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“We don’t think that’s good for the world.” With Fotis Georgiadis & Chris Prucha

We want openness to win because it will increase material diversity and increase innovation in the ecosystem. We think this is necessary for 3D printing to hit those cost structures and expand in manufacturing, but there is a risk that companies that are highly vertically integrated could drive costs down low enough that you could […]

We want openness to win because it will increase material diversity and increase innovation in the ecosystem. We think this is necessary for 3D printing to hit those cost structures and expand in manufacturing, but there is a risk that companies that are highly vertically integrated could drive costs down low enough that you could have a single player win a lot of the market. We don’t think that’s good for the world.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Prucha, CEO of Origin. Based in San Francisco, CA, Origin is pioneering the concept of Open Additive Manufacturing, a new way to build, based on open materials, extensible software, and modular hardware. Origin One, the company’s manufacturing-grade 3D printer, uses programmable photopolymerization to precisely control light, heat, and force, among other variables, to produce parts with exceptional accuracy and consistency. The company works with a network of material partners to develop a wide range of commercial grade materials for its system, resulting in some of the toughest and most resilient materials in additive manufacturing.


Thank you so much for doing this with us, Chris! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’m originally from Detroit, Michigan, and I moved to California a decade ago to work for Apple as a software engineer, but after a few years in the software world, I wanted to re-enter the physical world and work with my hands again. What I found really interesting about 3D printing is that it’s the closest thing we have to programmable matter.

My co-founder, Joel Ong, and I met while working on an open source software project. Joel had been working at Google on projects including Google X, Google Glass, and Chromium, an open source project backed by Chrome. I’d worked on Apple’s webkit, which was based off of Chromium.

When I started Origin, I was messing around with 3D printing and desktop printers, mostly low-quality consumer grade printers. I came across an open source printer called Ember, which was produced by Autodesk in the Bay Area. The parts the printer produced looked great, but they weren’t very strong. However, the fact that it was open source meant I could hack it to do a lot of very interesting things, and Joel helped me along the way.

I was interested in working with hardware startups, and one of the issues hardware startups have is bringing products to market. Normally, they’d 3D print a product that would look very rough, and they’d do all this processing to get a “looks like prototype.” To bring it to production, they would go through all these other stages, like design validation testing and engineering validation testing. I wondered why hardware couldn’t be more like software, where I could make a prototype in software, press a button, and launch it out to the world, and if it didn’t work, I could do it again and again and do things like split testing.

To do this with hardware, the logical answer was 3D printing, and I was lucky enough early on to meet a block chain startup called Chronicle, whose goal was to make enough prototypes that they could ship them as the final product. This was a very interesting concept at the time and still is.

Through software upgrades and tinkering with the hardware, Joel and I were able to produce parts that worked as a final product. Chronicle got a large contract for apparel blockchain authenticated shoe tags and needed help producing parts for the order, so we optimized the hardware and software to produce 10,000 high-quality 3D printed parts for consumers in a couple of weeks. That was the start of Origin.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I left my role as a software engineer at Apple in 2013 to co-found Notion, a productivity software app. At the time, I wasn’t sure Notion would be successful, so I founded Origin. Notion was recently valued at over a billion dollars. Financially, I’d be better off if I’d stayed at Notion!

Can you tell us about the “Bleeding edge” technological breakthroughs that you are working on?

Origin collaborates with a network of material partners, including large chemical companies and innovative startups. We build software-powered 3D printers, and the combination of software and hardware enables chemical companies to formulate and produce materials that are traditionally unprintable. Building a 3D printer that can print a new type of chemistry, or an existing chemistry outside of our space, is something that can be done, but it’s bespoke and therefore very expensive.

Our challenge is to build one system that moves the complexity away from the hardware and into the software, so we can accommodate many more chemistries within a single chemical company, but also across the chemical companies. Customers can purchase our system solution and have a diverse array of new materials, with new material properties that we haven’t seen before, and they can print on one system. We call our printer the Origin One because our product vision drives us to develop both software and hardware technology in tandem.

Our core technology, P3, or programmable photopolymerization, goes beyond existing 3D printing processes to be able to print a diverse array of chemistries. We’ve also developed thermal components that enable even more chemistries.

Our roadmap going forward includes hardware innovations that enable new material chemistries with world-class properties from these chemical companies. Many of these materials have already been developed and will soon be commercialized.

There are many unannounced hardware features in the Origin One system that we’re shipping that enable many of these new chemistries, but there’s no magic bullet — it’s really about engineering towards a principle, and that’s how you really build a platform

How do you think that will help people?

At Origin, we love creating value for our customers. The shoe manufacturer ECCO produces products using Origin technology to reduce costs and time to get to market with their products, as well as to open up new business models for their company.

