Editor's Note: We've published an update to this story. Click here.
If you want to see innovation in the rapidly changing world of 3-D printing, look no further than Little Rock.
The process known as 3-D printing, whereby complex machines use heated plastic or other materials to build objects, has been around for many years, but the technology is just now beginning to settle to the point where it’s becoming accessible to “normal” people.
Companies like Makerbot have simplified the technology enough to where a printer might cost as little as $1,300. But one group in Arkansas has managed to create and market a printer that costs no more than $200.
QU-BD — pronounced “cubed” and standing for “Quintessential Universal Building Device” — was co-founded by Nathan Myers and David Mainard in Little Rock.
“When David and I met, he was running a machine shop,” Myers said. “We shared a parking lot. He was a couple bay doors down from me.”
Myers had experience in building and selling by way of peddling race car components out of his garage, and he had dabbled in real estate development and investment banking. Mainard had worked in machining with Halliburton for 35 years and already owned some machining equipment.
The pair decided to “seize the day,” meeting over a whiteboard to brainstorm.
What turned out to be their first outing actually had nothing to do with 3-D printers. Instead, it was a miniature black powder cannon that fires BB pellets.
Inspired by a YouTube video, the pair established a company, Pocket Artillery LLC, and began selling the cannons for about $35 each through Amazon.com.
They were able to rent space at a warehouse in southwest Little Rock that once was home to an Anheuser-Busch operation.
Because they already had machines and skills to work with, there was very little overhead. “The only costs we had were rent,” Myers said. “In this building, being that it’s horribly ugly, antiquated, the lighting is bad and there are leaks in the roof — there are 14 right now — the rent’s cheap. So that’s really worked out for us.”
It helped, too, Myers said, that he didn’t have any debt.
“It was very slow going at first, taking all the money we could get from cannons and reinvesting in raw material to make more cannons,” Myers said.
But sales soon picked up.
“In October of 2011, for the Christmas orders, we had to make about 1,400 of them,” Myers said. “We weren’t expecting to make nearly that much. We were expecting to sell 10 to 15 of them.”
Myers and Mainard spent long nights building the cannons, employing family and friends to pack the tiny firearms for shipping. Eventually the cannons were featured in Wired Magazine, Guns & Ammo Magazine and the Comedy Central TV show “Tosh.0,” all bringing a huge spike in sales for the novelty item.
With that project a success, Myers and Mainard started looking toward the next step.
“David and my strategy was, and still is, that we weren’t trying to make a lot of money on one product,” Myers said. “Instead of having one product making $200,000, we’d rather have 20 products making $20,000 each.”
For their next product, the pair was looking into rapid prototyping through 3-D printing services like Shapeways, but the cost was very high — leading them to buy two of their own printers.
“We realized that they were lacking in a lot of features like the quality of output,” Myers said.
Building on that, the pair figured out how to manufacture components of other brands of 3-D printers. Early on, Myers was able to replicate an extruder part that worked with Makerbot 3-D printers and sell it at a much lower cost than Makerbot could. When QU-BD initially contacted Makerbot about the part, “they weren’t even interested in even getting a quote from us,” Myers said. “But the community loved the open source design, so we took that idea and ran with it.”
They soon had raised $74,000 on Kickstarter to make an extruder part that could be used on many leading brands’ models.
“That was what really launched us into 3-D printing,” he said. “Now we carry parts for all major 3-D printing companies out there.”
In 2013, QU-BD took the next step by taking orders for its own brand of 3-D printers.
“We’d learned a lot from our customers,” Myers said. “What’s working well, what’s not working well, what areas need improvement.”
He said the solution was a printer that could be bought cheaply, so customers could decide if they wanted to get further into the field or not.
The One Up and Two Up printers soon debuted during QU-BD’s second Kickstarter campaign. The printers retailed for $199 and $279. The One-Up can create objects up to a 4-inch volume, and the Two-Up has a 7-inch build volume.
Now QU-BD also sells 6-inch and 9-inch volume printers under its Revolution line that retail for $1,000 and $1,300. Additionally, the company makes a $1,999 model that can perform light-duty milling of metal materials.
By comparison, the new professional-grade iD3 inDimension 12 printer can create a 12-inch object and costs about $4,000. The upcoming Makerbot Replicator Mini, billed as a starter machine, costs $1,375 and can create an object that’s 10 inches by 10 inches by 12 inches.
QU-BD raised about $413,000 on its One Up campaign, and has since been shipping the printer and its big brother to customers around the globe.
The One Up can be sold so cheaply partly because its build speed is fairly slow, but mainly because it arrives as a kit. But this business model comes with deep customer service issues, as the printers have a long path to travel between being shipped from Little Rock to becoming a fully functioning device in a customer’s house.
On the One Up’s Kickstarter page, alongside positive reviews, some backers have reported that they’ve received broken parts or their printer wasn’t working.
Many customers report their printers don’t work when, Myers said, often they are not using the machines correctly. “If you input the wrong temperature, the extruder won’t work,” he said. “It will either burn the plastic or the plastic won’t melt.”
He said it’s been tough making sure the kits go out with all parts included. The company uses a jeweler’s scale to weigh the kits before shipping, but it’s possible that some tiny parts get lost, and that is reflected in the comments of Kickstarter backers who received incomplete kits.
QU-BD replaces lost parts free of charge, Myers said.
Other times, buyers modify QU-BD printers before assembling them. “A lot of times people are pushing the envelope when they don’t have the basics down,” Myers said. “That’s the one thing that we’ve found in buying competitors’ 3-D printers is that they all work. We see reports that brand X, Y or Z doesn’t work — it does work, but you have to follow the instructions and have a little bit of mechanical intuition.”
But beyond these difficulties, the endeavor seems to have been successful for QU-BD.
The company now has five full-time employees and Myers said sales for QU-BD in 2014 should approach $3 million. Some of the company’s clients have been Google, Microsoft, 3M and Xerox, as well as a host of universities, including Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and Brown University in Providence, R.I., and also the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and the University of Central Arkansas.
Myers said what QU-BD is doing could have the potential to change the face of the industry.
“Up until what we are doing, you couldn’t get a 3-D printer for less than the cost of an Xbox,” he said. “Being able to have a professionally made 3-D printer, even if it’s a bit slow, I think that’s a game-changer, especially since it’s made in the U.S.A.”