Last week, WobbleWorks LLC launched a Kickstarter campaign for the 3Doodler, “The World’s First 3D Printing Pen”. It reached it’s goal in hours and passed the $1 million mark in just two days. After originally posting this, MAKE contributor Chris Connors told me about his conversation with co-creator Peter Dilworth at the Artisan’s Asylum.
I recently caught up with the other co-creator, Max Bogue, to talk in more detail about manufacturing, the device itself, and the success of the campaign.
Hi Max. Can you talk a little bit about yourself and your company?
Hi Eric. I’m a co-founder of WobbleWorks LLC, along with Peter Dilworth. A few years ago I was working with WowWee as part of their R&D team. One of the largest projects I worked on during my time there was Rovio, the wireless telepresence robot. One of my main tasks was ensuring that our products went all the way through to production, so I was often stationed at a factory in China for months at a time.
I met Peter when we were working at WowWee on making his walking robotic dinosaur Troody factory-ready. After Rovio launched, I left and went to Boston to work for Handy Robotics, an MIT start-up. During that time Peter and I continued to meet up and throw ideas at each other. Eventually we decided to start a company together.
Can you tell me about the 3Doodler team and how it’s evolved?
As of right now it’s me, Peter, a few people in China, and Dan, who headed up the launch. We also subcontracted out and hired additional staff right before the Kickstarter campaign went live, and had been preparing for that for a few months prior. We traveled to Hong Kong a few months ago to tour some factories. We talked to a bunch of them and ended up partnering with a factory that’s really a perfect fit for us.
What’s special about the factory you’re working with?
They’re willing to do small quantities and scale up as needed. If we were starting with 100k, which is a normal quantity for a large company, it would be a lot easier to find a factory. It’s a lot more difficult if you’re asking for quantities like 10k; they’ll often shoo you away. We were really lucky to find this one; they’re a great bunch of people.
What sort of challenges do you face when dealing with manufacturing overseas?
Well, the challenge is getting lots of orders in the first place. Past that, one of the most important things is to find someone who has a lot of experience with the manufacturing processes and the area, especially if you don’t. You also need to focus on building a team in China, or whatever country you choose to manufacture in. It’s extremely important that you have trustworthy partners in that country, who aren’t necessarily connected to the factories you want to use but are somehow interwoven in the culture there. Thankfully, we’d been selling toy concepts and consulting with companies at factories to help them get through the more difficult production items since our launch in 2010, so we weren’t completely in the dark. It’s also helpful if you know the language — I started studying Mandarin in High School, continued to in college, and then lived in Hong Kong for four years. I’ll be spending a lot of time at the factory for a couple of months during the initial runs, but that’s the price I’m willing to pay to get these into people’s hands. I’m more than happy to do it.
What’s the benefit of being physically present at the factory during production?
Plain and simple: faster turnaround times. We do have staff there, so I don’t have to be around 24/7, but I’ll be working alongside engineers and QC (Quality Control) people to keep everything on track and maintain good relations with the factory. If they make a change or want to make a suggestion, I’m right there, so they can show it to me. We can play with it for half a day and decide “yeah, this is fine, lets move forward”.
How did this all come about? There’s quite a gap between telepresence robots and a 3D Printing pen…
We previously had two Up! 3D Printers. Peter Dilworth was watching one print away, when it made an error. He was kinda miffed about it; he just wanted to take the thing off the platform, fill up the gap, and put it back on. And then he had that “Oh! We can!” moment.
So we took apart one of the Up! machines and used the print head to make a really crude 3Doodler. We added a little handle, and pretty quickly ended up with the first prototype. It was dubbed “the Teacup”, and it worked, albeit terribly. We thought “maybe there’s something here”. From there we made another version with an Arduino, and then we added a shell and fans to contain everything and cool the plastic. “The Beast” was the first prototype with all the subassemblies integrated in one package. It was all metal on the inside with an ABS shell, and it worked pretty well.
