Meet Micro, a cube-shaped 3-D printer that could stand on your desk or kitchen counter, carries on its plastic shoulders part of an effort to turn Maryland into a center of a fast-growing technology.
Micros will soon be shipping out by the thousands from new plant in Howard County as one of the lowest-priced personal 3-D printers that you don't have to build yourself. The plant established by a new company called M3D is due for its ceremonial opening Monday, a moment hailed by local and state officials as a milestone in a plan to develop Maryland as a hub for 3-D printing, also known as "additive manufacturing."
"They're a great poster child for innovation and entrepreneurship, and what's possible in Maryland," said Jan Baum, director of 3D Maryland, an initiative founded by Howard County to develop the state as a center for this technology.
Carl Livesay, manufacturing director for the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, called M3D a showcase for the state's manufacturing strength, as the two founders, Michael Armani and David Jones, are both Maryland natives who graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park, and are buying key components from local companies.
"They're a terrific example of manufacturing in Maryland," said Livesay, adding that M3D — the "M" stands for Micro — is the largest of three companies in the state that make 3-D printers.
Armani and Jones are moving M3D's operations to Fulton from Bethesda. They've furnished a few offices and set up part of the assembly room, but the 12,000-square-foot space at the moment is a lot of empty, pale floors and walls — soon to be occupied by dozens of employees assembling and packing thousands of printers.
Programmers were working at oversized computer screens in one office, as a Micro on one desk quietly hummed along, finishing work on a 3.6-inch Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle figure in blue plastic. The printhead, or extruder — supported by a simple metal frame inside the plastic cube — turned tight circles to finish the figure's head, having started about 90 minutes earlier at the feet.
A figurine can take from an hour to nearly two hours to make, a smartphone case between two and three hours.
The company has 11,000 orders from this country and overseas through its Kickstarter campaign that raised $3.4 million. The first 50 orders are shipping now, 2,500 are scheduled to go out next month and the balance are expected to ship by February.
M3D's employment of about 25 people is expected to grow to 55 by year's end, and to about 100 by next spring, Jones said. He and his business partner, both 30 , said they anticipate turning out at least 10,000 Micros a month. They hope to offer them in retail outlets including Amazon and Best Buy.
Selling for $349, the Micro is one of the lowest-priced 3-D printers on the consumer market, said Chris Connery, a senior analyst at NPD Group, a consumer market research firm.
Another made by a company called MOD-t is offered for $279 on the company's website, but most printers in that price range are sold as kits, not finished machines, Connery said. Assembled printers are selling on Amazon for as low as $599, but prices jump from there to over $1,000.
Jones said the ideal price for a consumer machine is about $200, but the technology is not yet at the point where a printer can be sold for so little.
He said the Kickstarter campaign that began in the spring not only provided money they needed to launch the company, but showed there was a market for a printer in the price range M3D offered.
"We couldn't have done it without" Kickstarter, Jones said.
He and Armani said they went through the stereotypical startup experience of running their credit cards to the limit, clearing savings accounts and pooling money from relatives, all of which raised about $150,000.
Money from lenders — arranged with the help of the Howard County Economic Development Authority — will help finance the next phase of production after the Kickstarter orders are filled. Jones expects they're going to have more demand than they can handle and figures they can make up to 30,000 Micros a month in their current manufacturing space.
Machines that make three-dimensional objects by adding material from the base up — hence the term "additive manufacturing" — have been used in industry for about 30 years, but have only emerged in the consumer market since 2007, Connery said. According to NPD, 12 companies dominate the market now, with the biggest share belonging to MakerBot, a Brooklyn, N.Y., company bought last year by Stratasys, based in Minnesota. But its least expensive machine lists for $1,375.
Jones and Armani see potential customers everywhere: children, school teachers, hobbyists, home cooks, engineers, home maintenance do-it-yourselfers.
A video on their website shows a woman using a Micro at her kitchen counter to create cookie cutters, and children playing with Lego-like interlocking plastic blocks that can be made on the Micro.
"The list of applications is as long as the number of users," said Armani, adding that he imagines children will be quick to embrace the Micro, which runs on game-like software designed to be easy to use.
"Think of it as your Lego factory," said Armani, adding that the printer is ideal for making figurines, including toy solders. "Kids — they'll want to lock their door and print an entire army."
At least two professional analysts of consumer behavior offered very different views of the potential demand for personal 3-D printers.
Connery sees the machines having broad appeal, and compares them to the personal computer in the 1980s.
"People didn't know what a PC was, but they wanted one," he said.
NPD's research shows that about 56,000 personal 3-D printers were shipped around the world in 2012, jumping to 120,000 last year. The company projects sales will grow to 1.9 million in 2018.
The Consumer Electronics Association offers a far more conservative projection. Steve Koenig, the organization's director of industry analysis, said its 2018 forecast is for 300,000 units shipped.
Koenig said a CEA survey of 1,000 people to be released next week showed "budding awareness" of the technology, and few people said they intend to purchase one.
"This is not one of those technologies that will be under every roof," he said.
Koenig imagines the appeal will be chiefly to artists, "enthusiasts and inventor types." He compared the 3-D printer not to the nascent personal computer, but the sewing machine: "How many consumers out there own a sewing machine and use it?"
Maryland officials are bullish on 3-D printing in general, which has been used to make everything from chocolate candies to replacement parts for machines and human bodies.
"Some are looking at additive manufacturing as the next version of CNC," said the economic development department's Livesay, referring to computer numerical control technology that revolutionized manufacturing 30 years ago. Judging by the calls his office receives and attendance at industry events, Livesay said "there's a tremendous amount of interest."
3-D Maryland's Baum said the state's quality of education, educated workforce and number of federal laboratories researching some aspect of 3-D printing give Maryland the ingredients to become an additive manufacturing center. M3D is a good example, she said.
"I think there's a real opportunity for us to become a great center of additive manufacturing," said Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, who backed creation of 3D Maryland and is the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor. "My sense is this is just the beginning, certainly I hope so."