UW Startup Spectrom Tries to Bring Color to Desktop 3D Printing

If you believe industry insiders—and a considerable amount of media hype—desktop 3D printers are about to become the proverbial next big thing, as companies like MakerBot, 3D Systems, and Solidoodle find ways to create more reliable, user-friendly printers that consumers and most professional designers can afford.

But while those companies duke it out for market share and a place in workshops, garages, and studios around the world, a Madison, WI-based startup is trying to solve another problem: how to get 3D printers to print in full color at a price point accessible to the mass market.

Spectrom was founded last year by a team of University of Wisconsin-Madison students and recent graduates. The startup has developed an adapter that allows desktop 3D printers to put down layers of colored plastic when they print a design using a process called fused deposition modeling. Spectrom’s device can add dye to the melting plastic that changes its colors when the software that runs the printer tells it to do so. The technology has drawn early interest among industry enthusiasts because commercially available desktop 3D printers typically only churn out single-color objects.

There are other attempts to bring color to the consumer 3D printing market, but they rely on multiple heads and spools of plastic. Spectrom uses a single head that can be added to 3D printers already on the market. The company believes its product could sell for less than $100.

Color is a big step forward because it could lead to better, more useful products, Spectrom co-founder Cedric Kovacs-Johnson said. He gave the example of a radiologist being able to better highlight tumors along a 3D model of a bone to help patients and doctors visualize the problem.

“Just being able to do that with two colors is way more effective,” he said.

Fans of 3D printers seem to be receptive. Stories about Spectrom on blogs that follow the industry have been positive, although there is a bit of skepticism about how quickly its adapter can adjust between colors.

Spectrom still is in its infancy, but Kovacs-Johnson thinks it can take advantage of where the industry is headed.

He notes that 3D printing is a relatively mature technology, having been around for about 30 years. But for most of those years, printers were large and expensive enough that they were out of the price range of all but the biggest companies and labs. The big breakthrough came around 2009, when companies like MakerBot began making printers that were smaller and affordable. Prices now range from about $600 for starter models like the Solidoodle Press to just less than $5,000 for a more advanced model like the 3D Systems ProJet.

Those companies helped prove a market existed, and their printers are used by professionals who need to design models, prototypes, or even replacement parts.

At the same time, hobbyists with money to spend and the patience and know-how to work with machines that still aren’t quite user friendly took to the printers. And this past summer, The Home Depot announced it would install MakerBot printers in a small number of stores.

“Engineers and designers now have access to this technology, and it’s really been democratized,” Kovacs-Johnson said. “This is going to be the future of 3D printing, this accessible desktop market.”

“We have the right idea now at the right time, and the market is really exploding,” he added. “If we can jump with the color technology we’ve developed into the space that’s just exploding right now, I think we can really be successful.”

Spectrom’s origin story is a version of the classic college startup story. Kovacs-Johnson and his co-founders came up with the idea while using desktop 3D printers for class projects. They thought about ways to improve the devices and then went to work.

Their technology showed enough promise to win student startup competitions at UW, and in November they took home first place in the undergraduate division of the national Collegiate Inventors Competition. Their prize was $12,500.

The success convinced the three members of Spectrom’s five-member team who graduated in August to turn down job offers, Kovacs-Johnson said. The other two members remain in school.

The team combines students with backgrounds in chemical, mechanical, and software engineering, which Kovacs-Johnson said speaks to the complexity of making hardware able to manipulate plastics and dyes and the software needed to control it.

“3D printing is one of the rare places where you see the combination of such diverse technical needs,” he said.

Right now, Spectrom is focused on two things. There’s the technical challenge of finishing its first model that’s ready for beta testing. Spectrom currently is recruiting testers through its website.

Then there’s the strategic decision about what kind of company the founders want Spectrom to be. The startup could go in two directions, Kovacs-Johnson said.

“We’re examining partnership opportunities with 3D printing companies to see who would want to implement this into their devices, or if the better option is to make our own 3D printer,” he said.

Spectrom’s founders have done their homework. They’ve been in touch with established 3D printing companies, going so far as to discuss market trends and the need for color printing, Kovacs-Johnson said. That’s helped Spectrom refine its ideas and product, and it could be the foundation for collaboration down the road.

Once the co-founders settle the question about partnering versus developing a 3D printer in-house, Spectrom will start approaching investors. The plan is to raise a funding round in March, Kovacs-Johnson said.

“The amount of that will really be determined by which of these paths we think will be most profitable and be the quickest to market,” he said.

If Spectrom decides to partner up, the company could have its technology on the market as soon as March or April, Kovacs-Johnson said. Building its own printers would push that timeline back to the fourth quarter of 2015.

One thing that’s sure is Spectrom is heading to Las Vegas early next year. Not to gamble, although the team might be able to hit a jackpot of sorts if they’re lucky. They’ll be making their debut at the annual Consumer Electronics Show, one of the tech industry’s biggest showcases. Many major companies use it to release and promote new products, while many startups use it to make their debuts.

Spectrom will be going to CES with one of the three 3D printing companies that have been working with it, although the companies have not yet made plans to work together in a “formal partnership,” Kovacs-Johnson said. Still, attending CES will be a big deal for Spectrom.

“It’s a chance for us to for the first time publicly show the world what we can do and to get a good feel for where we can take it from here,” he said.

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