The Week in Advanced Manufacturing Funding – January 9, 2015

botObjects acquired by 3D Systems and Rethink Robotics raises $26.6 million in Series D

botObjects cashes in on colorful innovation

On January 5, 3D Systems announced that they had acquired London-based botObjects, designers and manufacturers of the CubePro C, a color desktop 3D printer. When botObjects first announced the launch of their new printer in 2013, their claims of full-color 3D printing caused both excitement and disbelief in the additive manufacturing community. When the printer was finally revealed, botObject showed that it could achieve a color filament solution for PLA (plastic) extrusion using a five-color cartridge system. Each of the five filaments are a primary color (cyan, magenta, yellow, black and white) and by mixing in specific ratios (pre-deposition), the printer can print all the colors of the rainbow. It represents significant innovation beyond essentially open-source extrusion printing and is a good case study for value being created in the wake of Stratasys‘ original FDM patent expiration. Although multiple online DIY 3D printer enthusiasts have successfully incorporated color into their printers, botObjects was able to commercialize the technology for (relatively) non-technical users. By creating a straightforward system and user interface (anyone who has owned a color printer understands the colored cartridge concept), botObjects provides the tools to make the technology work for the average user. It is telling that botObjects describe themselves as a software development company (in addition to a printer designer and manufacturer); user interface is critical for reaching beyond the DIY community and maximizing the potential of additive manufacturing overall.

With respect to color 3D printing, unfortunately, it must be noted that the technology still has some serious limitations. The requirement to pre-mix color in a pool (and then extrude onto the actual build), means that abrupt changes are extremely difficult.  Most of the example designs shown on the website exhibit gradient-changes and (at the very least) every layer has uniform color. This is because sudden changes in color would require a purging of the mixing pool, certainly a challenge and probably only realistic between layer builds. Thus, the technology still has a way to go before it can truly print all the designs in your multi-color imagination, but it is certainly a very good step in the right direction and that’s why 3D Systems took an interest.

botObjects also represents an interesting case study on scaling a hardware startup. According to many sources, botObjects were a bit of a victim of their own success; having generated significant demand and pre-orders, they struggled to ramp up their production of the printers to fulfill orders and were forced to delay shipments. Acquisition by 3D Systems will likely solve production issues, as a company of 3D Systems’ size will surely have the resources available to satisfy demand. However, by allowing themselves to be acquired early in the game (their first announcement was less than two years ago), botObjects will never know how far they could have gone in the additive manufacturing world. Scale will always be more difficult for hardware startups and can force a dramatically different growth path compared to software analogues. That said, it certainly helps to be in a market where there are incumbents willing to acquire startups when they begin to struggle (especially from an investor perspective).

From 3D Systems’ perspective, these “growing pains” probably represented a good opportunity to acquire a strategic asset, probably at a discounted price.

Rethink Robotics raises a new round

On January 8th, Boston-based Rethink Robotics announced a $26.6 million Series D round led by GE Ventures.  The round, which included participation by fellow new investor Goldman Sachs, as well as from all past investors (Bezos Expeditions, CRV, Highland Capital Partners, Sigma Partners, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, and Two Sigma Ventures), a good sign of continued interest/commitment by all parties to robot-aided advanced manufacturing.

Rethink Robotics is reimagining tomorrow’s manufacturing workforce by developing robots that are efficient, skilled, trainable and can work alongside their human counterparts without safety concerns. With Baxter, Rethink has created a robot that can perform low-volume, high-mix production jobs by making it safe and re-deployable. Baxter can be trained by a human, without the need to be (re)programmed by a specialist. Technologies like Baxter are making low-volume, increasingly-customized manufacturing more economically viable. Whereas in the past, robots were designed and programmed for one very specific function (or set of functions) and therefore best suited for mass production, they now are becoming adaptable and useful in smaller volume production.

Combined with previous rounds, Rethink Robotics has now taken in more than $100 million of funding. These are the large, long-haul investments that are needed to develop the new type of manufacturing company that I described in my December article, “The Printed Full Stack“. Only large investors with deep pockets and a lot of patience are going to be able to push startups like Rethink Robotics to the stage where they can really disrupt manufacturing, so it is very encouraging to see major players involved.