDM printing anywhere. The team would work on creative ideas or respond to client requests for novel design as well as execute post production. My main takeaway is that this effort is unique but expensive and complicated for the uninitiated.
Building the MakerBot Innovation Center
Creating an entire makerspace is complicated, especially when you have to consider the printers, raw materials, location, footprint, labor, skillsets, workflow, software, data collection, data analysis, maintenance and support. We created a product called an Innovation Center, but it could be more easily understood as a “makerspace-in-a-box.” This is the only comprehensive solution MakerBot has ever built, but we knew there was a need in higher education to hit the ground running as a maker space or service bureau, so it was worth the effort. Not to mention the solution commanded hundreds of thousands of dollars per sale. Innovation Centers have been deployed worldwide at locations to include University of Maryland, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Florida Polytechnic, and LIUC in Milan, Italy, just to name a few. I spent lots of time testing what worked and trying to figure out the best methods to make these successful and I believe those lessons could serve smaller makers too. While the product is still sold by MakerBot, the lessons I will share are only my own takeaways and not any proprietary secrets.
What the makers are doing
I have had many conversations with people who have 3+ printers and looking to monetize or cost recover or simply improve usage. Sometimes I have an answer or an introduction and just as often I learn something new. A conversation about pricing with one such maker drove me to write these articles. This is the area where I believe we can all help each other. Please engage and tell me what you have learned or want to know so we can share with the community. Personally I continue to help and be helped by makers in my area as I am currently working with local prototyping labs and incubator spaces to help design their capabilities. Additionally, my strength is in FDM or FFF and while I am familiar with other technologies, I rely on others to help incorporate best thinking from a deep point of view.
Keep your eyes out for the next article where we will discuss pricing
I seek for this article series to be a dialogue. I have knowledge to share, and this will be helpful, but the full story of 3D printing maker spaces and service bureaus remains to be written, so your input is welcomed. The next instalment will go into the thinking on pricing the use of your maker space or service bureau. Pricing is typically one of the very first questions I get when someone is building their own capability and there is a lot of calculus to incorporate there such as balancing needs for usage competing with up front revenue. Let me know what your interests are for a second article. I often discuss what services should be provided or available such as pre-production (design and scan) and post-production. I look forward to hearing from you and sharing more!