Brad Feld

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The REPL For Hardware

Jul 17, 2018

We’ve been soaking (and investing) in the world of 3D printing since our investment in MakerBot in 2011. Since then, we’ve made three other investments in the world of 3D printing – Formlabs, Glowforge, and Looking Glass. While Looking Glass is a holographic display and is the inverse of a 3D printer, you’ll see how it fits into this in a moment.

While I continue to be impressed by Desktop Metal, the incredible press that they get, and am a big fan of the writing of Jason Pontin, I think Jason’s story in Wired – 3-D Printing Is The Future of Factories (For Real This Time) – misses several key points that take the idea that 3D printing is the future in a different direction.

I’ve decided that 3D printing is the REPL for Hardware. Dan Shapiro, the CEO of Glowforge, coined this and he’s completely nailed it. If you don’t know what a REPL is, it’s a programming concept called the Read-eval-print loop. Following is an example of a Python REPL running in a browser.

In the middle window is the Python code for a simple factorial. You hit the “run” button and the REPL reads the Python code, evaluates it, and prints the answer (120) in the right window. Hang on to that idea – Read, Evaluate, Print – we’ll be back to it later.

My first thoughts around 3D printing started at the beginning of 2010, when I read Chris Anderson’s Wired essay In The Next Industrial Revolution, Atoms Are The New Bits. His 2012 book Makers: The New Industrial Revolution helped me understand this better.

At first, I was obsessed with distributed 3D printing. On the desktop. For professionals. Each of MakerBot, Formlabs, and Glowforge took expensive industrial products that cost $50,000 to $500,000 and put them on a desktop for $2,000 to $5,000. The metaphor we used for this was that of the evolution of the laser printer market. If that’s elusive to you, the path from mainframe to PC works also.

We started with our investment in MakerBot, which used a technology called FDM (fused deposition modeling), which is a cousin of FFF (fused filament fabrication). This is a fancy phrase for “heating up plastic, extruding it, and building a 3D thing with the heated plastic”. It was magical, but limited on many dimensions based on the constraints of the materials and the process. As a result, MakerBot (and FDM in general) is primarily a hobbyist and DIY product.

FDM is additive manufacturing. So, when Glowforge came along, we immediately recognized it as the analogous subtractive manufacturing technology. Glowforge is a laser cutter (basically the addition of a laser to a CNC machine). You shine a laser at a material – any material – over and over again to subtract from the material to make your 3D print. As magical as MakerBot was, what Glowforge could do was mind-bending and took 3D printing to an entirely new dimension for me. You could work with paper, granite, sushi, cardboard, chocolate, wood, and basically any other material. Plus, well, LASERS!

We knew Formlabs from our experience at MakerBot. If you haven’t seen the Netflix documentary Print the Legend and you are interested in this stuff, go watch it. It’s the early story of both MakerBot and Formlabs, has endless cringe-worthy moments in it, stars some of your friends, and shows how incredibly challenging a startup is.

Since MakerBot had been acquired, it cleared the way for us to invest in Formlabs, which we did in 2016. Formlabs first product was based on SLA (stereolithography). In this technology, you shine a laser at a vat of resin and it builds up the 3D print (again – additive manufacturing). The quality and fidelity of the 3D prints are much higher with SLA, there are a wide variety of resins, and, as a result, Formlabs has had great success in the prosumer market. Next year, Formlabs will be shipping the Fuse, an SLS (selective laser sintering) 3D printer, which is another, even more advanced technology, at a desktop price point.

With Formlabs and Glowforge, we now have high-end desktop 3D printers at a price point under $10,000 (or at least 1/10th the price of similar industrial products). They are WiFi connected (just like today’s laser printer), have contemporary software, are integrated with everything 3D software related, and work extremely well.

Let’s go back to REPL. You start with a 3D image, which you can either design, get from the web, or get from Thingiverse or Pinshape, Formlabs and Glowforge printers then provide the REPL – it reads the 3D code, evaluates it, and prints it. On your desktop. Next to you. In high fidelity. Right away. Inexpensively.

So – how does Looking Glass fit into this? It still takes some time for Formlabs and Glowforge to print the 3D object, so the output from the REPL isn’t immediate. What if you could visualize the 3D object, in 3D, as an intermediate step? Voila – a holographic display (also known by a variety of other names like lightfield or volumetric display.) Looking Glass is 3D visualization on the desktop, which makes the desktop 3D experience for the professional even more powerful.

In 1984, HP shipped their first HP Laserjet. a 300-dpi, 8 ppm printer that sold for $3,495. A decade later, HP shipped its 10-millionth LaserJet printer. By the end of 2000, they had shipped 50 million of them. Over the weekend, I installed an HP LaserJet Pro M277dw Wireless All-in-One Color Printer, a 600-dpi, 19 ppm WiFi connected color printer / scanner / fax that sells $484.

When someone asks me what they can do with a 3D printer, I wish I could shove them into my time travel machine and send them back to early 1985 to ponder the question “Why do I need a laser printer on my desktop – I’ve already got an Epson MX-80.”

If you make anything in 3D, you now can have a 3D REPL on your desk.