I sat down recently with Janos Stone, CEO and founder of MeCube, a 3D design and printing company. The company is in its early startup stages and Janos was generous enough to share some thoughts about the company, art, creativity, and the future of 3D printing.
What is your background and how did you get into the 3D design and printing space?
My background is in sculpture. I earned an undergraduate degree in sculpture design at the Rhode Island School of Design, and went on to complete a Masters degree in sculpture from Boston University.
After graduation I became interested in the relationships we all have with each other through cyberspace and the Internet, and with the relationship that we have with cyberspace and the internet as technologies. This very slowly led me towards learning about new and emerging technologies, and since I had a background in sculpture, particularly towards technologies that dealt with 3D. Then, about seven or eight years ago, I saw my first 3D printer and began to try to figure out ways to incorporate that technology into my own sculpture.
I made a few pieces using some 5 axis Gantry CNC milling machines, and a couple of small pieces with a Z Corporation 3D color printer. I found it unbelievably fascinating technology, and really apropos to the ideas I was working on in the studio.
After a while, and few different projects, I started to develop a concept for an offering in this space. At this point I had been teaching for about eight years at a few different universities. The teaching that I was doing, combined with the sculpture work, started to create this seed of an idea in my head: wouldn’t it be cool to come up with a way to essentially allow anybody to be a sculpture or designer using these 3D printers. The hurdle was that most of the software that allows people to design for 3D printer output is incredibly expensive and/or time consuming to master. So I realized that coming up with a simple to use system would be the best way get everybody creating and sculpting.
The original idea of MeCube was to have an interactive site, where people would type their email address in. Each character on the keyboard would be tied to a transformation that would be applied to a virtual 3D object on the site. Because everyone’s email is unique to them, the object would be transformed into a unique object, a sort of virtual portrait of them. This portrait of their email and of the corresponding object would then be printed out and sent to them. In this way, everyone could create a portrait of themselves, not a self-portrait, but a work of art that is uniquely personal and tied to their online identity.
What does MeCube do?
MeCube does a lot of things. After I spent some time with the original idea of the portrait generating website, I realized that this technology could really be applied to almost anything. In addition to the purely artistic context of generating customized artwork, I started to tinker with the idea that it could be essentially a tool for designing and manipulating all objects. The short version of what MeCube does is that it allows everybody to use a simple set of digital tools to design and customize their own stuff, and then through 3D printing, be able to fabricate their own objects and personal goods. It brings creativity and expression to everybody, without a high cost or skill level barrier to entry.
What have the biggest challenges been?
So far the biggest challenges have been how to approach this business. As someone who has essentially been working in the arts for nearly 20 years. I am entering a completely new profession and having to learn it trial by fire, from the ground up. What’s been fantastic has been seeing how many parallels there are between the business of being a sculptor and the business of being a start up entrepreneur. Both are independent professions, and very much driven by yourself. I have lots of experience with that from working on art projects and am quite good at being self motivated.
The most challenging part has been learning the specific vernacular of Internet-based software and web-based commerce and business models. Gathering a good group of advisors around me who are excited about the project has been incredibly essential to making those challenges less so, and has really expedited my entry into a completely new career. It’s been extremely exciting.
What sets MeCube apart from other offerings on the market?
I think the major difference between MeCube and other offerings that I see on the market is the simplicity of use. I received my patent based on the idea of an alphanumeric-based, simple to use design tool for manipulating 3D objects and having them fabricated.
What I have done is to connect the transformations (color, shape, size, etc.) that can be applied to any object to input from keyboard. In other words, alphanumeric control of the modification options for the product that will be presented on the MeCube website. What is interesting is that I have kind of gone backwards and looked at some of the original coding tools for inspiration, so MeCube almost reminds me of DOS or Logo. The simplicity is the key to this. I have seen a few interactive personalized design programs, some of which use voice and some use different sorts of slider bars. But none of them allow the degree of control that MeCube does over the object on the screen.
I haven’t seen anything that allows the user to have the high level of flexibility in design combined with a learning curve as small as MeCube. This really puts MeCube in a great position to deliver a very user friendly universal design tool for everybody.
What do you see as the most exciting aspects of MeCube, and the industry in general?
For me the most exciting thing about MeCube is being able to present to people a way of being creative. More and more in our culture we have actually taken away the ability for the individual to be personally expressive. The example I like to use is Halloween. When I was growing up, everyone carved their own pumpkin. It’s a small thing, but it was a way of being personally creative and expressive; we were all sculptors for a day. Now you see these rows and rows of plastic pumpkins being sold at big box stores, and less and less you see that individual creativity being expressed for that holiday. There are a few other holidays that have suffered a similar fate, but none as much as Halloween. So I’m hoping that what MeCube will do is bring more people back into this creative space. You can see this trend happing right now, particularly online and especially in the craft movement, through Etsy.com and sites like that. So it gives me a lot of hope that MeCube can tap into this natural desire and fundamental need that people have to create things.
