The 3Doodler Story
The 3Doodler is the world’s first and best 3D printing pen that allows you to draw in 3D by extruding heated plastic filament that cools almost instantly into a solid, stable structure. You’ll be able to draw up into the air and create anything you can think of, whether it be a lamp shade, an architectural model, decorations, or even jewelry. Jumpstart Magazine is excited to feature them on the cover of our Spring Issue
If necessity is the mother of all invention, then mistakes are the other parent!
The 3Doodler shares its origin story with the many innovations that spring from these principles. There was an unforeseen mistake, a need to solve the problem and the birth of a whole new category of invention; one that saw the marriage of tech and creativity in the form of the world’s first 3D printing pen.
One fine spring day in 2012 our 3D printer had almost finished a 14-hour print when disaster struck: it had missed a line in the print. A mere 0.4 mm error had destroyed a full day’s work. We were going to have to start again. That’s when inspiration materialised: “what if we just took off the print head and filled in the gap?” “Wait, you mean just take off the extruder head and print by hand???” And there it was: the genesis of the first 3Doodler.
A day later Maxwell Bogue and Peter Dilworth were craned over a clumsy looking device fondly called the “teacup” (due to its stout form and robust handle), extruding plastic through a series of gears, a heater unit, and the printer head of their now extinct 3D printer. (RIP.) The words “3Doodler” were etched onto its side and coloured green and red in felt tip pen. The first 3Doodler was born.
Fast-forward to February 2013, and the 3Doodler had become an “overnight” phenomenon, raising over 2.3 million dollars on the crowd-funding platform, Kickstarter. With 25,000 pre-orders under our belt, the 3Doodler team now had a daunting but exciting task ahead, take the 3Doodler from hand-made prototype to mass production, and then to the mass market in a small window of time.
As well as creating products that inspire and delight our users, we also love helping other inventors and entrepreneurs to realise their own visions. With that in mind, here’s a glimpse into how we got from zero to 25,000 units in six months:
Product Development: What did we do after we had the initial idea for the 3Doodler?
“The best way is always the simplest. The attics of the world are cluttered up with complicated failures.” -- Henry Ford
Following the first prototype of the 3Doodler, we dove into a focused and deliberate evolution. We went through six iterations of the pen, constantly improving and enhancing the initial design. We started with functionality, moved on to form factor, and finally refined it by taking elements away.
The art of creating a great product is not what you put in—its what you take out. We wanted anyone to be able to pick up the 3Doodler and use it within minutes. Great innovations are often defined by their simplicity, and the decisions you make in the early days of your company will shape your product development for years to come. Simplifying your product today will reap untold dividends in the future, particularly when it comes to your manufacturing, assembly, cost of production, and of course the eventual retail price (which is what consumers ultimately care about.)
Our most essential tools for this part of the process were CAD and our 3D printer, which, despite its flaws, allowed us to iterate successive generations of the product in days rather than months. Once we were happy with the design, we made five “final” prototypes and put them in the hands of regular people. We can’t emphasis this enough - your best critic will be someone who’s never heard of, never touched, and possibly even has no interest in what you’ve made. If they can pick it up, use it, enjoy it, and perhaps even be inspired by it, then you know you’re onto something! Once we had fine-tuned the device based on this experiment, we were armed with a handful of fully functioning prototypes, 3D files, and a BOM (Build Of Materials.) Now it was time to visit the factories.
Communicating your design (and vision) to your factory:
What kind of technical specs and details are needed, and what challenges did we face?
“...You put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle; You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.” --Bruce Lee
Communicating with factories is an exercise in specificity and due diligence. You will need a BOM, 3D files, prototypes, an overview document of tech specs, and last but certainly not least, an infinite amount of patience and understanding. You also need to be prepared for the fact that you will get EXACTLY what you ask for—nothing more, nothing less – so make sure you learn how to ask tough questions and communicate what you need clearly! We created everything that they could possibly need—we tried to overwhelm them with information, so that all gaps would be filled and so that both they and we would understand the product better.
The key point here is that you want to do all your thinking up front; last minute changes can cause catastrophic delays. Hours devoted to this in the beginning can save you weeks or even months at the tail end. Having said that, you can never predict everything and you must remain flexible and prepared to improvise-- to eliminate assumption and leave nothing to chance.
Specificity is the name of the game. To that end we added a “secret” test mode to the pen (Dear Users, let us know if you find it!), we specified heating and cooling times, shut off times for safety, how the buttons were meant to feel to the touch, as well as the noise it is meant to make when pressed, the brightness of the LED (measured in lumens!), and much much more... Anything you don’t tell the factory, they simply won’t do. Assumptions are your greatest enemy. For example: Don’t assume that they’ll put an On/Off switch in, you have to tell them to put an On/Off switch in, or they won’t do it... True story.
