Friday, 6 July 2007

Interview (Part 1) with Cathy Lewis, CEO Desktop Factory: Will the Final Frontier soon be in your Kitchen?

I’ve been waiting for nearly 30 years for it. A low cost, easy maintenance 3D printer. Picture this. Your washing machine door handle cracks and breaks ‘damb;’ your mobile’s battery cover gets lost ‘blast!’ No problem. Just print it out a new one via your home ‘Desktop Factory,’ right on the spot, instantly for a few pence. And this isn’t some far off Star Trek vision. It’s happening right now.

I’ve just had a eye opening chat with Cathy Lewis, CEO of Desktop Factory (DF) Inc (yet another breakthrough tech start-up from California based IdeaLab). Cathy told me about an amazing new gadget DF are about to bring to market - the gadget of all gadgets in fact - that everyone will want to have in their homes: a kitchen/desktop size 3D printer, for a mere £495. Want one? (

Here’s how the talk went.

CH. ‘Cathy, let’ talk about the present…. Desktop Factory Inc’ is yet another exciting venture out of IdeaLab. I would not be the first to say that there seems to be an acute, even magical sensibility toward future markets at IdeaLab. Would you like to kick off by describing IdeaLab’s culture, what is the magic, what’s the secret?’

CL. The IdeaLab secret is multi-faceted and not always easy to describe. But I will, after knowing them for a year, posit my best explanation.

The first facet is the founder – Bill Gross. He is an amazing person – genius – visionary – optimist – inventor - environmentalist, father, husband, leader – who sleeps about 2-3 hours a night and then brings all of his talent and energy to the lab each day. He traditionally comes up with the ‘idea’ from which a new company is formed.

The next facet is the environment – new companies and smaller existing companies share space in a converted, rambling, brick warehouse with exposed ceiling / and ventilation with only half walls – no offices - to separate people. Mix this with free coffee, beverages, espresso, fresh fruit, Monday bagels and highly subsidized lunches 3 days a week served up from strategically located ‘bars’ around the building. This combination stimulates the continuous exchange of new ideas and acts as a magnet to brainy young engineers from the likes of CalTech, Harvey Mudd and MIT who just want to be associated with Idealab at some point in their careers.

I consider another facet of Idealab magic to be the high caliber board members who represent Idealab and their various companies, the CEOs and the tremendous support organizations available to each of the companies. From IT and legal to HR and Marketing Communications functions – early stage companies receive full or partial support from all of these groups enabling the entrepreneur to focus on what matters most – delivering their product and/ or service to the market.

And a final facet – but equally important is ownership. People want to chase the dream – to be a part of something new and novel that will be disruptive and eventually provide them with a financial reward commensurate with the effort expended. And given the high success rate of Idealab progeny – we have no problem enlisting leadership talent!
This is the Idealab mystique!

CH. You are about to launch a new product called the ’Desktop Factory.’ How would you describe the technology, process, materials, part sizes, and print speed?

CL. This product is perhaps the most aptly named I have been associated with in my career. We have a simplified 3D printer with a totally intuitive Graphical Under Interface (GUI) that is both home and office friendly. Whether you want to ‘print’ a physical object from a CAD STL file, a file you download from the web or an object created with a 3D scanner – just send the file to your Desktop Factory and within a few hours we will render the object for your use. BTW, even the most expensive machines take a few hours to print an object.

Our process leverages heat and pressure, similar to a laser printer. We coat a roller with a thin layer of powder and ‘draw’ the image onto the roller with a halogen lamp. The image is then rolled off onto a build platform and the roller returns to begin the process again. In between layers the build platform is raised up against a heated platen to insure that each layer if fully fused and adheres one to the other. At the conclusion you simply reach into the front windowed door on the printer and remove your part.

Support structures are calculated and the provided automatically by our highly intuitive front end software and then can easily be removed by hand when you part requires them.

Our build envelope is smaller than some at 5X5X5 but supports about 75% of the objects built today based upon market research. Finished parts are quite robust – they can be drilled, tapped, milled, etc. and we have painted a few just to show how great they look fully finished.

CH. Can you give me an idea of the total cost of ownership of DF, say, for a small design house/household.

CL. We know that DF will have the lowest available TCO on the market. Besides the purchase price I have noted the only additional costs are up in the earlier portion of this document. We know that current consumables range from $2.50 - $6.00 per cubic inch and we continue to target $1.00 per ci.

CH. When is the first shipment of the DF expected?

CL. Late 2007 – we have over 275 units on order right now!

CH. Who will be your customers?

CL. We have received orders and requests to place orders from every possible customer type – hobbyist, self employed artists/designers, aerospace firms, Art Institutions, major medical centers, jewelry designers, junior high schools, 3D Service Bureaus, Trade Tech Schools, fortune 500 companies, game companies and 1 or 2 home users . . . .

CH. How are you going to roll the product out geographically? Will you be setting up overseas divisions.

CL. We will launch initially in the US late this year. We hope to go international by the end of 2008 though various partners and distributors.

CH. Are there any plans to float Desktop Factory Inc. on the stock exchange?

CL. We are privately held today which provides a great deal of flexibility and allows us to move quickly but plan for the long term. There will be pressure undoubtedly in the future for an IPO - but having been a corporate officer in a public company both pre and post Enron - I must admit that I am enjoying the strategic advantage of private enterprise.

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