Alex and the Pockets, Dispatch #3

3D Printing & Imaging
Alex and the Pockets, Dispatch #3

By Alex Hornstein (and Bilal Ghalib)

Her name’s Daisy, and she’s a biter. She’s an alpaca, and she’s standing outside the Middle of Nowhere gas station in Idaho. Alpacas are like miniature llamas with lovely fine coats, bred for optimized fiber output. This alpaca, apparently, has a taste for human flesh. A moment ago, I innocently reached out to scratch her head, and suddenly I’m doing battle with a rogue alpaca.

Meanwhile, over at the pump, Bilal has the trunk of the Prius open, printers whirring inside. He’s demonstrating our iGramophone to a traveling band from England like a true showman, they’re reaching for their wallets…Sale made, alpaca defeated. Another success story from the Pocket Factory.

The victories are tempered by the sheer silliness of the situation. Bilal and I started this trip because we saw a powerful thing emerging at the intersection of makers, entrepreneurs, and this wave of newly accessible 3D printers. So what are we doing wrangling vicunas in Idaho? Do aspiring 3D printrepreneurs need to start wandering the country, fighting guapacas, and bouncing from town to town in their own technocarnie roadshows? The answer, of course, is no–leave the camelids to us. Both Bilal and I love traveling, and we just felt it would make our project more fun if we took it on the road, and it would give us more ideas if we could talk to, design for and sell our prints to a wide variety of people with different needs, tastes and interests.

For the uninitiated, the Pocket Factory is Bilal Ghalib and myself, Alex Hornstein. We’re traveling across the country for a month, experimenting with businesses we can start with our low-cost 3D printers and documenting as we go. We post weekly on the Make blog, and this is our third post. We have two big goals for our trip: to start a business selling things that we make with our printers, and to use our experiences to abstract out some ideas on maker-printer businesses to galvanize more printrepreneurship in the maker community. This post is all about the latter goal–we want to discuss some of our experiments making products with 3D printers and the response we’ve seen.

We’ve taken the last three weeks to try out a lot of different tacks for business. We’ve sold customizable designs, printed 3D portraits on the spot, thrown together software to create neat objects, and designed our own products from scratch. We’ve printed everywhere from bars to train stations to street corners and flea markets. We’ve had varying degrees of success, and we’re starting to figure out what works and what doesn’t with our printers. Here, we’re talking about four business tacks we’ve tried, what it was like to set them up, and how they worked for us.

3D Portrait Pushcarts
A funny thing happened to us in Kansas City. We made decent money there, and we sold ideas that someone else came up with. The good folks at Union Station invited us to set up shop in the station, and we thought it was the perfect place to try an experiment. Previously, when we’d 3D printed in public, we offered a variety of products customized and printed to order. In retrospect, this was a really strange table to approach — we were selling a bunch of mildly related products (the common thread was that we thought they’re cool and they’re made out of plastic), we were trying to push customers through an unusual customization process, and we had these weird machines moving around on our table to further distract and confuse people. 3D printing is a neat technology that opens a world of possibilities, but we made the mistake of selling that world of possibilities, rather than selling our products.

The approach we took in Kansas City worked well. We sold 3D portraits for $10. We used a 3D printer to make our products, but we didn’t say the words ‘3D printing’ when we were describing our products to customers. The Kinect acted as a neat interactive hook–most people have never seen themselves in a real-time 3D scan, and it’s cool and novel–enough so to quickly grab people’s interest and have them engage with us.

We developed a workflow that let us bring us a customer in, frame and scan them, print them out at a good resolution and size, and have the print sold and delivered within twenty minutes. We used a Kinect to scan quickly and reliably, Kyle McDonald’s Kinect2Stl program to capture 3D object files from the Kinect, and an Up and a MakerBot printing in tandem to crank out the prints. There’s two amazing things about this–one is that all the tools we used–hardware and software–were developed by someone else. The other is that it worked! People liked the product, they enjoyed posing and seeing themselves get printed, and we saw eye to eye on the value of the portraits.

This is pretty neat–it’s a little business-in-a-box that someone else developed. We just operate it in public in a kind of ad-hoc franchise. Some of the early Kinect hackers figured out that it was cool to print a scan of your face. Kyle’s software makes it easy and fast to go from a scan to a print. Tons of other makers have set up 3D photo booths and validated the coolness of the end product. People like the prints, there’s a pretty optimized way to make the prints, and it just needs someone out there to distribute the prints–to take a scan and print it out. The situation reminds me a lot of the Mexican churro cart ecosystem.

