Irish Brothers’ Startup Makes 3D Printers Fed By Office Paper
Irish brothers Conor and Fintan MacCormack were into 3D printing before it was cool.
In fact, Conor first discovered the concept in 1986, when he was in secondary school, watching a BBC television special. The technology hooked the 16-year-old right away, just like motorcycles, rocket ships, and computers already had. He was in awe watching the 3D printer create something layer by layer, translating a computer design into a physical object.
“Seeing this print really opened my eyes to the possibilities,” Conor says. “It definitely inspired me.”
Years later, Conor and his older brother started kicking around the idea of building their own 3D printer that was better than what was on the market. It was Christmas of 2002. Electrical engineer Fintan was visiting friends and family in Ireland while on vacation from his job with a semiconductor parts manufacturer in Philadelphia. Conor, a mechanical engineer living in Dublin, was working on a project for Airbus at the time. Both had experience with computer-aided design and prototyping.
Their idea? A 3D printer that makes objects out of standard office paper, rather than plastic or metal.
Fast forward to today, and the brothers (along with Conor’s wife, Deirdre) are running one of the more intriguing companies in the 3D printing space. Mcor Technologies—based in Dunleer, Ireland, 38 miles north of Dublin—has grown to about 50 employees, according to Conor, who is CEO. That includes additional operations in the U.K., Boston, Atlanta, and San Jose, CA. The company says sales of its two 3D printer models grew 190 percent between July 2013 and July 2014, though it declines to say what those sales were or if it is profitable. Meanwhile, to fuel its growth, it has pulled in more than $14 million (11 million euros) from investors in Ireland, the U.S., and other parts of Europe, including $12 million (9.4 million euros) this past June.
The new funding, Conor says, will help Mcor in its quest to bring 3D printing technology “to the masses.”
Back when the MacCormack brothers shared their epiphany during Christmas of 2002, the whole 3D printing industry was only selling about 2,000 to 3,000 units worldwide each year, Conor estimates. This was before companies like Makerbot Industries, which was acquired last year by Stratasys (NASDAQ: SSYS), made it big and 3D printing reached the levels of hype (some say over-hype) it enjoys today, with bold predictions about how it could transform everything from manufacturing to healthcare.
“Everybody you would talk to about it at the time was just completely blown away” by the technology, Conor says of those 2002 days.
The problem was, the machines were still quite expensive. Even though retail prices were starting to come down, materials costs were rising. When Conor was earning his mechanical engineering doctorate from Trinity College in Dublin, for example, only one or two students were allowed to print a model each year because the materials were so expensive.
The brothers believed they could build a lower-cost 3D printer “purely on a technical basis,” Conor says. They initially set their sights on designing one that would cost 20,000 euros (or about $25,500), roughly a fifth the retail price of most machines at the time, he says. But perhaps more importantly, they wanted to create a 3D printer with virtually zero materials costs.
“What is the cheapest, most accessible material around? Paper,” Conor says. Using paper as the building block, he envisions a 3D printer in every school in the world so the next generation is “empowered to make things for themselves and, in turn, design better machines for the future.
“There is no reason why 3D printing should not be as mainstream as 2D printing,” he says.
Getting Mcor as far as it is today wasn’t easy, though, and it certainly wasn’t top of mind for the brothers when they started building their first prototype. “We were technologists,” Conor says. “We wanted to build a machine. That’s what drove us. The business was completely secondary.”
They worked on the first 3D printer in their spare time and on separate continents, since Fintan still had his job in the U.S. They’d put it all together in the front room of Conor’s Dublin home during the holidays. “We did the whole thing from scratch,” he says. “This was prior to open source.”
It went on like that until 2005, when a contingent of university and industry officials in Ireland, the U.K., and the U.S. all told them their idea had legs, Conor says. That’s when the pair decided to quit their jobs and work on Mcor full-time.
The brothers went all in. They convinced the Bank of Ireland to give them two unsecured loans totaling 200,000 euros ($255,000) for the initial seed money, Conor says. They later cashed in their pension funds and remortgaged their houses. Conor even sold his motorcycle.
But by 2008, they had nearly burned through all their cash, Conor says. Then the startup got its first big break, when Deirdre MacCormack, the company’s chief marketing officer, published a few blog posts about Mcor’s 3D printer idea.
The articles got 2 million hits in 10 days, Conor says. Soon, Boeing and Airbus came knocking to see what the company was about. Mcor hadn’t even finished developing the product at that point, let alone made its first sale, Conor recalls. The company had its work cut out, but the outside interest was validating, he adds.
