Commercial goals pale in comparison to its vision of a Post-Scarcity Economy
But first the company, whose founders include a Malaysian, has to deliver low-cost consumer 3D printer
A 3D printer targeted at consumers for US$347, the cheapest yet in the market, caught the imagination of consumers and recently exceeded its target of raising US$100,000 on crowd-funding site Kickstarter.
By June 30, Pirate 3DP Pte Ltd ended up raising US$1.4 million from 3,520 people who have ordered the sleek and silver home printer which will come to them fully assembled and calibrated, as opposed to the self-assembly kits current consumer 3D printers come as.
Malaysians will be interested in this simply because one of the founders of the Singapore-based startup, Roger Chang, is a Malaysian who studied in the island republic.
And while a lot has been written about Pirate 3DP and its promise of building the lowest cost consumer 3D printer in the market, known as the Buccaneer, Chang and his founders are motivated by a greater goal than possibly becoming ridiculously wealthy.
They see their low-cost 3D printer as a step towards the realisation of a Post-Scarcity Economy where hunger and needs are eliminated because people can ‘make’ their own food and products.
“I know it sounds far-fetched, like science fiction,” acknowledges Chang, filling up the silence as I tried to wrap my mind around the picture he had just painted.
Actually the science fiction part is where Chang explains that because carbohydrates are made of atoms, future 3D printers (presumably made by Pirate 3DP) will be powerful enough to rearrange atoms, able to work at the atomic and molecular levels and thus make food. Their 3D printer, Buccaneer, is the seed for this future technology.
“We recognise this and it influences our corporate culture,” says Chang.
He thinks the consumer 3D printer market is set to explode and create the next Microsoft or Apple of the world, and he hopes Pirate 3DP is among those riding on the boom.
However, “our corporate philosophy is not just about making a lot of money but to move towards enabling this Post-Scarcity Economy. If we become the dominant force in this 3D printer market, we can use our financial success to bring about this change to the world that we envision,” he says.
This vision though is, as Chang says, “very far into the future, but we should move towards it,” adding that if Pirate 3DP can become the dominant force in consumer 3D printing, it plans on changing the world.
But first it has to deliver on its promise to making the cool and affordable printer it has promised to the Kickstarter community. And this involves dealing with current worldly limitations like component parts, manufacturing, ensuring quality control in the China plants that will be making the printers, and dealing with supply chain issues.
Born from ‘that blasted machine’
The seeds of Pirate 3DP began when Chang and his cofounders had a frustrating experience with a 3D printer they had ordered and assembled themselves. This was early last year when they decided they could be a services company, making components or prototypes for customers in Singapore.
The printer kit had to be ordered from overseas and was not only expensive but also complicated to assemble. Even worse, the technology was just not ready for prime time and the printer kept breaking down every few hours.
“We spent many months of toil working on the blasted machine,” recalls Chang.
Naturally, in the process, they learned a lot about 3D printers and realised they could probably make a better one. “But we shelved the idea as we were just a bunch of kids working from a bedroom,” says Chang. It seemed like a pipe dream.
But the idea of building a consumer 3D printer came to the forefront again when Chang approached his professor from National University of Singapore, Dr Neoh Kok Beng, to see if they could design prototypes for Neoh’s students. Neoh taught a course in new product development, which Chang had taken before.
Neoh however quickly realised the young team were on to something bigger after listening to their frustrations with the 3D printer and how they would have built one.
Instead of Chang selling him their prototype services, Neoh suggested they just go ahead and build the better 3D printer they thought of doing. Plus, it was a much more scalable business, he pointed out.
Neoh also promised to bring his own network and expertise to the table, including funding and the engineers they needed.
“Suddenly, the pipe dream had a way of coming to life,” says Chang. This was in July, 2012. By August, they had incorporated Pirate 3DP with Neoh, who is also a cofounder in another startup, AWAK Technologies, roped in as a cofounder.
Neoh is Associate Professor (Adjunct) at the NUS Business School and Faculty of Engineering, where he teaches Technology Transfer & Commercialisation, Design Thinking and New Product Development.
He is also on the Faculty of Innovation for Economic Development (IFED) at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.
One factor behind the quick decision was their sense that it was a matter of time before someone else built the printer they were dreaming of. “We felt we had to get to market fast,” says Chang.
Interestingly, their fear was not over the large printer players but other hungry and innovative startups out there. Probably the best known of the existing consumer 3D printer startups is MakerBot Replicator, whose product is in its fourth iteration and costs US$2,800.
Meanwhile, as Chang puts it, large companies are entrenched in their way of operating and will not be willing to divert resources to a market that is not there yet. Plus, the margins on industrial printers were much more lucrative for them.
Yet he acknowledges that being acquired by a global player is one possible exit on the table, notwithstanding their admirable goal of disrupting the laws of supply and demand with their post-scarcity vision.
Having earlier raised S$589,000 (US$467,240) in February from Red Dot Ventures Pte Ltd, an early stage fund in Singapore run by Malaysian-born Leslie Loh, the US$1.4 million raised from Kickstarter affords Pirate 3DP the luxury of not having to look for funding to manufacture its printer.
Any funding it looks for now will go towards building a more advanced printer and to vertically integrate its manufacturing capabilities. Chang says the company will possibly be looking for between S$5 million and S$10 million (US$4 million and US$8 million).
There are also plans to build an ecosystem around the Buccaneer, but Chang prefers not to talk about how the company will go about doing that. Whatever the future holds for Pirate 3DP and its grand vision, this is one startup worth following.
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