We originally wrote this post for Make Magazine. The article appears on Make here
Products! Products Products Products! Such were the thoughts flooding my head as we move into our fourth hour of the Victoria flea market without selling a gorram thing. Our printers are cranking away merrily, we’ve got a crowd hovering around, captivated, and Bilal, Ilan and I are chatting up the crowd like our charming selves. Lots of looking, but no buying.
For those of you who have no idea who we are, we’re the Pocket Factory! We are Bilal Ghalib and Alex Hornstein, and we’re traveling around the country for a month with a Prius-full of low-cost 3D printers, starting a business printing and selling things on these machines. We think of ourselves as modern-day troubadours, moving from town to town with our moneymakers in our trunk, eliciting inspiration and fascination where we travel and making a living for ourselves off our ideas and wits. We’re chronicling our successes, failures and stories from running a design and production business using Maker 3D printers as our production machines. You can read about our exploits weekly on Make, and also on companionpage.com. Back to the story.
We know how to make six things: iPhone cases, belt buckles, 3D portraits, a gramophone horn that amplifies iPhone speakers, custom nose cones for model rockets and a little necklace I made this morning of a little duck with gears in its belly, and the gears spin as you move it along the necklace chain. In the last week, we’ve worked out ways to quickly customize and print ‘stock’ designs for belt buckles and phone cases. We’ve developed three products from idea to a saleable ware. We’ve got our wares spread out in a merry display on a table, prices carefully taped under each one so that it’s clear that they’re for sale. But the people aren’t in a mood to buy ducks. In fact, they’re not buying anything.
One reason is the printers. People are way more interested in the printers themselves than in what we’re making. I can understand this–our prints are pieces of plastic standing next to a futuristic robotic machine that can make anything. One of these objects is more interesting than the others, and the printers are stealing the show from us. People will stand around for hours watching the machines print and talking excitedly about the possibilities, but they won’t pay $5 for one of our prints. We’ve actually started downplaying the technology–when we’re selling, we make a point to not mention the words “three-dee printer.”
We’ve got a theory about printed products — when you’re sitting around for hours not selling anything, you have lots of time to come up with theories.
The way we see it, there’s three valuable parts to the products we sell: There’s the aesthetics and utility of the design itself, any customizations we add to it for a customer (we change shape, logos, add text or initials or images as the customers like) and there’s the story of how the customer got the product. Printers help with customizability, and we can spin them into a great story, but they don’t dictate the utility of the object–that’s entirely up to us as designers. For someone to buy one of our products, the sum value the customer puts on the design, the customization and the story has to be greater than whatever we’re asking for it.
Now, Victoria has a wholesome down-to-earthness that I’ve come to love over the last couple days. This is a city that fights to keep iPads and laptops out of classrooms because they value the tradition of taking notes by hand. Technology for the sake of technology isn’t really a big selling point here. There goes the value of our story. The guy at the table across from us is selling antique Chinese coins and 20s-era pornography. He’s raking it in.
It’s not really an iPhone crowd, either, but Victoria has its share of phone slingers. Problem is, there’s another table a few booths down selling chinese-made iPhone cases and belt buckles. They’re selling a few pennies of molded silicones for ten bucks. We’re selling ours for $20. Whoops–we’re undercut, and there goes our margins. Competition’s a bugger, and while we have a good-looking robust cases and belt buckles, when confronted with a choice between something printed on a machine run by scruffy 26 year-olds and a plastic-wrapped factory-finished products, well–the people of Victoria have chosen. If they named the town after us, they’d call it Sucktoria.
We might not be selling in the flea market, but something very interesting starts happening. Flea markets are rife with entrepreneurial energy. It’s the nature of the game—everyone sitting behind the tables next to us has a nose for business—they’re always thinking about what people want and how they can make a business out of it. As the day goes on, we start to get more and more visits from the other vendors—visits that turn into brainstorming sessions. One guy, Tim, came over and watched the printers for a while, asked a few questions and walked off again. Half an hour later, he’s back, “why aren’t you guys making personalized license plate frames? You could print out little pieces for each corner of the plate and put people’s initials on it, or photos of their kid.” Five minutes later, he’s back again, “What about printing replacement parts for antique radios? You can’t buy that stuff anymore, and there’s always people in here looking for some ancient dial or other. How much did you say one of those machines costs?” It’s incredible—you could see the gears spinning in his head. The guy at the booth next to us sold jukeboxes, and he started chiming in, thinking of custom wall mounts for vintage records and jukebox memorabilia. We might not be pulling in the dough here, but we’re surrounded by seasoned entrepreneurs who are certain that if they had our tools, they could kick butt. It’s awesome!
