Three-dimensional printers are no longer just for hobbyists. Architects, designers, machinists, and toymakers are using them. But for some, traditional 3D printers are too small. And for others, the large industrial ones are too expensive, sometimes costing hundreds of thousands of US dollars.
IEEE Member Samantha Snabes’ startup, re:3D, in Austin, Texas, is changing that. Re:3D makes the Gigabot, an industrial-strength printer whose smallest model produces objects as big as 212,000 cubic centimeters—about 30 times bigger than what leading desktop 3D printers produce. Gigabots have printed parts for airplanes, drones, and prosthetics.
Gigabots vary in size and price. The smallest, Gigabot 3+, can turn out items that are 59 cm by 60 cm by 60 cm. It costs US $8,550 and is sold as a kit. The company’s largest fully assembled printer is the XLT 3+, which sells for $16,995 and prints items that are 59 cm by 76 cm by 90 cm.
Gigabots print with common thermoform plastics that melt at 320°C.
“The printer is an affordable industrial tool for helping to solve problems locally,” Snabes says. “Our users often create their own designs using a wide variety of tools including scanners to capture details and free downloadable files for printing designs.”
Snabes refers to re:3D as a for-profit social enterprise. It’s committed to giving a percentage of its earnings to social-impact organizations. For every 100 printers sold, the company donates one to a group that needs the machine to benefit its community.
During re:3D’s annual GigaPrize contest, individuals and groups worldwide submit videos describing how they could use a 3D printer to make a difference. The winner is selected by judges and online votes. Good Works Studio, a social enterprise in Houston, received a Gigabot to print insulated floors for emergency shelters. The 2014 recipients were the Human Needs Project of San Rafael, Calif., and its partner, the Tunapanda Institute of Nairobi, Kenya, for a machine to print children’s shoes as well as to print fittings for PVC pipes bringing potable water to a Nairobi neighborhood.
COLLEAGUES WITH A MISSION
Snabes launched the company in 2013. She and her cofounders, IEEE Member Matthew Fiedler and Ernie Prado, had been working for NASA’s Johnson Space Center, in Houston. She was the deputy strategist for the center’s Space Life Sciences Directorate and Human Health and Performance Center.
Snabes and Fiedler had volunteered with Engineers Without Borders–NASA Johnson Space Center for more than three years in Nicaragua and Rwanda, where they witnessed challenges faced by underserved communities.
“Unemployment was so high, and everyone depended on expensive imported goods,” Snabes says. “Yet the people we met were innovative and creative. We felt they should be able to create their own solutions to the problems they faced if only they could afford the right tools.”
At the time, the maker movement and 3D printers were becoming popular. It didn’t take long to come up with the idea for an inexpensive printer that was larger than the popular MakerBot desktop models.
“We found that $10,000 was the most that NGOs and small- and medium-size organizations could spend for an industrial tool,” Snabes says. To afford the printer, some organizations hold fund-raisers or apply for grants. Re:3D offers a 10 percent discount to schools, nonprofits, and makerspaces.
To help finance a printer it had yet to design, re:3D applied for funding from Start-Up Chile, which in 2013 provided $40,000, equity-free, to start the company. The only catch was the company had to be located in Santiago. Snabes quit her job and moved there to set up an office while Fiedler continued at NASA and in his spare time built the prototype of what would become the Gigabot. After two months, he unveiled the Gigabot at Start-Up Chile’s SXSW booth, in Austin, where the two launched a Kickstarter campaign. After the show, Fiedler flew the machine to Santiago. Re:3D continued working on Gigabot and ultimately came up with an open-source industrial 3D printer that was relatively easy to ship, assemble, and use.
There was a glitch, however. “We learned early on that manufacturing and shipping the machines from Chile was complicated and expensive,” Snabes says. “To keep the price of Gigabot low, we decided to return to the United States and do most of the manufacturing and fabrication in-house.” By buying many parts from U.S. suppliers, they avoided duty and shipping costs they might have incurred in Chile.
Development of Gigabot 1.0 was supported through that 2013 Kickstarter campaign, whose goal was to raise another $40,000. They reached that threshold in a little more than a day and ultimately raised $250,000. Since then, the company has raised about $300,000 more through a second Kickstarter campaign, accelerator funding, and pitch grants.
Re:3D set up its Austin headquarters in 2015, after establishing a manufacturing facility in Houston. It’s across the street from the Johnson Space Center, where a number of the startup’s 20 employees once worked.
“Several companies in Texas have Gigabots, and their application is creating additional jobs,” Snabes says. Gigabots can now be found in 53 countries, she says.
Snabes ultimately wants to eliminate the need to source the filament and instead use pelletized thermoform plastics and shredded reclaimed plastic waste. She’s on a “plastic garbage hunt,” as she calls it.
“We could order recycled plastic pellets online,” she says, “but we’d prefer to experiment with ways for companies and organizations to use their own waste.”
With so much research ahead, re:3D is hiring. It’s looking for machinists, software engineers, and service technicians.
This article appears in the September 2017 print issue as “3D Printer Manufacturer Helps Customers See the Big Picture.”