Growing startups

The hardest thing is giving away

You always end up with less when working at an early-stage startup

People working in startups are all so familiar with the concept of giving away responsibilities. Whenever you start in a startup, you can count on the fact that you’re role is changing all the time. Regardless of whether responsibilities shift downwards or sideways, they are inevitable moving somewhere.

Your startup starts out with 3–4 people who do everything. Slowly, new people are added, roles are carved out, and responsibilities are limited. With each new influx of people these roles are reevaluated and the same ritual starts again.

The same applies as the company grows your personal capabilities are constantly evaluated. Your position within the company is constantly shifting and changing. The company often grows faster than your personal growth can keep up with. Or your role is carved up in 2 or 3 different roles and you have to choose between them.

All these things have nothing to do with failure or underperformance. It is about making the company grow as fast as possible while keeping everything manageable. But I can tell from experience it is sometimes hard to let go. Even it is going downwards instead of sideways. You might be end-responsible, but someone else is actually executing it. It is not the same.

It is for this reason that startups are not for everyone. You need to adapt and be comfortable with adapting. You have to embrace change and you need to be comfortable with finding your own limitations. But more so, nothing better to run into this because of the company you work is successful and growing up. On the end of the day, there is nothing more satisfying than bringing something to the world which is self-sustaining and impacting the world in its own way.

Wifi is not a mobile network

Wifi is great and sucks at the same time. The beauty of wifi is that it is a ubiquitous wireless standard. It is cheap enough to build into any other device. Since it operates in high spectrum bands (2.5Ghz and 5Ghz) the antennas can be small. You can put wifi in almost anything nowadays.

At the same time wifi is problematic for the same reasons. The wifi spectrum is polluted. Just open your wifi connection list and see for yourself. In a dense urban area you will see 15 or more access points. All these access points compete for the same spectrum in a small number of channels. At the same time this spectrum is shared with cordless phones, baby monitors and your microwave.

Now if that is not enough, the wifi frequencies are so high they have trouble penetrating through solid objects like buildings, cars or — even — trees. The signal does not propagate well in dense urban areas nor inside buildings.

For this reason it is really hard to build and maintain a wifi network which has bigger ambitions than connecting people in close proximity of an access point. It is definitely not the right technology as a replacement for a cellular network.

Now I wonder about many cable operator’s plans and programs to unlock their access points and allow their customers to roam their networks. It does not make sense at all. It all feels as more like a marketing campaign to add perceived value to their services than actually adding anything to their services.

Let me ask you, how often do you find yourself in need of wifi when visiting someone’s home?

Nobody cares about customization

Yes please on size, fit, material and color. No thank you on everything else.

With Shapeways I had a lot of interest into customization. It would make the perfect use case for 3D printing. I have been following the developments in the industry for some time now. But up until today, I can only conclude that people are not so interested in customization.

I think it is because people do not want to think about design as much as we like to think. They rather leave it up to the designer to design what they want.

Now this does not mean all customization. I primarily talking about customization with regard to the design of an item. There are plenty of opinions on color, size or fit. Just take a look at anybody’s iPhone and you see plenty of different background images and different arrangements of the apps on the screen. Also, people like to choose the color of their iPhone.

It is like buying a couch. I have an opinion on the size of the couch — two-seat, love-seat or three-seat — and the color. I have a preference for the material. But I never have had the desire to change the design. I just choose the one I like.

Same goes for clothes. I love to be able to select on size — it should fit right? — or the color. But I would not want to design it myself. I would like an idiot. I am not a clothes designer and never aspired to become one.

In the end it is about offering customization options which are relevant to people. This could be far reaching — from fit, color, size to material — but it almost never touches the design itself. The design is the domain of the designer. Everybody is fine to keep it that way.

Smart factories

One of the huge opportunities for 3D printing and on-demand manufacturing is the ability to produce in series of one. To me that statement embodies the enormity of the impact of 3D printing on the world of manufacturing. But it also poses challenges and in this post I would like to discuss one of these challenges.

This challenge is how to run a factory when every item flowing through the production process is unique and has their own manufacturing requirements. The production of 10.000 similar items using the same or similar process steps is inherently less complex than producing 10.000 unique products each with their own production steps and requirements. The problem is that planning and tracking so many variations in the production process is too complex for a human — or humans.

