Books & Bots: The Lab in the Library

Clear Lake City, a community in the Bay Area of Greater Houston, is a name you might not immediately recognize, but it’s the site of a couple things you probably will.

Most notably the home of the historic NASA Johnson Space Center, its Mission Control can be picked out in famous scenes from the 1969 moon landing or movies like Apollo 13 and The Martian. It’s the Houston in “Houston, we have a problem.”

Also not to be forgotten in Clear Lake’s list of places you’d know is our very own office.

Just down the street from the re:3D Houston office is another place putting Clear Lake on the map for technological innovation, one which you might not expect: the Clear Lake City-County Freeman Branch Library.

“This all started back in 2013 when we were notified that the library was named in a will: Mr. Jocelyn H. Lee’s, whose name is on the lab.”

Jim Johnson, Branch Manager of the library, explains how there came to be a tech innovation lab — complete with laser cutter and multiple 3D printers — in the middle of a library in Clear Lake.

“We had no expectation as to how much he might have left us. Once we did find out, I fell out of my chair. It was about $134,000.”


Evolving to Survive

The library as an institution has defied odds in the face of technology. Fighting the battle against obsolescence, libraries have made it through multiple threats to their livelihood, their survival owed to the nimbleness of their leadership.

“Largely because of technology, libraries, especially public libraries, have had to constantly adapt,” Jim explains. “Once computers became more prevalent and the internet started making headway, libraries as a rule had to adapt in order to stay alive, and not merely just for the sake of staying relevant, but staying relevant to what’s important to people in the way that they acquire information.”

The unexpected and extremely generous donation was an opportunity for the library to do just that.

“We started looking at some trends out there in public libraries around the country and found that makerspaces were beginning to catch interest in communities. Being such a strong engineering community in Houston — from aerospace to chemical — we thought that we probably had the space here to do that kind of thing. We didn’t really see how we could lose if we did it right.”

So they got to work, repurposing the library’s Quiet Room — “It’s hard to imagine a quiet room being needed in a library,” Jim adds — to accommodate some heavier machinery than most libraries are used to having. Next on the list was finding the right person to head the lab.

From Tinkering to Training

 “I was a stay-at-home dad before this.”

Patrick Ferrell was the man brought on for the job of Innovation Lab Trainer. “Before a year ago, the library was a place I brought the kids for storytime. I had never touched a 3D printer until after I found out I got this job.”


A natural tinkerer and hobbyist, Patrick’s professional background in mechanical engineering and physics lent itself well to what the library was looking to do. He now organizes and leads classes on everything from basic circuits and programming to robotics and structure-building with marshmallows and spaghetti.

“Whatever it looks like we need to do in order to cater to the audience we have,” he explains. “Since we’re the only space like this in the county system — and all of Southeast Texas as far as I know — I have a fair bit of latitude and freedom in what kind of classes we offer. Whatever I think looks like fun is what we do. If other people think it looks like fun too, then they come in and we keep offering it.”

His tactics have been working. As Jim put it, “Any success that the space has had is really largely due to Patrick’s influence.”

Walk into the lab and you’ll see what it’s all about. The walls are lined with eye-catching machinery and class creations. A “Cardboardosaurus” T-rex head hangs above their Gigabot in one corner; in another is an outer-space-themed piece of art made entirely using filament from abandoned and failed 3D prints, the masterpiece of one very creative library shelving assistant. Tribute to the original tech influence of the area you can find several NASA-themed 3D prints around the room, among them a several-foot-tall rocket and a model of the Orion space capsule. The laser cutter was my personal favorite — intricate wood, paper, and cardboard portraits adorned the wall next to the machine — proving that two-dimensions can still be cool.

Trend-Following to Trend-Setting

The recent boom in interest in desktop 3D printers allowed the library to tap into the trend and retain its relevancy in the community by getting several printers for the lab.

With a Gigabot in addition to two desktop-sized Makerbot Replicators, they also have the advantage of boasting a print volume unmatched by many local makerspaces. Because of this, they often get called on when a project has hit the size ceiling at another facility.

One of Patrick’s favorite projects so far was one by a local Houston teenager, Nicholas. He had been working with Techno Chaos, a local makerspace, the director of which knew that the library had a Gigabot.

