Fiedler’s Gigabot printer uses recycled plastic waste, open-source technology and a unique business model to remove waste from our oceans, provide economies for destitute countries, save our coral reefs and support our military families. How can one person do all this?! It’s a great story.
Jon: Hi, I’m Jon Nordby, and this is HXTV, the show that champions Houston’s innovators and entrepreneurs, brought to you by PKF Texas, the CPAs and advisors serving Houston’s innovators for over 15 years. My guest today is Matthew Fiedler. Matthew, welcome to the show.
Matthew: Thank you so much for having me here, Jon.
Jon: Thanks for being here. We’re excited to be here at re:3D. Tell us a little bit about the company, what you guys are building, what you’re working on?
Matthew: Certainly. So, re3D is a company we started six years ago. We pioneered the largest affordable industrial 3D printer under $10,000. My co-founder and I, Samantha Snabes and I, we left the NASA Johnson Space Center, which is just across the street from us, almost six years ago now, with the idea of being able to recycle plastic waste and put it into a 3D printer and making things at the human scale that truly address human needs. We pitched this idea to a startup program called Start-Up Chile and got accepted in. We took the non-dilutive funds, built our prototype, Gigabot, that’s our flagship 3D printer, and we put that on Kickstarter in 2013. What we didn’t realize is what a warm reception we’d get. We had a very successfully funded Kickstarter, in 60 days we raised $250,000, and launched ourselves into being a manufacturer of 3D printers.
Jon: Just to clarify, when you say it’s the largest scale industrial printer, give our audience a sense of what that means. What are industrial printers’ sizes and scales typically like, costs, things like that. How do you compare?
Matthew: I’ll even back up just a little bit more, if I can. The type of 3D printing we do is using this coil or a rope, a plastic filament, and we feed that into our machine. It melts it, and it lays down one layer at a time. There’s many types of 3D printing and that’s the one we’re focused on. It’s the largest affordable industrial machine. Comparable machines on the market can cost up to ten times as much. When we started re:3D, we said not only did we want to recycle plastic waste, but we wanted to provide a tool that’s affordable and accessible for people all over the world. We imagine people not only here in Houston, but we actually have customers now in 50 countries around the world, and so we have customers in Africa, in Central America, Asia, Europe, and so forth and so on, to make that technology accessible to allow people to solve their own problems using 3D printing.
Jon: Tell us about the name re3D.
Matthew: We tried to pick a name that was super complicated and hard to pronounce. That’s what happened in the end.
Jon: Well done.
Matthew: Really, what it means is, the ‘re’ is for recycled. The ‘re’ is for reimagining, what can this technology do? I think there’s an endless amount of opportunity in the ‘re.’ It may be a little bit confusing for some, but it is re3D.
Jon: You mentioned using the recycled plastic. How do you get from recycled plastic to the filament? Help us understand those differences.
Matthew: For sure. I think the key is that we skip that whole filament step. Not only do we have a line of printers, that large format, that use the filament, but we started, beginning last year, we started developing a line of printers that print directly from ground up plastic. Imagine, what does it look like when you can take that water bottle and grind it up and pour it into a machine and print directly from that? We just released a paper in conjunction with Michigan Tech University showing how we can use the first four that we started with, different types of 100% recycled plastic, printed out test articles, and found it was just as strong as traditional 3D printing.
Jon: That’s amazing. So, let me take a step back to the machines. You talked about size and scale. What is it that allows you to produce a machine of this scale that competes with the industrial machines at a 10x decrease in production? How is that possible?
Matthew: There’s many facets to that. One is, the design of the machine is to be made as simple as possible but no simpler. I grew up on a farm in Iowa, took a lot of inspiration from farm equipment, saying that it has to be as durable as possible. You can’t be breaking down in the middle of the field. And make it very simple. I also spent six years in the neuroscience laboratory at NASA, and so we bring the technology in and use it where appropriate. We not only have vertically integrated so that we manufacture a vast majority of our own parts that go into the machines, or allows us to keep the cost down and the quality up, but also we have tapped into the open source movement as well. Our machine is completely open source hardware, open source software, and by giving and taking that trade off with the open source community, we’re able to leverage the work of, I don’t have to hire 10,000 R&D engineers, but we use open source software, we modify it and we give that back to the community. We are able to keep our costs down by utilizing the open source technology.
Jon: When you say open source, my mind immediately thinks of open source systems like Linux or software, but you mentioned the hardware component as well. Help us understand what you mean by open source?
Matthew: Our platform, Gigabot, is open source in so much that the hardware is open source. You can go to our website, download the plans, and build your own if you like. The software and the firmware on the electronics is all open source, so we give you access to the core code that runs in the machine. It really does a couple of things for us. Not only does it allow us to tap into all of these bright minds all around the world who love to help us improve our product—I don’t have to have 2,000 R&D engineers, but we can have a community that we supply with updates—free, and in return they help us develop our technology as well. It’s a model of doing business that’s a little bit foreign for some, especially in the hardware area, but we found it to actually be very beneficial. I think it’s a new way of doing business that’s going to prove itself to be much better.
