If you need something 3D printed, you can go to the usual suspects like Shapeways, i.materialize, or Ponoko. But did you know there are plenty more options? There are hundreds of engineering firms with 3D printing capabilities that you’ve likely never heard of because they don’t spend much, if anything, on marketing. Now there’s a service called SupplyBetter, founded by Matthew Du Pont and Robert Martinez, that will run your prints through a huge database of those companies and give you the best quotes out there. I called up Matthew, the CEO, to learn more.
3DP: How long have you been around?
Matthew: We’ve been around since February of this year (2013).
3DP: What are your backgrounds?
Matthew: I became interested in this because I did procurement for a trucking company for a while after school — I was a consultant, that was one of my cases, and it seemed broken. And then I was at OKCupid where I was product manager and thought a lot about matching, and so this fits together solving the custom procurement problem with all the matching stuff I’d done for a dating site.
3DP: Interesting, that’s a nice mixture there.
Matthew: It’s a fun one. I figured it’s actually very similar with how people should find each other and how people find factories because they’re both incomplete qualitative sets of data where you’re trying to make a match and be out of the way. My Cofounder Rob and I are friends from school, and he’s a mechanical engineer. He worked as a robotics engineer for a while and had to procure a bunch of the parts that he created and also had to do a lot of 3D printing for production. So, we both saw the difficulty as the dozens of suppliers spring up all over the place, we thought it’d be useful to have a Kayak or Expedia for this space where you can go and upload your part, your quantity, your application, and then we can ask you what’s the supplier with the best fit, which is helpful because Shapeways isn’t the right answer all the time.
3DP: Right. So how did you find the over 200 vendors for 3D printed goods?
Matthew: We’re trying to be as good as possible with using automated stuff, so testing out different kinds of web crawlers to find them. So we’ve got hundreds we haven’t used; we’ve only given quotes to three or four dozen at this point, which is still a pretty good baseline, but we haven’t touched them all. We have information on all of them and we’re exploring them gradually. For example, we have a stronger US base than Europe right now; we’ve only had a few quotes in Europe and so we haven’t gotten to test out a lot of those suppliers yet. And then we’ll be finding out as we go on about which ones provide timely service to users, where the price points are and things like that, and that helps us from the buyer perspective trying to get the right ones, and the supplier perspective, only send them quotes on the kind of business that they want.
3DP: Okay, well which sources are being really popular so far? Who’s able to fulfill your clients’ orders most consistently?
Matthew: I don’t think we’re going to be able to talk about that right now just because we’ve had pretty strict confidentiality with both the buyers and suppliers. We’re going to be experimenting with what people are comfortable with in the next few months in terms of giving suppliers analytics on how competitive bids are and where they’re coming in. I can say though that the suppliers that are succeeding are very different; the three most common metrics are price, quality, and speed. And I was talking to a supplier yesterday that’s only interested in high-value, high-speed, and high price. So the people where you need to get something printed in metal in a week are going to be different than the people that need three weeks to do plastic, and will be different still from someone that can put you in maybe months down the line to get you the absolutely cheapest price.
3DP: So how do you guys make your money off of this? Is it commission based?
Matthew: We found that commission can be troublesome because it incentivizes everyone to leave your platform. And so what we do is suppliers pay us to bid, and they’ll pay a very small percentage, 1% right now, to bid and that goes to us win or lose. But that’s great because they only bid on business they think they can have a good chance of getting; it really tightly couples the value that they are getting with what they’re paying. This way, they only pay us when they want the business, and by knowing what they don’t pay for we can tune what quotes we send them over time. If they don’t like a certain kind of quote, we can get smarter than anyone else about sending them the kind of quotes they like because we know what they said yes and what they said no to. So we know what they care about more than other services will.
3DP: So building your own analytics in-house. So besides the obvious timesaver, what are the major incentives for people to use your service?