“The director, Mike, called me up and said, ‘I’ve got this kid who’s designed a Freddy Fazbear costume and we’ve printed it on the MakerBot, but he wants to make it full-size. Do you think you could help him?’”

It was the longest print the library had taken on at the time.

“Just the head of the costume was a 44 hour print. But Nicholas was passionate about the project, and his persistence and perseverance enabled him to complete the entire thing successfully.”

What’s made it all worth it for Patrick is seeing success stories like Nicholas’s. “His parents would come in and say, ‘It’s good to see him excited about this kind of thing.’ Finding some outlet for him to be creative in that way was really great. Seeing him so excited, that’s what made it all so rewarding for me.”

And the sentiment is catching.

Patrick told the story of how Nicholas displayed his large-scale print at his booth at the local maker faire. “The director of the Harris County Public Library system was really impressed with his project. When it came time for budget talks, Nicholas and his dad went before the county commissioner’s court to say, ‘This is why libraries are important. This gives our son a place to go to use tools like this.’ The commissioners then asked, ‘How can I get one of these in my precinct?’ They see someone like Nicholas who’s passionate about this, excited about it, and they want to give more young people access to it.”


Challenges on the Front Lines of Innovation

Jim and Patrick have seen firsthand what doors the Innovation Lab has opened for the local community, and they understand the value that technologies like 3D printers can bring to the right people.

“Schools are starting to have the smaller printers, so if you’re doing a school project, that’s great,” Patrick explains. “But if you’re doing a personal project, then you’re kind of out of luck. You’re either sending your file off to Shapeways and paying outrageous amounts, or you have to find someone on Hubs, but it’s really hard to find somewhere that can print at the scale of what’s possible on Gigabot.”

On top of large-scale printing, there is another big selling point that sets the Innovation Lab apart from similar spaces in the area and around the country.

“What’s special about our makerspace is that we don’t charge dues or membership fees,” says Patrick. “The only thing you’re paying for is the material you use.”

The fact that the space remains open and accessible to the community is a core tenet of the library. The creative potential there is seemingly limitless — the machinery they have on hand coupled with its accessibility is a recipe for unbridled innovation. But being the first to tread through this territory means the library is crossing bridges as they go; the excitement of being on the front lines of innovation comes hand-in-hand with its challenges.

One thing they’ve encountered is the gap between the public’s general expectation of 3D printing and the reality of the technology.

“I don’t know, you mean I have to design it myself? Can’t you just design it for me? I have a picture, can’t we use that? What if I sketch it out on a piece of paper? I found this picture on the internet, is that good enough?” Patrick runs through the common questions he gets from some people when they first come in to 3D print. “Once we get over that hurdle, then people are more interested and they’ll start printing.”

Another thing they struggle with is demand for large-scale 3D printing, due in part to the gimmicky phase that desktop 3D printing is going through.

“Many people who come in are printing little trinkets. It satisfies the ‘Hey look, I 3D printed something’ desire, and they don’t need to go further,” says Patrick.

People are still figuring out how they can use 3D printing to make something practical. The intent in creating Gigabot was to serve just that purpose: a 3D printer at a scale large enough to print practical, real-world objects rather than just small trinkets.

Patrick speculates that the intimidation factor of the sheer size of a large-scale 3D printer adds to this tendency to avoid Gigabot in favor of their desktop printers. With a steep learning curve for 3D printing in general, expanding the build volume several orders of magnitude certainly can complicate things.

This is something that may prove to be the biggest challenge for libraries looking to open internal makerspaces: how do you tap into and attract the group of people who have a genuine need and use for these technologies? A long-term sustainable plan may not be able to rely on a stream of one-time visitors only there to print their name on a keychain and check a box on their bucket list, not to return again.

What spaces like this need are superusers, people who will return week after week, month after month, because they have a practical use for the machinery.

Lessons Learned for Libraries

At re:3D, we talk to a lot of people — inventors, entrepreneurs, tinkerers — with a clear use for large-scale 3D printing, but a lack of a budget with which to get one. To have access to a space where the only cost is a material fee would be the difference between bringing a product to market and never having the idea leave the drawing board.

