Home 3D printing Interview: Makelab CEO Christina Perla on running a successful 3D printing service
3D printing - PRA News - July 2, 2020

Interview: Makelab CEO Christina Perla on running a successful 3D printing service

Brooklyn-based 3D printing service bureau Makelab has been printing everything from prototypes for industrial designers to bespoke end-use products for high profile customers like Roc Nation (read on), since 2017. Here, the company’s Co-founder & CEO Christina Perla talks to TCT about how the perception of additive manufacturing is shifting, her work with Women In 3D Printing, and running a business that helps other smaller businesses get started.

TCT: Hi Christina, can you start by telling us how Makelab came about?

CP: Hi! It’s a very serendipitous story actually. In 2015 before Makelab was started in 2017, my fiancé and partner, Manny, and I did a bit of industrial design freelancing together. We took on client projects that revolved around concept ideation, iteration, prototyping, and product development. During that time, we needed a quick 3D printing solution – I had never used one in my life and we didn’t own a 3D printer at the time. We created an account with 3D Hubs and found a local manufacturer, 3DUniPrint. They offered great service and we quickly became friends with the owners, another couple. One year later, they told us they were moving to China with their kids and asked if we would take over their company. That was in January 2017 and by April, we had officially acquired their company. We hired our first employee shortly after and rebranded 3DUniPrint to Makelab.

TCT: Which technologies are you currently using at Makelab and what do you look for when selecting new technologies to bring in-house?

CP: We’re currently using Formlabs and Prusas. While we are personally obsessed with all the innovative industrial machines and materials that are being introduced, we find that our client base doesn’t need have a need for that for their prototyping needs. Most of the time, they’re either doing a fit test, function test, appearance model, or scale model. Their parts are usually smaller and can fit on a desktop machine build. For all of these uses, usually PLA, PETG, or Standard Resin will work for them.

When we acquired the company, we acquired machinery from about 10 different printer manufacturers. We learned early on that in order to scale our service, we had to stick with a maximum of two printer manufacturers and machine models. Each OEM that we use has their own ecosystem, parts, support service, repair needs. For now, we’re sticking to Formlabs and Prusa because we align with the companies behind them. But that is not to say we won’t venture out to more machines with a mega factory later.

TCT: As a service provider, can you talk about the importance of software alongside that?

CP: It is so incredibly important. As a service provider, you’re handling massive amounts of data that needs to travel in real time with the part that you’re printing. This could be from station to station, or from room to room. This is the only way to stay organised and not lose track of projects and parts. In order to optimise, we pack builds together and run multiple orders at the same time. None of that would be possible without the organisation and backbone of software. Without software, you could easily ship something to the wrong client. Software enables us to scale, organise internally, communicate, and ultimately maintain a quality of service and parts.

TCT: How much automation is involved in Makelab’s end-to-end process?

CP: I wish we had more! Last year, we were operating in a new business model of purely 3D printing services and the goal last year was to grow 3x and test out our product market fit and traction. We smashed our goals and now we’re onto building. We’re raising a round this year and plan to implement software that will eliminate 50+ actions for our team. This allows us to focus less on administrative work and more on scaling key decision making, quality checks, and service.

TCT: You have a background in industrial design – does Makelab offer input when a customer uploads their design?

CP: It depends, we have a few different “buckets” of customers, and a few different ways to get a project started. We have an e-commerce platform, where customers are able to get quotes on their parts and place orders at any time of the day or night. Most of the time, those customers are more experienced and have been 3D printing for at least a few years now. They need less oversight and education. We always do printability checks before we start production, but they mostly pass.

We have a service team that interfaces with customers that come in through manual inquires, calls, or emails. Most of the customers that come through here require a bit more education and may be newer to 3D printing. At any given time, 25-50% of our team is comprised of industrial designers. The remaining percentage are mechanical engineers. Because we all know both sides, it’s easy for us to incorporate education into our service. We have created quite a bit of material on our site and on social media around education of 3D printing. Outside of client inquiries, we try to have as many conversations that spark growth and understanding of 3D printing. We see it as, if we invest a bit more time, we have a more educated client that is more likely to come back to us. Plus this communication with the customer allows us to develop relationships and a deeper understanding of needs.

TCT: Do you think there needs to be more education around how we design for the benefits of additive manufacturing?

CP: Yes, but I also think this includes why 3D printing is a smart business move.

3D printing is just starting to be understood by the general public. There’s a ton we can educate about designing for 3D printing and why it’s beneficial. The more that people understand why this technology is beneficial, the more 3D printing will be used in various industries.

But also, if there is more conversation about how 3D printing speeds up product development cycles and how much money it saved, I think that will get this industry in front of execs from other industries and implement it even faster.

TCT: Much conversation in 3D printing is about moving from prototyping to production – is that a trend you’re seeing with customers at Makelab?

CP: I would say we see about 25-30% of our customers utilising our 3D printing services for low volume production. It’s something that the industry is constantly trying to do- replace injection moulding – but the material and machinery prices just aren’t there yet, at least from what we’ve seen at the desktop level. It’s difficult to get the prices low enough to produce volumes above 5,000. Powder printing is something that I see more for production, as it’s easy to pack a powder build and there is minimal post processing involved.

TCT: What kinds of industries/customers does Makelab work with?

CP: We work a lot with creative SMBs. Industries we work with include architecture, consumer products and electronics, marketing/advertising, and some fashion & jewellery. Most of our clients are either industrial designers, engineers, architects, creative directors, or jewellery designers. It’s really so exciting for us to work with such different industries. We love learning and exposure to all types of industries and people presents a lot of learning opportunities for us. It never gets boring, each part is a new challenge to solve!

