The 3d printing bubble

I have read at least one analysis of the financial bubble around the 3d printing industry and I have a pretty frank response. I don’t care. Sort of.

Of course I want 3d printing to succeed as an activity, but to me, it was always an activity meant for a particular group of a particular size. Sounds elitist doesn’t it? Not really, just “niche.” I think that’s a much better word.

Every bubble bursts they say, and the pundits of other industries buzz like flies until the market ultimately settles down. 3d printing to me had always been a thing OTHER people had access to and now, miracle of miracles, I OWN two 3d printers.

While some of the investment and excitement of 3d printing has slowed in some metrics, I can safely say no technology since the desktop revolution began has affected me as much as 3d printing.

But I am definitely one of a small contingent of people for which 3d printing is a perfect fit. I am a visual effects artist who models, textures, rigs, and animates various things. I also design, write, and self publish my own comics about original characters. Why WOULDN’T I need a 3d printer, is a much more valid question.

While most of the market for 3d printing follows a pattern much like Apple’s focus on education markets early in its history, 3d printing companies follow a similar path. They focus on designers, makers, and also educators but it’s some of the emerging niche markets that catch people off guard that I think might end up sustaining them just as  much.

In particular the pop culture niches, gaming, cosplay, food and fashion that turned up interesting and useful applications for 3d printing that were easier to grasp. Not everyone is going to invent and prototype widgets, but almost anyone can make costumes, mini gaming figures, jewelry or pancakes.

The first thing I wanted to print was the Gulanee from Defiance, a show I worked on and a 3d model I was proud to display. But the process of getting it printed was definitely easier for me since I already knew well and had access to 3d design tools to get the most out of a printer.

3d printing companies are still trying to keep the story going, but I think that’s part of MY job now. I want to do more, and more interesting things with my printers. 2016 is half over, and already I’ve designed my first consumer product, tested it and revised it. Last year, I only did what most other 3d artists did when they got 3d printers – they made kits from their 3d models. Toys, basically.

Nothing wrong with that. But like many people wondering what 3d printing is worth, I at least can search for at answer directly.

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Breaking

Ugh. Burnout. Over committed. Under delivered.

Sometimes, you just have to admit when too much is too much to handle.

But there was always time for art, right?

Art is easy enough these days. You don’t even have to wait for paint to dry or plaster to set when you work digitally. No molds to clean, no dust to vacuum.
But if you believe the popular theory of how blue ligjt affects your mood and metabolism, there’s the looming glow of stress sitting in front of you or in your hands nearly every hour of you day.

Like insaid, that’s if you believe in the color light theories.

I experimented a little bit with those theories and loaded a light therapy app on my tablet since it’s usually the last screen I see before I try to get some sleep.

It’s supremely annoying already that tablet screens don’t have the greatest color fidelity. Working in visual effects, companies often take great care to calibrate monitors. Light therapy apps change the color temperature of the screen and can do so with varying intensity using the theory that warmer light is more relaxing.

Well, I think it works, but to be honest I do other things to manage “sleep hygeine” these days which might contribute more to overall rest.

A dark, quiet room is actually tough in many cities. Light from other clocks and devices and even outdoor lighting and traffic in some places I have lived make this a luxury item indeed.

So there’s always room for improvememt.

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Bigger and yet smaller

Two of the most conflicting responses to the pencase were it needs to carry more and larger items but it also needs to be smaller.

Conflicting, right? Frustrating in the least. People watch too much Doctor Who and think that stuff is real. Joke. I may have talked about this before, but sometimes you can never really ask the right questions.

While there is room for improvement, its funny that the size of the case wasn’t one of the things I was overly concerned with since I knew it would fit my most used items.

I have brought the Pencase into Disneyland a few times. I even gave one to a sketch artist there. It’s a test of appearances, since they have recently upped their security measures to include heavier screening of suspicious items.

Needless to say the results are not uniform in that some personell ignored the case completely while others have definitely questitoned me about it. But all of them eventually let me into the parks.

I thought about using clear filaments next to get even closer to that odd balance of interesting design and un-threatening appearance. If you have ever used clear filaments, they are kind of hard to use if your print requires heavy cleaning, but the pencase uses very little.

But trimming the case further would help people identify it’s contents faster without tagging it with a silly looking PENCIL CASE label or clumsy icon. Any decent security officer shouldn’t trust labels. Should they?

Still, we imbue objects with our story, not the intended one.

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Working for friends

Ive been pretty busy these days working on some projects for some of my closest friends.

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One of those projects is a giant space opera themed card game which is just too silly perfect for me. Creatures, astronauts, interplanetary mass scale campaigns – right up my part of the galaxy.

Its good to get out of your own head creatively on ocassion. Makes the world seem bigger. It also conversely means less time for personal projects, but this work is personal as well.