In manufacturing or supporting processes like warehousing the focus tend to be on automating process steps to reduce labor costs, create more control, better — consistent — quality and increase capacity. But for on demand manufacturing this is not enough or even a solution. It is about the planning and control of the production process for a product. A factory producing 10.000 or more unique products a day is unique in the world. A new set of problems need to be solved and no readily available solution is available today. Or simply: nobody has done this before.

I envision factories of the future become more self thinking systems and knows their capabilities. Product blueprints enter on one side and finished products end up in the warehouse. The whole operation is run by computer systems and no human is part of the planning or process control.

To be clear humans are still needed. Certain steps are better handled by a human (refill / maintenance of machines or specific process steps like assembly or packing of parts — all depending on the factory setup and supported production steps), but the human is just a resource in the factory. A resource which can be planned and directed by a computer. It is not about fully automating the factory but about the creating a smart factory.

So how does this work? A product production request comes in. Based on the product production requirements a production plan is generated. The production plan contains each step necessary to produce each part and — if applicable — how the product is put together. The production of the product is scheduled based on capacity and necessary process steps. Not only the machine are planned but also human operators where needed. In the end the factory runs itself in the most optimal way based on the incoming production requests.

I like to call this concept the smart factory. I know this term is not unique and if you search on the internet you find many references to smart factories. Mostly related to energy-saving initiatives. But in my mind the smart factory can “think” for itself.

Next to 3D printing as a manufacturing technology, this step is necessary to make on demand manufacturing or manufacturing in series of one a reality. In my mind there is no other way to make it scale.

Manufacture. use. recycle. repeat.

Just imagine an apartment, an apartment without any cabinets, closets or any other furniture to store things. The only things in the apartment are the things you use every day. Things like a couch, a table or a bed. In the bedroom there is single sliding door with a display next to it. On the display you can select the clothes you want. There is a convenient list of your favorites. You select a pair of jeans and a shirt. A subtle whirring comes from the behind the sliding door. After a few seconds the display says simply DONE and the sliding door unlocks. You open it and you take out items you just selected. They look and smell brand-new, no wrinkles, spotless exactly as they were the day you selected them. You did change the size somewhere along the way. Everybody gains a pound or two unfortunately when they get older.

You put on your clothes and walk to the kitchen. The kitchen is brightly lit and white. Again no cupboards or cabinets. There is a display sitting on the counter. You simply select “breakfast — alone”. A few seconds later you take your coffee mug and plate from the only cabinet. You make breakfast and enjoy the coffee. After breakfast you deposit the plate and mug in the recycle bin. A ritual you repeat every day.

You might wonder what the point is of this story, but it is my vision for the future of on-demand manufacturing. In this story I want to illustrate how a huge change will impact our daily lives. It is about products becoming temporary. You make them when you need, you discard when you are done. This may sound awful from an environmental perspective, but if you combine this with recycling the net cost is only energy. Given that energy is available in abundance — we just do not know how to capture / convert it to something we can use — such a process can work.

This future seems very plausible to me. But if this future will become reality, how it impact us, companies, brands, designers and trends? Will they still exist? How will they make money? Will there still be trends? Will local design become more prevalent? I spend quite sometime thinking about these lately.

In the past I wrote that I do not believe in a 3D printer in every home. I still feel that way. The future I write about in this post, is beyond 3D printing technology we see today. Today’s 3D printers are noisy, smelly, slow, expensive, inaccurate and unreliable. Some day all of that is fixed. And hopefully they fix a few other things along the way as well. It does not have to be a Star Trek replicator. That is ok. But when that day comes, I hope this future is possible.

Personalization is more customization

One of the most touted use case for 3D printing is personalization. Now personalization can mean many things and you see different executions of the personalization vision on the internet. For example the Statement Vase or MixeeMe. At the core, personalization enables the user modify a base design to fit to their personal taste. This sounds fantastic and can open a new world where people design their own products within a set of constraints. But when you talk to people about it, they are only mildly interested. The question is why that is?

