2013 MJSA Thinking Ahead Award – Mike Joyce

For the past 10 years, MJSA has recognized the technological advances and products that are making a difference in the jewelry industry today and as we move into the future. The honorees are selected with the guidance of the esteemed experts on MJSA’s Thinking Ahead Advisory Council. This year, MJSA is pleased to honor Mike Joyce’s contribution to the jewelry industry’s embrace of 3-D printing technology via the B9Creator, a 3-D printer with a business model unique to the jewelry industry.

The 2013 MJSA Thinking Ahead Honors go to… B9Creator Inventor Mike Joyce and the B9Creations LLC Business Model

Author’s Note:

I caught up with Mike Joyce during his road trip back from the Fourth Annual World Maker Faire in New York City in September. He pulled off the road to chat with me on his way home to Deadwood, South Dakota, and I could tell he was still pumped from the event—Maker Media’s “family-friendly festival of invention, creativity and resourcefulness, and a celebration of the Maker movement.”

With the Faire’s attendance estimated at around 75,000 people, up about 25,000 from last year, Joyce said his B9Creator got a lot of attention from Do-It-Yourselfers in many fields. Which is no surprise, considering that in only a year’s time it has gained a strong following among jewelry makers and designers, and even was named by JCK magazine as “best in show” among the JCK Las Vegas technologies in 2013.

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Now it can add MJSA Thinking Ahead honors to its laurels. I spoke with Joyce about the origin of the B9Creator, his “open source” business model, and what he sees as the potential impact his invention will have on the industry. Here’s what he had to say.

Tina Snyder: Congratulations, Mike, on being our 2013 MJSA Thinking Ahead honoree! I hear there is quite an interesting story behind the development of the B9-
Creator. Can you share it with our readers?

Mike Joyce: Of course! This all got started during the fall of 2011. At the time, I was running a company that built and sold large collectible replicas of the “B9 Robot” from the “Lost in Space” TV series. Believe it or not, there is a small niche of people who are interested and can afford a $25,000 robot!

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B9Creator Inventor Mike Joyce

As I was looking for a new product to start working with, I was hearing a lot about 3-D printing. I was especially curious about how [it] might apply to experimental aircraft, an area in which I have a lot of interest. As I began researching 3-D printing, I realized that most hobbyists were using Fused Deposition Modeling, which melts plastic much like a hot glue gun and lays down streams of plastic to build a 3-D object. This process produced really rough surfaces without a lot of detail. As a higher-quality alternative, I began looking into Digital Light Processing (DLP) of resins.

Editor’s Note:

Due to advances in DLP technology by Texas Instruments, you can buy 3-D printers that grow high quality jewelry models with complex geometries for under $15,000. We wrote about the advance of low-cost RP systems in “The Build Up,” which appeared in last year’s Thinking Ahead issue, November 2012.]

I spent the next few months experimenting with the DLP process and the resins to get it down to a somewhat reliable result. All the while, I was sharing my progress with an online community of makers who were involved with the same type of technology—essentially, an e-mail exchange list. By early 2012, the first prototype of the B9Creator was complete.

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How did the online community help in the early stages of product development?

We inspired each other by sharing our results. There were a lot of wild ideas floated, and, although most of them turned out to be impractical, some would lead to new areas that I would test and explore. By far, it was the friendly and open nature of the discourse that I enjoyed the most.

What was your next step?

I had my patent attorney do some research to make sure that what I was doing wasn’t patented anywhere. He had some concerns with a portion of my prototype that focused on the method used to release cured layers of resin from the curing surface. So I went back to the drawing board and came up with a new method that I feel works better.

Once I had satisfied my patent attorney’s concerns, I contacted some of my vendors from my “Lost in Space” robot days to see what it would cost to purchase the parts for the printer. All the while, I was questioning if I wanted to make this all proprietary: Make a machine, offer a resin that works only with it, and sell it all as a completed, closed source product. I felt if I went that route, I would fail. If I could come up with a machine like this, other people could as well. So rather than attempt to control all the intellectual property, I decided to go the open source route. I offer the machine as a kit that you put together yourself for a discounted price off the assembled model. I set my prices low so I don’t make a lot of margin, but I give more people the opportunity to work with the technology—and to share their experiences using it on an online forum that I developed.

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Can you explain your open-source approach?

