When Ben Reytblat drives past the Trenton Makes, The World Takes bridge, he smiles. His 3D printer company, 3DMonstr, is living up to that statement, he believes, creating an opportunity for a whole new generation of 21st century “makers” to continue Trenton’s tradition.
Like other 3D printers, the 3DMonstr makes three-dimensional, solid objects layer upon layer, from a digital model that is replicated by computerized controls. While traditional model building begins with a large piece of piece of material that is reduced to the desired final product — a subtractive process — the 3D printer uses an additive process to build up the material, strand by strand, to the finished object.
Where the 3DMonstr printer is different, Reytblat says, is that it fills the gap between entry-level hobbyist printers and the big industrial machines. With devices such as Reytblat’s printer, the challenging task of making tools or specialized parts for innovative science and technology could be moved from a large and very expensive industrial tool and die facility to an economical setting such as a garage or a table in a spare room.
In fact, Reytblat and his wife, co-founder Susan Minzter, are currently moving the company’s operations out of the garage of their West Windsor home to a nearby industrial space at 45 Everett Drive, where they hope to fine tune the production process to be in full swing between July and August.
Currently, Reytblat’s T-Rex-12 printer can build objects with a volume of one cubic foot (12” x 12”x 12”). Over the next few months, he plans to build larger printers with build volumes of 18” x 18” x 18” and 24” x 24” x 24”. His printers will come with two to four extruders (the print heads that deposit the melted plastic or other material onto the print bed). Industrial printers capable of producing such objects cost $10,000 or more, Reytblat says. The prices for 3DMonstr printers will range from just under $2,900 to just under $5,900.
Reytblat calls his printers prosumer products because they are built for customers who want to create usable products rather than trinkets or toys. Even with advances made over the past few years, product reviewers and experimenters question the entry-level printers’ capability for making useful products.
“They can print small objects in limited colors,” writes Agam Shah for PC World on April 4. Natasha Lomas, writing for Tech Crunch, April 20, was even less inspired: “In the short term, the rise of cheaper 3D printers is going to fuel a boom in sub par machines that churn out cheap plastic trash. Just because they can.”
One printer campaigning on Kickstarter is offered to backers for $200. Market prices for products at the low end range from $300 to $900, and prices for higher end units go up to about $3,000. The MakerBot website lists retail stores in three northeast locations: New York, Greenwich, and Boston (see makerbot.com/retail-store). 3Ders.org lists several links to online and retail stores (see 3ders.org/pricecompare/3dprinters).
“I’m looking to help folks print things they couldn’t do otherwise,” Reytblat says. While he refrains from making grand claims, it’s easy to imagine that 3D printers could change the manufacturing world just as desktop publishing revolutionized that industry.
The target market for 3DMonstr and similar companies are the people and businesses who consider themselves “makers.” That group includes the traditional do-it-yourselfers, tinkerers, inventors, as well as entrepreneurs and businesses. “It is a movement,” says Reytblat.
One online community, www.makerspace.com, declares “Makerspaces combine manufacturing equipment, community, and education for the purposes of enabling community members to design, prototype, and create manufactured works that wouldn’t be possible to create with the resources available to individuals working alone. These spaces can take the form of loosely organized individuals sharing space and tools, for-profit companies, non-profit corporations, organizations affiliated with or hosted within schools, universities or libraries, and more. All are united in the purpose of providing access to equipment, community, and education, and all are unique in exactly how they are arranged to fit the purposes of the community they serve.
“Makerspaces represent the democratization of design, engineering, fabrication, and education. They are a fairly new phenomenon, but are beginning to produce projects with significant national impacts.” (To find “makerspaces” in New Jersey, check out the Makerspace directory at www.makerspace.com/makerspace-directory or the NJ Makerspace Association locations page on the Rutgers website: makerspace.rutgers.edu/locations.)
Several factors are fueling this “maker movement,” says Reytblat. “Computer-controlled machines have made it possible to create prototypes at high speed and cost. Embedded micro-controllers and the software to control them are proliferating. Components such as stepper motors and ball screws are dropping in cost [primarily due to Chinese imports].”
Another factor in the maker movement, says Reytblat, is “the infusion of the arts into this culture.” Whereas the do-it-yourselfers view this new technology from the perspective of what it can do for them, the artists look at it in terms of what it can do for others. “Art and technology are not just working alongside each other in the maker community,” he says. “They are completely intertwined.”
