By Eric Peterson | Sep 10, 2022
3D printers and contract printing services
Spun out of Engineers Without Borders at NASA's Johnson Space Center, re:3D aims to democratize additive manufacturing.
Before the company launched, Snabes was working on a project in Rwanda with co-founder and CTO Matthew Fiedler. "It struck me when I was there that the people were really independent and desired to not be so dependent on long supply chains or outside aid," she says.
Fiedler subsequently started using an open-source 3D printer for various projects and saw it as a potential solution for many problems in Rwanda and elsewhere. "This was a game-changer as patents expired," says Snabes. "Anyone could have access."
"What would it look like if those communities we're invested in had their own printer?" she muses. "They're not going to be making a Yoda head or iPhone case. We had this opportunity to basically get feedback, and we heard about lower-limb prosthetics and tools and birthing stools."
The idea for 3D-printing composting toilets also arose. "We loosely started talking about a toilet-sized 3D printer that would be open source," says Snabes. "Printers at that time on the industrial segment were really cost-prohibitive, and then we learned the purchasing threshold was about $10,000 for government credit cards. We started to have basic form requirements and to do market research without really knowing it."
Fiedler built a prototype for an affordable, large-format printer, and then he and Snabes launched a Kickstarter campaign at SXSW. "We were funded in one day," says Snabes. "We were in 23 countries immediately. Then we were like, 'Whoa, this is like a real company.'"
Nonetheless, it took about four years to stand up a printer factory for full-scale production. As of mid-2022, the company's Gigabot printers start at $11,950 assembled (or $8,950 as a parts kit) and are about two feet on a side, a scale that's about 30 times the largest desktop counterpart. Larger-scale Terabot and Exabot printers start at $34,400 and $85,000, respectively, and an even larger-scale Gigalab is in the works.
re:3D is also pushing the envelope on the feedstock side. The Gigabot X can print with plastic pellets, flake, and regrind. The long-term vision is to develop printers that can print directly from garbage. "Originally, we thought that the feedstock would be made from waste," says Snabes.
"We say, 'Our printer never expires,' which is unique positioning compared to other products," she adds. "Any improvement that's released or evolution of the printer, that's available as a patch to upgrade to the current customer, so they're not locked in with one version and have regrets if they don't have the latest and greatest."
re:3D manufactures in-house at a 10,000-square-foot facility in Houston, and the overwhelming majority of components are sourced domestically. "We buy the raw materials and do the fabrication in-house," says Snabes. "Then we ship from there -- we don't use resellers."
Also offering contract printing for large-scale parts, the bootstrapped company has been "profitable since day one on Kickstarter," says Snabes. "We reinvest that profit either into the product or increasing the salaries of the team."
"We have continued to grow our operations, we have continued to grow our team, and we have continued to expand our portfolio," she adds. "There are very few 3D-printing companies that have gotten to our scale without a VC."
And re:3D has also held onto the social mission that underpinned the startup nearly a decade ago. "We continue to give away one printer for every 100 that we deliver," says Snabes.
Challenges: "Supply chain has been a real pain in the arse," says Snabes. "We're all competing for the same components. Some of the components in Gigabot are in other hardware systems as well, so everybody's increasing the prices on things, which is tough, and we've tried not to, but we will have to. Then shipping is just super erratic, and that's increasing all the time."
Lead times for a re:3D printer have ticked up to 12 weeks. "We hope in the next month or two we can get it down to four weeks or start drop-shipping again, but that's been brutal," she adds.
Another challenge: "Recruiting talent and preserving our team has been really difficult."
Opportunities: For 3D printing in production, Snabes forecasts automotive will emerge in the wake of aerospace's adoption. "It is not uncommon now for us to cut a quote for multiple units to be used in a full-scale production operation," she says. "Most of the sales today are focused on production applications. I think defense was everybody's bread and butter for a while, and federal agencies, like national research labs, plus schools. Now you're seeing a big uptake in automotive for production applications."
Another selling point: "We are made in the USA. There are very few 3D-printing OEMs that do the production in the U.S."
Needs: "We are hiring for almost every role in the company," says Snabes. "The biggest need that everyone shares is trade skills. It's unfortunate, but the U.S. has outsourced it and has not prioritized trade skills or celebrated them. Machinists, assembly technicians, applications engineers -- there's not a lot of programs in the U.S. focused on training for those skill sets, so you end up almost apprenticing internally."
re:3D is also in need of a 20,000-square-foot facility on a couple of acres, give or take. "We're looking to buy or build a building," says Snabes. "Right now, we are realigning and considering moving the Houston factory to Austin and combining forces there."