Executive Interview – Greg Mark
3DPI’s Michael Molitch-Hou had a chance to interview Greg Mark, CEO of MarkForged, to ask him about the company’s Mark One 3D printer, which uses a patented process called Continuous Filament Fabrication to create composite parts out of carbon fiber, fiberglass and Kevlar. The Mark One made a big impact at SolidWorks World and the huge number of preorders for the machine, due to be shipped in the summer of this year, has meant that they’ve had to place a cap on pre orders. You can see the Mark One print carbon fiber and meet the MarkForged team on Monday March 24, from 5-9PM at TechShop San Francisco.
3D Printing Industry: Since I last wrote about you, you’ve put the Mark One 3D printer up for Pre-Order and you are currently in the process of fulfilling those orders?
Greg Mark: The orders will start shipping in the summer, so right now we’re ramping up production. We’re going to have to cap the pre-orders because they’re selling faster than we projected. And we want to make sure that we can deliver them all in a timely manner. A lot of pre sales [for other 3D printers] have oversold and then customers are waiting two years to get their printer and we didn’t want to do that.
3D Printing Industry: So, you feel like you’re on track with production?
Greg Mark: Yeah, we’ve been on track. We’ve been doing this for a year and we’ve been on track or ahead of all of our milestones all the way through. When we started this, our investors were like, “This is way too rushed for a timeline.” And I was like, “Alright, mark your words on that and you’ll see.” And we’re ahead of schedule.
3D Printing Industry: Do you think that your ability to stay up with the schedule comes from your experience with your other company, Aeromotions?
Greg Mark: Yeah, you know. It’s not our first time at the dance. There’s two ways to look at it. As far as engineering, the Aeromotion racecar wings were a lot more complex than this, and then, in regards to the use-case, in building a wing that weighs 12.5 pounds, we had to make everything. We had to make the wing, figure out how it looked, every aspect of that, and it had to work at 200 mph on the back of a Ferrari on a track that could be 115˚ Fahrenheit. By the way, it could start raining. That’s a much, much, much, much harder engineering problem. With 3D printing, we’ve hired some PhDs in precision machine design, but we didn’t invent xyz motion. 90% of this printer is an elegant interpretation of things that have already been figured out. We didn’t invent FFF and we can thank Scott Crump for that. And I have. Scott’s a great guy and the technology works well. So all we had to do was just do the composite side.
If you look at the Aeromotions analogy, it’s like just building the control system or just building the actuator or just building the custom machine that made the actual wings themselves. For that project we had three components. In this, we had one.
In a past life, we made high current socket connectors for Intel and AMD, in a previous company called Tribotek. And we actually ran from 0 to 2000 connectors per week in 8 weeks and there were 237 minutes of labor in that product. That was much more aggressive than this. This is not easy, but it’s a lot easier than things we had to do in the past, which is why we were able to have an aggressive schedule.
3D Printing Industry: In some ways this project is about providing production to other people, instead of you producing your own – you’re making the printer, obviously – but you’re giving other people the opportunity to pursue all of these projects. So does this feel like a different sort of endeavour than the others?
Greg Mark: Yes. Perfect question. It has a totally different appeal. In the previous business, we were selling you the final product. Honestly, one of the nicest things that anyone’s said about us so far was posted to our Facebook page. There was this guy Paul that said, “I had the pleasure of talking to Greg for like 15 minutes and he gave me his undivided attention.” I wrote back to him, “That’s because, in this business, we understand that we’re just making a 3D printer and you guys are the ones who are going to figure out how to use it.”
In the racecar wing business, we took a lot of pride in the fact that we made wings that were better than any other wings that you could buy. In terms of track performance, you could get around the track faster. In this business, yeah we have pride in the fact that our 3D printer is awesome, but our real pride will come from the things that people do with the printer. We can’t do both. We can make the world’s coolest 3D printer, but we’re not the ones making cool parts off of it.
