AJ Perez is a young startup executive who thinks about the long term.
As the CEO of New Valence Robotics (NVBots), he’s targeting the company’s 3D printers at schools—not known as big spenders on emerging technology—with an eye towards the next generation of designers. It’s an unconventional approach, but it could help the year-old company get a foothold in a crowded market that’s full of promise—and plenty of hype.
Perez told me how NVBots plans to build a profitable business and also inspire kids to study science and engineering, as a 3D printer whirred away in his Seaport District office in South Boston. The company has raised $1 million in angel funding since April and expects to close another $1 million from angels by the end of the year, he says.
There are hundreds of 3D printing companies—printing giant Hewlett-Packard announced its entry last week—but the market overall is split between high-end machines and those aimed at hobbyists, Perez says.
NVBots is making an easy-to-use printer, but not one necessarily destined for home offices or basements. Instead, it designed a printer that can be shared by a group, whether it’s students or professionals who need tools for making plastic prototypes quickly. Functionally, Perez wants NVBots machines to outperform consumer-oriented 3D printers, yet be less expensive than industrial-grade machines now on the market.
The idea for the company’s products sprang from Perez and his co-founders’ experience with 3D printing while they were students at MIT. They were frustrated by the lack of remote control and “shareability” their machine had, Perez says. “We didn’t set out to be a 3D printing company at all. We just did it by necessity,” he says.
From a Web-based application, people can configure how they want a plastic part to be made, deciding on how quickly it should be made and at what strength. There’s also an administrative console that allows a person to organize print jobs. The printer itself has a robotic arm that removes an object and sets it aside, allowing the next job to start. “When you have all those three things, you can do remote function and automation,” Perez says.
NVBots hopes that the close integration of its software and hardware will help it stand out from the many other 3D printers companies. It’s also developing a curriculum to guide schools on how to use 3D printers as a teaching tool to make learning science fun and hands-on. The curriculum includes making models that represent the inside of cells or simulate how hydrogen and oxygen combine to make water.
But why go after schools as potential customers? After all, school budgets are tight no matter where you are and 3D printing is still a novelty for most educators.
To Perez, schools are a relatively under-served market. More fundamentally, though, he sees students as future customers. They need to learn today how to design for 3D printing—a completely different approach to fabrication and manufacturing— in order to drive demand for professional 3D printers down the road, he says.
“If you believe that 3D printing is going to disrupt manufacturing, is going to disrupt the supply chain, it’s going to happen from a design perspective,” he says. “It’s going to happen because we are thinking about making things from the inside out.”
At MIT, Perez teaches design for additive manufacturing—the industrial version of 3D printing—and he and his co-workers teach 3D printing design for 10- to-12 year olds at a local school.
Getting venture capitalists to buy into the idea of selling to schools hasn’t been easy, since they’ve seen the difficulty of selling enterprise software in the education market. But NVBots isn’t expecting schools to actually purchase their machines and pay the yearly subscription fee to its software, which ranges from $3,000 to $5,000. Instead, Perez expects school districts to use grant money available to promote STEM education.
So far, the company has 10 schools using its printers and software and is negotiating what could be a bigger deal of about 100 printers. The key is demonstrating that hands-on learning, aided by 3D printers, can actually enhance education and is not just an expensive toy (the printers themselves cost thousands of dollars).
There’s a lot of hype around 3D printing, particularly for home users. But in industry, 3D printing is already taking hold: General Electric and Rolls Royce, for example, are making metal parts for aircraft with additive manufacturing. The question is how quickly this technology will spread and whether it can be affordable to thousands of smaller companies.
NVBots needs to demonstrate that its first customers have successfully use of 3D printers for education, which could prod other schools to buy in—or at least apply for grants and make room in their curriculum for the technology. And for Perez, students are the key to unleashing the potential of 3D printing more broadly. “It’s the next generation of professional designers that are going to matter,” he says.