A big reason 3D printing has flourished as a tool for businesses is its knack for prototyping. Companies can eliminate the need for third-party designers and injection mold do-overs, saving sizable chunks of time and money in the design and prototyping process. With a 3D printer, you could have a prototype made for as much money as it costs to do a few loads of laundry at the laundromat, in nearly the same amount of time. As Patrick explains, “Gigabot is great for designing a prototype which you want to market or show off to investors.”

Because of this, referrals have been a boon to the library, allowing them to offer their equipment to exactly these kinds of people: the garage entrepreneurs with plenty of ideas but not a lot of ways to make them a reality. Local makerspaces like the one that referred Nicholas — as well as the Houston Inventor’s Association, which also sends people their way who want to print big prototypes — have started to get the word out to their user bases.

In the meantime, the library is forging their own path in this new era of how communities interact with their local libraries. Jim is walking proof of the open and innovative mindset that must come with the librarian territory.

“I think that libraries are more about information and knowledge — a place to keep it and a place to use it — and I think makerspaces are a place to use information that you acquire. This is part of the reason why I think this is an excellent fit for libraries and allows them to remain relevant, not just for the sake of staying relevant, but as a practical place to learn something by doing. I think that hopefully, if other libraries catch on to this, you can easily have libraries remaining relevant not only as a place to absorb and acquire information, but also to use it in a practical way.

This has changed my perspective on libraries being only about books.


Do you or someone you know live in the area?  Go check out the Jocelyn H. Lee Innovation Lab on the second floor of the Clear Lake City-County Freeman Branch Library.

See more photos of the lab

Visit their website

Check their facebook page for posts about classes

Read more about their lab offerings

Gigabot in the Classroom: Phoenix Charter School

Our head of sales, Morgan, recently caught up with CJ Bryant, the Advanced Technologies Teacher and Coordinator for Phoenix Charter School, a 190 student high school in rural Oregon. Their program features Gigabot and has quickly become a hot item at the school.  CJ tells the story below.

I’ve been here for about nine years. I started off as the transitions teacher, gearing students to be job- or college-ready when they graduated. It was about making sure that they wanted to go to college and had all the necessary things completed to do so.  Then our technology coordinator left, and I moved into that position.  I was teaching a few technology classes, but quite frankly, Microsoft Office is really boring to teach.

I talked to our Executive Director about getting a virtual reality simulator.  We taught the class as a computer-based graphics and a programming class, and then you’re also designing buildings, which is geometry. Then about four years ago, when drones were in their infancy, I went to our Executive Director and said, “This is really cutting edge stuff.  Soon there’s going to be hundreds or thousands of these things around; we could teach students to do useful things with them.”  We were ahead of the curve.

Being in western Oregon, our school has long-standing partnerships with the US Forest Service, and before I knew it, our quad rotor was in the woods with agency staff and students to learn if we could assist with tree vole nest surveys high up in the tree canopy.  That experiment led to changes we needed to make in our quad rotor: it needed to be bigger, faster, smoother, and more stable.  We thought, “If we had a 3D printer, we could print a new body and use all the components that we have.”  I went to a couple different teacher workshops, and they had all these really small 3D printers, and to me, that was useless.  I don’t want to make miniature chess pieces, I want to do something useful.  I saw the Gigabot and went, “That’s it! Two feet cubed?  That’s what I want.”

In Oregon, charter schools get about 64 cents on the dollar for every dollar that public schools get.  We have a lot less per student.  But we are fortunate to have a 30 year reputation that has built up many generous community donors, and our staff writes lots of grants.  I wrote up a proposal for the Executive Director, listed all the things Gigabot would enable us to do, and we got it.  One of the reasons we get some of the grants we get is that we’ve shown a pattern of success and increasing use of different technologies in learning, service, and employment — it’s a virtuous cycle.  When you show what you’ve done and you’re able to demonstrate that over and over again, that opens the doors to more support.

