A gentleman walked into Owen Tien's 3D print shop, Thingsmiths, in Ann Arbor, Mich. about three weeks ago with a doodle for an electromagnetic field generator on a napkin and asked if Owen could make it for him.
"It was sketched out in just the roughest way possible," Owen said. "We had a design discussion and talked it through."
There were a lot of details to work out that the customer had no concept of, like how to attach the spinning magnets to the axel and how to keep a motor that spins at 6,000 rpms steady.
In the end, Owen was able to make the EMF generator for the customer, who planned to use to attract ghosts.
It was a challenge, but he was exactly the type of customer Owen is catering to – the one who has an idea and doesn't know how to accomplish it.
"A lot of our customers don't care if it was made on an FDM (fused deposition modeling) machine or a SLA (stereolithography) machine; they don't care if it's designed in Autodesk or SolidWorks," Owen said.
In fact, most of his customers don't know what any of that means. Thingsmiths is about making 3D printing accessible to beginners.
"There are lots of companies out there that are making amazing things, but they tend cater to technically sophisticated people or highly creative people who have the will power and the means to get through hurdles of 3D printing," Owens said.
Don't get wrong, if someone walks in with a water tight STL file ready to go, Owen can print it, but he doesn't get too many of those customers.
While either Owen or one of his staffers usually do most of the heavy lifting in the design department, the customer actually ends up learning quite a bit. "It's a process the customer really gets to feel a part of because he's constantly involved in the conversation and working through some of the technical challenges," Owens said.
Another way he makes 3D printing accessible to the uninitiated is by keeping the price down.
He runs using three modified MakerBot Replicator 2s, a Replicator 2X and a Form 1 from Formlabs, with Autodesk and Rhino CAD software.
His customers don't need pro-class printer output and running this equipment means he isn't constantly trying to pay off tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in machinery.
"My customers don't have that sort of need (for super high resolution finished products), and the person who does have that sort of need is going to get his own printer anyway," Owen said.
People do occasionally come into the shop needing something beyond their capabilities, Owen's wife Emily said. She doesn't like explaining that they can't accommodate them, but there is something priceless in a business model that introduces the technology to the newcomer.
"Seeing the satisfaction of a customer who doesn't have CAD skills or isn't artistically inclined, who just had an idea in their head and now it's come to fruition, that is really cool for me," Emily said. "That gets me really excited."
Then there are the people who come in looking for something unrealistic.
"I had one person ask me, 'Can you print a 10-foot Christmas tree?'" Emily said. "In theory, yeah you could, but it would have to be in many, many pieces."
They don't get as many unreasonable requests as one might expect though. Emily figures it's mainly because people aren't using their imaginations enough yet. Most of their customers who do know about 3D printing see it strictly in practical terms. To them, it's simply a means of doing something like replacing the broken handle on the refrigerator door.
Those who are first learning about the technology haven't had time to consider what the outer limits might be. "They haven't let their inner child out yet," Emily said. "They haven't let their imagination run. They don't know what this technology can do."
Owen figures that's only a matter of time, though.
"I truly believe that everyone has a little bit of creator in them," he said. "Everyone is a maker, and with a little bit of know-how they can make something. That's what we do, we provide the know-how."