I spend an inordinate amount of time obsessively working in things that might not fly. It’s the latest guru fueled ethic – “if I fail more than you I win because it means you quit.”

I don’t really like this mentality but it’s just semantics at this point. I prefer to think there are winners and losers no matter what you do, so you might as well play and play your best.

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Friend work

I’ve been insinuating myself into my friend’s businesses lately. Nothing rude, just poking around into their projects here and there.

Every so often I get stuck analyzing my own work, and one of the easiest ways to break out of that is to ask my friend’s if I can do something with their projects.

Honestly sometimes I don’t ask, I just do it.

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Above is one of the notes I made on a friend’s work.

Gerimi Burleigh is a friend and comics maker with whom I collaborated years ago on a version of the story of John Henry. I wrote, he illustrated. I told him once we should turn those roles around as I think he’s a good writer.

As an artist, Gerimi admits his struggles with his own work and I chose to make some notes on his latest Morningstar cover. Actually, I made a version of my own after one of his blogs. A few rounds of notes and he was happy. He tells the story better, of course.

Soon, I’ll be back on my own projects.

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Comedy of values

One of the questions I keep asking about 3d printing, many people ask as well, is how do you make money.
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Sell 3d printers is usually the answer. BAH dum bum. Tsh. These are the jokes, right?

A more important question starting out is whether or not what you are printing has any value.

Here’s the comedy.

I went to lunch with a group of 5 people one afternoon.  All visual effects artists, which means they can very often have trouble deciding WHEN let alone WHERE they ALL want to go to lunch.

They’ll debate the expense, the distance, the service,  at least once I have endured an argument over decor.  But once agreed, the group set off, conversations brewed and orders were made after seating.

When you want to observe people’s values in an instant, watch them react to their food as it’s brought to them and compare it to their mood when the bill comes.

Jason, sitting next to me recoiled with a visible and audible lurch when he realized how much he’d just spent on lunch. Jason is an odd duck. Like many artists, he was desperately impractical in some ways.

I noticed that he was wearing Prada sunglasses and complaining about the cost of his lunch. Something about value lessons really grabs you in a moment like that. Sunglasses are usefull all year round but a market priced ahi tuna burger can just bowl you over.

At the time, I though it was funny someone who likely paid a few hundred dollars for sunglasses wouldn’t be so upset by a pricey hamburger. But our domains of value often have little crossover or relevance and making assumptions because of perceived similarities is, well, unfounded.

One of my favorite metrics of value is so simple it bears repeating – if you want to make something, tell ten people. If they tell 10 more, you have something of value. If they don’t,  you either told the wrong people or you didn’t make good enough stuff.

That’s paraphrased from Seth Godin whom I mention a lot, and still writes one of the two blogs which I consider to have real value.

By Seth’s and even my own metric, the pencase has had a slow start. But I am not concerned about momentum yet. The people who tested the pencase have all cooperated with the guidelines I set and the questions I asked. Few products are bought so many strings attached. That level of participation impressed me.

At least half shared something on various social media channels – you remember what I said about the 10 telling 10 more? Well, the math got weird, but I was satisfied that there was enough emperical value to keep going even BEFORE the internet got involved.
I still have yet to make a sale, but I’ve got some people talking. That’s worth something.

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Breaking Creative blocks

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I like the Seth Godin quote about writer’s block. “No one ever gets talkers block.” If that makes sense to you, I like you. Lets get coffee.

I learned the term “non linear thinking” in high school. I never really fit in during high school. Not that I hated it but like plenty of guys, i just couldn’t wait for it to be over. So the idea of creative thinking sat well with me. Redirecting or even outright distracting yourself can yield some interesting results.

I actually tried explaining the concept to my friend Leo. Leo was an everyman in high school, average grades, went on to a military stint, then a wife and two kids later in life.

But in college, I saw him on campus before he left for his duy station trying to get back into his car. The keys were locked inside and he’d managed to find some wire to slip thru the window to try and flip the lock while we talked about the good old days.

As I was explaining the concept of non linear thinking to him, he lost sight of what he was doing to the car. For a second he was actually focused on trying to remember an instance where he had experienced something similar to what I’d mentioned.

Then, not without irony, the wire found its mark, popped open the door and stopped our conversation cold for a second before we both realized the punchline.

So there’s a bit of art, a goofy story and a blog post before I settle into a pretty rigorous Phase 3 of e Pencase project. Thanks for watching.

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Beta end, back to beta

The most interesting comments about the pencase beta came from two completely different sources.

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The first assemble, still going strong.

One of those sources is a fellow Long Beach Con artist alley table neighbor Tony Brescini. The other was a six year old boy.

Tony mentioned that the pencase might be a little bulky for the amount of stuff it actually carries. He’s very right in that I designed the original to carry very little.

That came from years of watching the artists around me. The 80/20 rule with regard to artists tools doesn’t apply at all to the studio. But outside, at the coffee shop, at lunch, on a smoke break – artists are one tool dominant. Sure, some artists brag about how many tools they lug around and use.

