John Springrose, a serial entrepreneur with an enthusiasm for high-tech ventures, is revamping his own company at the same time as he is trying to revolutionize the world of manufacturing by introducing high quality 3D printers to the marketplace, he says.
A 3D printer, much like its familiar two-dimensional counterpart, prints designs by depositing liquid, using precise computer designs as a guide. But whereas a 2D printer spits ink onto paper products, the 3D printer uses melted plastic to produce three-dimensional objects layer by layer.
The 3D printers currently on the marketplace are mostly the domain of hackers, hobbyists, inventors, and tinkerers who want to experiment with home manufacturing. Springrose says he’s not interested in the hacker-hobbyist “maker” in a garage, and is instead trying to make a line of 3D printers that are suitable for business applications.
“Two years ago people didn’t care whether they were going to get their money out of 3D printers,” Springrose says. “It was just a cute little toy to have. I want to get away from the hobbyist, and the price points of our products have gone up substantially.”
Springrose, who is CEO and main investor in the Koine, Philadelphia-based 3D printer manufacturing company, will speak at the Princeton Chamber of Commerce’s breakfast Wednesday, March 18, from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m. at the Nassau Club of Princeton. Tickets are $25, $40 for nonmembers. Visit www.princetonchamber.org or call 609-924-1776.
Springrose’s background is in finance, not in manufacturing. He grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, and Birmingham, Alabama, where his father worked in a steel mill. Springrose earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and an MBA from the University of Chicago. He became a salesman at IBM after school, and left in 1983 to work in the financial business for Vanguard and a company called Drexel Burnham Lambert, a trading firm that included 1980s junk bond king Michael Milken. Together with other Drexel partners, Springrose founded the Philadelphia-based 1838 Investment Advisors in 1988. He remained with the company through its sale to MBIA, and was senior managing director of MBIA until 2008.
Since then, he has invested in various companies, at one point owning continuing care facilities as well as owning and operating golf courses. He has also had an interest in some high-tech companies. “My first investment was in speech recognition, and I got murdered,” he says.
Springrose hopes his foray into 3D printing turns out better. He first invested in the 3D printing company InDimension 3 in the spring of 2013 after meeting someone from the company at a car wash in Berlin, Pennsylvania. The company was based in Montana, and was run by two men who Springrose describes as IT professionals and tinkerers who didn’t know much about manufacturing. Springrose committed $100,000 to the company, becoming one of many investors. In 2014, he says, he bought a much larger stake in the company and began the process of overhauling it.
“We started out making very low-end 3D printers,” Springrose says. “When we got involved with the company, they were A-frame-type printers and were not very sophisticated. I could see that the technology was no good unless you could figure out what to do with it. Instead of just making a printer that just printed stuff, we had to figure out the application first and then build a printer around the applications.”
Springrose believes the best application for 3D printers is making replacement parts — for people as well as machines. But to make a better 3d printer, Springrose had to make a better company.
Springrose moved inDimension from Montana to King of Prussia, Pennsylvania to bring it closer to the engineering talent he would need in order to make the product more sophisticated. “Our goal was to go from a simple A-frame to something that was faster, easier to use, prettier, had a bigger print volume, and was more reliable,” he says.
Springrose renamed the company Koine and took down the old InDimension3 website. (As of this writing, there was no Koine website up to replace it.) Springrose says he is rolling out two models of printer — one with a 12” x 12” x 12” printing area and another that is 18” x 18” x 18.” They are both standalone units that do not require assembly, he says, and are designed to be more “plug-and-play” than the company’s previous models.
He says they will offer the ability to print very precisely, down to the 10 micron level. Springrose says they will cost from $10,000 to $30,000. Where previous models had two print actuators (control motors), Springrose says, the Koine machines will have five. He also said the model will have the ability to work under high temperatures.
Today Koine is headquartered in Philadelphia with a manufacturing location in Gainesville, Florida. Springrose says much of the work of actually making the printers is being outsourced to companies with computer-controlled manufacturing experience. Interestingly, the prototype machine, which will be on display at the Princeton Chamber talk, is used with parts that were 3D printed. “You’re going to see a 3D printer that is mostly 3D printed,” Springrose says.
The new printers are being sold overseas, Springrose says. He says foreign customers are more patient and willing to learn how to use the machines properly and make them work. The printers made by InDimension3 did not make a positive impression on some U.S. customers. On a website called 3Dprintinforum.com, people who bought the company’s $6,000 printers say they liked the large size of inDimension 3’s products, but found them to be unreliable. Some even said they had a hard time getting a refund from the company, or that they placed orders that were never fulfilled.
Asked to respond to the forum reviews, Springrose says he is reluctant to engage in conversations on bulletin boards. He says his goal is to improve the quality and reliability of 3d printing with his new models. “After really getting engaged in 3D printing products I quickly realized that quality and reliability was paramount,” he wrote in an E-mail. “The inDimension products had good and bad points. If you were somewhat sophisticated they were great machines and accomplished tasks that were undoable by any other printer in its class. If you bought one with the expectation that it would be plug and play like a laser jet you were disappointed. The industry has to move in the direction of ease of use to be successful.”
Bad reviews are somewhat par for the course in the low end 3D printing business. (In the world of 3D printing, consumer-grade models cost anywhere from $350 to $6,000.) Reviewers and customers have found the units buggy, prone to breakdown, and hard to use. The process is also fairly expensive, with the filament used for most 3D printers running at anything from $50 to $500 a kilogram. Consumer grade printers make products with a rough finish, which the user has to smooth with acetone or other chemicals.
High-end industrial grade printers use lasers, resins, or even metal instead of filament, and can cost $30,000 or more. Stratsys makes a line of 3D printers for dentists, factories, and other professionals that cost up to $750,000. The products of these high end printers are good enough that GE uses them to make turbine parts.
Springrose admits the earlier InDimension 3 units were not well made. “We went along building these cheap versions and were selling some, but the reliability wasn’t there,” he says. “We spent as much time servicing what we sold as we were selling new ones, and that business model doesn’t work for long periods of time.”
Even with the balky nature of the new technology, the competition for 3D printer manufacturing is heating up. Companies like Makerbot, Cubify, Lulzbot, Ultimaker, Airwolf are competing in the consumer market. Dell is the first company to jump into the 3d printing arena by selling MakerBot printers and scanners ranging from $1,300 to $2,900.
Springrose says the new, higher quality machines Koine is making will be useful for business applications.
Three-dimensional printers have already made inroads into the medical world. The ability to print parts that are customized to the patient rather than standardized is potentially extremely useful for surgeons, especially in joint replacement. “We’re working heavily with some spine surgeons both in the states and in Venezuela,” Springrose says. “The medical industry will be taken over by 3D printers. Every surgeon will want to have one to print out whatever they are going to do surgery on to take a look at it before they ever use a knife.”
Another potential venue for 3D printing is in maintenance. Springrose says that when he operated golf courses, he would have welcomed the ability to 3D print his own Toro lawnmower parts rather than order one from the manufacturer and wait days.
Springrose sees the technology spreading into everyday life over the next few years. Fed Ex and Staples have both experimented with putting 3D printers in their stores so customers can go in and print things just like they can with the old inkjets.
Springrose says the business is an exciting one, even if there is the possibility of failure. “The risk-reward was too compelling not to give it a whirl,” he says.
— Diccon Hyatt