To mark Hiscox’s DNA of an Entrepreneur Report 2014, this week’s small business star is scientist and inventor, Adrian Bowyer. Entrepreneur Adrian is the creator of the RepRapPro, a self-replicating 3D printer.
Adrian’s story begins at Bath University. When his department bought two 3D printers at £40,000 and £25,000, Adrian decided to build a machine that challenged the replicating model (or rapid prototyping) market. In 2004 he proposed the RepRap Project: a project to make an inexpensive self-replicating 3D printer. Three years later, he succeeded and the first RepRap copied itself on 29 May 2008.
In 2011, Adrian formed RepRap Professional Ltd with colleagues Jean-Marc Giacalone and Sally Bowyer. Today, they are focused on the benefits the RepRapPro might present to the developing world.
1. I realised prices for 3D printers had been kept artificially high by a dysfunctional market
When my colleagues and I started using 3D printers I realised that – for the first time – humanity had a manufacturing technology so sophisticated that it stood a chance of being able to self-replicate like a living organism. I also realised that the machines didn’t need to cost anything like as much as they were selling for at that time – the prices had been kept artificially high by the market dysfunction created by patent monopoly.
2. I decided that all RepRap’s designs had to be released free under an open-source licence
I wanted to copy a replication strategy from nature that worked really well. I settled on the strategy of the clover and the bee: the clover needs to move its pollen to copy itself, but it is rooted in the ground. The bee has little interest in pollen, but it loves sugar. So the clover makes nectar, the bee gets a meal, and the clover gets to reproduce. Both partners are happy.
I deliberately copied this strategy. RepRap cannot assemble itself, just as the clover cannot move. After a RepRap has printed a set of parts, a person has to put it together. For RepRap to be as big a success as possible I decided that all its designs (the exact equivalent of pollen) had to be released free under an open-source licence so that anyone could use a RepRap to copy itself without restriction.
3. We concentrated on offering customers high-specification RepRaps at a good price
One of the many business advantages of selling completely open-source products is that they create an instant mature market. Those companies that offer the best added value succeed. We knew this from the start, and so we concentrated on offering customers high-specification RepRaps at a good price, and on giving those customers a very helpful after-sales and support service.
Another great advantage of open-source is that it turns your customers (and lots of other people) into your research and development engineers. People will give their ideas free.
4. RepRap has dropped the cost of making things from tens of thousands of pounds to a few hundred pounds
The Industrial Revolution has given almost all citizens of those countries that have adopted it wealth beyond the imaginings of their pre-industrial ancestors. It is no coincidence that the world’s poorest countries are those with the worst manufacturing industrial base. And billions of people, particularly in the Far East, have lifted themselves out of poverty in our lifetimes because they started to make engineering products.
RepRap has already dropped the cost of humanity’s most subtle way of making things from tens of thousands of pounds to a few hundred pounds. This puts RepRaps well within reach of private individuals in the developed world, and of small communities in the Developing World.
5. Hundreds of wonderfully selfless volunteers have made essential contributions to the design
Slightly to my surprise, developing humanity’s first general-purpose self-replicating machine presented no impossible challenges. The technology pretty much fell into place.
Here is another example of where making RepRap open-source really paid dividends – hundreds of wonderfully selfless volunteers have made essential contributions to the design, testing and software of the RepRap machine. They did that for no reward because they knew that they were doing it for the whole of humanity. I was merely a conduit for the information created by them.
6. My advice is to release all your software to the world for nothing
Jean-Marc, Sally and I run RepRap Professional Ltd as a fully open-source company that makes a healthy and growing profit, and that has never had to raise any external funds nor to borrow a penny.
My suggestion is to go fully open-source, never patent anything, and release all your designs and software to the world for nothing. The advantages of doing this so far outweigh the disadvantages that doing it feels as if a great submerged drag anchor has been cut free.
For more advice and insight from business owners, visit our Small Business Stars hub.