Churros are these delicious fried dough snacks. They’re wildly popular in Mexico, and the recipe for making churros is well-known. You could consider it an open-source/public domain recipe. If you hang out in just about any city in Mexico, you’ll see someone running a churro cart. These are little pushcarts that hold everything you need to make churros–they’ve got a wok that holds boiling oil, a gas burner, a propane tank, a dough extruder to squeeze out churro dough into the oil, and a spot to prepare the dough. The thing is, the design for the churro carts is also open and variable. There’s a general consensus on what you have to have in order to make good churros, but nobody owns that process. Every city has a couple machine shops that produce the carts, and each shop has their own variant of the cart design. It’s this neat, ad-hoc ecosystem that gets churros into people’s mouths. There’s a niche in the ecosystem for people who don’t have much capital to invest to start a churro stand, there’s a niche for people who have a general machine shop to expand their business to make the carts, there’s a niche for grocers to stock and sell more churro and even special churro mixes, and it all starts with the general consensus that churros are delicious.

Are 3D portraits really cool enough to spawn a similar ecosystem? Arguably, people liked them enough for us to sell $60 of prints in a couple hours in a public place. We bought some filament to make those prints. We bought a 3D printer. Maybe if we were in the train station every day for a year, we’d run out of people who want 3D portraits. After all, you can eat churros day after day until the cholesterol catches up with you, but you buy one portrait, put it on your shelf, and you don’t really need another. So maybe the demand isn’t enough to support an army of 3D portraiteers printing out people’s faces across the country, but even if a handful of people could make a decent living selling portraits and using this toolchain, that’s a very real economy that popped out of the collective minds of the 3D scanning and printing community.

Fast customizations
Recently, the Chicago Museum of Industry was kind enough to invite us to print at their Fab lab. We did well with the portraits in Kansas City, but twenty minutes is a long time to wait around for a product, and we had problems with a backlog–it’s okay to ask a customer to wait twenty minutes while they’re being engaged, but it’s quite another when there’s a line of three people ahead of them. Operations management geeks call this a queuing problem, and there’s two basic ways to solve it–find the bottlenecking process and process it in parallel, like opening up more counters during the busy time at a bank, or speed up the time it takes for someone to interact with a bottleneck. We could add more printers, but it gets complicated to transfer files, start prints, keep an eye out for filament kinks and pop off completed prints. In practice, we’ve found that the most we can manage is three printers while simultaneously talking to customers and goofing off. And if we’re not goofing off, what’s the point of it all?

So we decided instead to make a really fast product we could make on our printers. We wanted to make something unique to each customer that would take no more than five minutes from when someone first approaches us to when they walk away with a product. While we were printing portraits, we noticed that printed faces were neat, but they weren’t accurate enough to be recognizable. The coolest portraits, though, weren’t faces–they were people’s bodies in expressive poses. We thought that it would be neat to simplify the scans, get rid of the time-consuming detail and just print out people’s outlines. After a couple hours of coding and tweaking, we built a program that could reliably grab someone’s outline and turn it into a printable shape. It took about a minute to scan someone, a minute to tweak the 3D shape (our first iteration of the code wasn’t fully automated) and three minutes to print out an outline. We tested this out in the museum and were really pleased with how it went over.

Another neat thing about the pose prints is that they were functional in a way that the portraits weren’t. The portraits are basically decorative souvenirs–the poses were a bit different, they let the customer have some creativity in how the pose could be used–strike a certain pose and you’ve got a bookmark shape. We’d tied kids’ figures to twirly copters with some thread to make them fly around. Families could make their own barrel of monkeys-style figures. The poses were simpler than most of our other prints, but they were fast, custom, and interactive, and that’s a magical combination. We couldn’t sell in the museum, but we could ask people what they would pay for it, and we felt this was a pretty solid ~$2-3 product.

Another thing happened at the museum–people kept asking us if we could put the museum’s logo, or name, or just the word Chicago on the print. This was something we’d completely overlooked–we were printing at a destination. The Chicago Museum of Industry is the largest museum in the world. People travel from all over to come to this museum, Chicagoans go over and over to check it out, and it’s a big tourist stop for people checking out the sights of Chicago. When people go to a major destination, they like to remember it. We’d completely forgotten about souvenirs!

I think this is a real strength of 3D printers. We’d been focusing on customizing products with peoples’ initials and images, but it turns out that people don’t really want their face or initials on stuff–at least, very few people have cared enough about our products to pay a little extra and get their initials or custom text debossed into the product. In retrospect, we had our first clue at the beginning of the trip in Portland. We were printing in a restaurant/bar, and the owner came over and enthusiastically bought an iPhone case from us. When we asked him if he wanted text in it, he instantly asked for his restaurant’s logo on the case.

