Expert Interview: Makelab Co-Founder and CEO, Christina Perla, on Building a Scalable 3D Printing Business
23 July 2019
This interview was first featured in AMFG’s State of the Industry Survey 2019: AM Service Providers. To download the 36-page report, click here.
Christina Perla is the Co-Founder and CEO of Makelab, a New York-based service bureau that provides 3D printing services for a wide range of industries, including consumer goods, architecture and industrial goods. The company offers an even split of FDM and SLA technologies, using a fleet of in-house desktop machines.
We spoke with Christina to learn more about the realities of running a growing service bureau, what is needed to succeed and her views on where the market is headed.
An ever-evolving industry
With a background in industrial design, Christina has been in the 3D printing industry long enough to witness the extent to which it has evolved first-hand. “The industry started out mainly with prototyping and iterative design applications,” she says. “Now the range of applications has broadened, and the industry is constantly growing. For example, a lot of our customers come to us wanting to prototype their newest IoT innovations and product and hardware designs.
“Every month, there are new technologies coming out. I also see a lot of advancements in the medical industry, especially dental. What I find particularly impressive are the developments being made in printing biocompatible tissues for surgeries. The industry really has come a long way.”
In an industry that is constantly evolving, what does it take for a service bureau to succeed? For Christina, innovation is key. “There are a lot of 3D printing service bureaus that are trying to innovate, whether it’s tinkering with their machines to make them more like workhorses or continually trying to improve the workflow and their internal systems.”
“It’s interesting because the market is still operating in kind of an unknown. Yes, it’s manufacturing — but the workflows and software for traditional manufacturing are so different from additive manufacturing, partly because there are just so many steps.”
Putting customers front and centre
For Makelab, the early days of the company were focused on fully understanding the industries its customers operate in. This understanding — placing the customer at the heart of its strategy — remains a key point of differentiation for the company.
“We put a big emphasis on understanding our clients from the very beginning,” Christina explains. “We’re a team of designers and engineers, so we all understand the motivations behind creating and are able to really understand our customers. We’re heavily focused on the quality and reliability of our service, and how we can best deliver.
“Sometimes, in the beginning, you bend over backwards for customers, and that approach doesn’t always fit with your business. It becomes a stressful situation because oftentimes you’re not actually able to sell what you promised.
“But a lot of what we’ve done is trying to standardise everything so that there’s a nice balance between providing an amazing service while being able to work efficiently.”
A competitive landscape and the need for collaboration
Christina notes the increasingly competitive landscape for service bureaus, particularly as the cost of desktop machines continues to fall, lowering the barrier for entry for new businesses. “There are a lot of companies who entered the industry as makers, which is how my business partner and I came into it,” she says. “But I think that after some time, you’ll need to evolve into more of a business mindset, where you’re looking at how to make your business sustainable and scalable.”
In spite of the competition, Christina says, collaboration is crucial for success.
“Having a collaborative relationship is not only empowering and validating as a business owner, but it’s also really effective and productive.”
“When you’re running a bureau, you’re really at the hands of your customers and what they want and need from your service. If you’re targeting a new customer group, that’s a whole new service sector — at least, that’s how we think of it. When we do target a new customer group, we define a whole new set of needs. But if you can find someone to collaborate with and work with it, it makes perfect sense. So for us, it’s really interesting to talk to others in the space, share ideas and be more collaborative rather than see others as competitors.”
Whether it’s considering the competition or managing internal operations, running a service bureau, like any business, is not without risk.
“There’s always a risk factor,” says Christina. “For example, a big problem for us is factoring in print failures or machine downtime, and assessing how that affects the whole workflow. Another challenge is being able to predict how much you can do at once or how much you can manufacture in a day, for example.”
Automation is key to a better service
One solution Makelab has found lies in digitising much of the company’s processes and workflows to streamline operations and gain efficiency. This has included implementing workflow software. “We’re working on digitising more and getting our software more aligned so that we can have more control over our operations, and bring certain processes down to just a few steps,” says Christina.
“With desktop printers, you have to often use an SD card and various different slicers just to get the files to the printer. But we’re working on eliminating a few of those steps to make it a little bit more seamless and ensure that there’s less room for human error.”
Embracing digitalisation has also helped Makelab better serve the needs of its clients. “For our customers that are more experienced with 3D printing, we use workflow software to provide an online portal through which they can submit their orders. We also have repeat clients who need a custom order or a bulk order. Some clients need to have something done within a day, others may require a print in a few different materials or they need things to be assembled. Creating a digital workflow using software helps us manage these different demands much more easily.”
Investing in new technologies is another common concern for service bureaus. Makelab, however, has taken a slightly different approach. “At Makelab, we look at this question from a perspective of scalability. The more machines and technologies you have in-house, the more materials you have to carry stock for and the more programs you need. To continually invest in new technologies requires quite a bit of change, so we’re trying to shift the focus and be a little bit niche.”
Looking to the future
When it comes to the future of the service bureau landscape, Christina acknowledges the challenge of predicting what is still, in many ways, an unpredictable market. “The market is still like the wild west,” she says. “People are still finding out what works and what’s needed to succeed as a service bureau.
“At some point in the future, maybe not in the next 12 months, I see bureaus adapting their machines to work more for their particular business. It means a lot of extremely custom setup to make it work better.”
As for Makelab itself, expansion is a key focus for the months ahead. “We definitely want to scale,” says Christina. “In the first few years of our business, we were very much establishing the foundation for a great service, figuring out what works for us, what our clients want and what makes them come back.
“Now that we have that settled and we all feel confident about it, the next step for us is to see how much we can do.”
To learn more about Makelab, visit: makelab.nyc