For us, Gigabot was the gateway technology.  The first piece of technology we had was the VR simulator.  Next was the quadcopter.  When we wanted to expand the size of our quadcopter, we got Gigabot.  Since Gigabot we’ve gotten a CNC vinyl cutter, a large-format 2D printer for blueprints and posters, and we’ve built a vacuum former.  Our next piece will be a CNC laser cutter.  There’s not much we can’t do right now.

What we’re doing here has opened doors for our students that I never expected.  We are building partnerships with different businesses. The Fixed Base Operator at our local airport, a trailer manufacturer, a metal fabrication shop, as well as local startup businesses are coming to us looking for students who can use AutoCAD and run a CNC machine or a 3D printer. The owner of a local trailer manufacturing company cannot find employees who can operate the high-tech equipment — there is one person in his shop who can run their CNC plasma cutter.  One.  Our CNC vinyl cutter works on the exact same principles and uses the same design software, so any of my students could go and run his process.


The most exciting thing I think we’ve done was when the symphony had a fundraiser at the school, the culinary arts department came to us wanting us to make chocolate molds for the fundraiser dessert.  We printed out musical notes on Gigabot, and students built a vacuum former so we could make the molds in-house.  It was a learning process.  When we can do things like build a vacuum former, now we’ve taken what we can do with our Gigabot to the next level.

We call this project-based learning.  Kids may be sitting in an algebra class thinking, “What would I ever need this for?”  Then they come to my class to create something and go “Whoa, how did you do that?”  In teaching them the math behind it, it clicks — this is what the math is for.  What we are doing is using a real-world application to teach math.  It’s far more engaging.

To get into teacher lingo: every state has standards that students have to meet.  Rather than teaching standards using a textbook, worksheets, and tests, I cover the same standards with projects. Students can check off several standards in one project.  Do the students know that they’re polishing off standards?  Not so much.  When do they find out?  When they go through the list that they need in order to graduate, and they realize they’ve already checked all the boxes. Project-based learning has several distinct advantages, the largest being that students can take you step-by-step through their project.  This ownership of their project makes education real, relevant, and lasting.

We are a charter school, and our target is to help with the community’s at-risk students — students at risk of not succeeding academically for whatever the reason.  We have students who have not had success in any of the other schools in the county.  What we do is teach them to be successful, to create that pattern of success.  By the end of it, you’ve got juniors and seniors who are taking community college classes at the same time that they’re here. 75% of the students who graduate here go up to the community college and enroll.

This is enabling them to be successful.  The job readiness skills they learn, the communication skills, the attention to detail, following instructions.  The process is entertaining for us, it’s fun for them, and project outcomes make a meaningful difference in our school and community.


One of my students asked me why we got the Gigabot.  I told him, “Think outside of the box for 30 seconds.  Now I want you to trample the box, because we’re never going back. Look at it.  What if we expanded it to the size of our classroom?  What could we print at that scale?”.  He just froze in his tracks.  That’s why we got the Gigabot.  What if we could take that giant printer down to New Orleans to the 9th District to people who still don’t have houses, and we print — using 5000 lb spools of filament the size of your arm — a house, complete with the conduit and the drain lines and everything, in 4 days?

The student said, “But nobody is doing that!”

Exactly!  Why would we want to do something that everyone else is doing?  It’s been paramount to getting students to think outside the box, to think about needs that need to be met, and where to go to solve big problems on a big scale.

I truly believe that we’re still in the infancy of 3D printing.  3D printing is still a toddler. What we can do with a 3D printer is going to so quickly expand, I think the size of it is going to be huge.

What Gigabot has done is much bigger than 3D printing, and that is releasing the imagination of students.  Inspiring them to genuinely learn, solve problems, and not just do worksheets and take tests.

I feel my job as a teacher is not asking students what they want to be when they grow up or what job they see themselves doing; now I focus my students on problems they want to solve.  What is the change you want to make, whose lives do you want to impact?  If you could create anything, what would you create first, and why? Tools like the Gigabot allow students to enter this mindset confidently. This makes my job the best in the world.


Improving print quality by reducing triangle count

This is a tutorial on how to reduce the amount of triangles in a file for print quality using Autodesk Meshmixer.

While test-printing a large design at a much scaled-down size, I noticed an issue with print quality and wanted to share my experience remedying it, for those of you who have seen something similar happen in a print.
Below is a picture of the first print of this scaled-down object.  You can see tiny globs of filament dotting the surface of the print.  What is causing this?

