Moscow startup aims to make 3-D printing widely accessible

A Moscow startup aims to make the emerging technology easily accessible

zkyle@idahostatesman.comFebruary 3, 2014 

Moscow entrepreneur Chris Walker says if you don’t already know about 3-D printing, you will soon, and you’ll probably want to try it out.

Three-dimensional printers are similar to document printers. But instead of laying down a single layer of ink, 3-D printers build layer upon layer of fine plastic in exacting detail, shaping objects. Those objects can be as simple as a toothpick or as complex as a replicated human face.

Dimensional printing technology has improved and become cheaper in the past decade, but it’s mostly been the muse of engineers experimenting with prototypes, Walker said. He thinks his startup, Element Robot Inc., can appeal to a more mainstream audience with SkyForge, a 3-D printing vending machine located in public places that anybody can use — sort of like a Red Box, but for 3-D prints instead of DVD rentals.

“I see the cornerstone of our business as making 3-D printing accessible to everyone,” Walker said. “Right now, the best way to do that is this vending machine.”

The Reuseum in Garden City has also expanded the 3-D printing aspect of its business. The Reuseum calls itself a scientific/industrial/government surplus outlet specializing in finding new uses for old technology. But it also processes dimensional printing orders and has installed 3-D printers in several libraries in the region as part of educational programs.

David Ultis, Reuseum director of operations, said 3-D printing will be as prevalent as specialty paper printing.

“In the next two to five years, I expect it to reach a saturation point where every citizen walking down the street knows at least one place where they can access a 3-D printer,” Ultis said. “That’s very close on the horizon.”

For now, Element Robot is targeting a market its creators know well: University of Idaho engineering students.

Walker graduated with a master’s in mechanical engineering at Idaho in 2012. Element Robot engineer John Feusi finished his bachelor’s in mechanical engineering in spring 2013. The pair worked together on a school project creating robot submarines that could measure magnetic fields on Navy ships.

The submarines used printed parts. Walker and Feusi were both interested in getting into dimensional printing during the project, but they found it too much of a hassle to access the university’s 3-D printers. That frustration spawned the idea for the company, Feusi said, and made the engineering building on campus a natural home for the first SkyForge kiosk for students needing parts for school or personal projects.

In SkyForge’s first two weeks, 80 users signed up online and uploaded 235 designs. The company has given 253 quotes (which includes order renderings and chances to tinker with designs) and completed 52 orders.

SkyForge can manufacture objects up to about the size of a basketball. Walker said the average price has been between $5 and $30 on orders so far.

Engineering students preparing for a remote-control car race used SkyForge to replace a key bracket in the car frame. Art students who heard about SkyForge used it to create more detailed pieces, such as a sculptural bust. At least one customer wasn’t a U of I student.

Feusi has used SkyForge to manufacture parts, including several used on the vending machine.

“Everybody wants to find the craziest, fanciest shape they can print,” Feusi said. “We definitely get that, so it was the simple orders that surprised me. Some of the customers aren’t trying to make something that looks cool. They are trying to make something like a knob for a kitchen stove. Something useful.”

Walker said he’s negotiating to install SkyForges at other colleges in the region (he wouldn’t say which ones), and would like to bring 3-D printing to public places in the Treasure Valley.

The reason dimensional printing is about to become mainstream is the libraries of free, online designs available to anyone who wants to download them, Walker said. The libraries allow any reasonably computer savvy user — not just engineer types with computer assisted design skills — to order a money clip or a replacement screw for their model airplane.

John Cepeau, chairman of the U of I’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, said Element Robot is poised to take advantage of what he expects to be a rapid rise in 3-D printing.

“I would argue it’s almost already mainstream,” Cepeau said.

“There are 3-D printer files of Eiffel or Notre Dame that people can send to 3-D printers and get printed up. I’d say it’s pretty close already.”

Since Walker founded Element Robot in 2012, ownership has remained divvied out between its four employees, all of whom believe SkyForge has Red Box-type potential.

“We’re figuring out what customers want,” Feusi said. “We’re trying to figure out, ‘What is the future of 3-D printing?’ I think SkyForge is the future of 3-D printing.”

Zach Kyle: 377-6464,Twitter: @IDS_zachkyle

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