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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Wide Open Era in 3-D Printing

SINGAPORE - For a 15-person start-up in 3-D printing - a nascent industry at best - Pirate3D has the hallmarks of a much bigger tech company. These include big funding, large expectations, unforeseen price increases, expanded distribution and serious trash talking.

Pirate3D gained a lot of notice in June when it raised a lot of money on Kickstarter. The company is making an inexpensive 3-D printer for the consumer market; early models will probably ship in December, executives say.

Although the product was initially expected to sell only online, Roger Chang, the company's co-founder, said versions would also be available in a few retail outlets, probably in two or three United States cities, early next year. Pirate3D will also show the printer at CES, the big consumer electronics show in Las Vegas this January.

“It's important that people see it,” said Mr. Chang, who is also the company's chief executive. The long-term goal, he said, is to be “the Apple of 3-D printers,” with a tightly coupled hardware and software business.

In both line and color, the latest versions of the machine do look like something from Cupertino - heavy on the “look,” no saying yet how it works.

Initially priced at $347, the printer is likely to cost as much as $700 in stores this winter, and about $500 online. Mr. Chang, who has recently been in the United States for discussions with retailers, wouldn't say which retailer would carry the product, but said the retail sales will be limited to a couple of large American cities with a big tech presence.

The higher prices for the machines are associated with delivering printed objects with a resolution as fine as 85 microns, about one three-hundredths of an inch. That is better than current printers on the market for more money.

A promotional video of Pirate3D's Buccaneer printer.

Pirate3D also hopes to profit by creating ways for independent developers to sell designs and related software for 3-D printing. The company is working on a series of templates, like a generic bottle shape, that a person can download to a touch-enabled smartphone or tablet, where the image can be stretched or compressed to suit an individual. The phone can then send that personalized design to the printer. The designs will be free, as part of a campaign to inspire a bigger business, and the company hopes to initially offer a hundred of them.

“People don't realize that we're only 50 percent a hardware company,” Mr. Chang said. “We keep coming back to the early days of PCs. It starts with a basic machine like the Altair, and eventually there is a Mac. When there are enough machines out there, developers will come out with enough things to make it a tool, not a toy.”

The Kickstarter campaign raised $1.4 million in less than a month.  The company, which had earlier picked up 589,000 Singapore dollars ($476,000) from a start-up fund backed by the Singapore government, was hoping to raise $100,000, along with its profile.

Mr. Chang thinks he now has enough money to last a year. If the machines start selling, and he can then build a software business on top of that, he probably won't need a lot more financing, unless he needs to expand production or distribution.

The business of 3-D software is promising. The largest company pursuing that business is probably Autodesk, which started releasing free consumer software in 2011. Mr. Chang said he had met with Autodesk and got the impression “they don't like us being in software â€" they want to bet on all the hardware companies, and be Microsoft here with all the software.”

Not content with one metaphor, Mr. Chang said, “If this was ‘Breaking Bad,' they'd be Heisenberg.”

Greg Eden, a spokesman for Autodesk, said his company wasn't ruling out working with anybody, but didn't see Pirate3D in a particularly favored position. “There's literally thousands of 3-D companies that have started up,” he said. “We've worked hard to make our software products work with as many flavors of 3-D printers as possible, and will continue to do so.”

Pirate3D's plan is similar to that of MakerBot, which sells 3-D printers starting at about $1,400 and running up to $2,800. MakerBot has a website, Thingverse, where people can send and download designs. MakerBots are also sold at Microsoft's retail stores.

Another 3-D printer, Cube, costs about $1,300. It is sold online and at Staples retail outlets, and comes with 25 free designs that can be printed. There are several other such printers on the market and coming soon, ranging from consumer-oriented kits costing less than $1,000 to industrial models costing tens of thousands of dollars.

In a sure sign of a budding ecosystem, there are also several websites offering news about the industry and product information. Working a 12-hour time difference from New York, Mr. Chang has become adept at Skype interviews and modern corporate communications. On the whiteboard over the company's small workroom, someone has written “release bad news on a Friday,” a common technique to make sure that bad news gets little coverage.