Yesterday we were at MIT and the things that they’re going to do with this printer are amazing. I’m not allowed to tell you, but they make prototypes, on a different printer, that do something really cool, but that still involves a lot of steps and it’s too heavy and it’s clunky. So, if they use ours, they can take a few different pieces, integrate them into one piece, and reduce the weight. And build parts that people use to make their lives better. So, when they do that, we can thank them for that. For making the printer look really good.
3D Printing Industry: Are there any clients whose projects you are allowed to tell us about?
Greg Mark: No. People make us sign these really nasty NDAs, which is fair. The people who have preordered the machine – a lot of them are big companies that are doing some really crazy stuff with it. We haven’t done much application engineering yet on this, but the things that we’ve been shown, we’re not allowed to talk about. I would expect that four or five months after these things started shipping, the people who got them a little bit early will start showing you what they’re doing with them.
3D Printing Industry: Man, I wish they hadn’t made you sign those NDAs.
Greg Mark: Well, we’ve had some interest from smaller companies that didn’t make us sign them and one is in prosthetics. Because there’s some 3D printing in prosthetics, but in plastic, so it’s a different order of magnitude.
3D Printing Industry: You know about the RoboHand project with Richard Van As. Do you see people like him utilizing the Mark One?
Greg Mark: Yes, a really cool project. We haven’t talked to him, but it’s a perfect application for the product. The coolest thing about the project, you know, is that you make something very useful off of a low-cost printer. The only downside is that you’re printing out of plastic. You could print the hand as it is, but you could redesign it to make better use of the composite. And then you’re printing a composite part many times stronger. Our hope is that people will do exactly that with it: start to either print the same parts much stronger or say, “Oh, wow! A perfect time where we can make these pieces smaller, lighter, certainly much more robust.” Just imagine if the Robohand was in carbon fiber instead of PLA.
3D Printing Industry: Compared to huge, industrial machines, the Mark One is pretty affordable, but compared to a RepRap or something like that, it’s a little bit pricey, so that it would be less likely that it’s going to be in the Sudan. There’s a project called Not Impossible Labs that brought 3D-printed prosthetic arms and hands to amputees in the Sudan. I think they were using Printrbots. That project might not be able to use something like a Mark One right away because it’s a little cost prohibitive, compared to something like a Printrbot.
Greg Mark: I would agree… You gotta start somewhere. As with everything else, prices come down as volume goes up and as time goes on, tools get refined. When we brought this thing to SolidWorks World, 100% of the people who saw it were like, “Wow, it’s only $5k?” In fact, when we were in the Media Lab yesterday, they had a $400,000 printer they were using. We told the grad students to check out our website, so they checked out our website and they were like, “$5k?!” So the overwhelming response has been that it’s amazingly low cost. Compared to a RepRap, it’s not low-cost. Compared to a high-end 3D printer, it costs less than the printhead of some of the high end printers.
It’s around the price you’d see at SolidWorks. If you have a company that decides they’re going to manufacture prosthetics and they have one person on SolidWorks, two engineers, and a Mark One, that’s a real company. They can design parts, they iterate on them until they get it right. And when they get it right, they can print functional parts. And that can be in your dorm room. It can be in your garage. It can be in your basement. Or you switch up to a company like Nike and instead of having to wonder, “should we get a printer?” It becomes a no-brainer. And then when you run out of bandwidth with that printer, then they get another one. And they say, “Hey look, I’m thinking about actually making production shoes off of this thing and I want to be able to do like 100 a day,” you buy 100 printers. 100 printers at $500 grand, actually pretty cheap. We’re a big fan of parallel. It’s a small printer with a good price. If you’re going to make a lot of something, you just buy a lot of printers.
3D Printing Industry: Have you found companies that are doing that? Has anybody ordered multiple printers from you?
