How we came up with an idea of the Buccaneer 3D printer.
Posted by Brendan Goh on 03-03-14
This post was published on Kickstarter and previously was only accessible to our backers.
We are posting it here unedited.
Brendan here, today’s update is going to be slightly different from the usual. I decided to use my free time to write down our journey thus far from inception till today, to serve as a review for us and also to share with you the path we walk. Hopefully from the things I share, you may gain some insights in running a hardware startup to bolster your knowledge if you ever do attempt one.
Please take note, I run OPs for the company so what I share will have a more business/operations slant to it rather than say a super dig down into engineering technicals. The beginning takes us back a year to my final year in university…..
The Beginning (Some time a year plus ago)
At the beginning there were only two of us, me and You Jun. We were running some projects for the school and had to frequently prototype our designs. Having paid a hefty sum each time and realizing that it was a terrible way to do many iterations we decided to try this new fangled 3D printers that had just sprung up.
Through a friend of a friend, we met Roger who was taking Business studies (but is at heart a tinkerer) and asked if he wanted to play with this machine and try it out. He happily agreed, eager to get his hands on new tech. We saved up $1000 ish dollars and bought an Ultimaker.
We were amazed at the all wood frame and it felt so… well, it just felt odd holding a wooden “box” which had an LED screen. Setting it up was hell. I have nightmares from Chemistry exams when I was young but it was nothing compared to this.
We struggled for a few days to get everything set up and working. Working, or so we thought. It printed noodles. Then we looked at the settings and boom there were hundreds of them and we had no idea which one was causing the problems.
Long story short, after tinkering it with for a good while, it finally made its first print, a half solid, half noodle cube. While it admittedly was a “failed” print, even seeing half a cube was amazing. I mean, before this tech came to the home, when was the last time you saw an item come out of a machine that sat on your desktop? Let me clarify, an item that came out of a machine that didn’t cost more than a car.
At long last we succeeded and our black Yoda came out beautifully. We still have that print, that 1/20 prints that actually worked. Then, we had an idea.
Originally we intended to set up a 3D printing company, like a small Shapeways in our university to help students making prototypes for engineering or business competitions do so at an affordable rate. After a couple of jobs though we realized, one, how unreasonable some people can be (oh designers we feel your pain) and two, it took forever to get that machine to work.
We then spoke to Roger’s professor (Neo, who is on our original founding team) about this. He told us we had an interesting idea at hand but running a service business is un-scalable. He suggested why don’t we just build a better printer and sell that instead. It seemed like a brilliant idea at that time and we all felt we could make it happen.
Lesson Learned: Always build a scalable business.
Roger and I were sitting for lunch one day and I said, “We have to come up with a company name or else we can’t incorporate.” After some back and forth, I said, ” Let’s be pirates! Pirates are pretty cool and the heart of the technology kinda leans that way. Kinda.”
Lesson Learned: Pirates are cool.
Pirate3D was born!
During one of our company meetings (just the 4 founders) we talked about what we want to achieve as a 3D printer company and what we would always strive for. They were:
1) To bring an affordable 3D printer into the market so that everyone who wanted to, could enjoy this technology
2) To provide the very best that can be provided at our price point. We had to earn some money to sustain ourselves but we didn’t need to drive Maseratis. To always be fair to our customers on pricing and never to gouge them on anything, even consumables.
3) To build a machine that everyone could use. We did not want to target the “pros”. This machine was for the everyday person and kid who wanted to play with this technology.
First matter of business was to build a prototype so we could raise seed funding for our idea. This posed a problem because none of us had many tools and access to machines necessary for this. We originally approached an educational institute to see if we could “rent” their machinery.
After many weeks of delays thanks to bureaucracy they finally came up with an agreement. Every single time we wanted to turn on their machines, we had to pay upfront and for X fixed hours even though we did not use it. It amounted to a hefty sum along the lines of a few thousand every time we wanted to fire up their machines to build something.
We of course rejected them straight out and had to look for an alternative because time was ticking ever steadily away.
Lesson Learned: Educational institutes are great partners if you have 10 years to develop a product. There is no, lean, in an educational institute. Oh, and have a ton of money to blow.
After some searching we came across a decent prototyping house. They seemed confident that they would be able to handle our technology and help us to create a 3D printer that could be sold to the mass market.
