Back in April 2013 I backed a Kickstarter project for the RigidBot 3D Printer. I’ve had many positive experiences on Kickstarter, and am a huge supporter of what Kickstarter represents—the idea that anyone sitting in their garage with an idea can create something great, and potentially define their future. That said, when one is throwing money into the pot on Kickstarter, you have to do a little due diligence to vet the campaign, product, deliverables, timeline, and the creators themselves.
I think it’s probably my due diligence in this area that has kept me in a position where I’ve had a very pleasant Kickstarter experience overall. Over 90% of the campaigns I’ve backed have been on-time, and many have delivered well beyond what is expected. There’s certainly campaigns out there that are horribly run, and much like buying stocks, there’s always a risk that you get nothing (or something that doesn’t work). This particular project had a lot going for it.
InventAPart: A small rapid prototyping company in Springville, Utah, InventAPart was experienced with industrial 3D printing and rapid prototyping. The company was established, and had a history of delivering products to consumers. They had also designed the RigidBot in house based on that experience, with the goal of producing a stable 3D printer at a price point that could potentially put 3D printing in the hands of everyone.
RigidBot Design: The RigidBot was designed to support both PLA and ABS material, giving flexibility in material and utility. The design is based on the common RepRap style 3D printer, which gives commonality with community tools and a large network of folks online to collaborate with. They had built a number of prototype machines, and had done hundreds of test prints. Personally, I’m much more likely to back a project that has a working product vs. one that still needs to be developed from the ground up.
Upgrade Options & Stretch Goals: The InventAPart team offered a mix of upgrade options, such as an upgraded Z-Rod, spools of filament, an LCD module, etc. As the campaign became more successful they also introduced a number of stretch goals including a free spool of filament, a spooler rack, upgraded power supply and ultimately a heated bed (all of which were met and included in the finished product).
Pledge Packages: The RigidBot was offered in both assembled and kit forms, in both a small and large size, with multiple delivery batches. One of the things that initially drew me to this campaign was the structure of the delivery. By only allowing a fixed number of pledges in each category (and deliveries by month), in theory InventAPart would be able to better react to the number of orders and stick to a timeline, rather than ending up with a thousand printers to deliver in a 30 day window.
Communication: Early on, InventAPart committed to doing a weekly Monday update on the progress of the campaign. The theory was that if an update was sent out every Monday to all of the backers, it would reduce the amount of questions the InventAPart team had to field individually, and it would be a more transparent operation. At the outset, it looked like the campaign would be very transparent—which I certainly support as it’s nice to know where your money is going, how they’re using it, what challenges they’re facing, and ultimately what the overall project status is. Without trying to be too negative on the InventAPart team. Many of the things that drew me to the campaign ended up falling apart. While I’ve had a very positive Kickstarter experience (both before and after the RigidBot), this campaign ended up not being very well run and I believe the following were the main contributory issues.
Sheer Volume: The campaign goal was originally for just $31,500. When the campaign closed, over 1900 backers had pledged over a million dollars to the RigidBot project. In InventAPart’s defense, they had clearly underestimated the demand, and were forced to scale to producing many more printers than originally planned for.
Kitting Combinations: The problem with offering X number of base models with Y number of add-on options with Z number of included upgrades/stretch goals is that you now have a massive number of unique order combinations. To a backer it’s great to see that you can piecemeal your order to meet your needs, but for a company that has never mass produced anything before, the complexity to this model is unreal. A lot of kits ultimately went out the door with incorrect or missing parts due to a lack of quality control and what I’ll call an unmanageable system of order fulfilment. The team did get better towards the end, my printer was one of the last Kickstarter orders shipped and included all parts (and correct parts).
Design Changes: Shortly after the campaign closed, the InventAPart team started making design changes. While some of this was necessary to support the add-on options and stretch goals, it also meant that most of the beta testing and test data that had been collected using the prototypes was now throwaway. The result of this was many backers suffering from both general mechanical issues as well as extruder issues (leakage, oozing, melting, etc.), and overall project delays due to required rework and retooling.
“China Factor”: While design changes alone are bound to impact the timeline of a project, I don’t think anyone correctly accounted for what I’ll call the “China Factor”. Quality control was near non-existent. This contributed to the kitting issues as well as issues with things like the main control board (all of which had to be reworked). While some of this was related to poor quality manufacturing, some of it was related to the design changes and the lack of proving the new design before large scale manufacturing. I think there was a sense of naivety at InventAPart that they could just contract a company in China to do XYZ and a shipping container would happen to show up with everything in it. Despite feedback from backers with tangible experience doing business in China, it wasn’t until the situation turned very dire that the InventAPart team stepped up, went to China and took charge; and even then, as soon as they left things slowed down again. I firmly believe that there should have been an InventAPart representative in China from the beginning. Taking control of this animal up front would have saved time, increased quality, and ultimately made this campaign more successful.
Communication: Where I’m most critical of the InventAPart team (and where I hope they’ll really sit back and evaluate the campaign) is with communication. What initially looked to be incredibly transparent and proactive turned out to be very reactive, closed, and at times deceptive. Many of the Monday updates arrived with nothing but pictures of prints from early prototypes (often the same prints shown in the original Kickstarter promo video). Updates rarely included details—even after specific requests from backers to include those details. I’m of the mindset that if you’re showing a picture of a print when there’s 10-15 high profile questions that have been asked (and you’re a year behind schedule), you’re being deceptive. If it weren’t for the persistence of several users in the community, backers would have been left completely in the dark with no information on the status of the campaign. On top of that, calls and emails to the InventAPart office were frequently ignored, and support tickets have been going on 3-5 weeks before getting a reply. The team completely failed to handle communications or ongoing support throughout the campaign; that’s my biggest complaint overall.