Sparking a 3-D printing revolution in New London
New London — Mike Molinari's adventure in entrepreneurial poverty that led him to quit a stable job in the engineering department at Electric Boat all began with a frustration he constantly faced while tinkering with projects at Spark Makerspace.
"I was tired of fixing the 3-D printers here," he grimaced.
One minute, the alignment would be off; next time, it was the calibration or the settings that needed to be adjusted.
"I had to fix the machine all the time," he said.
The problem with smaller 3-D printers, he added, is that there is no mechanism to whisk one project out of the way so the next can take its place. This means that the person who printed the project must pick it up — no one knows exactly when — and then remove the item without messing with the temperamental printer before anyone else can launch the next job.
"Imagine a standard office printer if it only printed one sheet at a time and it made you take it off before the next one was printed," Molinari said.
Such was the frustration that led him, first on his own and then with a team of three others, to create Autodrop3D out of the Spark Makerspace offices on State Street, where a shared electronics area is a key draw. The limited liability company just won top prize of $10,000 from the Valley Venture Mentors accelerator program in Springfield, Mass., after a six-month process that included about 15 companies and introduced Molinari and partners Drew Gates, Valentin Erastov and John Scimone to the business side of creating a product.
Scimone, a software engineer, used to work at EB and now is employed at Sonalysts in Waterford; Gates is the education director at MakerspaceCT in Hartford, and Erastov is a CAD programming expert from California.
After the mentoring program, "We were much better prepared for going out and finding capital or bootstrapping it," Molinari said.
Molinari added that the $10,000 will allow his team to order materials to build a first run of the machines, which at least initially are being retrofitted onto existing 3D printers. Next step would be to send the Autodrop3D to YouTube reviewers to begin getting feedback about the devices as well as, Molinari hopes, giving a boost to marketing efforts.
The Autodrop3D device has gone through several iterations over the past two years, according to Molinari.
Early in 2017, he said, "It was a Rube Goldberg machine. It was nuts."
Refinements include cloud-based software that queues up jobs for each printer and automatically informs users when the printing is complete as it moves onto the next project. An ejection system allows projects to be dispensed far enough away from the machine to allow the next printing to take place without disrupting the previous job.
The patent-pending Autodrop 3D machines will be significantly more expensive than the typical $200 printer, but Molinari says it will still be much less expensive than the larger 3D printers generally used for bigger jobs. And it will save people money and hassles over time, he added, plus jobs can be arranged through just about any computer device, includings Macs, PCs and Chromebooks.
"It will save so much time it will pay for itself," he said.
At the local makerspace, 3D printing is generally used by the more than 100 members to make miniature toys, tabletop games and even knobs for dryers or radios. Most of the printouts are hollow inside to save on the use of materials, and there is usually no extra charge unless someone is printing out large batches of projects, said Spark general manager Casey Moran.
Moran said in the past only about four or five people were qualified to use the 3D printers at Spark, but using the Autodrop online system has made it accessible to everyone.
"There's a lot more 3D printing than in the past because it's so easy," he said. "Now you just need a web browser."
Molinari said his aim was for Autodrop to be clear and easy to use.
"There was no need to overcomplicate things," he said, "or to make it so only power users can do stuff."
Molinari is a regular at Spark, attending nearly every Thursday night electronics and tech night over the past two years. The "show and tell" feedback that goes on at these events helped solidify Molinari's ideas and eventually brought the Autodrop team together.
"I would not have been able to do this project if the makerspace wasn't here," Molinari said.
For now, though, he is ingesting a lot of Taco Bell and Mountain Dew, he admitted, and has paid up all his bills except for gas and food for a year in anticipation of gearing up his new product.
"To see what these guys have been working on ... it's been incredibly rewarding," said Moran, the Spark manager. "We're all rooting for them."