At that point you’re I’d encourage you to seek therapy as it sounds like hoarding syndrome.

One of the biggest compromises I made designing the pencase regarded the belt clip. I had thought about making it detachable which would make the pencase much slimmer overall, but also a bit less convenient.

It’s interesting to note that the pencase was used as part of most people’s already crowded carryall strategy – backpacks, toolpacks, pencil cases and knick knack cases. I think fewer than half of beta testers used the belt clip even though one of the first surveys indicated nearly every tester wore belts.

The other tester, unofficially at least, was 6. The best test of any product is whether it survives a 6 year old. This one instantly opened it, and tried to pour put its contents on the floor. Perfect. Test.

I really wanted to use a cap or latch to secure all the slots in the case – something to prevent 6 year olds from flinging myens everywhere, but also totally mature people as well.

This morning I had a few ideas about where to go next with the design. The primary goal is still to get to a design which carries two pens or pencils and their respective refills or helpful accessories.

Lastly, I delivered the last beta model unassembled to someone I know has good finishing chops. This was always a possible delivery strategy for people who wanted to customize the case but in a way I didn’t have to print or redesign per user.

I also used a unique filament from Protopasta which can polish to an almost steel like quality. Really interesting stuff and very clean results. I will definitely keep this stuff in mind for future projects.

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Talk is cheap, but good conversation is priceless

The Pencase project might need to take a sharp turn.

I was joking last week that the price range for the final product would likely need to take a huge drop because, well, artists are broke most of the time. I know. I am an artist. I was young and broke once.

Part of me has to call bulshit. But that’s too harsh a word. Let’s say I have to call put a mistake in the judgment of value.

It’s a classically argued economic idea – what value does and object have to a market? If it’s a new product, the answer the prof says, lies in its ability to solve a problem, fill a need, or create more value, etc.

Elegantly ambiguous. Kind of like tautologies, that came around in a big fat circle of logic. I kind of like the idea that the value of any object lies in the story it has.

A US treasury note only costs a fraction of the paper and materials it’s printed on, but the number printed on it makes the difference between eating a steak or cereal for dinner.

What’s the value of the pencase? To me, part of it lies in the conversation it starts. Last night, I met with some old friends and made some new ones. Even in a technologically astute crowd as it was, they still get a kick out of seeing something 3d printed.

What does that have to do with printing money? Its 3d printed, right? Kinda.

I asked a particular question on a survey to some beta testers. Did anyone ask you about the pencase while you used it? It was meant to determine if, as an object, it had value outside of purpose.

What am I more curious about is the content of those conversations. There’s value there. The more you talk about any object, the more valuable it can become to you, even when the first one was free.

Now, how much would it be worth to you if you wanted to replace it?

If the pencase wasn’t worth enough conversations, maybe it isn’t worth 25 bucks. But if it keeps people talking, I think it’s proven it’s value.

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The dropoff

I realized this would happen.

The analysts always break down the various statistics of business failure with restaurant stories. Appropo since everyone needs to eat but stupid because no one NEEDS to always eat out. But hey, in popular culture, it’s as relevant as breathing.

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One line and already a classic, the first and basic material cost analysis cor the pencase.

The saying you know goes that X number, percent or whatever of restaurants fail within X amount of time. But a lot of them fail to record the relationship between what kind of restaurant, when it started, other similar restaurants that DIDN’T fail in the same time period, and other relevant qualities.

Remember when they said an eye for detail was important on that job posting? Too bad an eye FOR an eye for detail is what’s missing.

More importantly, the statistics of customer interest and behavior around new products or ideas are, well scarier. Just the basic statistic of media should be enough to scare off anyone from trying to sell something on the internet.

At least one popular Internet marketing agency states that open rates for emails, clicks on banner ads, and “likes” on anything that is obviously an ad or business has fallen into less than 1 percent figures.

Think about that in terms of small projects like the pencase and you would be right to think that every popular metric is very low. And that’s before I’ve even technically made 1 sale.

The truth is I had made a simple calculation. I knew the pencase was not a mass appeal object. I knew the potential customer had two qualities which frustrate marketers – they were very high in interest and engagement but also highly frugal. That’s their polite way of saying cheap.

That’s not meant as an insult but I did make a bet on the highest possible qualities of that audience. I might publish the spreadsheet I made of the variables I knew I could calculate to make the pencase a worthwhile product. Right now, its tipping into my worst case scenarios – high engagement, but low budgets.

I know many a stalwart designer has butted against this wall. People like Jobs would have said they don’t know what’s what but I got some really smart folks to sign up for this program. I set a path for the pencase into the wheelhouses of a particular kind of person I like to think.

The next step if to make sure that the qualities which make the pencase an interesting and desirable object aren’t lost in the search to make it profitable.

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