First it helps to know what is behind an STL file.  An STL file breaks the surface of 3D object into many little triangles to form the surface geometry — this is done automatically when you convert a CAD file into an STL file.  Here’s what that looks like.

pic 3

The more triangles in a part, the smoother the curves of the surface will be, but also the larger the file size, the longer the slicing time, and the longer the build time.  Conversely, fewer triangles in a part means it will slice and print faster, but the curves will look more faceted.

Here’s what happened in this particular instance.  We took a very large file — 443.13mm x 503.32mm x 434.38mm — and scaled it down to 25% of the original.  The original large file had 103,970 triangles, and all these triangles remained even as the size scaled down.  This meant that we now had the same amount of triangles for a part one quarter the size.  The little globs of filament you see on the surface of the print were the result of the printer processing all of these triangles, pausing just long enough at certain vertices to allow a little extra filament to ooze out and form a small blob.

So I tried a test.

Using Autodesk Meshmixer (it’s free), I reduced the amount of triangles in the print to see if that would fix the blobbing problem.  You can read a tutorial by Hubs about reducing triangle count in prints; here’s the basic process:

Import your file into Meshmixer, click Select, and double-click your object to select it.

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Click the drop-down menu next to Percentage and select Triangle Budget.  You can now either slide the Tri Count slider up and down, or double-click the number and input a specific number.

pic 2.5

Cut the amount of triangles by more than half, down to 50,000, and you can hardly see a degradation of surface smoothness.  You could do this and improve the blobbiness without sacrificing the smooth curves of the object.

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To show the extreme end of the spectrum, look what happens when we drop the triangle budget down to 500.  You can still make out the basic shape of the object, but its smooth curves have been lost underneath a sharply-faceted surface.  This is because there are less triangles, so we now see the polygons rather than the smooth mesh they normally form.

pic 8

I wanted to show something more on the extreme end of the spectrum, so I set the triangle budget to 2,000 and exported the STL file.

pic 9

Here’s how the final print turned out — no more filament blobs.  You can see the faceted surface, almost as though it’s a chiseled sculpture before being sanded.  We kind of like the geometric look!  But remember, we did this to demonstrate the two extremes: if your goal was to maintain the smooth curves of the original design, you could have reduced the amount of triangles significantly without swinging this far to the other end of the spectrum.  

If you ever see filament blobs like this, try out the above steps to reduce the number of triangles in your print to improve the quality.  Or, play around in Meshmixer just for the fun of it — maybe you like this geometric style as much as we do.

Happy printing,


Micah Ganske: 3D Printing and Virtual Reality

“The Future is Always Tomorrow,” the solo exhibition of artist Micah Ganske, was on display in May with the 101/Exhibit Gallery from Los Angeles at the Art Market San Francisco, a massive production in beautiful Fort Mason.  Being the San Francisco-based member of the re:3D team, I was lucky enough to attend the show and see our talented Gigabot-owner Micah’s work in person.

The exhibit revolves around the theme of a futuristic space habitat: a spinning disk called an O’Neill cylinder, with an interior based on the landscape of Centralia, PA, a near-ghost town whose population plummeted due to a coal fire which has been burning underground since 1962.  As Micah puts it, Centralia was “felled by the very technology that once supported its population.”

The exhibit is a mix of paintings, drawings, and sculptures, and the show-stealer is the command center of a spaceship, life-size, with joystick controllers that move.  The entire piece, as well as his other sculptures, is 3D printed, in part by Gigabot and in part by Bold Machines.  This sculpture is paired with an Oculus Rift, and the real fun begins when the headset goes on.  With my hands grasping the controllers of the flight deck, the Oculus Rift transported me into the very world that Micah’s paintings and sculptures depict.  Micah has created a fully-immersive experience, uniting his pieces in one masterfully-crafted virtual world.