Greg Mark: The largest order has been two. Half the people who bought this were at SolidWorks World. And half of them went to the website, read it, kind of understood that it was very feasible. A quarter of them checked with people who’d been at SolidWorks. The thing that was so great about SolidWorks World is that five and a half thousand mechanical engineers saw the machine printing in real time. They took a part that came off of the machine and put it in their hands and bent it. When you have five and a half thousand mechanical engineers walking around the event and saying, “Hey, that thing works and it works awesome,” that’s how we sold more than we expected. There were people on the Internet who were like “Oh, this can’t work,” so we expected a lot more of that. What we didn’t take into account was that there would be all of these people who were going to see it and say, “No. I’ve seen this thing print first hand. I’ve bent a part in my hand and it was like solid aluminium.”
We’re going to be doing a demo day in San Francisco in a matter of weeks. I’m going to be at an additive summit that I’ll be speaking at, but we’re going to hold it external to that because we want it to get more flexible hours. We want it to be more open.
3D Printing Industry: So the public will be able to go to it?
Greg Mark: Yes.
3D Printing Industry: That summit is really expensive, like an industry summit.
Greg Mark: We’re trying to make the event really, really, really accessible. Keeping the machine price in a reasonable range has enabled a much wider group of people to buy the machine and start designing parts for it. So we want to keep it as wide as possible, on every level. Seeing the machine. Buying the machine, etc.
3D Printing Industry: I have a few questions written down that I wanted to make sure to ask. I watched a video you posted on your site about the production of a carbon fiber cello and it’s super labor intensive! How does the Mark One compare to traditional carbon fiber manufacturing?
Greg Mark: There’s three carbon processes. The short answer is that ours has no labour. There’s no mould. There’s no cutting. There’s no trimming. There’s no gluing. If you were to look at it from a composites side, we’ve automated the carbon fiber process. Full disclosure: it’s half as strong as the best composites. So, from the composites world, we’re not there yet. We’re half as strong, but it’s fully automated. If you look at it from the 3D printing side, we’re five times stronger and twenty times stiffer and it’s also fully automated. It depends on which side you look at it from.
The cello is what’s called a wet layup, where you put the fabric into the mould. You paint on the plastic by hand. You do vacuum packing. You trim it. And if you want to do that bottom piece and top piece, you’ve got to make those separate pieces, separate operations. It’s super labour intensive.
If you look at the GE version, which is how they make their fan blades – the highest end of the high end (we use that in the high end race car wings) – a CNC machine cuts out the shape, but a human lays it by hand in the mould, they vacuum bag the autoclave, etc. It’s also a very labour intensive process.
And so we come in and say, “Hey, look, take the labour out.” And it’s not as good as the best composites yet, but we’re working on it. And it already has a higher strength to weight ratio than 6061 aluminium, which we’re very proud of.
3D Printing Industry: The material itself you made yourself too. And you’re getting a patent on that?
Greg Mark: Yeah. We have IP on the machine and the materials. We mentioned in the launch video: we had to invent the material and then we had to use it. What you have to keep in mind is that we demoed the carbon and we use the carbon, but fiberglass is a lot cheaper and people will be 3D printing a lot of fiber glass.
3D Printing Industry: And you’ll soon be printing with Kevlar, too, right?
Greg Mark: So, the Developer Kits print Kevlar.
Kevlar’s high abrasion resistance is perfect for protective applications.
3D Printing Industry: I just found out about that when I saw the preorder page. How did that come about? When did you decide to start working with Kevlar? Did you know that you’d be doing that from the start?
Greg Mark: Yeah. There’s four other things that this 3D printer does that we’re just not mentioning because, if we told you everything that the printer did on day one, it’d be too much information. It’s hard enough to say, “it prints in carbon fiber”. There’s enough freshness and newness around that. And, so then, we waited a little while and were like, “Oh by the way, it also prints Kevlar.” And, for some people, that’s a huge deal. We were talking to someone else yesterday and, for them, it’s a really, really, really huge deal.
3D Printing Industry: For these people who are super excited about Kevlar, what do they see the main advantages of printing with Kevlar? What are they going to use it for?