The whole maker movement is very open-source oriented. It doesn’t mean from a business standpoint that you are giving away the keys to your company, but rather that you put it all out there and let people use the technology in any way they see fit. So users can download parts lists, software source code, and even CAD files, allowing them to see exactly with what and how the B9Creator is made.

To make this business model work, we offered all the information online under what we call a “non-commercial open source license.” This license allows anyone to use the information to create his or her own machine and even sell up to five copies per year. The license also requires the user to feed back any improvements they make to the B9 community, and allows us to incorporate those improvements into our design if we wish. So the model encourages the user to also become a developer of sorts, and it has been key in developing the large, active, friendly B9 forum.

I have been asked why I didn’t just create a more typical proprietary product. To do that would have required more time and resources than I had available. I needed the community to help make it all happen. And if a company attempted to clone our machines and sell them outside the limits of the license, it would face legal and marketing challenges, mainly due to the support we now enjoy in the community.

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How did you launch the B9 kit/machine?

In April 2012 I was ready to do a production run of the machine, but I needed money. I decided to try crowd funding, so I launched a Kickstarter campaign for one month that May. [Kickstarter is an online company that provides a platform for people and businesses to raise funds for creative projects via crowd funding.] Through that campaign, which I publicized on my B9 website and on the B9 forum, I raised over $500,000 selling 200 machines, with kits going for $2,675.

While you were building the B9Creator, did you know what impact it would have on jewelry makers?

That’s the interesting thing: I have no background in jewelry, so my introduction to the jewelry industry was a matter of serendipity. During the Kickstarter campaign, I was contacted by Gary Dawson [a custom jeweler in Eugene, Oregon], who had heard about it from a friend. Gary was interested in testing the B9 and seeing if the resolution was such that it could be used for jewelry models. He was also curious about how the resin burned out and cast. The question of whether or not the resin was capable of direct casting was repeated a number of times on the Kickstarter campaign page. [Some resins used for 3-D printing make casting tricky or sometimes impossible, required molding to shoot waxes.]

Gary did some testing and sample castings, making a ring for my wife. He found that the resin has a low expansion rate and there weren’t problems with ash residue after burnout, which can cause casting defects.

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When the tests were successful and I was able to put that out on Kickstarter and the B9 Forum, the interest in the jewelry industry started to pick up as word spread about the B9Creator and Gary’s casting results. The following June [2013], we debuted the machine with great success at the JCK Show Las Vegas. Gary is now the sole distributor of the B9Creator through his company, Dawson Distributions LLC.

Tell me more about the forum.

The B9 Forum currently has around 1,500 users and more than 10,000 posts. It’s the most active forum for people interested in resin-based 3-D printing. Over half of the members are from the jewelry industry, while the balance is hobbyists, toy makers, etc. The forum represents the true spirit of the B9: a learning community of people who are sharing their experiences to make the process better.

Users share modifications they have made to the machine to make it better for them, as well as experiments they have done with the resins. It’s a true information exchange—and it’s helped me to build improvements into the product. For example, many software packages offer “automatic” support generation for models, and I had initially decided to work on offering the same. But I got feedback that manual support placement, which allows the user to determine where the supports are attached, was more desirable. Supports are a required part of the 3-D printing process, but removing them can damage delicate areas and require additional labor to clean up the model before casting. By providing for manual placement, we put the control in the user’s hands to determine where the supports will have minimal impact.

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In fact, feedback from the forum’s users has yielded a number of hardware and software improvements. One of the most challenging areas of this method of 3-D printing is determining the optimum settings needed (such as layer exposure times) to help ensure successful prints. By opening up the software and allowing users to experiment with multiple variables, we are able to optimize over a much broader spectrum of possibilities and in a very accelerated time frame.

Another key function of the open forum is user support. We are not yet in a position to provide one-on-one 24-hour support. But through the forum, users can quickly ask questions and get almost instant answers from more experienced users. Sometimes, when you are learning to use a new tool, all you need is a little encouragement and to see some great results.

Why do you feel this is having an impact on the jewelry industry?

I put the control in the users’ hands—and that hasn’t been done before with 3-D printing in the jewelry industry. The users experiment with the way the machine works, try out different resins and functional settings, and post their results on the B9 forum. It’s a community approach to improving a jewelry manufacturing process, and it just happens to be working with my machine.

For more information about the B9-Creator, or to log onto the B9 forum, visit B9creator.com.

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