Jon: How do you hedge against cannibalizing your profit, or your revenue, if you’re open sourcing the hardware and the plans and everything else?
Matthew: It makes you iterate faster. It makes you evolve your product faster. You know that there will be people who will want to come in and take your plans and sell your products, essentially. But, what happens, say, if I got a patent on something? I have a technology I developed. I not only have to pay a lot of money to get that patent, but then I have to start defending it as well. For a bootstrap company, that just doesn’t make sense. We can’t put out that much cash and that much expense, or those resources just are not available. So, by actually turning that model on its head and giving it away for free, people have a lot of allegiance and they have very close connection. It really does become a tight knit community. And they will defend you, either online or in the marketplace, and say no, I would rather have the real Gigabot. I don’t want the knockoff, the clone. I support what this company is doing and what they stand for. I will spend my money with them.
Jon: Tell us about the customers. Who is buying these machines?
Matthew: We do have customers in 50 countries around the world. The largest markets that we’re addressing right now is art and design architecture. You can imagine they have great imaginations, right? That’s what it takes to be able to utilize the power of the 3D printing technology. You have to imagine what you want to make, then you draw it on the computer, send that over to the machine, and the machine prints it out. We also have education as a core component of our customer profiles. We have everything from grade schools to high schools to libraries to makerspaces, so education is very, very important. Also, of course, manufacturing; small, medium, large size manufacturers, because any company that makes a physical product can benefit from the 3D printing technology. It allows them to prototype faster, number one, get their product to market quicker, because you can iterate that prototype. It also allows to push into end use products. What I mean by that is, what if I can print a chair, a stool, something like this right here and sell it directly to my customer? So it’s not just a prototype but it’s a durable good. We also have a large portion of our sales are for government as well. That’s in and outside of DoD.
Jon: Gotcha. And for those customers that you described, how important is it for you to be able to use the recycled plastic, or is that a separate sort of piece of the mission?
Matthew: It’s a piece of the mission that we’re going to grow wildly this year. The ability to print from recycled material, that machine will go on sale probably Q2 of this year, and so that’s a new component. We did do our third successful Kickstarter campaign last year and we’re delivering those rewards to a select few customers and they will have the technology first and then on general sale after that.
Jon: The original competitions and Kickstarter campaigns were able to allow you to launch the company, create the 3D printer at the size and scale that’s never really been done before utilizing the open source technology and the hardware, and now you’re able to go forward and sort of realize this vision of being able to use if for the recycled plastics as well. Is that right?
Matthew: Absolutely. It really benefitted us a lot to be in Houston. Not only because we have access to so many great talent for employees as we expand our company. Unfortunately, there are ups and downs in the aerospace and the oil and gas industry and we certainly do take advantage of hiring world class people to come in and help us, whether it’s R&D and engineering, or shipping or sales, or any of those. Houston’s been a great place for us and that’s another reason we’ve been able to expand and grow so quickly as well, because of the environment we’re in.
Jon: You mentioned the team a little bit. Why don’t you take us back just a little bit further to the beginning. How did you meet your co-founders, where did the inspiration for the idea come from, kind of give us some of that Genesis story.
Matthew: Eight years ago, maybe a little bit more than that, I met my co-founder Samantha, and we were both working at NASA Johnson Space Center, here across the street. She was the Deputy Strategist for Space Life Sciences at the time and I was working in neuroscience. We both worked for the same contractor to NASA, and we were both volunteering with Engineers Without Borders at NASA Johnson Space Center. That’s when we were traveling to, say, Africa and Central America and different places around the world where we would come home and we thought about all that plastic waste that we saw piling up in the landfill. It’s here in Houston, too. It’s everywhere around the world. This was when the first desktop 3D printers started to come out. And so, I was early to jump on the bandwagon and I had experience with the technology from my undergraduate days. And so, I put together this little 3D printer on my desktop and I said, ‘hey, Samantha, check this out.’ It’s a little machine that can make almost anything. Being a strategist, her wheels started to turn and she said, ‘here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to make this huge printer, and we’re going to feed in all that plastic waste that we saw while we were traveling and we’re going to give opportunity to people all over the world. We’re going to create economies where they didn’t exist before. We’re going to create new jobs where they didn’t exist. Because we’re going to develop a technology that never existed.’ And so that’s really what’s happening.
Jon: Do you also do 3D printing as a service?
Matthew: One of the great things about re3D is that we cover everything under additive manufacturing. Not only do we design and manufacture our own machines, but we provide that contract print service for people as well, all over the world. In addition to that, we provide education, training and consulting for Fortune 500 companies. How do you integrate the technology into your factory, from the R&D to the factory floor. We also provide design services and 3D modeling services, so it’s really anything under 3D printing.
Jon: Have you taken any venture funding to this point?
Matthew: We’re a bootstrapped company.
Jon: Awesome. How did you navigate that path?
