Maks Zolin wanted to build a better, faster printer that was also quieter. He set out building the Voron printer in his garage but he ended up deciding that he didn’t want to run a 3D printer company. So, he open sourced his work and invited others to collaborate with him. That’s how Voron Design got started, an innovation community pushing the limits of what 3D printers can do.
The Story of Voron Design with Maks Zolin
Dale: Max Zolin wanted to build a faster, better 3D printer. He came up with a new design and he built these printers himself in his garage.
Maks: I manufactured all the harnesses. I drilled all the beds out. I preassembled some parts. I printed all the parts. It was at home. At home in my garage. Different garage than this one, but yeah. Garage. Yeah. It was insane.
Dale: You might consider this story another chapter in the history of the innovations that come out of garages in Silicon Valley. The origin of the VORON 3D printer is not about one person launching a successful company from that garage. Instead, it’s about how that person launched a successful innovation community that now publishes open source designs for building your own really fast 3D printer or modifying an existing 3D printer to make it really fast.
I’m here with Maks Zolin, and Maks is with VORON Design, and we’re going to find out what that project is about, and it has to do with the printer that’s behind his shoulder and the work that we cover in the current issue of Make Magazine to speed up 3D printing.
And if you’ve ever done any 3D printing, you want to know why does it take so long and you’re not the only one asking that question. So Maks, how did you get into this? What’s your background?
Maks: I was always a tinkerer. I was a maker before I knew I was a maker. But I honestly the candid story really for VORON Design is I wanted an Ultimaker 2 and I didn’t want to spend the money on the Ultimaker 2 because at the time my wife was expecting our first kid and. I figured I can make a better one. I could build a better one. I think I can build a better one. So naturally I spent thousands of more dollars starting a 3D printing company, which then turned into a project and now consumes my life.
That’s the joke.
Dale: It’s not an unusual story. Ted Hall who runs ShopBot originally was wanting to build a boat rather than buy one. Uhhuh He wanted a tool to help him build the boat and he ended up building a CNC machine to do it. He’s never built the boat that he set out to do.
Maks: Oh yeah. I never built anything actually set out to build with the original printer. I just print the printer parts now, so 100% familiar with that story. That is so interesting. Yeah. The tool takes over your life at that point, and then you don’t have time to do anything else after.
Dale: Yeah. Is. At all tied to rep rap in, at least in a historical sense at all. Did, were you influenced by their work?
Maks: Oh, 100%. The biggest influences for me honestly were Prusa printers obviously, because pretty much every, that’s the jumping off point from everything that’s modern currently.
And then a lot of work that Lulzbot did if it wasn’t for Lulzbot opensourcing, all of their– basically everything they do, all the way down to BOMS and part numbers and all that stuff. I wouldn’t know where to start about deciphering like Misumi part numbers for extrusions.
And just being able to look at their designs and figuring out what they did and use that as a stepping stone effectively. I took their business model of being open source and tried to make my company that I started in the same fashion where it was effectively open source.
There were a few things that I wasn’t going to open source, especially the big industrial machine that I did as the last thing. Kept that in my back pocket, in case, there was an IP. All of the VORON stuff was always open source. That is what really drives the community and the community– I always believe that if it wasn’t for the vibrant community that has sprung around the VORON project, we wouldn’t be here today. We have super fans; we have a whole bunch of other people that just really like the project. We have a lot of passionate engineers in the community. And that helps keep us moving forward effectively.
Dale: When did it start? When did you, first of all, have this idea of, when your son or daughter was going to be born that you would you would work on your own printer, and then when did the kind of the community part of it take off? When did you share what you and others were doing? .
Maks: I posted the prototype for the printer in 2015. MZBOT was incorporated later that year. And then the first actual like VORON 3D printer plan, like the finished V1 was released in 2016 about three months after my daughter was born. Great timing. Let me tell you, having a newborn baby and then releasing a 3D printer that you don’t expect to be successful, that also takes some time and then trying to spin up a 3D printer company all at the same time. I do not recommend it.
Dale: Apart from the birth of your daughter, you were doing these two things in parallel, starting a company for 3D printing and releasing the VORON Design.
Maks: Basically, yeah.
Dale: So you are getting feedback from the community on the design and, Hey, it doesn’t work this way, or about that kind of thing. Yeah. As well as, oh, how do we move a product that we can sell?
Maks: Exactly. I was really the only one working on MZBOT.
Dale: So how long did these efforts run in parallel?
