500 Startups-backed AstroPrint has made a combination of cloud platform, local software and hardware to enable the management of 3D printing from any device that can connect to the web with a modern browser.
For those not aware, the actual process of 3D printing is about as interesting to watch in real-time as ants building out their tunnels in an ant farm. It happens slowly, with tiny mechanisms adding slice after slice, layer after layer, until you have something that actually looks like a recognizable shape.
It’s something you only need to see a handful of times, and is best seen as a time lapse. But if 3D printing is something you do professionally, it’s still important to monitor what’s going on with your prints. When something complex can take half a day or longer to print, it’s important to make sure you didn’t waste half of it because of a misprint a few hours in.
AstroPrint’s solution is built around a cloud platform that’s accessible from any modern browser. From their platform, you can see 3D models from repositories connected to their database. The biggest is 3DaGoGo, a site that AstroPrint’s founders had been working on but pivoted away from as they realized a majority of users were only printing free models.
Once you’ve got a model in mind, you can process it into “slices” 3D printers can understand and send it to any printer you’ve got connected to the web. AstroPrint makes it easy to hook up most printers to their cloud with their AstroBox, a $149 plug-and-play kit that works with most 3D printers on the market today.
On one side of things, AstroPrint CTO Daniel Arroyo says the startup is a huge supporter of the the open source and hardware hacker ways of doing things, and has therefore made its AstroBox software available to anyone with a Rasperry Pi laying around so they can use their cloud platform without investing in more hardware.
On the other side of the coin, CEO Drew Taylor says they’re already looking for ways to turn AstroPrint into a sustainable business. One avenue they’re exploring is working with 3D printing OEMs to build the software and necessary hardware into their printers, making it the standard cloud platform across the industry. They’ve already shown off on such partnership with AirWolf at CES, with printer that featured co-branded software for connecting to AstroPrint’s cloud.
Once they can line up more of those partnerships (Taylor says several are being discussed now), they can monetize by selling subscriptions to their premium features, like more storage for models in the cloud and the ability to watch your print in progress from anywhere via a webcam. To encourage companies to adopt the platform, AstroPrint will split premium member revenues with partner OEMs.
Taylor doesn’t expect everyone who gets an AstroPrint-enabled printer to go for the premium options. That’s okay, he says, as long as they can capture those who use 3D printing professionally or at the level where they’ve got three or four printers running in their home at any given time. Taylor says AstroPrint already has power users managing as many as 20 printers simultaneously from a tablet, demonstrating that it can ben scaled beyond a hobbyist’s needs.