3D systems have created value for Align Technologies, which makes Invisalign, because clear aligners solve a problem in the marketplace. We’re focused on value creation opportunities that have a broader benefit, and the medical space represents such an opportunity.

We have the ability to 3D print new material chemistries that are new to 3D printing but have existed in the medical space for a long time, so we know they are safe, and their parent chemistries are FDA approved. We’re able to print these on an Origin One system and go into the medical market with a variety of new products that could potentially be FDA approved, without having to invest a lot of time and money in developing new materials. We’re using less capital and less time to enter markets, and in the medical and dental space, where time is extended for FDA approval, this may ultimately mean that we are printing parts and products that help people more quickly.

How do you think this might change the world?

I believe 3D printing and Origin, as an idea, can change the world in two different ways.

3D Printing can produce products that can’t be produced by traditional manufacturing, which can potentially revolutionize medicine. It allows us to have clear aligners, like Invisalign, and has taken over the dental market. Dentists used to rely on manufacturing processes to produce dental products. Today, the biggest labs just 3D print those products, and the value created lowers the cost to make those products and shortens turnaround time.

In other areas of medicine, it used to be difficult or impossible to create things like customized stents, but now, you can 3D print one in a few minutes. 3D printing offers a huge potential impact for important sectors like healthcare.

The other thing is, given the value proposition of additive manufacturing, different markets will benefit from customization. Before the industrial revolution, everything was made by hand, and now we’re used to everything being mass-produced. 3D printing has the ability to bring customization back to manufacturing, if the materials are good enough, and the cost structure makes sense.

Origin can change the world by ensuring 3D printing isn’t like inkjet printing, where you have a $50 printer and $100 ink and are bound to a very small number of materials you can use because a small set of players dominate the industry. We believe open platforms are really important. Origin is an open platform, and we give customers choice.

We want openness to win because it will increase material diversity and increase innovation in the ecosystem. We think this is necessary for 3D printing to hit those cost structures and expand in manufacturing, but there is a risk that companies that are highly vertically integrated could drive costs down low enough that you could have a single player win a lot of the market. We don’t think that’s good for the world.

The most important thing for Origin is to ensure this doesn’t happen in manufacturing — that you don’t have a single player that controls everything. We want to make sure we have an open platform from the start, and we have the rare opportunity to do this because we’ve learned so much from open platforms in other spaces. My co-founder, Origin CTO Joel Ong, worked on Google’s open source Chromium project, and the open source philosophy is really in our company’s DNA.

Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology about which people should think more deeply?

It would be great if there was a 3D printing episode of Black Mirror about how 3D printing could transform society — it would help people and the industry think a lot about it. However, if there was an episode, there are some dark sides that are conceivable. For instance, there are security issues with 3D printing. Uploading a design that is stored in the cloud and being produced somewhere else by a 3D printer makes intellectual property more vulnerable to theft, because the actual design is being sent digitally to the printer. Traditionally, the design would only be kept on a small number of computers and transferred to a physical tool that is physically modified and can be hidden away. The issue of theft is a concern for companies that want to adopt 3D printing technology.

If we look a little further and imagine a world where 3D printing is everywhere, and materials are advanced enough, 3D printing systems could be hacked and used to print products that could hurt humanity. We know an expert in the material space who once said, “There’s no limit to the materials that could be developed for 3D printing — it’s not just about getting high performance materials to replace injection molding; there’s no reason we can’t print batteries, glass, or other things we thought were unprintable.” In the last couple of years, we’ve actually seen the 3D printing of glass, which happens to be a derivative of a technology similar to what we use. It’s also conceivable that AI could use 3D printing to produce objects that could control us.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Many people have helped me personally and helped my companies. Mike Maples, who’s on our Board of Directors, has been involved with Origin since before it was a company, when it was just a set of ideas and principles about how to create a product that could be shipped without going through the pitfalls of traditional manufacturing. When Mike Maples invested in Origin, we only had a software product. Mike invested in our company because he believed in our vision that 3D printing could become successful if there was an open platform that was software-driven.

In our first meeting with him, we told him we’d probably need to build our own hardware, and he gave us a piece of advice that most investors wouldn’t give; he said, “Chris, you need to control your own destiny, and if that means we need to build 3D printing hardware, then we need to build the best 3D printing hardware, and let’s figure out a way to do that.”

And we did. We hired the best hardware engineers and the best VP of Hardware we could find — Bill Buell, who built Makerbot’s engineering and manufacturing teams. We learned about chemistry, materials, and hardware ourselves; we built strong material and customer partnerships; and now we have a strong hardware program. The company would not have been successful without Mike’s advice.

Investors don’t just put in money; they can influence their companies, both negatively and positively. Mike has fundamentally influenced our company in a way to make it successful, by removing our anxiety and encouraging us, rather than being risk averse.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

@Chrisprucha on Twitter or add me on Linkedin by searching for Chris Prucha

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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