Greg Mark: Kevlar has huge abrasion resistance. In the racecar world, if you’re making something called a front splitter, which hangs below the front bumper and will get smashed against a pavement – if you make that out of carbon fiber, it will evaporate. It will hit the pavement a couple of times and it’s gone. If you make it out of Kevlar – Kevlar’s what they use in bulletproof vests - and hit the road, it has much, much higher abrasion resistance. Same thing with speed boating. We were talking to a rep from DuPont at Composites World and she was like, “Oh yeah, we always use Kevlar on parts for super exotic, high end boats.” Because if you make it out of carbon or fiber glass, it’s going to get worn away and beat up. So people who need a high wear surface – and it’s not like a high polished tool steel, it’s more like abrasion resistance on your composite boat or the bottom of your composite racecar. Those people will use Kevlar. It’s a really cool material.
3D Printing Industry: I know you’re slowly letting these little details out. Are there any new materials that you want to drop?
Greg Mark: We’re going to leave it at these three for now. A lot of the other things are on the software side, so we’ll get into those later. But these are the three core materials. People who use composites now will use this machine because before they had no other way. You make a bike that’s half carbon fiber and half titanium – you make it out of carbon fiber because it’s the lightest strongest stuff on Earth. And you can afford the expense. But a whole bunch of engineering applications do not use composites – Kevlar, fiberglass, or carbon fiber – because it’s so hard and so labour intensive to manufacture. Also, every time you have humans doing something, you have a chance for variation from part to part. The machine greatly reduces that chance because it’s automated. So when you have this machine laying a composite part – nothing’s 100% perfect – it doesn’t get tired, doesn’t get sleepy, distracted. It’s a very consistent process.
Carbon fiber has the strength to weight ratio that you can buy. And fiberglass has the highest strength to cost. And Kevlar has this crazy abrasion resistance. So, all of a sudden engineers can say, especially for low volume production, “Oh look, you can design this component of your machine out of Kevlar.” You can make this housing out of Kevlar now. Something you wish you could have done before, but you were never going to buy a tool to buy that. Right now, if you decide, “You know what? I’m going to get this piece made out of Kevlar,” who would you call? If you wanted to make it out of aluminium, you can call hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of machine shops. Or you can take your part from SolidWorks, upload it to FirstCut and they’ll give you a quote in two minutes and they’ll machine your part in three days and send it to you for a very reasonable price. If you upload them something in Kevlar, they’ll start laughing and say, “No thanks, man.” Aluminium and steel and plastics, we have a whole industry of CNC machines designed to work with those. They’re not designed to make composites. So we’re kind of like the first CNC machine for composites. If FirstCut had a hundred of these machines, you could upload a composite part and they could 3D print it.
3D Printing Industry: There was a company on Kickstarter called Proto Pasta that created a PLA-carbon fiber composite filament where chopped fiber comprises 15% of the material. How does the MarkForged carbon fiber differ?
Greg Mark: The major difference is strength and difference and whether or not you’re using chopped or continuous. Chopped composite is long since known. We use it all over the place. In a previous life, when we made these power connectors – all of the power connectors under the hood of your car are nylon with 30% glass fill. And that glass fill is super finely chopped fiber glass. In an injection moulding application, it gives it twice the strength and better heat resistance. But, if, instead of chopping that glass up, you leave the glass continuous, instead of twice as strong, it’s five to ten times as strong, depending on how you lay it down.
3D Printing Industry: Though, theirs is obviously a lot weaker, it can be used in any desktop 3D printer. The way that the continuous fiber is fed into the machine, is that a different process than a normal 3D printer?
Greg Mark: Yes. We have a special printhead and you can’t print without it.
3D Printing Industry: Any chance that MarkForged would start selling the printheads for people to modify their own machines to become a lesser version of the Mark One?
Greg Mark: Probably not. That’s not really in our business plan.
