Chinese 3D printing startup, Polymaker, recently closed a hugely successful Kickstarter funding of their Polysmooth PVB filament and Polysher finishing device to the tune of over $400,000 USD. The innovative technology behind Polymaker’s first hardware product promises to remove rough unfinished layers from the 3D printed products of today, making way for smooth production-grade 3D printed products of the future.
Polymaker co-founder Xiaofan Luo sat down with Startup Living China to talk about the Kickstarter campaign, the 3D printing market, and his vision for the company.
Backstory: The Smoothness Problem in 3D Printing
3D printing technology was first introduced back in the 90s, but it was only until recently that the technology really began to kick off. The low cost of production, in terms of labor and efficiency, has made 3D printing an attractive option for creating physical products.
However, the reality of traditional 3D printing is that the finished product is not exactly ‘finished’ like plastic products that we buy in stores. It’s not glossy, nor is it smooth. Rather, what you get is a matte finish with rough layer lines all over it. This may be a small detail, but it is very important. It may even be what’s preventing from 3D technology from fully taking off.
Polymaker aims to solve that problem wit the PolySmooth PVB filament and Polysher, promising massive improvements in the surface quality of 3D printed parts. The technology revolves around two key things – the PolySmooth and the Polysher.
The PolySmooth is the filament material responsible for giving the finished product that polished look once it’s exposed to common alcohols such as isopropyl alcohol or ethanol. The material is excellent for 3D printing and should be compatible with existing extrusion-based (FDM/FFF) 3D printers.
Of course, the material is just half of the equation. Once you have your 3D printed part using PolySmooth, the Polysher device then exposes the 3D printed part to an aerosolized form of alcohol and puts the final touch. The resulting product is a smooth 3D printed part with none of the annoying, rough layer lines.
Polymaker’s PolySmooth PVB material and Polysher device are set to radically change the perception of the capabilities of modern 3D printing technology. This new innovation will benefit makers, educators, and industries alike, potentially opening a new era of mainstream adoption of 3D printing.
Interview with Xiaofan Luo, co-founder of Polymaker
How does the Polymaker story begin? What was the inspiration behind the formation of your 3D printing company?
It has to do with my first encounter with 3D printing, which was back in 2008. I was a PhD student studying in the US and working on a project aimed at developing a new biodegradable polymer for cardiovascular stents. We had the material developed, and were looking for a technique to manufacture the stents, as most of the stents back then were made in metal and polymeric stents were relatively new.
We eventually decided to use 3D printing but we couldn’t find anyone to work with us, as all 3D printer companies were operating on the “closed system” model, i.e. only the material provided by the printer company could be used. Because of this 3D printers were limited as tools only for prototyping but not real manufacturing.
To continue the project we eventually spent a lot of time and effort to build our own 3D printer, during which I discovered those open-source communities such as RepRap and [email protected] and started following them. In the next couple years the field of low-cost, “desktop” or “personal” 3D printers grown from those open-source communities began to take off, and companies like MakerBot and Ultimaker emerged. I also bought myself a 3D printer (a MakerGear M2) and started playing with it at home.
A key difference between the newly emerged open-source 3D printers and those “professional” 3D printers that have been in existence for almost 20 years is the “openness” of the former – you can control and fine-tune both the hardware as well as software, and the choice of materials is potentially limitless. To me this could really free the technology and unleash its full potential. For example what I wanted to achieve a couple years ago (with the cardiovascular stents) could easily be done now. I felt so strongly about the potential of the technology, therefore in 2012 I quit my job (I was working for a chemical company in the US then), came back to China and co-founded Polymaker to focus on developing new materials for 3D printing.
At Polymaker we envision a future where 3D printing is broadly used across a wide variety of industries, and we are working hard to make sure that future becomes reality. One of our short-term to mid-term goals is to bridge the gap between a 3D printed object and a truly finished product, both functionally and aesthetically. Almost all our products are centered around this goal, including Polysher/PolySmooth. Today in many people’s mind low-cost 3D printing can only be used for useless trinkets – The Polysher/PolySmooth is a solid proof that they are wrong and shows what 3D printing can really do.