He has talked with several customers and prospects who want to use 3D printers for real-life solutions: A sculptor in France wants to use the printer to produce a model as a reference for creating his actual sculpture; an architect would use the printer for building models to show customers; an aerospace company for maintenance production lines; and a designer/producer for after-market components in the auto industry such as custom body panels and antique interior panels.
Schools and home schooling families would like to use the printer for hands-on learning; theater, film, and television groups for set and prop design.
If your business is considering buying a 3D printer for the first time, Reytblat encourages you to purchase an entry-level printer and start learning the printing process. You will learn what you need to know inexpensively and quickly, he says. If you decide to move up to a higher quality printer (and Reytblat predicts you will), you can re-sell your first machine on eBay.
Reytblat designs his machines to resolve the shortcomings of the entry-level consumer machines: small build volume, small selection of materials, too much maintenance, and low precision. His printers use strong and precise components that can be scaled up to large sizes by using advanced materials (such as titanium and, soon, ceramics), and they are modular to help with maintenance and upgrades, Reytblat says. In terms of speed, the 3DMonstr printers are in the middle of the market segment.
The idea of building a 3D printer came to Reytblat and his business partner, Eduard Nesterov, in 2012. Reytblat, with a background in computer science, aerospace, and engineering, was designing a rocket engine, and Nesterov was designing large custom format camera bodies. They had planned on buying a 3D printer for prototyping and building their products. They needed a printer that was more robust than one designed for personal use but less expensive than the one designed for heavy industrial use. The problem? No such printer existed. So Reytblat and his team set out to build their own 3D printer.
For funding, they started a Kickstarter campaign in December, 2013, with a goal of raising $35,000. On January 27 their project exceeded its goal, raising $89,806 with 102 backers and 19 printers sold. Reytblat rewarded his backers with his own pledge to send them a one-pound spool of nylon — a common printing material — when their printer shipped. “As we say in the 3D printing world, the proof is in the filament,” he said.
What really surprised Reytblat was the 20 plus companies who expressed an interest in becoming resellers. “People approached us from all over the world,” he said. The advantage of being a reseller in another country is that potential customers feel more confident buying from a local person.
Reytblat has used his 3D printer to create flower vases and artistic sculptures, and plans to use his printer to build the prototype for his rocket engine, which is designed to be safer than solid rocket motors and less expensive than bi-propellant liquid rocket engines. The patent application is moving through the Patent Office.
Reytblat’s 3D printer line will include three options with prices starting at $2,899 for a T-Rex-12-2 (12” machine with 2 extruders) and going up to $5,899 for a T-Rex-24-4 (24” machine with 4 extruders). He will offer 2, 3, and 4-extruder configurations for all three sizes.
The printers come in two parts, the gantry (frame) and the print bed. The extruders (print heads) have temperature controls and are designed to be mounted or released quickly. Reytblat says the printers are designed to grow with changing technology, and are designed for precision printing. The units are foldable so they can be stored when not in use.
At the Everett Drive location Reytblat plans to expand the types of extruders that 3DMonstr will offer to include paste extruders, which would increase the kinds of things you could make. Some examples include food-grade materials like chocolate, frosting, and cheese; low-temperature pastes like paraffin wax, silicon rubber, clay, and ceramic pastes; and plastic pallets.
Working to make all this happen are several key people on Reytblat’s team. Co-founder and engineer Eduard Nesterov teamed up with Reytblat to build 3DMonstr. He has a degree in mechanical engineering with a focus in machine-building. At 3DMonstr, Nesterov focuses on the primary design and prototype work for the extruders.
Engineer Will Groppe came to the company with several years in the IT industry as a software developer. The technical staff includes Volodymyr Nesterov, a student at Conestoga College of Ontario, Canada, and a robotics enthusiast (and the son of Eduard Nesterov); and Anne Driscoll, a Connecticut resident who is finishing her high school career as an “unschooler” (or self-directed student).
Reytblat was born in Irkutsk, Siberia, and his family later moved to a suburb of Moscow. Both his parents were mathematicians, and his father had a strong background in mechanical physics engineering. Members of his extended family include engineers and physicists. Reytblat was around eight when he became interested in technology. “It’s no surprise that my career includes math, computer science, aerospace, and engineering,” he says.
