Who do you call if you want to 3D print something? Step forward 3Dprintler, a startup that has made a search engine for locating 3D printing services in your area. The team was chosen as the wildcard company from Startup Alley to present onstage in the 2016 Battlefield here at TechCrunch Disrupt New York.
3Dprintler’s search engine, which launched last year, lets users upload a 3D file for printing, select the materials they want their file to be printed in and get a list of quotes to compare. They can then order the print directly, with 3Dprintler monetizing by taking a cut of any sales its search engine generates.
But — and here’s the topical twist — the team has also created an integrated chatbot for accessing their platform that’s aimed at simplifying the process by providing a concierge service for ordering 3D prints. Their 3D print quote bot currently supports messaging platforms including Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Slack, Telegram, Kik and Skype.
While early messaging platform chatbots can seem spammy and/or time wasting, 3Dprintler’s chatbot feels like a far more practical application of this sort of tech, given that 3D printing can be a time-consuming and frustrating process. So a bot being there to walk you through the different steps seems like it’s going to provide some useful reassurance.
The bot, which launched about a month ago, has already generated an uptick in orders, according to 3Dprintler co-founder Michael Golubev.
“We’ve seen over one hundred order already just in that period of time, which is I think like 56 percent more conversion rate than we see from using the website. So we see that people actually enjoy using the bots way more, somehow it’s more natural than using the website,” he tells TechCrunch. “Almost it becomes outdated to use a website.”
The team is running a pilot of their quote bot with a few companies, with the ultimate aim of creating what they dub a “factory as a service” platform — aka a software-as-a-service-style business model with the sales pitch to businesses being that a search and order bot for 3D printing simplifies the order process to the point where it’s easier for businesses to pay to use a bot, rather than own a 3D printer themselves (and need to train staff how to use it).
“We’re more focused on prosumer users, so somebody who wants a professional service done,” says Golubev. “The consumer market is just not there yet, once we’re able to scan things it will be but for now it’s the Fortune 500 companies that hold the biggest potential for the growth.
“From talking to those companies the biggest pain that they have, they all have the same thing: they get the expensive printers because they hear about the hype, they invest $300,000 in the machine and then it just sits there idling because there has to be a special person trained to use it.”
3Dprintler processes the 3D files uploaded by users to get them ready for printing and can also fix problems with files. It sees the latter as another potential revenue stream down the line — talking up the potential for a future market powered by consumers scanning objects with their smartphone cameras and then chatting via messaging app to 3Dprintler’s bot to order their 3D prints.
“Chatbots is the solution we were looking for because we get access to millions of people, and… we’re betting that eventually every phone will have a 3D scanner built in it. It will be super easy to use… and once we have all those millions of people using it, adoption rate is going to skyrocket and you’re going to have all those billions of files that people want to create — 3D selfie, for example, is going to be a new craze.”
The startup has been working in the 3D print space since 2013, initially minting money by selling drone parts for DJI phantom drones before too many copycat sellers flooded the market. They also made a customizer tool for 3D print files, and also previously set up an open-source initiative for 3D printable hydroponics.
In their search for a sustainable business model in the space they’ve now settled on simplifying access to 3D printing services as the core problem to fix — having had to go through similar steps themselves, over the years.
“We realized not everyone has access to a 3D printer,” says Golubev. “That’s how the 3Dprintler search engine was born. How do we tap into all the 3D printing services out there and allow a person to find the best price, based by location, based by quality, based by material?”
As well as seeking to tap into large, engaged user bases on messaging platforms with a chatbot interface, Golubev says they are also talking to 3D marketplaces, such as Thingiverse, with the hope of integrating their search and order service into those larger platforms, too.
They do also have an API — launched back in January — to enable others, such as designers, to embed their search engine elsewhere.
“Everybody can tap into this API. Let’s say you’re a designer… and you have some files you want to sell — put our button on your website and this button will allow whoever is visiting your website to find the best printer, the best price. You as the designer get a cut, we get a cut, so we kind of split the revenue with you,” he notes.
At this point 3Dprintler has some 20,000 3D print service providers globally in their database, and have done test prints to verify the quality of the providers they are listing. Their search engine supports more than 60 file formats for 3D printing.
The team has also raised $750,000 in seed funding from an undisclosed European business angel.
Q: I have to ask the obvious question — why does it have to be a bot?
A: A bot is really easy to use interface that everybody is using these days, you see people on their phone, the young generation barely calls anyone any more. It’s a really easy platform, doesn’t require additional installations, you can just have this AI in your pocket the whole time.
In 3D printing industry we’re waiting for a killer app. We believe the killer app will be a 3D scanner built in every phone — so you can take a 3D selfie.
Q: B2B 3D printing does not feel like an impromptu action…
A: Imagine Slack — all the people are using Slack right now. Somebody throws in the file, it gets you the results, everyone’s working together, collaborating together.
Q: Do you also have an app?
A: Yes we have a mobile app and a web app, that’s how we started. For about a year we’ve been building things secretly. Bots became this meaningful way to access people.
Q: How have you been acquiring the long tail of people who have machines in their offices?
A: We built a bot that crawls the web for 3D printing service providers. We have about 20,000. We’ve been reaching out to them. People have been jumping on board joining our system.
Q: If I was to compare what you do to 3D hubs, how does that go?
A: We are working with 3D hubs to add them.
If I want to compare 3D printing prices I have to go to every website to spend time to compare quotes, this bot creates tremendous time savings.
Q: A lot of large companies have invested a lot of money in 3D printing… they do that because they want to use the machines whenever they want to. How do you navigate the organizational complexities here?
A: As an engineer you wouldn’t even feel there was a change — you would use the bot and get the results. And we can get you the results as soon as the same day or the next day turnaround time so as an engineer you wouldn’t even feel the difference. You would feel it is advantageous to use the bots instead of going downstairs to John and asking him to print something on the machine and John is sick and the machine doesn’t work.
Every company shares the same pain point and in a way this is the simple solution. The future of conversational commerce means 3D printing.
Q: Is there a risk in terms of quality?
A: We’re working on ways to protect the users… so we hold the money in an escrow account until the order comes through. So as a user you will receive the file and you will verify it is great, there will be a review and then the money is released to the 3D printing provider so they are encouraged to produce good results.
In the end everybody is using pretty much the same equipment so it’s a matter of printing, pressing a button and being trained how to do that. As long as you can do this and you do the right thing I think there should be no problems.
Of course we verify the providers, we allow them to send a first print and check out how it is done.
Q: If there were other applications for this would you be open to them?
A: I think we invented this niche, 3D printing chatbots, and we just want to dominate it and we want to continue moving this forward — adding IBM Watson for intelligence, pairing up with Viv for AI, connecting different APIs, the sky’s the limit.