 Design your own dress at Constrvct
Design your own dress at Constrvct

In essence I think is that most people are not really interested in personalization. There are many reasons why people detract from personalization products. There is fear about their own capabilities and if they are capable of making a desirable product on their own. Another reason is that they lack inspiration. But the major reason is I think is that people are just not that interested to make their own products. In 99% of cases people just buy something off the shelve and they are happy with that. Why bother changing the design at all? Is it not the role of a product designer / company / brand to provide you with the best solution?

If you turn the question around and give people an off the shelf product they are interested in and you ask the question “Are you satisfied with this product?” “Would you like to change anything to the design of the product?”. Then you get interesting responses like I do not like the color or the material. Or they would like the item to be smaller or bigger. And here lies the opportunity. People are not that into personalization but more into customization. They would like to modify some generic features of the product to make it better fit their specific requirements.

A great example to me is clothes. I rather not design my own clothes. I am not even into designing a custom pattern or changing the color. But I am interested in my EXACT size. If you are big like me you always run into the issue that you are size is out. Or what happened to me the other day is that some clothing brand decided to make XXL to be XL. I ended up with a bunch of clothes I could return.

I can think of many examples where customization would make sense and would appeal to a consumer. It is just not the same as personalization. It is customization. Now I know there are many examples of successful and very useful personalization products on the internet. I particularly like Constrvct from Continuum Fashion. But I yet have to meet the person who is not a (aspiring) fashion designer who made the majority clothes themselves. For most people it is just not worth it and it only make sense when it is very special and appealing.

Can supply chain made simpler with on-demand manufacturing?

One of the challenges for launching products by individual designers and small firms is to setup and manage their supply chain. Launching a product from an idea is not easy. There are many things to take into account. A short list in context of 3D printing and on-demand manufacturing:

  • online fabrication services are useful, but cover only part of the process
  • a product needs to be assembled, finished and packaged before it is ready
  • order fulfillment and distribution is a lot of work and very repetitive
  • to get orders you need to have sales channels.

What I wanted to get across in that post is that beyond a product idea, to launch an actual product into the market is quite some work. You need to be prepared to contribute a significant amount of your time to bring a product to market.

That is looking at it from the individual designer perspective. For larger companies on-demand manufacturing gives opportunities to simplify their supply chain. I wrote about that in my post Impact of 3D Printing on Supply Chain.

One of the major challenges for individual and small companies for launching products is supply chain. To find, select and manage a small number of suppliers to manufacture and assemble your product is a challenge.

To get a product manufactured parts need to sourced. This could either be off-the-shelf parts or custom-manufactured parts. These parts are manufactured and shipped to the assembly point. At the assembly point, the product is put together, packaged and shipped. In each step of the manufacturing process, the reliability and quality of parts and product needs to be checked and monitored.

When the manufacturing and logistics of the product are set up, there are stock levels to monitor. The manufacturing of products overseas can take up to 6 weeks before the actual product arrives. The product designer needs to make choices on how much stock to keep and the size of production batches while taken into account the lead time of each of his suppliers.

Even for simple products like porcelain cups, this can be quite an undertaking.

It is a well-known secret that lots of product projects at Kickstarter fail just for that reason. Even though, the projects are successfully funded, the project owners can’t get the production up and running. It proves that many product designers just underestimate the amount effort necessary to setup and maintain a supply chain. According to a study done by professor Ethan Mollick 75% of technology and design-related projects at Kickstarter fail to deliver on time.

The interesting aspect is that every product designer / small firm is doing the same work and repeating the effort across markets and products. Even with the advent of on-demand manufacturing, the supply chain still exists and needs to be managed. The amount of effort the product designer needs to put in into the supply chain goes beyond the effort of designing the product itself.

There is an opportunity in the market for making supply chain simpler for product designers and small firms. There is a definite need for full-service manufacturing and logistic companies who take over the effort and let the product designer outsource the supply chain.

The mono culture of 3D printing

Today I came across a couple of renderings on Behance called No Limit, which are an artist impression on how the future of 3D printing could look like. Below is one of the pictures.

What struck me in this rendering is the clear separation of parts to create a whole product. I think it is also one of the biggest challenges in 3D printing. There is a tendency with 3D printing to print a whole product as a single continuous product. But in real-life products are not a single part and there are good reasons for that. The requirements for individual parts are different. No single material is able to match all of the required properties — especially in the limited offering of materials available for 3D printing. It is also one of the reasons why many products made using 3D printing are just not on the same level — visually and functionally — as mass-produced products. The exception is mono-material products like jewelry or ceramics.

