3D printing has taken hold in the manufacturing world over the past decade, but in many cases its uses are tailor-made for engineers, not the general public. Pittsburgh-based startup PieceMaker aims to change that by bringing custom engineering to the masses with its “factory in a store” — an all-in-one kiosk that allows any consumer to create custom products such as toys and keepsakes on demand.
Making 3D Printing Part of the Consumer Experience
PieceMaker CEO Arden Rosenblatt and CTO Alejandro Sklar met and co-founded the company when they were engineering graduate students at Carnegie Mellon University, a hotbed for manufacturing innovators who use CAD and 3D printing in their work. At CMU, the two men became intrigued by the possibilities of bringing 3D printing to a much broader audience.
Originally they thought they would make a 3D printing system for home users, but then realized that the market for such a product isn’t yet developed enough. Retailers, however, want to be able to offer customers a wide range of personalized products, which PieceMaker’s compact kiosk can deliver right in a store. Shoppers use intuitive touch-screen menus to customize colors, monograms, and so on for many different small items like toys and keychains; the kiosk then 3D-prints the items within half an hour.
Building a Business from the Ground Up
Rosenblatt, Sklar, and the rest of the PieceMaker team have grown by leaps and bounds in the two years that the company has existed. Initially, PieceMaker received a boost from Carnegie Mellon’s Project Olympus, which offers startup advice and office space to budding entrepreneurs on the campus. Following a path similar to fellow Pittsburgh-based startup SolePower, PieceMaker then spent eight months in the AlphaLab Gear program, which Rosenblatt likens to “Hogwarts for Entrepreneurs.” (In fact, after completing the AlphaLab Gear program, PieceMaker moved into shared office space with SolePower.)
Along the way, they’ve learned a lot about what it takes to succeed in startups, both at the company level and in terms of finding the self-starting, highly communicative personnel needed to improve the product and bring it to market on small budgets and tight timetables.
Fusion 360 software has been integral to their work. Drew Lipold, the lead creative designer at PieceMaker, likes Fusion 360 so much because he can use it to achieve multiple design steps from one platform: render, sculpt, animate, prep for manufacturing, and so on. As he puts it, “The ability to consolidate the work into one interface helps streamline the entire process.” Plus, it’s available for free during an initial period for startups.
PieceMaker Designs Its Future
The work of a startup can be grueling, but Rosenblatt enjoys the process. In particular, he cites the fun of being in stores and watching kids’ reactions as they design and make their own creations using the company’s kiosk. He also loves the day-to-day interactions with the creative people on his team, who have been busy coming up with new designs for fun items that can be customized and produced by the PieceMaker unit.
A few other companies are dabbling with custom 3D printing for things like toys and figurines, but none of them has made the process anywhere near as fast, easy, or inexpensive as PieceMaker has. The startup was also the first to crack the big-box retail market with a Toys “R” Us pilot program during last year’s holiday shopping season.
What’s next for the PieceMaker team? Using their hard work and rich imaginations to make it even easier for consumers to dream up the products they want and then make them a reality.