In the months leading up to this trip, I started paying special attention to people who make a living shaping plastic into valuable forms. As it turns out, it’s a time-honored tradition, and it has its own masters and marketplaces and disciples. Look in any dollar store, and you’ll see the result of years of thought figuring out how to mould a few pennies of plastic in $.99 of value. Look at Lego. Look at the Tijuana toy vendors. Look at Walmart. All these products are made by artists in the same genre, and they ask a similar question: “People don’t want to spend a lot of money, so how do we make something really cheaply so we can sell lots of them, cheaply?”
But while the general class of product may be the same, the commodity plastic-angle doesn’t work well with 3D printed production. It takes about an hour to print out one of our iPhone cases, and takes ~$.75 worth of plastic and ten minutes of human time to clean it up, put it in a box, and ship it. Mass-produced cases similar to ours sell for as low as $2.50 online. Even if we keep our printers running around the clock (as it turns out, this is hard), we can barely produce and ship our product for the retail price of these commodity cases. We can produce pretty cheaply, but we can’t race to the bottom. If we want this to work as a business, Bilal and I figure that we have to net at least $10/print. So, we’ve got these machines that can melt plastic wire into any shape imaginable. Great. What’s a plastic shape that customers will value at $20? $35? What do people love about their products?
For some people, the story is enough. 3D printers have an undeniable cool factor, and our on-the-spot printing makes for a compelling story. They’ll tell the story of its creation time and again, showing it off to their friends, thinking of other stuff they could make. We give them photos of their product as it’s being created. We note down where we were when the print finished. Not everyone is a printerphile–not by a long shot, but the 3D printing story has sold the majority of our products.
And customization! If we run into a customer who has a punchy vision for something he’d like to make, we can swing right back with a designer-cad-printer uppercut. We had a great experience making custom earrings for Jake, a guy who was watching us print in Boulder. He took one look at our printer and asked if we could make him some custom gauges for his ears (for the un-pierced among you, dear readers, an ear gauge is basically a grommet that you put into your ear). We measure his current ones with calipers, design and size a new set in a couple minutes…he’s really into the Foo Fighters and wants their logo on the gauges–no problemo. Ten minutes later, the printer spits out a couple bright blue gauges and they’re in his ears seconds later. It’s rare to find someone with such a clear picture of what he wants, product-wise, but it’s great. He’s able to realize his vision–one that would be hard to pull off by any other means, and we’re fast and flexible enough to make it for him. We’re clearly providing value. The printers are the perfect tool for the job. We offer ‘stock’ customizations on many of our objects (debossed initials/text/images), and we pull out CAD software to do more open-ended customizations for a customer. The big challenge here is to find customers who place value on customization, and then working with them to build up a custom object. After our recent experience with the earrings, we think we’ll be spending some quality time in tattoo and piercing shops.
We experimented with a “bring your busted plastic stuff to us and we’ll repair it” booth. Armed with calipers and CAD software, we advertise on-the-spot repair of whatever possessions we can fix–busted knobs, cases, toys…bring it and we’ll design and print a replacement/repair, starting at $5. Yes, it’s undervalued, but we want to see if customers would use a cheap repair service for products they already own. This is a surprisingly hard thing to pull off. We’re fighting against 20 years of tradition that says plastic parts are best repaired with duct tape or a store warranty. It takes time to think of a broken possession, bring it in, listen to Bilal and I tell bad jokes in Boston accents, pay for the print and walk away with a fixed part. Everyone we’ve spoken to likes the idea of using printers to repair things, but so far, we have yet to make a single sale this way. It’s always difficult to convince people to change, and pulling off a repair-yer-parts angle will take a lot more experimentation to get right.
