Just over two years ago Bram de Zwart and Brian Garret decided to combine innovative 3D printing technology with a local community focused network model to bring 3D printing to as many people as possible.
They weren’t new to this area though.
After writing final theses on 3D printing, both de Zwart and Garret joined 3D Systems and stayed for four years before deciding to partner up on their ambitious project.
Six months after leaving their jobs, the startup 3D Hubs was launched. Today it gives over 1 billion people access to a 3D printer within a 10 mile radius.
Hot Topics spoke to one half of the founding pair, Bram de Zwart, to talk about his Dutch startup 3D Hubs, the third industrial revolution and why his mother is their ideal customer.
Hot Topics: Why does the 3D printing world need a platform to connect?
Bram de Zwart: There are 7 billion people, and 200 000 3D printers, so we want people to have as much access as possible to these awesome technologies and 3D printer locations so they can produce their objects locally. Our platform is giving people that access.
HT: What problems will those printers solve?
BdZ: It’s good for the industry and if we accelerate adoption of this technology on a scale of what I call the third industrial revolution it could bring a positive change to the world.
I want a future where we can make our products locally, on demand, whilst also enabling a reduction in waste.
HT: What sort of turnaround time can a customer expect?
BdZ: Our average time is less than two days, which is much faster than any of our nearest competitors in the industry.
We have a huge capacity of around 11,000 3D printer locations connected, so there is always enough capacity available for an order. There are around 1 billion people who have 3D printer locations within 10 miles of their home and the type of 3D printers we use are smaller versions which make one product at a time while many centralised, larger machines need more orders before they can start the process.
HT: What’s your core revenue stream?
BdZ: It’s through our platform connecting 3D printer owners.
We take a 15 per cent commission when something is ordered off our platform and in return we do several things: we check if the designs are actually 3D printable – we have software that is able to check for this with a 95 per cent success rate; we provide real time quotes for every 3D printer within a customer’s area; and we have a money back guarantee if any customer is unhappy with their product.
HT: Why is 3D Hubs based in Amsterdam?
BdZ: Holland is a great testing ground for startups because it has one of the highest internet rates in the world. It’s also a medium sized market so you can gather enough data in a feasible time frame in order to validate your company’s assumptions.
And everyone speaks English; proportionally actually a higher percentage of people speak English in Holland than the USA.
HT: Has 3D Hubs worked in partnership with anyone?
BdZ: We actually did a partnership with a European smartphone manufacturer called Fairphone and they decided to have all their smart phone case orders printed within our 3D network.
For the last three months there have been over 5,000 smart phone cases produced across 300 3D printer locations.
I think this points to a trend indicating that both companies and consumers alike are looking to 3D printing as a viable alternative to mass produced gifts.
HT: What is the vetting process of 3D printing? Who makes sure that the designs are safe, non-hazardous and non-defamatory?
BdZ: Every single printer owner – all 11,000 of them – have been through our terms and conditions which clearly state that they are not allowed to print weapons or content that is infringing on copyright or anything illegal. The same goes for the customer, so both parties are exposed to these conditions.
But the amount of orders are so high – we’re growing so fast – that it’s impossible for us to oversee every order that goes through. We do step in however if a disagreement between a consumer and a printer owner erupts and we are asked for our authority and that is a way we can keep an eye on matters.
HT: Your company is truly international – you even have 3D printer locations on remote Pacific Islands. What’s the next step then?
BdZ: I want my mother to 3D print! Seriously, right now it’s mainly used by tech-orientated people and designers but I want everyone to get involved because it’s a more efficient manufacturing model than past systems: it promotes local, community based creation and it is very quick.
That requires investment into marketing, education, finding partners and consumer brands. We were lucky enough to raise around $4.5 million last year in a funding round which has allowed us to open a new office in New York so we can expand our Americas customer base.
HT: So the USA is an important market for you?
BdZ: America is actually our largest market as a country. Europe is our largest market as a continent or region.
HT: What manufacturing sectors are you hoping to replace?
BdZ: I think in the next five years there are a couple of industries which are really ripe for replacement, or at least prime for rapid change.
Children today have grown up in the digital world where they can make their own designs on a computer so the whole 3D printing process is actually quite natural for them.
I have given workshops to children and they get it all very quickly so I think that companies like us are stepping in and responding to this rapid digitalization of children and young adults where more traditional toy manufacturers are lagging behind.