We spoke with FAME 3D, the new owners of the LulzBot brand of 3D printers, to understand more about the mysterious firm.
LulzBot Goes To Fargo
LulzBot is one of the most well-known brands of desktop 3D printers in the United States, having launched some years ago in Colorado by Aleph Objects. Over time the company leveraged their open source strategy to grow into a large operation, producing many thousands of 3D printers and employing over 100 staff.
Then things changed rather suddenly in October 2019. The company abruptly laid off the majority of the staff and essentially shut down operations, hoping to find a buyer.
Few held out any hope for the LulzBot brand, and it appeared that it might disappear. But then, seemingly out of nowhere, it was acquired by a mysterious entity by the name of FAME 3D, based in Fargo, ND. No one had heard of this company previously, and virtually nothing could be found online to tell us about them.
Who / What is FAME 3D?
I spoke at length with FAME 3D’s CEO, John Olhoft, and Creative Director Todd Aitchison. The first question I asked was, “who are you guys?”
It turns out that Olhoft had his eye on the LulzBot brand for some time after an encounter with them at ERRF (The East Coast Rep Rap Festival), and secret discussions were subsequently held with Aleph Objects, the then-owner of the LulzBot brand.
I asked about the company, whether it is part of a larger entity, and where it originated. Olhoft explained that it’s an entirely new entity that is a standalone operation. Olhoft pitched the idea to an unnamed investor to back the purchase of the LulzBot assets and this was the foundation for FAME 3D.
I asked about the difference between the more well-known Fargo 3D Printing operation that seems to have a very similar name. Olhoft explained that Fargo 3D Printing is a reseller of equipment and parts, but split off their repair business some time ago, creating Fargo 3D Printer Repair. This repair service was purchased by Olhoft, and that’s how he knows so much about the industry.
Today FAME 3D has no official relationship with Fargo 3D Printing, and is a sole entity.
Taking Over LulzBot
Olhoft described the process of taking over the LulzBot assets, which turned out to be a frantic sequence involving him “jumping in my Jeep and heading to Colorado” with only two days notice.
At the time Aleph Objects had essentially laid off their entire staff, and Olhoft reminisced about the days when there were only two people in the Aleph Objects facility: himself and the previous CEO, Grant Flaherty.
Olhoft quickly re-hired a skeleton crew of former Aleph Objects staff to put things together for the big move.
Olhoft spent three months in Colorado examining the previous LulzBot operation, understanding their business and activities. This, in the end, turned out to be of critical importance.
Finally, the assets were loaded onto an incredible 28 semi-trailer trucks on 26 December to haul everything to the new Fargo HQ of FAME 3D, a 65,000-square-foot facility.
Upon arrival the LulzBot assets were unloaded by 5 January 2020, and then re-assembled. FAME 3D was able to produce the first newly-made LulzBot 3D printer in the second week of January.
FAME 3D Staffing
I asked about the staff of the company, and where they came from. Currently the company has 75 employees, and has intentions of expanding in the future.
Olhoft explained they offered the majority of the former Aleph Objects staff new roles, but located in Fargo. However, only a handful took up the offer, as the rest decided to stay in Colorado and pursue other activities. Olhoft said they did have several staff work remotely from Colorado for a few months to assist with things like setting up servers, etc.
Olhoft said it “wasn’t hard” staffing up to 75 by simply drawing from the local Fargo area, which happens to have a substantial number of manufacturing firms in the city. These staff were already skilled in general manufacturing roles, but not 3D printing. For 3D printing, it also turns out there were sufficiently knowledgeable people in the city, perhaps due to the long-term presence of Fargo 3D Printing as mentioned above.
FAME 3D LulzBot Operations
Today Olhoft said they have now achieved production levels equal to the Aleph Objects operation, and are apparently doing better financially as well. For example, they recently shipped out a second semi-trailer full of 3D printers for an education client.
To do so they had to spend some effort rebuilding supply chains, which Olhoft said was “challenging”. Most of their parts are sourced domestically, and they do 3D print many of their own parts in-house on their factory of 300 LulzBot devices, so they were not particularly affected by COVID-19 constraints.
At this point they are able to both build and deliver 3D printers, and provide service for existing clients. They’re now building three models, the Workhorse, Mini 2 and Pro.
Olhoft said many of their ongoing clients didn’t even notice there was new management for the brand, and he’s spent time explaining it to everyone.
Clients can call in for support, receive spare parts and even return devices for repair if necessary. I got the impression they were essentially “back in business” after the move from Colorado.
I asked what they were doing differently from Aleph Objects to avoid the same fate, and Olhoft explained they are simply running the business a lot more tightly than was done by Aleph Objects. In fact, he says they have already exceeded LulzBot’s financial levels and hope to grow even more.
There has been some recent controversy, as FAME 3D has issued new terms for their authorized resellers, essentially prohibiting LulzBot resellers from also selling certain competitive equipment. Several resellers decided to drop their LulzBot affiliation as a result of these new terms. However, Olhoft explained that this was simply “a business decision”, and that “we can choose who we want selling our products.”
For the future Olhoft said they will continue to develop new equipment, as they have an engineering team of eight on the case right now, and a farm of 300 printers to do testing. They’re expecting to announce new products, perhaps a new hot end or even a new 3D printer some time later this year. Aitchison explained that we should expect “smaller things first, and bigger things later.”
One of the last new products announced by Aleph Objects was the new bioprinter, and it seems that FAME 3D will continue with this product, although it’s in an entirely different market from the rest of their products.
Now that they’ve completed the move activities, they hope to be doing more things with the community, social media and industry relationships. We’ve already seen one partnership emerge, as they announced a deal with Mosaic Manufacturing for their color 3D printing accessory.
They expect to work closely with the educational market, and grow significantly over time. Olhoft says they will continue maintaining the machine as an open source design as Aleph Objects had, and “still hold open source at the core”. However, behind the scenes they will be doing things a little differently that I will discuss in another story. He specifically said they will not “do a MakerBot,” referring to how MakerBot abruptly went closed source, much to the consternation of their DIY community.
From what I now understand, it seems that LulzBot is truly back in business.