It is interesting that there are not many articles available on combining 3D printed parts together to create a product. It is certainly necessary because properties like production tolerances and tensile strength are different for each material and 3D printing method. You cannot just design different parts and expect them to fit. Even made using the same printer with the same material.

It would be awesome to see more compounded parts to create new products. I think it will open much more opportunities to create and manufacture meaningful and useful products using 3D printing.

Online 3D printing services should watch out

The rise of home 3D printers should make the 3D online printing services somewhat nervous. Especially when you look at the quality of new products like Form-1 — although not yet on the market. In an earlier post, I wrote that I am not a firm believer in home 3D printers, but I do believe there is a market for them. The same market where a lot of the online 3D printing services are focusing on.

When online 3D printing services became available around 2008, the availability of home 3D printers was very limited. Certainly, no commercial home 3D printers were on the market.

Fast forward to today and the choice for home 3D printers is exploding. Not only that, but also their capabilities and performance are increasing as well while prices are dropping. Now this is the standard pattern for any new major new consumer technology, but it is a threat for the existing online 3D printing services.

I expect a significant drop-off of early adopter at online 3D printing services. These users are buying their own 3D printers and print most of their parts on those printers. They still do 3D print parts via online 3D printing services when they want a professional 3D printed part or a special material, but much less frequent. New users will still come to these services and have parts produced. But the question is how fast they will decide to either buy their own 3D printer or go to a neighbor, friend or family member with a 3D printer.

This behavior will pose challenges the current generation of online 3D printing services. They will need to position themselves beyond being a online 3D printing service. Even with their professional machines and better materials, the difference between the immediate and “free” competition of a home 3D printer is in my opinion not enough to survive. Each of them needs to try to find their own way of adding value on top of providing the 3D printing service. There are many options available like post-finishing or services.

The next 2 years will be important. I expect the home 3D printer market to mature quickly leading to major changes at the current generation of online 3D printing services. I cannot wait to see how this is going to unfold.

No 3D printer for you :)

Most media attention in 3D printing currently goes to home 3D printers. MakerBot just released their new Replicator 2 3D printer and opened a MakerBot retail store in New York. A year ago, they received $10M funding mostly from the Foundry Group.

3D Systems have introduced their Cube 3D printer aimed at consumers. And a new 3D printer called Form-1 is getting a lot of attention on Kickstarter because it overshot its funding goal by 2000%.

Often I read the expectations that there will be a 3D printer in every home in 5 years or a decade. I do not believe that. The applicability of the technology today is very low for consumers. I have a few reasons why I think that. In the next paragraphs, I will elaborate why I think 3D printing for consumers will not happen soon — if it happens at all.

The first reason is that the material quality of the current generation of printers is not that good. Even professional 3D printed parts need post-finishing to resemble a material which looks and feels good. And even when the part is post-finished, it is still a part and not a product.

Most printers just print in a single material. Please look around and see how many products are made of a single material? There are not many. Jewelry comes to mind and kitchen ware. And of course trinkets and gadgets. This pretty much sums up the inventory of 3D printed products available today.

There are definitive reasons to buy a home 3D printer. Many hobbyists use them to print parts for their hobbies ranging from remote controlled airplanes to Warhammer pieces. For these hobbyists to own a printer makes sense. The instant satisfaction and seeing your part build in front of your eyes right in your home is irresistible. Another reason is as a kids’ toy. 3D printers could definitely be the clay of the 21st century for kids. The ability to create and design on a computer and make those designs real on a home 3D printer is a very powerful concept.

So some people will own and buy a home 3D printer. I expect that those printers are also used to print parts for others — neighbors, family and friends. Another reason why I think home 3D printers will not be a huge market. The need to 3D print a part is not very high. It will become a machine like advanced power tools which most people do not own but lend from the neighbors or a friend.

As an educational tool home 3D printers are very powerful. I think the manipulation of physical form will become more prevalent in our society. It is good that our kids get the opportunity to start exploring and working with these concepts.

To me home 3D printers will not come into every home until they reach the status of a replicator — I mean the Star Trek one and not Makerbot’s new product. Until then, it will remain a niche tool owned by a small community of users.