Maks: MZBOT burnt out around 2017, I believe, 2018. I did an initial run of a kit. The kits I did, I bought parts for 20 kits. I ended up making 18 kits out of all the parts that I got because some parts just don’t work, once you start doing QA and QC on them. Those took a while. I did a pre-order. They all sold out in, I think, two days.
Dale: Did you do a Kickstarter or just independent of that?
Maks: I do not like Kickstarter. I don’t believe in Kickstarter especially for things that it’s been used for these days. Back then, people already had a bad taste in their mouth when it comes to 3D printing and Kickstarter. I’m not going to get into details of that. But, yeah, I know, I financed all of it out of my own pocket. I believe I ended up losing money on all of them, but it was it kickstarted the community.
Dale: And were you the one-person assembler and everything else? Like you ordered it, you put it together, you shipped 18 kits?
Maks: I manufactured all the harnesses. I drilled all the beds out. I preassembled some parts. I printed all the parts. It was at home. At home in my garage. Yeah. Different garage than this one, but yeah.
Garage. Yeah. It was insane. And that was a thing where I’m like, I don’t know if I want to do the consumer printers because the, at that point you could get a super cheap printer on Amazon that wasn’t acrylic frame anymore. And In order to make a company work, I knew I was going to have to go into like industrial printers or pre-built machines basically, which is where VORON 24 came. Actually was born out of a conversation on Reddit with a guy that wanted to scale up VORON to 24 by 24 inches, which is insane. The VORONs at the time were using eight millimeter rods. VORON2 kind of concept was already; I had some sketches on a cardboard in the garage and I’m like, Hey, I got a better idea.
And then what happened was we got together with with the company that he worked for and I wrote up a proposal, did a bunch of sketches and design and stuff. And they effectively ended up financing the build. They got a discount, obviously, on the machine because it was a prototype.
But it was a fully built machine. All aluminum parts. I I learned CNC. It was a work of love, but it also kind almost broke me. That machine was a large reason why I decided to step away from it because that was my last ditch effort on how do I make money or how do I make the company successful, at least in the industrial space.
And what I realized was, I would have to quit my day job and move somewhere where cost of living wasn’t insane. For the reference I live in, like Bay Area California Bay Area, and cost of living here is driven by tech. Another thing was, do I choose to quit my day job with my tech salary and most importantly, insurance and pursue a venture that may not succeed. At the time, we were on the precipice of Creality, basically flooding the market with Enders and nobody knew how it was going to go. And how it went was companies like Printrbot went out of business, companies like Lulzbot got sold out, divested and moved to somewhere else. 2018 was not a good year for 3D printing in the United States, basically.
Dale: What were you trying to accomplish with the VORON that was different from the state of the art at the time?
Maks: I wanted to build a faster, better printer. I wanted it to be quiet mostly and basically solve the sound issue that we’re currently solving with Trinamic drivers because they weren’t on the market yet or weren’t working properly yet. Mechanically, effectively. So figuring out how to make a 3D printer quiet using things like DRV drivers or the basically the old, the same, almost the same drivers that the original MakerBots used. And that was a challenge. So how to make them fast and quiet. And in it, it, somewhere along the way I decided they should look nice too. The aesthetics of it came into play.
Dale: You have the MZBOT and you have an open source plan for VORON out there. And you decide you don’t want to really change your life enough to do that startup. And the economic climate was telling you, gosh, 3D printers that have been successful for years, those companies are shutting down. Why start up a new one?
And so it how did you formally shut it down? Or what was your thought process on that?
Maks: Oh, there was some conversations with my wife and there were some decisions to be made personally about what I was going to do with the company. In the end the only thing that I could think of was it needs to be, it needs to stay around as an open-source project.
So once MZBOT was effectively shut down –insert multiple paperwork, we needed a new name for our group cuz we didn’t have one for a couple months. So I came up with VORON Design cause Design, VORON; it made sense in my head. We threw up a website.
Dale: Actually, where’s the name come from? VORON. Is there significance to that?
Maks: It’s a Russian word for crow or raven. Depending on which part of Russia you’re from. I’m Russian. Russian born originally.
Maks: Yeah. I moved here when I was 15. It just sounded good. I figured I lucked out on Maks being my name and being easy to pronounce thankfully. Originally the printers were all black and it’s like black — crow..
Dale: That makes sense. Fantastic.
This is a remarkable transition from starting a company and then it becomes really an open source collaborative, right?
Maks: 100%. Yeah.