Micah refers to this as “Augmented Virtual Reality,” a combination of Virtual Reality (virtual experiences which replace the real world) and Augmented Reality (virtual experiences incorporated into the real world, laid over your field of view).  The joysticks of the flight deck serve the dual purpose of grounding the viewers in the real world and adding touch to the sensory experience while they soar through the virtual disk landscape and into outer space, while at the same time ensuring that they don’t involuntary tip over in the somewhat disorienting experience.

I was lucky enough to get to try out the experience before the crowds hit, and fortunately so, because once the show got into full swing there was a never-ending line to put on that Oculus Rift headset.   Micah prefaced my experience with the disclaimer that this was his first foray into virtual reality work – it was my first time experiencing it too – but the forewarning was unnecessary; I was completely blown away.

The roughly five minute session felt like an eternity, in the best way possible.  Floating through the air high above the interior of the space habitat, I slowly realized, like the VR newbie that I was, that if I swiveled my head around there was more virtual reality world to explore in my peripheries.  Below my feet, above my head, 180º behind me – I started pivoting around like a madman, trying to soak in as much as I could.  The purpose of the joysticks as a stabilizing handhold became apparent.

As I floated out of the circular landscape into what I can only describe as an airlock, I was sad to be leaving and didn’t want the experience to be over.  To my surprise, I continued floating, a door opened, and suddenly I was suspended, floating through outer space.

This is where I really lost it.  I’m a huge space junkie, and to truly have the feeling of being on a spacewalk was beyond cool.  Ahead of me was a colorful nebula, floating nearby was one of the sculptures of Micah’s exhibit, below my feet was a moon.  In that moment, I realized the potential that VR holds.  This is a technology that will enable people to do and see things that are simply not otherwise possible.  Wannabe astronauts can fulfill their dreams of walking on the moon, paralyzed athletes can climb mountains, aspiring Jacques Cousteaus can dive to the depths of the world’s oceans even with that sinus infection.  Suddenly the technology became an enabler, rather than the introverted crutch I had previously seen it as.

The biggest shock was when the music came to a stop and the headset came off to reveal that I was still standing in the same spot, in the festival pavilion of Fort Mason.  The feeling that came over me was akin to the post-movie depression that so many experienced after seeing Avatar in 3D.  I had truly been on a journey to space and back in just five minutes.  It really was an otherworldly experience.

Micah’s exhibit comes together with a uniting moral perspective: that we need to embrace our “techno-civilization” while also being “smarter about how we live.”  He references Elon Musks’s new Powerwall batteries as an example: they are “something that can change the world today if we are proactive…made possible by smart engineering and responsible industry.”

Although Micah’s exhibit implies that humankind is not able to manage this feat, that we destroy our home planet and are forced to retreat to manmade modules floating in space, he is hopeful.  “In the end I’m optimistic and confident that we will work things out and that the best members of society will make up for the worst,” he says.  “My new sculptures and drawings combine express my hope that we will further use technology to improve and evolve our very selves.  My vision of the future is one of cautious optimism.”

See more about Micah’s work:

Check out the 101/Exhibit Gallery:

Read about Micah’s exhibit in the news:

The Next Web (TNW) Latin America, Day 2

* Original Post in August 2013 *

The second day at the conference was noticeably slower than the first.  On top of some significant internet problems (and by that I mean there was no wifi for most of the day), there were less people stopping by the booth, and just less people in general.  Regardless, we spent most of the day printing The Next Web logo (thanks Lorena!), which was given as a prize to Senseta for winning the startup rally.

With more free time than the day before, I had more opportunities to hop next door and watch the presenters.  Kei Shimada kicked things off with a great quote by Albert Einstein: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”  I took this advice to heart, explaining our 3D printer to bewildered onlookers with the simple one-word explanation: “Magic.”

The investor panel on stage – among them Startup Chile’s very own Horacio Melo – offered some sound advice regarding startups in Latin America.  They urged the crowd to look to solve Latin America’s problems, rather than rushing to build the first thing they see on Tech Crunch and thinking it will work in the LatAm market.  These solutions they said, will not be sexy.  Think: B2B, software as a service companies.  Horacio added: “Please no more social networks.”

