Wednesday July 29, 2015 0 comments
LOVELAND -- Good products, an open source approach and a large collaborative community.
That’s the story behind Aleph Objects’ rapid and successful rise in the world of 3D printing.
The Loveland-based company has not only earned praise for its line of LulzBot 3D printers, but its actual earnings show an impressive 809 percent two-year revenue growth, surging from $523,706 in 2012, to $4,761,390 in 2014.
Aleph Objects is certainly receiving a lot of attention, having been recently recognized in BizWest’s Mercury 100 list of the Fastest Growing Companies in Northern Colorado; as a Large Company finalist for the Fort Collins Chamber of Commerce 2015 Small Business of the Year; and being listed as one of 50 Colorado Companies to Watch.
The LulzBot 3D printers have also been seen on NBC's Today Show and were the subject of a recent segment on The Science Channel's "How It's Made" series.
And in July, the LulzBot TAZ5 was named one of the Top 10 3D printers on the market today by Dynamism, a seller of leading-edge technology.
Aleph Objects produces two 3D printer models, says its communications manager, Harris Kenny.
“The TAZ is the bigger 3D printer used by engineers, research and heavy-duty users,” says Kenny. “The Mini is for smaller needs and for users new to 3D printing.”
Both feature a heated bed that self-levels during the start-up process and can print a wider variety of materials than most 3D printers including polyester, nylon, UV-luminescent filaments, filaments filled with wood, bronze, or copper, and polycarbonate.
The LulzBot Mini lists for $1,350 and the TAZ runs around $2,200.
Jeff Moe, Aleph Objects founder and CEO, says Aleph’s printers are in nearly constant creation. The cluster of 144 printers in the Loveland facility runs 5 days a week, 24 hours a day, producing 150 pounds of parts each day. “This set-up is one of the largest -- if not the largest facility -- of 3D printers produced.”
The company not only prints for other businesses, it also self-produces. “We’ve printed over 500,000 parts that we use in the production of our own machines,” Moe says.
The TAZ has 40 parts and the Mini has 30.
“The hardware does a lot of things you used to do yourself,” says Kenny. “It self-levels the bed, self-cleans the nozzle. Users had to do that manually before. And the software is getting easier to use -- it’s more intuitive, faster, simpler.”
The company is committed to Libre Innovation with open source hardware and free software that encourages user freedom. That means the hardware and software are both free to be copied, modified, and converted by all users.
Aleph Objects prides itself on the openness of its product development process, sharing every step of development through a publicly accessible archive updated hourly that includes specifications, schematics, parts, suppliers, and more for every prototype the company built.
“We share more than the product,” Moe notes. “We share how our company operates, how we make the product, the tools, the materials. We even show how much we pay for parts. We’ve taken the approach of Linux and Wikipedia, which fall under the model of open-source development and distribution.”
Kenny says it’s all part of that collaborative community. “Instead of doing this alone in a silo, everybody shares, everybody benefits.”
And the application of 3D printers is becoming widespread, according to Kenny. “These are for anyone who is making things -- from artists to the automotive industry to education. It’s difficult to overstate what’s possible,” he says.
Aleph’s LulzBot printers have become very popular. Gary DuChateau, artist, small business owner, inventor and self-proclaimed creative sector addict, produces his own work and also helps other artists in enlarging their own productions.
“Artists send me small models of sculptures they want enlarged to monumental size,” says DuChateau. “Often, the models are so small that it is hard to make a monumental enlargement without distortion. It’s best to enlarge something by a factor of five or less. So if the model is one foot tall and they want it 10 feet tall, I do a 3D scan of the model and print a two-foot-tall version to work from. I print it in pieces that are cut and sized to fit my 3D enlarging machine. Then, the 3D printed pieces are copied in the larger size in foam by my 3D milling machine and then the foam pieces are assembled into the full monument size.”
DuChateau has both a TAZ4 and a TAZ5 and will soon buy a Mini. He praises Aleph Objects for its products and customer service. “I don’t come from a high-tech background, so my learning curve on this is a bit of a challenge. But the people at Aleph are always patient in explaining things and don’t treat me like a dummy just because I don’t always get it right away.”
The simplicity of the product is also a plus.
“The LulzBot printer is also fairly straightforward in the way it works mechanically. The hardware is doing the same sort of thing I have always done in making a 3D copy” says DuChateau. “It’s the subtleties of the software that I have had to learn from scratch. I have also just started using the LulzBot to print waxes for use in the lost wax casting process.
Some artists only want to cast a single copy of a piece in bronze. So by doing a 3D print in wax, they can bypass the expensive, messy and time consuming process of mold making. This works whether the model is a sculpture I scan or something designed using CAD software. I think there is a great future for this application on smaller castings.”
Jamie Leben, president of Loveland CreatorSpace, says the space at 320 Railroad Ave. has eight LulzBot printers that are used daily by members for their projects.
“They’re also used for our regular free ‘Introduction to 3D Printing’ classes that help anyone learn the basics of using the 3D printers at Loveland CreatorSpace, at both the Loveland Public Library, and downtown Fort Collins Poudre River Public Library,” says Leben. “Our LulzBots have been reliable and consistent performers, and are easy enough to use that someone new to 3D printing should be able to have success quickly.”
Leben praises Aleph’s community spirit. “LulzBot is very generous with donations to makerspaces, schools, and libraries, donating dozens of printers every year. Loveland CreatorSpace was given some printers, and was able to purchase others at a deep discount. LulzBot is a top choice for purchase at regular prices because of their great support, one year warranty and ‘open source’ approach.”
Leben says he likes the open source approach. “It fosters better communication with their users, which often results in product improvements and creative modifications by the users. Because Aleph freely provides the printers' construction information, it’s easy to modify, upgrade and repair them.”
DuChateau agrees. “I think the open source approach is a critical strategy for their future success. It only makes sense that an in-house closed source development process is likely to miss out on some very good ideas that open sourcing can get for free. So I see an opportunity for the LulzBot to improve more rapidly and capture greater market share as time passes.”
Aleph Objects has certainly captured a market share already and its growth reflects that. The company, founded in 2011, has grown from 17 employees to 84 employees in the past year and a half.
In 2014, sales jumped to $4.6 million and they had already passed that mark by April 2015. Kenny projects the company see $12 million in sales -- nearly triple last year's sales -- by the end of the year.