Dale: Yeah. And really putting energy into that, even though it’s not a company anymore, you’re still working on that.
Maks: Yes. It’s been almost seven years, six years. But I love doing what I was doing on the design side of things, and I really hated the business end of the spectrum. And I think pretty much everybody will tell you I’m a terrible businessman because I have way too strong ethics and naivete when it comes to what’s right. I think in the business world, if you really want to be successful, you have to check out your soul at the door sometimes and do what’s right for the business, not what’s right for the customers. And I just don’t believe in that. And that’s not, unfortunately, not a successful way to run a company in US these days.
I love designing and I love contributing and I love the community response that we get from every printer design that we have. We branched out, we open sourced everything basically. And the community started building and wasn’t the critical mass was when a certain pandemic hit, everybody got stuck at home.
And everybody was looking at their Ender 3 going, I wish that printed faster. I wonder if I can do something about it, because I have a whole bunch of time in my hands right now. And yeah 2020 was a huge explosion for us.
Dale: In some ways, this is a community about modifying printers as well as building them from scratch.
Maks: They’re, so we released in 2020 actually, we released a printer called Switchwire, which was a CoreXZprinter. We had to resurrect –there was a forum post from 2008, I believe, by some guy that did the CoreXZprinter, and he did it using capstan pulleys. And we were going to go that route and use like basically cables or wires, which is where that name comes from. We made an account on the forum and asked him a question, basically: Hey, where do you get these pullies and stuff? And amazingly he replied and said, don’t use the capstan, just use the belts because they’re cheap now. ,
That printer is basically the kickoff for all of the Ender 3 conversions for to Switchwire now. There’s a lot of people running VORON tool heads on their third-party printers. We have a humongous mod community where people modify their printers with VORON parts or they create new parts for VORON printers. Some of their stuff ends up in the mainline releases. It’s, the community is huge.
Dale: In a positive way, one of the things that’s great about having a business sometimes. , it’s the customers. I You get to know them and they really love what you do. So maybe you’ve taken the headache out of having a business, but you still have your customer community.
So what do you enjoy about that?
Maks: I think the customers.
Dale: And seeing what they do.
Maks: And it’s I think, Brook Drumm put it best like you guys trade in fun instead of money. And I 100% agree you, you take money out of the equation. You’re just stuck with what are you passionate about and what can you do if money was no object, to a certain extent, what would you do with the resources that we provide you? A lot of people use VORON as a jump off point. Oh, this is a great design, but I want this, actually. And they go in and they modify it and then they contribute back to the project using our open source methods basically.
And the project grows as a result of it. And then somebody posts a picture of it and I’m like, wow, that’s amazing.
Dale: You see them out in the wild too, right? And say, oh, that came from this, huh?
Maks: It’s never going to be not surreal to me looking at, walking through, for example, like MRRF last year and looking at people using the parts that I spent, days looking at in CAD, printed in real life using, being used by somebody else. And it’s surreal, it’s humbling. It’s amazing. It’s satisfying. .
Dale: What do you think the future holds?
Maks: As we touched on in our the meeting that we had for the Lunch Party. We thought we had the robot built and that’s all done. And then we made the robots go and then electronics caught up to it and started pushing, being able to push robots faster and then all of a sudden the robot have to be rethought –because all of a sudden, oh, you can move the gantry at 500 millimeters a second. So just flying back and forth. Okay, cool. We got that figured out. Now you get to the hot end part that’s actually spitting out plastic and we can’t melt the plastic fast enough. So then all of a sudden you have ultra high flow rates and trying to basically do the material science of melting plastic, which in itself is a whole new headache.
Talk to literally anybody at E3D and they will tell you all the nuances. I honestly don’t know where we’re going to go. I feel like we are at a critical point where we’re getting to a place where we have a design locked in that works. And we’re continuously iterating on it. We’re trying not to do things like, oh, let’s release a new version, just because it’s a new year.
That’s the tech companies of the world forced to do that. Just for the sake of new things, buy the new thing. Shiny. We don’t have that problem, so that’s great. We’re trying not to mess with things that work.
Dale: Maks, I’m just going to wrap, wrap up here. But really a pleasure talking to you and getting to know a little bit about you, your background, your journey here. I’d love to stay in touch. It’s fascinating. And good luck with VORON Design.
Maks: Thank you. Appreciate it.
You can learn more about the VORON printer in the SPEED DEMON issue of Make: Magazine, Volume 84.