Controversy is rising over a stalled Kickstarter campaign.
The 3D printer in question is the Plybot. You may recall this device, which we first encountered way back in 2018. It was a student project that used a very unique motion system: two robot arms moved the hot end in the X-Y axes. As far as I know, no one had previously attempted this style of motion system.
The key advantage of the motion system at that time was supposedly its low cost. The designers hoped to issue the machine to the public at only US$110, a low cost indeed. By the way, the name “Plybot” was derived from the inexpensive material used for the machine frame: plywood.
Then in January 2021, I received a message from some folks that had launched the project as a Kickstarter. As we normally do, we support 3D print startups of this type and published a story about the launch.
The Kickstarter, which appeared three years after the project started, set the price of the machine to US$299 for early birds, and US$329 otherwise. This was basically triple the previously mentioned price. However, the Plybot team included Printrbot’s Brooke Drumm, who apparently had a hand in the engineering design of the Kickstarter Plybot. Drumm’s experience probably helped set the price to a more realistic level.
The Kickstarter was set to deliver the devices ordered in early 2021 in July-August 2021, a reasonable lead time to produce the devices.
That didn’t happen.
In fact, there have been significant delays, and they are still ongoing even today! According to the Kickstarter page, some 560 backers are still awaiting delivery of their Plybot, almost a year and a half after the expected delivery time.
Some of them are getting very angry, as you can scroll through dozens and dozens of refund requests in the comments on the site. It appears the Plybot backers have largely given up on the project.
The Plybot campaign has issued a series of increasingly distressing updates. At first, the updates talked about swapping component types to reduce costs:
“As we alluded to at the beginning of the month we were set on working out a way of accelerating the fulfillment of the campaign in the most efficient way possible. During the month a few of you have kindly pushed across some suggestions on alternatives for various components – some of which I’m glad to report offer the opportunity to simplify our supply chain, reduce production costs, whilst maintaining the overall standard.”
Then the product was apparently finalized, but in a degraded state:
“Based on the responses received, we’ve ultimately been able to simplify our production process while stripping out some of the costs of fulfillment which, as you all know, was our primary aim. We acknowledge that several people would prefer everything we originally proposed and not the slightly reduced offering.”
In May 2022, things got a bit darker:
“Plybot is not dead. We are actively raising funds to allow the team to build a viable long-term business. Our enthusiasm for Plybot and the potential of this unique 3D printer has not been dampened by the challenges we have faced securing backers. We will get there … You have not seen new videos and images of the evolving product because all activity is on hold until we secure our funding.”
“Where we go from this point forward is interesting for the team.”
That definitely doesn’t sound good. But then in June 2021, we heard this:
“We hope to update you shortly on confirmation that our funding round has closed successfully and have the team share their plans with you directly.”
Finally, in August 2022, there was this:
“First and foremost, we have no intention of running away. Brook, Jeremy, and the wider team are still engaged from a distance and hopeful of an imminent end to our funding challenges, so they can step back in to lead this venture forward. All I can say regarding our fundraising progress is that we are making progress, but nowhere near as fast as we all want it to be.“
”We hope to deliver good news soon.”
That’s quite telling. From “imminent” funding to “hopeful” funding does not sound very good at all.
Even worse, that was the final update from the project, six months ago. The project had been updating backers mostly monthly, but now … just silence.
Possible Reasons for Plybot Difficulties
My take on this is that this is a project in very deep trouble. The fact that they required fundraising BEYOND what they collected for the equipment suggests the price of the machine was far too low.
Startups of this type face significant challenges in manufacturing. It’s easy to make a prototype or a couple of devices, but manufacturing a series of machines — hundreds in this case — is quite a different matter. It requires very different skills, such as sourcing guaranteed parts in volume, shipping, project management, risk management, mitigation approaches. In years past many Kickstarters failed because although the originators were able to make a machine they were not able to manufacture a machine at scale.
But then there’s another twist: this campaign fell squarely into the post-pandemic manufacturing environment, where there were catastrophic shortages of components, supplies, materials, even packaging. The biggest companies on Earth struggled mightily to resolve these issues, and even then took significant hits to their business. Some even failed.
In retrospect, could a junior startup looking for a relatively small quantity of components really achieve success? The price of those components skyrocketed during this period, adding to the misery.
It’s no surprise Plybot required more funding, but given that the pandemic started in 2020, it is quite surprising they decided to launch in early 2021 when prices were rising.
I suspect it is unlikely the project will receive any further funding. At this point it is clear the price of the machine is too low, but rising it places it in direct competition to dozens of low-priced Asian machines that, frankly, are pretty good and don’t carry the risk of the Plybot project. Why would someone buy a Plybot when you can get a machine that can print just as well for the same cost or lower?
The Plybot concept started with the idea of a motion system that could lower costs. That was its strategic advantage. But then the actual price of the machine broke that advantage and there’s really few compelling reasons left to adopt the technology.
Meanwhile, the backers are still angry. They have formed a Discord community to work together to determine what to do next. There is even mention of a class action lawsuit, as well as filings with state commissions. If you are a Plybot backer and want to join the discord, you can find it here.