Matthew: It was the Start-Up Chile program that really got us started, because without that we wouldn’t have the initial prototypes of our machine. It was Kickstarter that helped us crowdsource the funding to really launch us into being a manufacturer. From there, it’s really about being frugal with your money and making it stretch as far as you can. Our early employees were working for beer and cookies. You have to make do sometimes with what you’ve got and keep that end goal in mind. We’ve been very fortunate. We’ve entered a lot of business pitch competitions, Samantha has done very well, so we have been able to garner some resources to help moving the company forward through that.
Jon: One of the things that always fascinates me about Houston grown companies is their opinion or their reliance on the local community. I know that you and your co-founder are very involved with WeWork and Bunker Labs and military spouses and female founder communities; I wonder if you can give us a little bit of insight into some of the communities that you’ve been able to tap into here in Houston and Austin and Puerto Rico and what that’s meant to the development of the company.
Matthew: Not only Station Houston, which is a great space downtown that helps startups and incubate companies; WeWork, we’re so excited to have them as a partner in this journey that we’re on and as they grow in Houston, as well; Bunker Labs moved here about a year ago, roughly, maybe a little bit longer. These organizations that provide the mentorship, that provide a place to work, to provide the connections for you to take your business to the next level, to get past those roadblocks. Whatever that roadblock is, we found a tremendous amount of support in the community in Houston to keep moving forward.
Jon: So re3D is the company but I see Gigabot everywhere. What’s the difference there? Is Gigabot one product line or are there more product lines?
Matthew: Gigabot is our flagship product. It comes in several different flavors, if you may, different sizes of machine. The smallest machine has a build volume of two foot cubed, that’s how big we can make things. And then, the largest standard machine is a three foot cubed build volume, as well as doing custom machines. We can go as big as your budget. That’s one line. And then we have a line called GBx, or Gigabot X, and that will be printing from pelletized, or ground up plastic, and that will be our second line of equipment.
Jon: For some scale here, these are 3D printed, right? These came out of Gigabots, I’m assuming?
Matthew: Yeah, so this first one, this is actually a 3D scan of coral out of the Caribbean. We printed this with the GBx, so the machine that can print from recycled—
Jon: So this is actually recycled plastic?
Matthew: Recycled plastic.
Jon: And you made a piece of coral out of it. That’s awesome.
Matthew: So, we have an outpost in Puerto Rico where we’re understanding the unique environment of an island where it is resource constrained, which is a great place for technology that can allow you to do things you couldn’t do other places. What happens after the hurricanes come through Puerto Rico is we have a billion empty water bottles laying around and no recycling facilities. So, you either put it in a landfill or you put it on a ship and send it back to the US. So, what does it look like if we can start to create a manufacturing base using Gigabot? One of the organizations we partnered up with, and looking to do more with, is the Foundation for Puerto Rico who recognizes how the hurricane has decimated the coral reef. There’s a real problem there, and so, how do we regenerate that coral reef faster? Some of the educators at the university said, ‘well, maybe we can 3D print the structure and then seed the polyps onto there. Put that in the ocean and see if we can kick start.’ So, there’s different ideas floating around about opportunities to use 3D printing to jump start and help promote that coral growth.
Jon: Tell us about the future of re3D? What’s on the horizon for this year? Obviously the pelletized machines are what sounds like a huge step forward. Where do you see this going over the next couple of years and what are some of the big challenges or the big milestones that you’re looking forward to?
Matthew: The recycling plastic waste, that’s really the future of 3D printing. Right now, a lot of the printers use the filament. I don’t see that as sustainable. There’s a lot of energy and money embodied in that filament, especially as you print on larger scale, and as you open up that build platform you really allow more ideas to flow in. You can build many more different types of things with a big scale printer. It only makes sense to be able to use pelletized or ground up plastic and print directly from that. It brings down the cost, it speeds up the process. So really, in the next year and the coming years, the big transition that you’ll see in the 3D printing is the use to going from filament, to pellet, or ground up plastic. We’re very early in that but we see that’s an obvious choice for the future. Re3D is very excited about doing larger and larger machines, so we do custom equipment, and being able to do a much larger build volume is something that’s always very exciting for us.
Jon: When you talk about the pelletized, it makes a lot of sense for the plastics but, obviously, 3D printers are using various types of filaments. Do you ever see the ability to use recycled metal, or aluminum or any other materials?
Matthew: That’s a much harder question. The first thing I tell people is that 3D printing is hard. It is, and I will tell everyone that. 3D printing is hard because there’s a lot going on and the technology is still very young in some ways, and when you go to recycling plastic waste, now that’s an even harder problem. I think there are some easy wins, post-manufacturing waste. So, we have manufacturers here in Houston that are generating plastic waste. They’re either paying someone to haul that off to the landfill or recycling. What if we can divert that from the landfill? What if we can recycle that right on the factory floor and they can be printing out packaging material for their products? What if they can be printing out jigs and fixtures for their assembly process? I think there’s a great opportunity to divert manufacturing, which is a clean, single source, known plastic, and then we work our way to ocean plastic, and the we work our way to much dirtier, tougher problems.
Jon: Matthew, thanks so much for having us out to your factory and sharing the story of re3D.
Matthew: Thank you, very much.
Jon: That wraps up our conversation with Matthew Fiedler, Founder and CTO of re3D. And this is HXTV.
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