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Sleek, pre-assembled 3D printer at USD 347? Here’s how Pirate3D is doing it

The Buccaneer and the Power Mac G4 Cube. The resemblance isn't coincidental.

The Buccaneer and the Power Mac G4 Cube. The resemblance isn’t coincidental.

There hasn’t been a pre-launch product from a Singapore startup that has garnered this much press attention for a long while. Simply put, people are agog about the USD 347 price point for an Apple-esque 3D printer that will be pre-assembled and calibrated right out of the box. In fact, some have been downright skeptical, believing the photos to be renders rather than real images.

But there’s no two ways about it: The Buccaneer – which is what the first product from Pirate3D is called — is going to arrive in homes in the United States and around the world. In fact, the company is prepping a Kickstarter campaign that will hopefully launch in the next few days — and they’re working with the crowdfunding platform to provide as much details as possible. I’ve even seen a prototype in action myself at the coworking space the Singapore-based team is working out of.

Of the myriad of 3D printers in the market, there has been quite a number in the sub-$1000 category: RepRap, Printrbot, Solidoodle, and Makibox, just to name a few.

But these printers either:

  • look like prototypes themselves,
  • need to be assembled by the user, or
  • require some knowledge and experience with 3D design software

Pirate3D, on the other hand, is creating a truly consumer-focused printer that caters to the masses rather than the geeks and enthusiasts. In fact, as the startup’s co-founder Brendan Goh tells me, the Buccaneer is not just hardware. The team is working on software that lets users easily create 3D objects on their smartphones and send them to the printer.

It wants to make 3D printing as easy as playing with Lego.

Pirate3D’s mobile-centric, software-oriented approach is what really sets it apart from the Makerbots and Formlabs out there. While Makerbot does have software to manage its printers, it doesn’t want to step into Autodesk’s territory, instead choosing to partner with the 3D design software firm.

Still, how exactly does Pirate3D price its printers so cheaply?

There are two parts to it. First, it doesn’t plan to make much money on hardware.

Here’s as much as I can glean about its game plan: Sell tons and tons of printers on a lean margin, bundle it with a suite of easy-to-use design apps (even kids can use them), and hope to eventually make money off its software and perhaps some kind of marketplacefor goods or design files.

Their plan is vague for now, but for a young startup that just raised half-a-million in early stage funding, they have a little bit of time to figure it out.

Second, the company has found ways to dramatically lower the cost of manufacturing despite printing in batches of thousands.

Unlike other 3D printing companies, which design their own proprietary parts from scratch or rely on open source ones, Pirate3D uses off-the-shelf parts that are already on the market and are being produced at scale. They’re essentially taking advantage of the high-volume, low-cost nature of large scale manufacturing without participating in it.

Pirate3D has not been shy about being inspired by Apple. The printer’s designer, co-founder, Tsang You Jun, is himself a big fan of Steve Jobs. The Buccaneer, with its minimalist aluminium and acrylic finish, strongly resembles the Power Mac G4 Cube.

Beyond the hardware, the team, like their idols, hope that they can build an ecosystem around their products and make money off it.

Their marketing campaign, which maintained a veil of mystery around their printer until recently, was a page out of Steve Job’s book. Even the name of the company recalls Pirates of Silicon Valley, a movie that famously portrayed the relationship between Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.

Like any startup with lofty goals, what Pirate3D is trying to achieve does seem like a moonshot. Although they have an office in San Francisco, their team is still largely based in Singapore, which makes them somewhat of an outsider. This is evidently a problem on the Internet where any wacko can claim to have invented the greatest product, and the lack of public backing from a Silicon Valley bigwig doesn’t really help.

Which is why a Kickstarter campaign makes sense: If it succeeds, Pirate3D’s profile could be significantly raised and it could start receiving attention from investors in the United States.

I’ll be interested to see if Pirate3D’s business model works out. Selling a hardware product on lean margins is great for consumers in the short run, but it could be a challenge if retail distribution is what they’re after (since retailers take a significant share of the revenues).

Managing the supply chain and manufacturing process involves a steep learning curve, and these are things that the team, which includes Roger Chang and Prof Neo Kok Beng, will have to wrangle with as they begin their initial production runs before this Christmas.

While the three recent university graduates — Roger, Brendan, and You Jun — do possess some entrepreneurial experience and know each other well, this is by a long mile their most ambitious project yet.

They do have as good a chance at succeeding as anybody though, given their keen awareness of needing to build the company culture and right processes from the start.

All they need now is a little push from the masses.

Image: Pirate3D

Image: Pirate3D

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