An Interview with the Maker of Mod-t, the Affordable 3D Printer for Your Home

The Wire sat down with Co-Founder, President, and Chief Technology Officer of New Matter, Steve Schell, to learn more about 3D printing and the impact Mod-t could have. 

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The world of 3D printing has been making great strides recently. A company called New Matter has brought an impressive new dynamic to the table: an affordable 3D printing option. Through their Indiegogo campaign, the Mod-t printer was sold for as low as $149. When it hits shelves next year, it will retail for $249.

The Wire sat down with Co-Founder, President, and Chief Technology Officer of New Matter, Steve Schell, to learn more about 3D printing and the impact Mod-t could have.

The Wire: What is your background? 

I went to Caltech, and have been working in the 3D printing world for a while. I was at Desktop Factory, an IdeaLab company, which made 3D printers before this.

The Wire: What do you predict 3D printing will be used the most for?

My prediction is that 3D will take off in three ways. First, is children's toys. Kids are constantly coming up with things they want to print out, and also new accessories for things they already have. Like a new accessory for my daughter's doll or a new wing for my son's airplane.

I also think education can benefit in a lot of different ways. 3D printing in a curriculum can bring together art, science, and technology. A child can be exposed to all these different principles at the same time.

The third area I see taking off early is crafting. There are so many people who enjoy making things. There are people who are crafting, woodworking, painting, and I see the 3D medium as another way people can express themselves creatively. It is an expression of who you are and that’s really valuable.

One of the things that’s exciting about New Matter, is that I think I'll be surprised by what people end up doing with it.

The Wire: While your device is relatively inexpensive, much of the cost comes from the 'ink'. Can you speak about this a bit? 

When we started the Indiegogo campaign, we had 500 units available at $149. Those sold out in two hours. We had 1,000 units at $199 that sold out on day two, right when we hit our funding target. Since then they’ve been selling at $249.

If you buy the filament on the market today, the price varies greatly. People can use any filament with Mod-t. We aren't brand specific, so they can find their favorite, best, or cheapest option, whichever they want. Typically a one-kilogram spool is $30 to $35. We want it priced competitively through New Matter, so we will sell it on our website, but users can choose to buy filament anywhere.

The Wire: So how much is the cost for printing some of the objects we have here? 

The lion head would cost between $2 and $3. It's hollow, so doesn't use as much filament. So you can get 10-15 of these objects from a spool.

The Wire: You mentioned crafting. How can artists print their designs in unusual ways? Can they make them multi-colored? 

There is a pause and resume functionality so you can change the color, if you want it to print in several colors. The plastic also takes paint well, so you can paint things after the fact. The 3D printing part is the beginning of the process, not necessarily the end. That allows you to add multiple parts together.

The Wire: What are the size restrictions for objects printed with Mod-t? 

On the small side; it is limited in resolution by the nozzle. For the vertical axis, the standard layer thickness is 0.2 mm. We have had people request to get to 0.1 mm, and we are working on that. For horizontal, it is 0.4 mm, as it is limited by the nozzle. In terms of the maximum size, it's 6 inches wide, 4 inches deep, 5 inches tall. We selected that size as a compromise. The bigger it is, the more space the printer takes up, and this is meant for home use. The iPhone case went into that specification. If we had made it too small for that, we would’ve done something horribly wrong.

The Wire: There's an extruder that allows 3D printers to print in Nutella. (I love Nutella.) Will this work on Mod-t? 

It isn’t designed for that and it isn’t easily reconfigurable, but it could work. We are going after consumers who want a plug-and-play device. That’s at odds with being reconfigurable. We haven’t designed it to make that process easy, but there are a lot of people who don’t mind tinkering and taking it apart, so it'll likely happen. There's nothing that says you can't do it; it is just not really, really easy.

The Wire: Some 3D printers I have tested are very noisy, especially for something that has to run for hours on end. How's the noise level here?

