Is 3D printing the next big thing or will it just be a bubble? Awareness of the industry is on the rise here in Singapore, with startups like Pirate3D getting its consumer-centric printer successfully crowd funded on Kickstarter and Nanyang Technological University gearing toward the age of manufacturing with a US$30 million research centre.
e27 got the opportunity to talk to and engage Guillaume De Lazzer, Founder and Director, Prototype Asia, in a discussion on the challenges in 3D printing and prototyping services, a market still in its nascent stage.
De Lazzer, originally from France, has spent some eight years in Asia. He initially started the firm with his partner, Benoit Valin, as a software distribution company in 2010 but pivoted to work on prototyping and 3D printing services a year back. Since day one, the company has been surviving on being bootstrapped.
They first started when prototyping services in Singapore were not popular or a common sight. There was a huge, untapped market.
He said, “We have done electronics before, we have done mechanics, we have done software and I don’t understand why nobody has done prototyping.”
The team had worked with computer systems like Raspberry Pi and Arduino, so electronics and software were not issues.
Lending expertise to clients
With startups, bigger companies and advertising agencies as clients, Guillaume found the same problem facing all three. Prototype Asia has quite a good mix of customers, and is able to help users improve ideas and make feasible items. He said, “They have an idea about hardware but don’t really know how to [launch their idea] so we help them with that. We help them with proof of concept so they can show to investors. Later on, we can help them with production prototype.”
For the big guys, it’s not that different. Prototype Asia has both the speciality and experience to help the corporate companies, which might not have the expertise in building hardware.
Most of the time, these clients do not just come in to print a prototype. The process starts with the client who books an appointment and explains what his or her idea is about. Prototype Asia then tries to see if there are similar products and gauge the client’s interest.
Later, De Lazzer and his team will access whether the client’s idea is reasonable and deliverable, and come up with a timeline for the prototyping process. After providing the client with a quotation, Prototype Asia then moves on to the project.
Starting out in an industry that is still nascent, there are many challenges Prototype Asia has to overcome.
One of the challenges they are facing is to find investors for new markets. Investors are worried 3D printing is going to be the next bubble, like what happened with the Internet bubble.
Does De Lazzer think it’s the next bubble? “It’s hard to say. I understand their concerns, but I think it could be the next bubble. If there are too many people throwing too much money into it, especially if for professional printers, it’s quite a lot of money to get in,” he said. However, as with any other industry, there is a certain level of risk involved. If investors are afraid and fail to see the potential of this growing economy within prototyping and 3D printing services, innovation and growth will be hindered.
While a printer can cost anything above US$70,000, the amount for creating a prototype will vary from a couple of hundreds to several thousands depending on the size of the project.
Hiring also comes as a challenge. Currently with only three full-timers, it has been difficult to hire people who are open to different aspects of prototyping. One issue is they have trouble finding the right people who can focus on both the hardware and software aspects of prototyping. Many people he met in Singapore have also shown that they do not want to work in unfamiliar fields. However, the company is not desperate to fill those positions.
One other challenge he faced was to get his hands on resources. Many of the tools they require for design, programming and electronics run on Windows platform. To overcome this, they sign up for Microsoft BizSpark* which provides them easy access to Windows and its software development tools.
In the next one year, Prototype Asia will be growing their team and prototyping capabilities by adding more 3D printers and machines.
De Lazzer cited they do not have competitors in Singapore or in Southeast Asia yet; however, there are similar companies in Europe and the US. One would be Stratasys, which has opened its Singapore office on October 1.
At the recent Inside 3D Printing Conference which was held in Singapore, it is evident that the growing interest signifies an impending boom of 3D printing and prototyping services.
Mediabistro’s chairman and CEO Alan Meckler said, “From the recent US$604 million acquisition of MakerBit to over 100 consumer scale 3D printing manufacturers and an annual industry growth rate of 25 percent the [Singapore] market has demonstrated that the power and potential of 3D printing is greater than ever before.”
Undoubtedly, the 3D printing and prototyping market is heating up here in Singapore. Will investors be able to understand and join in the wildfire, or will they back off? If they are keen on putting their money on the 3D printing market locally, we might be seeing a new crop of startups in this field soon.
*Microsoft BizSpark is a global program that provides software (at no cost), support, and visibility to help startups succeed. It is a three-year program. For more details, please visit http://www.microsoft.com/bizspark/