Thursday, September 25, 2014

How the other half lives

TL:DR If you don't have a 3D printer, 3D printing is a lot harder than I thought it would be.

A convergence of sorts occurred that motivated me to produce a print the way someone without a 3D printer would do it, and I have to say to anyone I poo-poohed the challenges of 3D printing without owning a 3D printer, I am David Tennant sorry. If you own a 3D printer the perceived cost for making something is next to zero. But if you don't, I will never argue again with someone who says 3D printing is expensive and inaccessible.

After sharing my CoinAge hard case on Board Game Geek, the most unlikely event I could have imagined happened. Rodney from Watch It Played, the nicest guy in board games, contacted me asking if he could get one and feature it in a video. Since Rodney lives over the northern border I decided to use this as an opportunity to test out the use of 3D printing as a distributed manufacturing platform, and maybe save myself some shipping, or so I thought.

Unfortunately Rodney isn't particularly near any 3D printers, according to MakeXYZ. But we did find James Reeve who agreed to ship it to him, though I had to talk him down in price a little bit. It helped that I knew the volume of the material and that it would print successfully. So much of the price that I charge on MakeXYZ is to cover the potential catastrophic failure that so often accompanies untested models.

After that process was under way I decided to see what other option existed for Rodney and others to get it 3D printed. So I used google and discovered that the University of Prince Edward Island had a 3D printer. So I wrote them there and asked if it might be available to the public, possibly for future projects. It took a while to track down anyone who knew about their 3D printer. For a while I was worried that theirs was another one of the many inactive 3D printers placed with good intent. But eventually I got a hold of a guy and apparently they do it and apparently it's very reasonable in price. Doesn't help me this time, but maybe next time Rodney wants something.

Then I heard about UPS and Stratasys partnering to offer 3D printing services in limited areas. Nowhere near me or Rodney, but I decided to send them the hard case model and get a quote. After a day of waiting they finally got back to me and told me that it would be a mere $183 to print this palm sized piece. I went back and forth with them trying to figure out why the price was so high, jumping through hoops because they were unable to handle a simple operation like separating pieces form a mesh and reorienting a model, and in the end the cost was still over $100.

Word to the wise, UPS store. This venture is going to flop hard if you don't make the experience easier for your customers and lower your prices, like a lot. Because anyone else would have quietly walked away the moment you flashed $183 for 31 cubic cm of plastic. I expect my prints from you to be gold plated at that price. You've invested in 45 3D printers across America but running them this way is making things worse for everyone. Your printers are going to be inactive, and the public is going to be assured that 3D printing isn't for them.

So now that I've been educated about how the other half lives two thing are going to happen. One will be my next post, tips about how to navigate this quagmire. The second, from now on on MakeXYZ and 3DHubs I will charge no more than $0.35/cm^3 if I can reasonably tell the model has a good chance of success (I reserve the right to charge more for the chuckle heads who send me challenging prints who refuse to be educated, though). Because any more than that is just unreasonable from a customer perspective. I see that now. And maybe if I'm only charging that I'll have more work. Maybe a lot of little jobs, but more of them, and that's good.

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