By SUSAN LAHEY
Reporter with Silicon Hills News
They were a group of space geeks, scientists, engineers and artists who met at NASA but, because of cutbacks in the U.S. space program, considered they might never get a chance to slip the bonds of earth’s orbit. So instead, they started a company to tackle two huge problems in the third world, the ability to make things communities needed, and the ability to recycle waste.That was the beginning of re:3D, a company that makes the Gigabot, a 3D printer that prints items as large as eight cubic feet—about the size of a toilet or a dorm refrigerator—for under $6,000. The original idea was to make it so easy anybody could use it, and to figure out how use recycled materials as feedstock.
“A group of us were going to be astronauts,” said co-founder Samantha Snabes. “With the space program being limited it was like…now what? A lot of NASA is about education and connecting with the community. So we started talking about how technology can be an accelerant for individuals like ourselves to explore and create.”
Before re:3D, Snabes had gotten degrees in biology, international studies and Hispanic studies at the University of Michigan. She’d also received master’s degrees in supply chain management and international business, and worked as a research affiliate for the Digital Media Collaboratory at the Center for Agile Technology at the University of Texas. She then was a research associate with Aastrom Biosciences (now Vericel), which focuses on patient specific cellular therapies. Her first startup, BioFlow Technology was tissue culture device that allowed stem cells to grow in three dimensions for over a year while maintaining regenerative potential. Then she was recruited to Johnson Space Center/Space Life Sciences where she met her co-founders: Engineer Matt Fiedler, Design Engineer Katy Jeremko, Technologist Chris Gerty, and later Lara Jeremko who manages private equity at UT and is an angel investor.
“Chris saw that there was this gap where design, technology and social impact weren’t linking up and we started to talk about it….”
They settled on building an inexpensive 3D printer that could build human-sized objects. And while they were at it, they thought, what if they could convert old plastic bottles and other trash into feedstock?
Almost as soon as they cooked up the idea, they applied for StartUp Chile and were picked as one of 105 companies out of 1,400 applications. In Santiago they learned a lot about how 3D printing could address the needs of emerging countries. They also won a $40,000 seed round.
In 2013, they launched a Kickstarter campaign hoping to raise $40,000. Twenty four hours later, they’d raised $250,000. Investments since then have included a $100,000 investment from Indie.VC, and a $50,000 Kickstarter campaign in March of 2015 for their newly designed Gigabot.
What they ultimately came up with was an open-source 3D printer designed to be modular–easy to ship, assemble and use–with an open source community that would make constant improvements on hardware, software and the electrical components.
Culture, Jeremko said, is shifting to an ethos that eschews collecting “stuff” just for the sake of having it. With 3D printing, she suggested, someone could have a nomadic lifestyle, creating furniture, utensils, shoes and other things they need, then melt them down and restart in another place, rather than throw them away or have to haul them along. At the same time, if someone wanted to build something to last a lifetime, with a unique and personal design, they can do that too.
“You could put the story of the object at the bottom…embed a signature into the file, and you’ve got something very lightweight and structurally sturdy and strong.”
In another scenario, Snabes said, a community of refugees or people displaced by natural disaster could use the printers to begin creating objects they need and starting a shared economy, especially once the recycling aspect gets stronger. They recently gave a Gigabot to Tochukwu, the man behind 3D Nigeria, which is looking to implement 3D printing centers to “unleash the creative potential, reduce poverty, and encourage bottom-up growth through localized entrepreneurship.”
Recycling waste has turned out to be a bigger challenge than re:3D originally imagined, though the company has recently had some success and other startups have begun shredding ABS and PLA plastic and extruding filaments for feedstock. They also learned early on that the only want to effectively produce really large 3D printed items was with a heated bed in the printer so the bottom wouldn’t harden too quickly and damage the item being made.
“We’re constantly improving it and we know customers don’t want to drop 5K and not get the features and improvements on the next version,” Snabes said. “We want to make this a community. We also want you to make the bot your own, and make it customizable.” Jeremko said they work closely with members of their Kickstarter community on modifications in software, hardware or the electrical package.
Artist Micah Ganske said he read about re:3D’s Kickstarter campaign and instantly backed it. “I thought, I don’t know how I’m going to afford this but I’m going to figure it out because I need this in my life.” Ganske was their first North American client and, he said, he “Instantly destroyed,” his Gigabot.
“Printing at that scale is so different from building on a 10-inch platform. You have to make sure the bed is level, the height is adjusted. There’s only so much wiggle room.” So he adjusted the machine, using the calculations he would apply to calibrating a 10-inch machine, then went to dinner for three hours. In printing, he said, there are ridges that push up. And when the bed is that big, by the time the next layer goes down, the first layer can be rock hard. After creating a few of these layers, the ridges rose up and ripped the heads right off.
“That was the saddest call I ever had to make,” Ganske said. “Of course I bought new heads, but anything that’s happened since then–like occasionally a cable will go bad—they will send you a change.” Building at the scale he does saves him a huge amount of time on sanding and assembling his pieces.
Shawn Fitzpatrick is another customer who has worked in design of industrial plants such as smelters, mines and mills. “With industrial plants…nobody has ever actually had 3D modeling. They all just used drawings…. If you had that it would like when you look at a plant virtually you can see and adjust interferences far better than in 2D. With 3D printing you could actually have a physical scale model of the plant you could take to clients or board meetings that didn’t cost thousands of man hours to build.”
But that’s just one idea. He’s actually not sure what he’s going to do with his Gigabot. Reinvent himself somehow. But the British Columbian remembers when the first fax machine was installed in the small town he lived in and everybody in town wanted to use it. He figures that’s where 3D printing is headed, fast.
The Gigabot, Snabes said, was created to “Democratize access and inspire local solutions.” So far, so good.