Sometimes the printers enable us to make a product that simply wouldn’t exist unless we made it. Bilal and I had a design exercise where we went through a dollar store in Salt Lake City, looking at products and thinking about ways to make them more fun or interactive. We paused at the silly string aisle. “Wouldn’t it be cool,” we mused, “if we made a device that would automatically spray people with silly string if they got too close?”
Out comes the calipers, the printer heats up, and twenty-four hours later, I’m standing in the shredded plastic ruins of nine flawed iterations and there’s an arduino-controlled silly string shooter in my hand, unfortunately choosing my face as its first target. This must be what having children feels like. We have a bill of materials, we know how to make it, and it does exactly what we set out to do. Thirty six hours from having our idea, we have a new product up for sale in our store.
Now, having access to printers didn’t let us build our silly string shooter–we could have build a device like this in any garage or hackerspace in the world using whatever materials and tools we could cleverly cobble together. What’s special about the printers is that they make it easy for us to sell our device once we develop it. Having access to cheap printers means that our R&D process is exactly the same as our production process. If we get a design that works off the printers, we’re done. Making another copy of the design is as easy as pressing the print button–we don’t have to figure our how to tweak our original garage hack into a product–our original garage hack is a product. As an added bonus, 3D printers really speed up the iteration time on a project. Most of the time, if I spend all night on a hand-built project and it’s 90% working, I’ll just cover the ugly or non-working bits with a band-aid and call it done. Spending another all-nighter in a hackerspace, rebuilding a project to fix a relatively unimportant final detail (like adding brakes to my electric bicycle) is a huge drag (I know, I know…everybody’s got 20/20 hindsight. Shut up!), but if it just takes a couple tweaks in CAD and a half-hour print to bring the product to perfection–sure, I’ll do it.
And, of course, it’s pretty rewarding to watch a couple of kids go nuts with something you dreamed up a day ago. There’s something glorious about designing a product this way–we went from idea to sell-able product in 24 hours, with an R&D budget of $15 (most of that was silly string). Sure, maybe there’s only a couple hundred people in the world who want a silly string booby trap, but if we can find and sell to just a few of them, it’s totally worth the development sprint. This quick build/quick test development cycle is already a common way for product development firms to do product R&D, but now printers are just cheap and reliable enough to let us use them as both prototyping and production machines, and they’re accessible enough that an individual or small company without a ton of money can feasibly own, run and maintain them. This is a technological advance, led by makers, that creates empowering tools for other makers to start their own businesses, to find a way to earn a living off their own creativity. It’s a glimpse into the power of open-source maker tools, and it’s a power that extends far beyond the scope of our project. It’s something we’d like to see more entrepreneurial makers taking advantage of. It’s big!
Back at the Victoria flea market, a man comes up and watches our printers for a bit. After a few minutes, he turns to me. “My name’s Paul, and you’re making crap.” he says, matter-of-factly. “Nobody needs what you’re making.”
We talk for a while, and it turns out he’s a really neat guy. He refurbishes antique books, tanning his own leather by hand, hammering new gold leaf into book bindings and painstakingly using herbal compounds to restore inks and pages and stains. Standing next to our machines pooping out slice after slice of steamy molten plastic, it’s obvious to me. With these machines, I’ll never be anything close to the craftsman that Paul is. I’m not making things that are glorious works of art. But I’m not a craftsman. I’m a troubadour. Bilal and I carry these machines from city to city, making our living any way we can. People don’t buy from us because our plastic parts are elegantly produced works. They buy because we can offer products in a way that nobody else does. We give our customers clever designs, we give them a good product, and we also give them a story to tell. We make things for people in a way that delights them, that’s different from how they normally browse and choose products. We tell them a story that’s unique and interesting about how and where and why our products are made, we pull our customers into the design and production process and give them that unique and bizarre story, that peek into the troubadour’s tent where everything’s just a bit different from the everyday. So no, we’re not craftsmen, and we’re not trying to be. We have machines that make little things out of plastic, and it’s our job to make this interesting and valuable to customers. We’re 3D troubadours, and the show must go on.