He was mainly interested in aerospace. “I studied everything I could find about airplanes, especially fighter aircraft, and about rockets and space,” Reytblat says. “I was nine when Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon, and I remember all the details of that day as if it was yesterday. Later on, when I got the chance to meet Buzz, it was a dream come true.”
When he was 16, his family emigrated from Moscow to the U.S., settling in Chicago near Wrigley Field. He went on to college in Chicago and in Champaign and received advanced degrees in computer science and mathematics from the University of Illinois and from Rutgers.
Reytblat began his tech career at AT&T Bell Laboratories, then co-founded Quadrix Solutions, and later became the CEO of CEDev (a consulting firm that helped companies utilize open source software — U.S. 1, March 19, 2008). A frequent speaker on 3D printing and open source applications, he has served on the New Jersey Technology Council’s board and as a visiting lecturer at Rutgers University.
His wife, Minzter, grew up in Westfield, where her father was a doctor and her mother an interior designer and decorator. After majoring in English at William Smith College, she worked in print advertising, moved into Internet technology, and eventually became marketing officer at Quadrix Solutions. At 3DMonstr she is also responsible for “maker relations.”
The love of learning, creating, and making things carries on in Reytblat’s family today. Both of his children are involved with the company. Their 10-year-old daughter Abby has created a 3DMonstr ad campaign on YouTube, and 8-year-old son Danny came up with the idea of putting monsters on their business cards.
Wanting to share his passion for technology plus the art and science of making things, Reytblat has a vision of creating a maker academy where kids and adults can learn to create things with printers.
Reytblat recalls that when he was growing up, most people enjoyed making things with their hands. For a teenage boy, making a car was almost a rite of passage. But as technologies like iPhones and the Internet grew ever more popular, making things seemed to have less appeal, and high school shops were closing up.
But about five years ago, Reytblat noticed that things started shifting, and ironically, the change was being played out on the Internet. Actual maker spaces and hacker spaces started popping up with virtual spaces appearing on the web. “Something magical is happening,” Reytblat says. Initially, it started as a way to build electronics, and communities grew up around that.
“Today there’s a culture that’s on the scene between art and technology. This is like the Internet was in the early 1990s. It was just peeking through. There was an excitement about it. This feels the same way,” Reytblat says. “Maker spaces are going to be a part of the landscape of the future.”
The interest in making things is worldwide, says Reytblat who sees a shift in the U.S. from a consumer mentality to an active maker culture.
Reytblat notes that 3D printing is starting to become a part of school classrooms. “A lot of teachers are going to 3D Maker conferences on their own time and with their own money,” he says. The process lets kids design something, make it, and put it to use quickly. It gives kids the ability to affect their universe, he said.
Though Reytblat looks forward to setting up a Maker Academy at the 3DMonstr facility in the near future, today he has a production schedule to meet and printers to ship. He could have set up shop in China, and had even considered the prospect. “But we did the homework,” he said. “We studied China. It was clear that if we do it the right way here in the U.S., we can build a great product here and the cost is about the same, but we will have better quality and we can get it into the hands of customers faster.” Reytblat does use some parts made in China, but the printers are being manufactured here.
What’s more, Reytblat says, there are potential problems in shipping products from China and dealing with the customs system that has a poor tracking process. “I wondered, what if a shipment from China gets lost or destroyed, what would we do?” he says. And, Reytblat adds, working with West Windsor Township has been rewarding. “Everyone here has been helpful, helping us navigate the right way. They want [this business] to be good for us, our employees, and customers.”
Once 3DMonstr’s production process is running smoothly, Reytblat plans to hire new employees. His ideal staff would be a mix of young people who have an enthusiasm for learning and military veterans who have a strong work ethic, leadership experience, and a commitment to quality.
About 50 percent of the people who ordered from the Kickstarter campaign are from the U.S. and 50 percent from several other countries, he says. Reytblat’s advice to new entrepreneurs is this: “Think globally, act locally,” a phrase that was popular in the 1980s. But it’s a phrase that has even more meaning for Reytblat today. He’s reminded of it whenever he crosses that bridge, “Trenton Makes. The World Takes.” “The U.S. is in there together with everyone else. That’s cool. We’re sharing culture,” Reytblat says.
3DMonstr, 45 Everett Drive, West Windsor 08550. 732-745-5566. www.3dmonstr.com.