This is part of a series of blog posts on decisions we’ve made in the course of business, to provide some insight into our business and product development process. Posts are not chronological. This post examines our decision to buy a 3D printer.

In previous blog posts, we’ve examined some weightier decisions we’ve made – what to buildhow to build it. Today, we want to dig into something a little more tactical and practical.

Nima's 3D printer

As a hardware startup, we actually need to make physical products. We need something that people can touch and feel. We need it to be real. Last week, we had an 8th grader write in for some advice on building models for a school science project. She wanted to know if modeling clay were sufficient for building a prototype. Yes, we said. We also suggested finding things that were the approximate size, using paper, cardboard, foam, basically anything that would let you get to the idea of what it would feel like to have something in your hand.

styrofoam prototype of Nima

As you can see from this image, it’s something we’ve done ourselves. We started with various versions of our product etched in these materials.

Unlike an 8th grade science fair project though, we actually have to make our product work. We need to iterate on size, shape, form factor, and make certain the device shape can hold all the important things like sensors, chemistry, battery, screen, chips, that make our product work. For this, the company needed to be able to utilize 3D printing and plastics to get at the right size and heft, to make certain that specific user interactions work, and that people can use the device.

We want to be able to iterate quickly, but back in the early days of the company, there was a trade-off analysis that had to be made. Is it cheaper to outsource 3D printing to someone else, or to buy our own machine?

So I asked lead product development engineer, Steve Portela. Here’s what he had to say:

There are a few great services out there such as Fictiv and ProtoCafe which are excellent at getting you good parts dependent upon your needs and budget. As we got further into the design, we realized that we were spending $1,000+ a month on 3D printed parts which encouraged us to consider purchasing our own. Generally, for $2,000 to $4,000 you can have your pick from a selection of hobbyist printers on the market.

Due to our resolution needs (and MIT affiliation) we decided to go with the FormLabs printer which paid for itself in 3 to 4 months. Now we have a larger engineering team and it runs almost non-stop saving us not only a bunch of money, but it also allows us to take what used to be 1 or 2 days (which is excellent by rapid prototyping standards) per design iteration (print, test, modify, print again) and speed that up to 2 or sometimes 3 iterations per day. The quality of these printers have come a long way so it allows us to spend a lot less time making the machine work and just having it print which makes if very cost effective for us.

The other cool thing about 3D printers is that you can make things like this (aka a model of Steve’s face).

making 3D prints