My favorite speaker of the day was Paulo Veras from 99 Taxis.  His talk was about how to scale your startup to a full-fledged business, but he also spent a lot of time talking about how to be a successfulstartup.  A lot of his advice was very pertinent to re:3D’s current stage.  Veras stressed the importance of hiring exceptional people.  Startups need to take the time to seek out A players, and fix mistakes quickly when they arise.  One of his other main points was about laser focus – a piece of advice re:3D hears a lot.  Unfocused startups fail, he said.  Have one product and nail it – then, when you become really good at that one thing, you can diversify.

On top of listening to some very interesting talks, we got to speak with more new people at the booth.  Some brief points from the day:

  1. We can’t escape it – no matter what country we’re in we get the inevitable weapons question.  Brazil is no exception – there was a notable fascination among the Brazilians with printing guns.  One guy even went so far as to say, “Well, when you can print a gun, I’ll buy [a Gigabot].”
  2. There was some strong interest from several attendees (one disappointed Brazilian who wanted to walk out of the conference with our STGO MakerSpace-destined Gigabot), but mostly just a lot of entrepreneurs curious to see a 3D printer, but with no practical use for one.
  3. I tried Google Glass.  I’ve seen a handful of people wearing them in the States, but I’ve never had the opportunity to hound them with questions like, “What do they do?”, “Do you use them everyday?”, and “Do you feel like a total idiot when you wear them?”. Today, I finally got the chance to ask all these questions and more.  And – bonus! – I got to try them on and give them a spin myself.

Tomorrow is our final day in São Paulo – Matthew heads to Santiago to play musical chairs with some Gigabots while I head back to San Francisco.  I get most of the day tomorrow to explore the city and I plan on making a 2nd, hopefully more successful than my first experience, stop at a Churrascaria.


The Next Web (TNW) Latin America, Day 1

* Original Post from August 2013 *

As expected, it was an action-packed first day at The Next Web conference in São Paulo, Brazil.  After accidentally eating until the point of pain the night before at traditional Brazilian Churrasco restaurant (I clearly did not understand the process at this kind of establishment), it was an early start this morning to get set up. Matthew zipped through Gigabot assembly, with only minimal visible envy of the surrounding software companies whose setup procedure was opening their laptops.

The first talk of the day was Luis von Ahn, who humorously explained his past accomplishments: “How many have you have ever filled out [a captcha form]?  How many of you found it extremely annoying?  Yeah, I invented that.”  The human being-verification inventor went on to describe his latest venture, a language-learning startup called duolingo (  The idea behind it is that users learn a new language while simultaneously translating the web.  The service is free – duolingo makes their money by selling the translations that their users create for them.  The same thinking went into both captchas and duolingo: recycle the energy that people are already expending on the web.  This mentality can be traced back to von Ahn’s childhood idea of creating a gym where the people exercising on machines create electricity which is then sold back to electric companies.  Take an action that people are already doing, and figure out how to make use of it.

On top of this, duolingo is simultaneously essentially doing one giant A/B test of language-learning.  von Ahn asks, “Do we teach students adjectives first, or plurals first?”  Now they have a definitive answer to that question, after splitting up users between the two different options and tracking their progress.  And with research showing that after using the service for 34 hours, users have the same amount of knowledge as the equivalent of a semester of a university course, it seems they have the right idea.

Other takeaways from the day:

Many Brazilians expressed interest in 3D printing, and they see the value in having such a tool for prototyping.  However, they warn of potential problems getting Gigabot through Brazilian customs.  Not only are the taxes high, they say some imports just never make it through.  More investigation is needed into this, but it seems like the best option for interested Brazilians might be to come to the states and bring Gigabot back with them.

Some Brazilians suggested we manufacture the machines down here, thus circumventing the complicated customs process.  But the Brazilian market is notoriously difficult to break into, so the conundrum is how to test the popularity of Gigabot in the country if we can’t sell it here.  The Brazilians we talked to stressed the importance of targeting the massive Brazilian market, so it’s something we need to explore as a company.

I can apparently pass for Brazilian.  In Chile, my blonde hair and face in general was a dead giveaway that I was an outsider, but I cannot tell you how many times I was asked today where in Brazil I was from.  The game is over when I can’t reply to them in Portuguese.

We’re looking forward to what Day 2 brings.  We’ve got some exciting prints planned!