Selecting your factory and starting production: How we found our trusty manufacturer, and what the manufacturing process was like.
“One sometimes finds what one is not looking for.” --Alexander Fleming, inventor of Penicillin.”
We selected a factory based on products that they had already made. In our particular case the factory we chose had been working on shrink-wrap machines-- a device which has a motor AND has a heater. As simple as that sounds, you would be surprised how many factories can only do one thing well. While a shrink-wrap machine and a 3Doodler don’t seem to have much in common, it was key that we found a factory that could produce a product that possessed those characteristics. Nobody had every made a 3Doodler. The same may be true of your product. If you can’t find an exact fit, look for the closest possible skill sets and experience.
We looked at over ten factories, going to each one, interviewing management, seeing product lines and assembly floors, and checking their QA (quality assurance). This process is guaranteed to be three things—time consuming, arduous, and essential to the success of your company. But absolutely nothing compares to sitting down face-to-face with the people who will be manufacturing your product. And, when you do eventually sit down with potential retailers, there are few possessions as valuable as the ability to look them in the eye and say with complete honesty that you have seen where the product is made and you can guarantee the quality and conditions. The bigger the retailer, the more these things matter, so don’t take shortcuts, it will only come back to bite you later on.
What we didn’t do when selecting our factory was go out for karaoke and drinks with our prospective business associates. Your factory is not your friend, they are your partner. You should respect them and they should respect you. Strong bonds are formed by meeting production deadlines and paying bills on time-- not by drinking each other under the table and singing pop songs together.
Packaging design: How did we go about this, and what do you need to keep in mind?
“You‘ve got to start with the customer experience and work back toward the technology - not the other way around.” --Steve Jobs
When it comes to packaging, it’s key to remember ‘The 0.1 Second Rule’. At any point of sale (i.e. shopping aisle) your most valuable commodity is the one tenth of one second of attention you have as your shopper walks by at 4 km/h. We intentionally didn’t follow that rule with our first design, but we’ve integrated these principles into our DNA over subsequent rollouts.
With the 3Doodler v.1, which was primarily aimed at our Kickstarter backers and early adopters, we wanted to create a box that conveyed the journey that we (and they) had collectively undertaken. Bringing a product from dream to reality is a monumental experience and we wanted the box, as well as the unboxing experience, to encompass the notion of taking an invention off the drawing board. With that in mind, the top of the box looked like a blueprint, with basic instructions on the front of the box, so that we were educating our users from the first moment they held the package. The user then lifted the blueprint away to reveal their brand new product.
In terms of materials, we made sure that we picked a box that felt like it was premium, because this is not a cheap product. We focused on little features that we know users love—like the texture of the print and the tolerance of the box when lifting the lid. It felt like opening a foot long iPhone box.
Fast forward to 3Doodler 2.0 and 2015. After a year of retail and with over 135,000 units sold, it was time for the next generation, tailored for a much wider audience, and (fingers crossed) destined for many more retail aisles. With that in mind, we focussed on creating a box that would compete for your eye’s attention among the visual tumult of products at your local Brookstone-- or any busy point of sale.
The 3Doodler 2.0 box is brighter, bigger and aimed at showing the user what the pen does without requiring them to have any prior knowledge of it. We once again upped the quality of materials used, including a paper foam tray that holds the device itself and your plastic filament assortment. It looks good, it feels good, and immediately upon opening the box you are faced with the stunning 3Doodler 2.0 pen and an awesome array of plastics with which you can start Doodling immediately.
Even the process of working with our packaging manufacturers has been an iterative one, with us gradually improving the fit, quality of the materials, and the way the items are arranged in the box-- one batch at a time. In doing so, we’ve built a great relationship with our supplier.
Just the beginning
We went from prototype to mass production in six months, meeting our shipping deadlines and furnishing all our Kickstarter backers with their pen ON TIME. But, even with all our exhaustive prep work and planning, making our dates still required three staffers to be on hand around the clock, sitting on the production line and packing those first boxes by hand.
Since then, we have expanded as a company and continued to refine these practices. We now have the benefit of two years of experience and hundreds of thousands of units shipped, but even with the maturity and accomplishment we have gained there are still daily challenges-- and there always will be. You never stop learning, you never stop growing as an entrepreneur (and hopefully as a business), and you never stop fighting for your vision.
By Daniel Cowen, founder of 3Doodler