The aerosol finishing process of the Polysmooth filament in conjunction with the Polysher is set to be a major step forwards in efficiently creating high-quality 3D printed objects. Can you elaborate more about the initial idea, research process, and future of this technology?
We had this idea more than two years ago – around the beginning of 2014. Actually the original goal was to develop an alcohol-soluble support material but we quickly found the “polishablity” and started investigating. Our R&D team then spent about a year to identify the right material system, fine-tune the material formulation/process, and create the early (3D printed) prototypes of the Polysher. Then we teamed up with Pragmatic Designs and Gyre 9, two US-based product design companies to turn the Polysher prototype into a real product.
We believe the products open unlimited possibilities for 3D printing. We are already working with a number of companies to develop applications, all of which involve direct production of final products. In the future we will further develop the “polyshable” material family so a much wider choice of materials will become available. We will also work hard to create more application-oriented solutions based on the technology.
The Polysmooth and Polysher combination makes some gorgeously shiny and polished finishes. Will it be possible to adapt this technology in the future to create smooth but matte finishes?
Actually, we already have a product (ProMatte, co-developed with Type A Machines) that gives matte surface finish. It achieves this via an unique foaming technology, which makes it (to our knowledge) the world’s only 3D printable foam. The bulk density is 30-40% lower compared to PLA.
You can read more here:
The Polysmooth filament is designed to dissolve in ethanol or isopropyl alcohol. Does this mean we should stay away from 3D printing Yoda-shaped beer mugs with Polysmooth?
(Unfortunately) Yes – currently PolySmooth cannot be used for alcoholic beverages. Looks like we had our next product idea 😉
The Polysmooth and Polysher Kickstarter campaign was a huge success, achieving 200% funding on Day 1 and eventually becoming one of the more highly funded 3D printing related projects on Kickstarter. To what do you attribute the success of the Polysmooth and Polysher campaign? What kind of (pre) marketing efforts did you pursue? Is there anything you would do differently next time?
To me the most important factor is the product itself. It solves the right problem and is something people have been looking for. Also it is unique – there is no other product like this in the market.
We did of course also put a lot of efforts in pre-KS marketing. They were mostly via social media (Facebook primarily), 3D printing websites, and our partners worldwide.
There might be a few things I would do differently next time, but they are all at the tactics level. I think strategically KickStarter was the right approach for us.
Polymaker has teamed up with Mascon to manufacture the Polysher. How did this partnership start and what was the process like?
In fact we started working with Mascon long before the Polysher project (using their supply chain services). Although they are a 30-year old company they are very flexible and easy to work with. Also they have an initiative to work particularly with technology startups. The partnership has been great so far.
What were the most challenging aspects of launching the Polysmooth and Polysher?
Polymaker started as a materials company and Polysher was our first hardware product. We needed to learn pretty much everything from design to manufacturing to issues such as safety and compliance. That was quite challenging for us, but we managed to get through by working with the right partners and quickly learning things.
China in particular has seen impressive growth and innovation in the 3D printing market over the past few years. Where do you see the market heading in the near future in both commercial and consumer sectors? How will Polymaker fit in with this market?
Education is definitely a high-growth market in the consumer sector, mostly due to government funding to public schools to incorporate 3D printing in the curriculum.
We see huge potential in industrial applications of 3D printing in China. China is still the “manufacturing hub” of the world and the country is at a turning point to transition its economy from “cheap labor” driven to design & innovation driven. This is the area we will heavily invest in for the Chinese market.
What advice or wisdom would you give to other hardware entrepreneurs in China and abroad?
I think the key things are:
- Solve the right problem
- Build the right partnerships
- Think global