We ended up working through 5 prototypes before ending up with what you see in the Kickstarter video. Everyone’s going to be getting the 6th version, with a few additional tweaks – we’re changing the shell to make it fit better in your hand, and with a flat bottom so it doesn’t roll. We’ve received great responses from Kickstarter; the community aspect is amazing for something like this, because it’s going to help us make a better product.
Can you talk about the physical interface of the 3Doodler? How is it used?
There are two buttons near the front. Pressing one extrudes the plastic slowly, for delicate work, while the other will extrude quicker, for filling things in. And when you let go of one of the buttons, the motor retracts the plastic a little bit, just like a normal printer, so you don’t get a lot of drooping. If you press down both buttons at the same time the flow of plastic will reverse, so you can switch colors easily.
There’s a 3-way switch on the back of the device, for PLA/ABS/Off. While the nozzle is heating up, the LED glows red, and switches to blue once it’s ready to go. If it cools down too much during doodling, the blue changes to red and will automatically stop the extrusion so you can’t jam up the nozzle. It’ll go back up to the correct temperature and the buttons start working again. We were shooting for simplicity and ease of use; I think we struck the balance with that.
I read about a cooling-related patent on the Kickstarter page. Can you explain the reasoning behind that?
We filed a patent purely for protection from larger corporations. We’re not going after the community – if people want to make one on their own, go for it! That’s a lot different than a larger company making mass quantities. We’re not going to argue that we have large swathes of the market or anything, we just focused on our item and defending against it getting knocked off. It is leveraged off of a pre-existing patent, which strengthens it’s validity.
Were you surprised by the immediate success of the Kickstarter campaign?
We know it’s a great product, but the pace really amazed us. We did not expect to make $1 million in two days. We’d gone to factories, reached out to press beforehand, and staffed up. The $30k amount barely covered tooling, so we would’ve taken a loss if that’s all we got, but we really love this product. We just want to get it into people’s hands. We tried to prepare as much as possible, but you can only prepare for so much. Overall, we’re very humbled by the whole experience.
How confident are you in meeting your delivery deadlines?
Very confident. That’s why we chose those times, and why we staggered them — so we can ramp up for production and keep with it. The holidays are very important to us and we don’t want to disappoint people who are ordering for then, so we’re very committed to hitting those dates, and we’re trying to make it earlier.
A lot of people don’t really understand how complicated manufacturing is. These things take times — you can’t instantly go to China and expect them to copy your crude design and make something real out of it. We’ve been working on this project for a year and have been working with our factory for over three months now.
Any advice for future Kickstarters?
Prepare, prepare, prepare. If you think you have something that could get very big, I’d recommend reaching out to media before the launch. The idea that you can just throw it up there and see how it does might work for smaller projects, but for something really big, you need to reach out. Logistics are important as well – you need an idea or a basic plan for how you’re going to deal with the craziness.
Talking to a Kickstarter veteran is helpful as well. I spoke to Joe Schlesinger (of Arcbotics) a lot about the pitfalls he hit with Kickstarter. You’re going to get a ton of emails. My girlfriend took a few weeks off from work, just to help us answer them. We had some amazing help from Dan to strategize and execute the whole campaign. In short: it’s really important to prepare completely – have exactly the right hands and brains on deck.
Thanks Max! Anything else you’d like to add?
I’d like to give a huge shoutout to Artisan’s Asylum. It’s a great hackerspace with a lot of great tools and smart people. We did our prototyping and R&D there, so we couldn’t have made it this far without them.
I’d also like to thank all of our Kickstarter backers and fans. The fact that we get to build a community before our product even hits stores is brilliant. We’ve already received custom stencils for things like ornaments and glasses, which is awesome. Please keep sending those! We’ll throw them all up on our website to share with everyone.
1/3/13 Update: Video interview with Peter Dilworth added.
If you’re involved in a particularly revolutionary or awesome project and would like to write about it for 3D Thursday, or you have a related product that you’d like us to review or write about, please contact Eric Weinhoffer at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for reading!