They had many great suggestions and we saw their facilities and decided that they had the capabilities to do it. Some members of their staff are highly experienced with 20+ years in industrial design and they had a wide range of skills from electrical to mechanical which would shore up our scarce resources.
After much planning and discussions, they built the very first version of the Buccaneer. It was nothing like what we imagined, that huge monstrosity was so ghastly… (so ghastly that we chucked it instead of keeping it as a heirloom). It was a terrible machine that sat on top of a large chunky plastic platform and it ran terribly. We tried out a system that was close to a Makibox but the vibrations and unreliability just killed it.
Their work style was very old school. Build one part, get it right and then move on to the next. We however believed that the system should be generated as a whole. We quickly realized that at the speed they were plodding along, we would have a product in 2020 and it would still be bad. No knowledge pool was being built up and we realized that their staff could not really grasp 3D printing technology and we had to sit there and spoon feed them designs and they would just CAD it out for us and build it in their prototyping lab.
We also felt that we were a small “concern” to them, pretty sure that they had much bigger dollar projects in hand, we were frequently left queuing up to use their machines.
All was not lost though, we managed to come up with an extremely rudimentary prototype for our seed round.
Lesson Learned: Always do your things in house. No matter how much “cost” savings you think you may get, the chances of you finding a good contractor is 1/100. Find a proper hardware accelerator / partner to work together with you on your product. Never ever ever go through consultants and prototyping houses if you can help it.
December rolled around and it was time to see if our idea would work. Lugging along our prototype to a potential investor we sat down and shared our vision of a 3D printer for everyone. This was before there was a ton of media hype so they were not entirely sure of the technology.
We printed something simple, a couple of Lego look alikes and they loved it. Half an hour later we agreed on the terms and we had the funding slated to come in a month (we raised $589k on this round).
Lesson Learned: There will always be someone out there who believes in your idea, raising money is possible for everyone. If you are in hardware, make sure you raise a hefty amount to last you through the development phase.
Web and Graphics Consultants
Excited with the prospect of our dream coming to life, we started looking around for manpower to bolster our team. We were very focused on Engineering at that juncture and needed someone to build our website, our library and also design general assets such as our logo. Unfortunately at that time, there was a severe dearth of “web” people.
Our prototyping house suggested we work with a couple of consultants who were able to help us with electronics and also with the web stuff. We met up and began to work with them shortly.
The initial work they produced looked like a monkey slapped stuff together in Photoshop for the website. You Jun who is really picky of his graphical assets was livid and we were very disappointed with their work. We asked them to do some revisions to this.
Their electronics guy was working with the R2C2 and the Arduino and exploring how to utilize that for our needs.
Lesson Learned: Consultants are a bad choice. If you had a team to scout for a ton of consultants and weed them through a stringent process, you may find a few good ones. Even some who are “suggested” by work acquaintances may not be good. Bottom line is, you aren’t their only concern. Always go dedicated in house team.
We realized if you want to do a hardware start-up you need a mechanical type engineer who hopefully can do industrial design, an electrical guy, a marketing/sales guy who can do a wide aspect of start up type marketing and sales driving and a graphics assets/designer type guy who can build websites and all. For finances and business strategy, you can learn and do it together as a team.
January – February 2013
Excuses and more Excuses
Things weren’t going too well. Work at the prototyping house was moving along so very slowly and they just were unable to see how to make a great 3D printer at a low price point. Insistent upon their philosophy of designing and making one part at a time, X-Y, Z, etc etc and coupled with an ineptitude to make a world class product ,we knew what had to be done.
Electronics wasn’t moving at all. The guy couldn’t get the R2C2 to work how we wanted it to and this was due to a severe lack of support on the board. The web was even worse these people did close to nothing to improve their work.
We were aiming for an April 2013 Kickstarter launch but it obviously was not going to happen. We took all our development and dropped all these consultants admittedly it was a pretty…. no it was a very low time for all of us but what we did not know is how amazing March was going to be.
Lesson Learned: Consultants are a bad choice. Don’t do it son. Not on a tight/lean budget anyway. Always stick by your guns and if people slip deadlines for no good reason, drop them immediately. Your success is more important than being “nice” to people who don’t give two hoots about your dream.
Hope you all enjoyed the short read! To be continued in part 2 when I have the time =)