We really want it to be a consumer device. We want the most amazing user experience possible. We realized early on that a 3D printer is really different than a paper printer. That takes 30 seconds, so if it makes a lot of noise, that’s a non-issue because it only makes that noise for 30 seconds. With a 3D printer, you can be printing for six, eight hours. There's very few things that take less than an hour. We made a number of design decisions to quiet the machine, like the motor.

The Wire took this video to demonstrate the noise level from the prototype Mod-t. It's fairly quiet and they are still working to silence it further:

The Wire: How long do things generally take to print? 

It depends on the object, and on if it's hollow. For the projects on the table [in image above], the red swirl takes about an hour, the purple wavy vase was an hour and a half, the iPhone case is less than an hour; close to 45 minutes. Then the lion is mostly hollow, but took about three to four hours. The bust of my daughter, Chloe, that is hollow inside also and took two to three hours.

The Wire: We have seen some really cool failed 3D printings. What happens when Mod-t fails? 

There are a number of different failure modes. Our first design priority was to make the machine to be as reliable as possible, we want to avoid those failures at all costs. In the event it does happen, we also want to alert the owner as quickly as possible. We have a lot of feedback from a servo motor. There's constantly a sensor on the motor telling you its position all the time. That allows us to constantly monitor and get feedback. We understand a lot better about what's actually happening, whether the filament is extruding correctly. We have a lot more intelligence on board to prevent failures. But how we respond to them is just as important.

I've never seen it turn into a pile of spaghetti, which I know can happen. So far, the Mod-t has proven to be a very reliable device.

The Wire: New Matter will have a store where users can buy designs to print. Can you tell us more about this? 

We feel like the quality of content in our store will be really important to getting people to adopt our platform as their 3D printing solution. We will be working really closely with some designers to really closely curate our store. That is not intended to be a closed system. If you fancy yourself a designer and want to put some things for sale on the store, you can do that. It'll be like an Etsy model, and a little like the iTunes app store. It is App Store meets Etsy. We will take a small commission, the designer will get the bulk of it. They can set the pricing and give some away for free, to get people interested in their work.

The Wire: What happens after someone purchases a design in the store? 

It goes straight from the online store into the printer, you just press the button. It is intended to be as straightforward as possible. We are requiring the user to press the button, so we know a human has okayed it and that the filament is in.

The Wire: Can you print the same design you purchased multiple times?

We are looking at several models on this, about what kind of licensing model the designers think is most appropriate or valuable. We prefer to see you purchase once and then you can use it as many times as you want. But there will certainly be some cases where we make exceptions. There might be limited edition prints from well-known artists. There is a complication with pay-per-print, because what if the print fails? There's a lot to work out there.

The Wire: How much will the designs cost? 

It is up to the designers to determine costs. It'll be supply and demand. We believe it’ll be under $5. If there’s a particularly talented designer with a really unique project, it might sell for substantially more than that, but small household things and toys, that’ll be under $5. It’ll be around the same cost as the filament to print the part.

The Wire: You mentioned toys earlier. Are you seeing accessory designs come in for existing toys? Do you see toy makers submitting their own designs? 

As soon as consumer 3D printing permeates the market, big businesses like toy manufacturers will jump on. It'll be things they can license and things they might not want to sell at high volumes, but that could do well in the store. Getting companies involved is likely to take off. I've already spoken with a couple smaller companies. I think those conversations will start.

In terms of designers independently designing things compatible with existing toys, absolutely. We need to be careful around patents. But for the most part, when we are talking about accessorizing toys, that won’t violate anyone’s intellectual property rights and that’ll take off.  We are overwhelmed with the positive response from the Indiegogo campaign. We have gotten a lot of amazing feedback. We are on the right track for those who have been waiting for a 3D printer that’s right for them.

The Wire: So what's next?

We will be pursuing contracts with retailers. At this price point, it makes sense to get into a retailer, perhaps by some time in 2015. We will be shipping in the second quarter of next year. There's a lot involved with that. It'll take until about March to ship the first units. We also have a patent application in progress for the two axis motion system. 

The test model The Wire used.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.