Prusa Research – 3-Dimensional Thinking
Prusa Research designs, produces, and sells 3D printers. It is a successful and rapidly expanding business, but it started as a hobby. 3D printing could be a powerful tool for unlocking the next industrial revolution.
“It came from my hobby, originated by Dr Adrian Bowyer at the University of Bath. His main goal was to make affordable desktop 3D printers, and when we worked on developing ideas for it, people started to prefer my design,” says Josef Prusa, Prusa Research’s CEO. “So eventually I decided to quit university and start the business.”
It is a familiar entrepreneurial story, someone working on a design for fun or curiosity decides to take it commercial, but Prusa Research’s products still contain a strong strand of that original hobbyist DNA.
“The printers are still open source, so customers can modify and improve the printers, or someone else can make them,” Prusa tells us. “If someone improves our designs, they are free to distribute it, but they must publish it under the same open-source license.”
It is an attitude to licensing that other businesses have sometimes taken advantage of.
“During the pandemic, we designed standardised 3D printed face shields for the medical sector all around the world,” Prusa says. “We certified it for reusability and shared it as open source and everyone around the planet was 3D printing our shields.”
While Prusa was happy to see companies around the world printing his company’s face shields, he was amused to see a news report where another company took credit for the design- but without removing Prusa Research’s logo!
Despite calling open season on allowing others to build their designs, Prusa Research has found an extremely healthy market.
“We’re the third or fourth-largest manufacturer in the sector, making 100,000 printers a year, selling to basically every country that’s not under sanctions,” Prusa points out. “We actually have one of the last homemade 3D printer kits. Even some companies choose to go this route so that their staff can learn about the process as they are building.”
The reason for this success is that Prusa Research occupies a unique market position, with high-quality printing that can compete with industrial printers selling for up to 15,000 euros, but at a price point appropriate to a home appliance.
Word of Mouth
Cheap, yet high-quality home 3D printers are a potentially lucrative market, and so perhaps it is surprising Prusa Research is not facing serious competition. But Prusa offers more than the product itself.
“We have unbeatable customer support that is on-premises 24 hours a day, seven days a week, working in seven languages,” Prusa says. “This is very difficult for anyone else to replicate. Even if, for example, HP wanted to make a consumer 3D printer, they would not be able to offer that level of support.”
But that support comes from corners beyond Prusa Research’s in-house support team.
“We have a large and very widespread community,” Prusa says. “You can find people using our printers everywhere. It is fun because people like to use our products. When someone in a business says, ‘We should do something with 3d printing’, someone will raise a hand and say, ‘I have one at home’ and recommend our products.”
Of course, in that meeting, it is not unusual for those unfamiliar with Prusa’s products to insist on buying from one of the firm’s more expensive, industry-orientated competitors.
“Sometimes companies will insist on buying something more expensive that doesn’t work as well, and within the next few months they will switch to our printers,” Prusa says.
That faith in Prusa Research’s products extends to Prusa himself.
“Roughly 30% of the parts of our printer are 3D printed. We use 3D printing because complexity on 3D printed models is basically free, so we can make 3D printed parts as small as possible but with all the complexity necessary, then use common parts for the rest,” Prusa says.
But while business clients are always welcome, it is clear talking to Prusa that his real passion is in making 3D printing available to as wide a range of people as possible.
“Our long-term plan is to make 3D printing as accessible as possible. We are reaching more and more technical people. We are making the printers look a bit more like an appliance,” Prusa says. “The future for us is in the desktop printers, but because of our experience with desktop 3D printers, we can also be very successful in the industrial 3D printing sector. It is why we made the AFS, the Automated Farm System we debuted in Dubai.”
It may be counter-intuitive, but Prusa insists that the home appliance market is, if anything, more demanding than the industrial market.
“Home consumers are far more nit-picky, in a good way, than industrial customers,” Prusa tells us. “Our documentation and the polish of the product is higher with our home models than what we see in the industrial printers we sometimes use.”
Prusa Research’s efforts to expand the use of 3D printing can be seen on several fronts. One such front is the community website “Printables.com,” where users can upload, and download 3D printable models, filling a niche left by the neglected “Thingiverse” site. Prusa has also worked to get 3D printers into schools.
The project called “Prusa for schools” is currently open only to Czech schools. But the company would like to expand the project into other countries in the future.
“It means we can help kids in lower grades find love for technology so that in 15 years we have more people who want to work in the sector. For the country to be successful the focus on technologies is the only way forward. I cannot imagine anything else,” Prusa says.
While Prusa was happy to just give printers away, there was a problem he was aware of from the outset.
“You know how it goes- if you get something for free, there’s a chance it will sit in the corner gathering dust,” Prusa says. “But I did not want the schools to pay anything. So, the school gets the printer for three months as a lease for free, but they have to make an educational project- even a very simple one- to share with other schools. If they meet that condition, they can keep the printer forever for free.”
That next generation of 3D printing engineers is going to be a powerful asset for the country, and the company, but Prusa also needs to find a pool of relevant talent today.
“We can always find engineers, but we have to teach them the 3D printing knowledge over three-to-six months because there are not enough people on the market who have that experience, especially here in our country,” he says. “Either everyone with the skills works for us, or we built the company that they work for. So, we are investing heavily in training.”
The advantage is that as Prusa Research’s products become more widespread, so will the skills required to use them effectively.