Have you ever given a book to a friend? When you were writing that little note on the inside cover, did you say, “this book is now yours?” Did you write their name or your name or draw a picture of yourself? No–the focus is on why you’re giving the book–what’s the occasion, what’s on your mind, why you think your friend would like the book. It’s a personalization, but it also adds a context to the gift that wouldn’t be there. We love attaching contexts to the things we own–think about t-shirts you buy at shows, cups you buy at sports games, souvenir photos…the list goes on. 3D printers let us contextualize products like nobody’s business–we can make products for individual events, for neighborhoods or cities or locations. Could a band sell CD cases from a merch table with an image from the show engraved into the case? Could we set up our car in the tailgate section of a stadium and print out widgets for whatever game is going on that day? It’s a new idea, and one we still need to explore, but this idea of souvenir printing plays well with the strengths of the printers.

Modular design
In our last post, I wrote about designing a product for these printers. I designed and printed a kit for an automatic silly string shooter–a little device that snaps onto a can of silly string, and if someone comes close, it blasts them with silly string. The perfect gift for fourteen year-olds who aren’t in enough trouble. There’s a neat follow-up to that story.
After my initial 24 hour design marathon, I finally got a mechanism working that would spray silly string on command. I took a video and uploaded it to YouTube. Moments later, I watched the video on YouTube, and at the end, when “related videos” are displayed, I noticed one titled “3D printed silly string shooter.” Someone else had designed another printable mechanism to spray silly string! I love the internet!

Now, my design worked, but it was kinda cranky. I’d have to adjust it to the perfect point in order for it to spray reliably. This other guy’s design looked more robust. A quick googling showed that he had put his design up on Thingiverse and licensed it as a Creative Commons-Attribution design, meaning that it’s fine to use the design commercially as long as I give credit to the designer. To be sure, I emailed the designer, Brad Collette, on Thingiverse explaining the kit I was making and asking if it was OK to use his design in the kit. He gave me his blessing, and with that, our silly string shooter became much more reliable, faster to print, and easier to assemble. There’s something wildly powerful about this ability to use other people’s 3D designs the same way that programmers build upon others’ code. This community-driven, modular design is a great thing, and it’s only really emerged with the advent of printers in the hands of makers. We could still share our designs and incorporate others’ ideas if we didn’t have a 3D printer, but having a fast, cheap 3D printer on hand makes it delightfully fast to try out and incorporate others’ designs.

Stop selling our creativity, stupid!
I wanted to save the best for last. Last night, we had the most profitable night of the whole trip, and it popped up out of the blue. A week ago, I was discussing the project with my friend Keting, and I was overflowing with new ideas for printable products, sure that this would be the killer product for the Pocket Factory. Keting listened to me ranting for a while, and then asked, “Why don’t you run a workshop where you teach people to make their own designs, and charge for the workshop?”

It was a simple idea, but it made us $250 in three hours last night. We found a co-working space in Ann Arbor and called them a couple days in advance, asking to set up a workshop on 3D mashups and printing. We figured that we could give a crash course in 3D design in an hour and a half and then print the designs that people created. We wrote a quick description and put out a flier a couple days before the workshop, but up until it started, we had no idea if anyone would show up. As it turned out, we got mobbed. We had everyone from students to engineers to programmers to a couple on a date. They’d heard about 3D design and printing, they’d looked at the tools that were out there, and they were overwhelmed by the options. They came for a little push that would get them into the world of 3D creation.

I’m still amazed that it worked. We figured that we couldn’t teach a generic 3D design tutorial in two hours, but we could do mashups. There’s lots of creative commons-licensed models on Thingiverse that can be downloaded, modified, re-printed, and some, even sold. Armed with free tools and demo versions of software, we taught people how to start with an existing model and modify it, jam it into another model, tweak it, and customize it. You can get pretty far in a couple hours if you’re not starting from scratch, and people made some impressive designs at our workshop. Instead of struggling to convince passersby one after another that they should pay $20 for a piece of plastic we printed, we work with a lot of people in parallel for a couple hours and they walk away with design skills, familiarity with accessible software and an object they created. People thanked us for the class, saying they were thrilled with the experience. I think that the difference here is we’re not trying to sell our own creativity to the public. We’re instead enabling others to be creative, and that’s the difference. We’re teaching 3D creation faster and more effectively than usual, we’re showing people how to quickly make intricate objects, and we’re making it as accessible as possible. This could be done with an education model like we tried last night, it could be done with clever, interactive creative software or in-person design assistants or any number of other possibilities, but the takeaway is, the best response we’ve gotten this whole trip was when we put the creativity in the hands of our customers.

Travel along with the Pocket Factory

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at

View more articles by Gareth Branwyn


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