3D Printing Industry: Sorry, it’s just that I write alot about RepRaps. Were you guys inspired at all by those sorts of open source machines?
Greg Mark: I think they’re awesome. Not only did they make 3D printing totally, totally accessible, but they built all of the awareness. It’s no surprise that the average person’s knowledge of 3D printing skyrocketed with the open source project. They changed the game.
3D Printing Industry: At the same time, a professionally produced machine like the Mark One probably doesn’t run into the same problems as something that people hack together in their garage. I’m not super technically adept. If I had a Mark One, I would somehow, if it was like my current machine, jam the extruder and, since the material is that much stiffer and stronger, I would have no idea what to do to troubleshoot to get the carbon fiber out of the printhead, without breaking everything.
Greg Mark: Really good question. I can’t tell you all of the features yet, but we made it really easy to fix. So, if you need to replace the nozzle, it’s super easy. On existing RepRaps, if you want to replace the nozzle, you have to heat it up and, often, when you unscrew it, plastic spews everywhere. And then it’s hard to put the next one back in. We got rid of that. So, we made it so that it’s really easy to replace the tips.
3D Printing Industry: You send out like 5 nozzles with the kits, right?
Greg Mark: The Dev Kit gets five and the other one gets two or three, but we expect those to last you a long time. The reason we did that is, if you have a problem or even think you have a problem, we don’t you want you there messing with the nozzle. Just put a new nozzle in. It’s very important to us that these are very easy to use and that people love using them. Let’s put it this way: I’ve cleaned out my fair share of RepRap nozzles and nobody should have to do that.
3D Printing Industry: I expect these plug-n-play machines to be easier to use than kits. Are there features that the Mark One has that make for an easier user experience?
Greg Mark: Absolutely, and you can see that in the kinematic coupling we have. In the kits, if you take the build bed off of the machine, it over-constrains, so that every time you put it back on, it goes to a different place. We have these three round ball heads that precisely locate that state, so that when you take it on and off, it goes back to the same place with 10 micron repeatability.
3D Printing Industry: So does that mean that people don’t have to level the bed or anything?
Greg Mark: You have to do it the first time and, depending on how long you run it, you’ll eventually have to relevel it, but it’s much less often.
3D Printing Industry: You got your funding through Northbridge and Matrix, these venture capital firms. How have they allowed you to develop your company? Do they have any say in the direction the company takes?
Greg Mark: They’re on the board. These guys are awesome. Antonio, who you saw in the video from Matrix, was with HP, he built and then sold to HP a 3D printing business. So they understand 3D printers, the problem with 3D printers, the problems people have with them. Rick is more on the solid modelling side. His first company was a CAD company. So, between the printing side and the CAD side, we have a lot of support from the right people, which is a big part of how we got to move so fast.
3D Printing Industry: So it wasn’t just the money they gave you. It was their expertise.
Greg Mark: Exactly. You can get money from anybody, but the goal is to get money from people who have the right network to help your business grow faster. Let me give you an example. Our chief scientist, Tony, was the chief scientist with a company that built the quickest charging, most stable batteries that anybody’s ever made. Rick called Tony and said, “Hey, Tony, you’ve got to check this business out.” Tony came, looked at us, and was like, “I need to join.” Without Rick, we wouldn’t have found Tony. If you watch the video, Tony’s the plastics guy. And when I say plastics guy, I mean he’s got a PhD from Princeton in polymer chemistry.
3D Printing Industry: Any other news you’d like to give us?
Greg Mark: Things are going to be pretty much quiet from us until these things start shipping. There’s different phases of growth, so at this stage, the way to move fastest is to stay singularly focused and our single focus is building the right combination of the right software and the right hardware so that, when you get your 3D printer, bring your model into the software, you’re like, “Wow, that was easy.” You hit print and 95% of the time, you get the part you wanted. Nothing’s 100% perfect, but, if 95% of the time, the part comes out the way you wanted, you’ll love us. That’s what we want.