Matthew: I think it’s not just a timesaver, but also we’re going to help you discover some great suppliers that you wouldn’t find otherwise. A lot of people we’re finding that are popular and are getting the most out of our site are one to five person service bureaus that do one thing really really well. Oftentimes, that thing is not necessarily self-promotion. And so we’ve got one guy that’s been very competitive and very fast on certain types of engineering plastic bids, but he’s hard to find on your own because he’s got to do everything and promote himself. And so it’s not merely a timesaver, but also if we have a better idea of the capabilities of hundreds of suppliers, then odds are we can present you with some great options that you wouldn’t have thought of. So I think timesaving helps, but a lot of it is around just having the best possible supplier for you in a way that wouldn’t be possible without you doing hundreds of hours of research.
3DP: It sounds like you’re not too concerned with people going direct to the source after they go through you, so you’re not really expecting much recurring revenue from existing clients so much, but more so new clients?
Matthew: Well we’re starting with 3D printing and we’re very committed to getting amazing at that and nailing it down, but we intend to expand to other manufacturing verticals once we get the business model really down here and we’re an expert in this space. So for example, if you’re taking a part to production with injection molding, one common path to that would be 3D printing it a couple times, then you might go to urethane casting for a small run and then injection molding for a larger run. In that case, if we do a good job with helping you find 3D printing suppliers, then hopefully you’ll come back to us for urethane casting and finding those guys, and hopefully you’ll come back for injection molding. So we can see recurring revenue on the same part with the same customer, and so for people that are making a variety of different custom parts they can come to us for different manufacturing processes, to find secondary and tertiary suppliers. And we’ll certainly be trying to add more value and more things that cause people to come back as we go on, but we think it’s a valuable first problem to solve, since talking to a lot of makers and a lot of hardware startups, that’s a huge issue a lot of people face: when they want to go out and make something, how do they prototype it, and then when they have the prototype how do they take it to production.
3DP: Makes sense. How long generally is the quoting process?
Matthew: We’ll have clarifying questions, if any, to you within a few hours, and the first quotes within a day or so, but it varies. For some of the specialists quoting is going to be a manual thing and that can take one to three days. But overall you should certainly be seeing a good amount of results within a day, and anything that takes longer would just be because it had to be negotiated specially.
3DP: About how many quotes do you initially give, and do you give more from different places if the client isn’t happy with the initial quotes?
Matthew: We’re certainly happy to go out and get more, but we try to do a good job in what we present you. For maybe a really specialized application we might have as low as four suppliers because there just may not be a lot of people doing it. And for something more common or where there’s a lot of ambiguity, it could be up to eight or nine. Usually you won’t see more or less than that because if we know the application and the material well, we’ll be showing the top ones that should pretty much nail it down.
3DP: So do you get more single-run prototyping orders or small-run kind of manufacturing?
Matthew: I’d say it’s been pretty evenly split between those. That’s biased because we’ve been targeting hardware startups pretty aggressively, and so I think we may have more than our fair share of those small-run parts. But we’re definitely finding with individual customers they’re often times making one or two of something, and with the smaller companies it may be a handful of things.
3DP: The service sounds great. Anything else we should know?
Matthew: Right now all the decision making is on the backend of the site but there’s not a lot of public information on what suppliers we have. We’re definitely aiming in the next month to start coming out with some good supplier profiles and help people see information and also get exposed to the kind of stuff we’re collecting.
3DP: So more transparency of the process. Well it sounds incredibly useful, the site and service.
And I believe that. SupplyBetter is one more step toward the democratization of manufacturing. Matthew is correct about the difficulty of taking a design to prototype and then to manufacturing, so the fact that they’re doing this at essentially no cost to clients is amazing. Engineering firms charge hundreds and thousands for product development, and SupplyBetter is offering a very similar service for free. Of course, they’re targeting those with serious intent to order, so let’s not overwhelm them with idle curiosities of what it’d cost to print the Yoda bust.