TCT: Do those customers care if a product is 3D printed? (Is that in itself a unique selling point or are some customers perhaps wary of using 3D printing?)

CP: While most of our work isn’t in end-use parts, we do see some of it. Whether a project being 3D printing is a unique selling point or not really depends on the client. Some clients who have a heavy focus on surface finish may not be too excited about 3D printing, as it often leaves residue or scarring, but cannot find another way to produce. On the other hand, some clients really invest in the story behind how their product is made. An example of this was a recent project for Jaden Smith. His team at Roc Nation wanted to gift him with a platinum record that was sustainably made, and 3D printed. Another example of a project that really valued the story is Dogpound. We recently made custom branded face shields for them as part of their reopening plan in West Hollywood California. They really wanted to do something that was not only new, but also supported small businesses.

TCT: As a business owner yourself, how does it feel to know Makelab is perhaps enabling other small businesses to get started with their first prototypes or products?

CP: Honestly, this is what drives me and my team. Being that we are all mechanical engineers and industrial designers, we’ve all experienced firsthand how valuable of a tool 3D printing is. We all love the process of creating and have done it ourselves either academically or professionally. Being able to bridge the gap between creativity and creation is amazing to be a part of. Some of our clients have been printing with us for years. We see their progress as time has passed and it feels like we’re there with them.

TCT: Are there any other stand out customer projects or applications that you’re able to share?

CP: There are a few that come to mind. One very fun one at the start of Makelab was for NVIDIA. We were printing out camera mounts for their self-driving car mounts. Our contact worked in NJ at the time and would often use the free pickup option to test out the car all the way to Brooklyn! He would let the car drive itself from NJ to BK. Even on the very very tiny-laned Brooklyn Bridge!

TCT: The COVID-19 crisis has shown both the challenges in our manufacturing supply chain and where 3D printing can overcome some of those obstacles. Do you think the crisis has helped to shine a light on AM service providers and their capacity to react quickly to urgent manufacturing needs?

CP: The crisis definitely showed the world what 3D printing can be useful for in times of needs as a stop-gap solution. I’ve talked a lot about how 3D printing lends itself to such an agile supply chain, that pivoting is really a strength of the technology. In April and May, we were able to successfully supplement all of our lost normal business with new PPE production. We even did more by organising a donation fund and delivering PPE to hospitals that requested it. We produced both protective face shields and custom mask fitters. Being able to pivot so quickly like that enables small businesses in manufacturing to survive during hard times and also helps society during times of need.

I’m hoping this helps to inspire more people and more industries to utilise 3D printing in ways that maybe they hadn’t thought of before. A lot of the advancement of 3D printing has come from pushing the boundaries of the technology. This crisis seems like another one of those times, but more on a logistical and supply chain level.

TCT: As a result, do you think we could see a shift in mindset around the acceptance of 3D printing technologies?

CP: I see a possibility of a shift in mindset around the acceptance of 3D printing technologies dependent on how we respond during and after the boom. I feel it’s our responsibility to continue the conversations about 3D printing and keep the momentum going, to keep the educational topics alive and do what we can to reach out and expand. If we all just let the boom fade, it will stay just that- a boom, an upwards spike followed by a big dip. But I’m seeing the response from companies in the industry start to incorporate PPE and service medical clients as a part of their normal business model. I’m also seeing other industries ask questions and get inspired by the PPE boom, starting to question what they could add to their businesses with the help of 3D printing.

TCT: As both a user and provider of 3D technologies – is there anything on your wish list for what’s next in AM?

CP: I’d love to see more OEMs consider service bureaus when designing solutions, especially at the desktop machine level. I see a lot of the desktop 3D printing industry is focused on hobbyists and makers. I think this is great. But as makers and enthusiasts of the technology, what innovations and improvements can be made with service bureaus in mind? We’re a different type of user that will run those machines to the ground, find every problem in workflow, logistics, and machinery, and we’ll also be able to quickly highlight benefits of these machines. The same goes for software.

Many of the companies we work with, I ask a ton of questions during the onboarding phase. I am very thorough, to say the least. I’ve had many instances where the business development team of that company will reach back out to me and develop feedback loops and beta testing. I applaud those companies because service bureaus are their super users, we have great feedback that can better products. It’s a very smart decision on their end.

TCT: You’re also actively involved with Women In 3D Printing – can you talk about the work you’re doing there and any steps you think the industry could be taking to create a more diverse community?

CP: I’ve been thinking a lot about diversity and inclusion in our industry with the current sociopolitical climate. As women make up merely 10% of the 3D printing industry, I see a huge problem. I’m not sure about the numbers for diversity in our industry, but I’m not too hopeful. I’ve had conversations with colleagues, friends, and peers in the industry about how to change these numbers.

My takeaway is a few things; I would love to see more of an effort to amplify female and diverse voices, talents, and work. Role modelling is an effective way for the young generation to take that first step into something new.

I also would love to see an industry-wide effort to provide more access to diverse and immigrant communities to expand reach and spark curiosity and creativity. As a daughter of an immigrant, creative careers weren’t the biggest push from my mom. While she supported (and supports) me following my dream, she would have felt a lot safer and more comforted if I went the route of something more steady. If it wasn’t for the exposure I got during elementary, middle, and high school, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Because of my own experience, I’d love to see a bigger push for 3D printing to be incorporated into school curriculums and mainstream media.

And lastly, I feel we all could focus more on community, kindness, sharing, and inspiring others. If we all adopt a pay-it-forward attitude and really put in the work and effort to reach more and connect more, I don’t see how it wouldn’t result in more diversity and inclusion. With my involvement in Women in 3D Printing, I’ve seen first-hand the effect these values and attitudes have on people. It’s so powerful and often underestimated.

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