That publicity helped Mcor snag an investment in 2009 from an Irish couple who had graduated from Stanford University and were interested in the technology, Conor says, declining to share the deal’s size or the couple’s names. In 2012, the company got $2 million (1.6 million euros) from San Jose, CA-based Irish Technology Capital. Last June, Mcor raised $12 million in a round led by WHEB, which has offices in London and Munich.
Now, the startup must deliver on the promise its investors see in it. With its new influx of cash, Mcor is boosting sales and marketing efforts and distributing its products to more places around the world. But the bulk of the new capital will be spent on R&D, Conor says. “Like any good 3D printing company, we’re trying to make things faster and smaller, with more capabilities, more resolution, and better color,” he says. “I can’t tell you exactly what we’re doing.”
Mcor’s target customers include educators, architects, doctors, product designers, and model makers in the fine arts and entertainment industries. Animators and 3D software developers, for example, can use the printers to make detailed, full-color 3D models of their envisioned characters or avatars. A Texas high school teacher asked his students to use an Mcor printer to make interlocking paper gears so they can better understand design principles, and to print 3D architectural models so they can pinpoint problems they might’ve missed on a 2D computer screen. In Belgium, doctors have scanned the shapes of patients’ bones, then used the patterns to print full-size 3D models so they can make more accurate metal plates and other implants.
The company’s flagship printer, the Mcor Iris, prints in full color, with ink being applied pixel by pixel. Its second printer, the Matrix 300+, doesn’t print with ink and can only create layered hues by feeding different-colored pieces of paper into the machine, Conor says. That means the Matrix can handle something like a maroon and white Texas A&M logo, but unlike the Iris, it wouldn’t be sophisticated enough to accurately print all the shades of a human face.
Each printer weighs 350 pounds and stands almost 3 feet tall. The Matrix and Iris cost $40,000 (31,348 euros) and $50,000 (39,185 euros), respectively, meaning Mcor has thus far fallen short on the co-founders’ early retail price goal. While it’s not an apples to apples comparison because Makerbot makes much smaller desktop 3D printers, Makerbot’s printer prices range from $1,375 (1,078 euros) to $6,499 (5,093 euros).
But if a customer is willing to shell out for the up-front cost, the ongoing expenses of Mcor’s printers can be as little as a 10th of the cost of many competitors, Conor says, thanks largely to using inexpensive and abundant office paper as the input material.
Mcor says its process is also more environmentally friendly because the paper, water-based glue, and ink its machines use to make prototypes are recyclable; its process, unlike some 3D printers, doesn’t kick out toxic fumes or use support materials that need to be dissolved with chemicals; and there is no left-over powder that needs to be cleaned up.
The “green” features are important selling points to the education market, a core customer base for Mcor, Conor says.
However, Mcor’s 3D printers have their limitations and probably won’t cut it for many engineers and hobbyists who prefer to work with metal or plastic parts. The company’s main selling point—cheap, readily available prototyping material—might also be its primary drawback for some.
Conor admits his company’s printers couldn’t be used to fashion a carburetor or a crankshaft. But Mcor’s paper products are more resilient than one might think, he adds. “People think they’re like origami or papier-mache,” he says, but they’re more durable, “almost like a wood-like structure.” (The products are sometimes reinforced by dipping them in a coat of glue or a sealant.)
“There are applications where you can’t use our technology, but the majority, you can,” he says.
Nevertheless, Mcor and the broader 3D printing industry still have work to do before such machines achieve the type of mass adoption Conor envisions. The idea of having a 3D printer in most people’s homes, on standby if a broken vacuum cleaner needs a new part made, for example, is likely still years away.
Mcor has taken some steps to make its products available to more consumers, most notably by forming a partnership in 2012 with Staples in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg (collectively known as Benelux). The program allowed consumers to upload product scans to Staples’ website. The scans would then be printed using the Mcor Iris and delivered to the customer either in a Staples store or via the mail. Staples has since sold its Netherlands-based printing division, but the 3D printing service is still available in the Benelux region through Staples spinoff myeasy3d.com and Mcor, Conor says. He would be interested in creating similar programs in other countries, perhaps the U.S., he adds.
Current 3D printing technology is, in general, overhyped—but the future promise isn’t, Conor says. For one thing, he thinks 3D printers will continue to become more advanced, delivering an increasing ability to print functional parts that can be used right away by the consumer, rather than being primarily used by the maker-set for early-stage prototypes.
Over the long haul, putting that design power in the hands of more people will be incredibly powerful, Conor says. “It’s like an industry looking for its killer app,” he says. “It’s going to democratize innovation. People are always throwing around that term. But it will allow people to fail faster, and to design faster.”
Jeff Bauter Engel is Deputy Editor, Tech at Xconomy. Email: email@example.com