Boa noite,


Diving into 3D Printing

* Original post from mid 2013 *

Note: This post is adapted from an article written by Morgan Hamel for the Santiago-based magazine “I Love Chile.”

If you had told me a month ago that I would be leaving my hometown of Silicon Valley – the heart of all things tech – to come to Santiago, Chile to work with a startup making 3D printers, I would have thought you had taken one too many deep inhales of the Santiago smog. Yet here I am, gazing out the window at the Andes as I push a 3D printed model of the Chrysler Building and a structure of the inner ear out of my way to write this.

My knowledge of 3D printing before arriving was pretty minimal, so I’ll give you the low-down on how this futuristic technology works. In contrast to traditional subtractive manufacturing, whereby objects are fabricated by removing matter from a piece of raw material, 3D printing is known as additive manufacturing: objects are created by adding layers of material to form a desired shape. You start with a 3D image on the computer – modeled with digital modeling software or downloaded from a website with open-source designs, like Thingiverse. Using a special computer program, you then slice these images into layers that are readable by the 3D printer, and – voilá! – your printer can begin dispensing the layers while your once-two dimensional object comes to 3D life before your eyes. The impact of 3d printing in supply chain is also very fascinating and definitely worth investigating further.

Sounds like something straight from the year 3000, right? Surprisingly enough, this technology has been around for almost two decades. It has even helped to spark the fourth industrial revolution, which will have huge consequences for the business world. Drawing from the process of the then-recently-invented inkjet printer, 3D printing got its start in 1984 when Charles Hull invented stereolithography, a process by which 3D objects were created from digital data. Since its birth, 3D printing has brought us a working kidney (2002), a self-replicating printer (2008), a working car (2011), and a prosthetic jaw (2012). As the technology continues to flourish, we are now beginning to see 3D printers as household items, with the breadbox-sized MakerBot Replicator leading the pack in the desktop printer market.

Right now, the marketplace is awash in desktop 3D printers – microwave-sized machines within the budget of a well-to-do hobbyist who enjoys printing handheld objects. But say you wanted to print something bigger, something like a chair? These printers don’t have the capacity to print something that large. This is where re:3D saw an opportunity. Addressing two of the main barriers to 3D printing – cost and scale – the team built their answer to this problem, and it goes by the name of Gigabot.

The Gigabot is currently the largest consumer printer on the market, boasting a build volume 30x larger than that of a standard desktop printer. The printer excelled in its Kickstarter campaign, meeting its fundraising goal in just over 24 hours and surpassing the target by more than sixfold. At $3,950 USD, it has applications in prototyping industries where the alternatives – like traditional injection molding – start in the tens of thousands of dollars. The team is already looking to become the forerunner in markets beyond the single consumer – aerospace, architecture, design, education, manufacturing, and medicine are just some of the industries where large-scale 3D printing is applicable and cost-effective.

But the team is not stopping there. The next project is already in the works at re:3D – a machine that converts plastic trash into 3D printer input material. This undertaking – a collaboration with Dr. Joshua Pearce of Michigan Tech University – will drive down costs while reducing landfill waste and global resource depletion, all while furthering the company’s vision of a future of sustainable 3D printing where individuals can have ownership over their entire supply chain. The applications range from the average consumer interested in operating a sustainable personal factory to isolated communities like Easter Island, where trash removal is a time-consuming and costly process.

So why Santiago? re:3D was accepted as one of the 103 companies in generation 6 of Startup Chile, an incubator program put on by the Chilean government. This CORFO initiative gives entrepreneurs around the world $40,000, office space, and mentorship under the condition that they move to Santiago for six months to build their companies. Gigabot is currently printing away in the ultra-cool workspace of the STGO MakerSpace ( while the team explores the opportunities for 3D printing in the Latin American market.

While 3D printing has been hailed as the second industrial revolution many are still skeptical. But one needs to look past the knick-knacks and toys, towards the custom prosthetics and organs, the toilet in a developing country printed using the community’s plastic landfill, the astronauts fixing an unexpected breakage while on a mission. Only time will tell if 3D printing is the future, but until then I’ll be here in Santiago, somewhere between the Chrysler Building and inner ear.