MeCube is a tool that can be used as a reversal of the tenets that were set out by the Industrial Revolution. Everyone has heard what Henry Ford said about cars, something like, “I don’t care what color they want their Model A in, as long as its black.” Ford meant that products rolled off assembly lines, the customer got a very small amount of choice regarding the object that they would purchase and live with, and that your choice as a consumer was to just accept the product that came down the pipe to you.
So what MeCube and the entire 3D printing industry does is to change this dynamic; when you go shopping, you will be able to immediately find the object you have in your head. Needless to say, there is a lot of value in this. It means that when a customer comes to your online shop, they already have a sense of what they are looking for, and you will be able to help them create it. They will be able to browse through the objects you provide, and customize them to fit the image they have in their head. This means there is creativity and absolute gratification from the shopping experience because they found exactly what they need and wanted. There are also ergonomic benefits, as well as benefits to self-worth and the empowerment of the consumer, and all these things are incredibly exciting to me.
How do you see products like MeCube playing a role in the education market?
One of the approaches I am taking with MeCube is to partner with a company out of Boston that develops interactive programming for, among many groups, the Department of Education. One of the fantastic things about MeCube is that it fits very well into the education market because the interface is alphanumeric.
One of the markets that very exciting is the STEM market (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). The ability to type, model, construct, and apply equations and coding to objects on a very simple platform is a great fit particularly for grade and middle school students as they are coming up and trying to sink their teeth into different elements of STEM. I am very excited to be partnering with this company; we are looking to produce a MeCube-based software interface to be used with inexpensive rapid prototypers a group at Stanford is developing. This bundle will go out to schools around the country to be used in the classroom and get kids exciting about this technology and into the sciences again.
One of the other things that is exciting about MeCube is that we are looking into print technologies which are a bit more eco-friendly than the standard plastic printers. Everyone remembers when people started talking about the paperless office, and how in fact, more paper was being used then ever before. When people had printers and color flatbed printers in the office, printing went through the roof. My fear is that when people have the ability create small plastic objects, our landfills will grow exponentially. So one of the things we are looking at MeCube is recyclable print materials, so if you print it and don’t like it, it goes right back into the machine and is ground up and used again. We have looked at some print materials that use regenerative plants including some plant fiber technologies that decompose and can be used as compost. Machines which are low energy usage and very efficient in their production are also very important to us. One of the great things about rapid prototyping using 3D printing is that it is an additive method; in other words you only use material you need to make that object. Subtractive methods lead to much more waste because you start out with a block of material, and then carve away to get down to the object you are looking for. In addition, when you are emailing around files and printing products locally, shipping and trucking drops way down, so you have a very positive result on greenhouse gas emissions and other forms of population.
Where do you see MeCube in five years? The industry in general?
In five years I see MeCube really leading the industry in this consumer facing B2B model. One of our main goals is to create a MeCube product that is blot-on application for a wide-range of businesses that allows them to present their products to customers for mass customization and personalization. Over the next five years what makes this industry so exciting is that the printing technology has been growing at an exponential rate; you are seeing better prints for a lot less money every quarter. In five years time, I think that many of the holy grails that people have been after will have been solved. These holy grails are things like multiple material printers, obviously cost reduction, and speeding up the print process. Really the biggest milestone we will reach will be to dramatically increase the number of people who have a 3D printer at home. Soon you will have a very small, very efficient 3D printer sitting on your desk. You will be able to purchase an object and then print it at home. This sounds sort of like science fiction, but I think it is going to be absolutely fantastic. You can just imagine how much creativity this will bring into the house.
What keeps you up at night?
Nothing really keeps me up at night. I have a really positive feeling about this company, although there are obviously a lot of challenges. We need things to move quickly and to get MeCube out into the market as fast as possible, and above all make a very good product. Despite the challenges, I’m not overly concerned. I feel like I have a group of people around me who are just fantastic, and MeCube is a technology that is nascent and absolutely apropos to the times we live in. I just really feel like the stars are aligning on this one. I don’t sleep a lot, but I do sleep well. It is very exciting for me and I look forward to the new challenges that will come down the road in the next quarter.
Special thanks to Janos for sharing his thoughts and time, we’ll be keeping an eye on MeCube as the company develops and evolves.