Made Here: Turning customers into new manufacturers every day
Manufacturing in America is alive and well. In our “Made Here” series, we talk to some of our manufacturing business clients and learn how they’ve flourished in spite of tough odds in recent years.
Aleph Objects Inc., which develops and manufactures a line of open desktop 3D printers, has seen rapid growth since it was founded in 2011. The business, based in Loveland, Colorado, has a great reputation in the industry and local market for being committed to Libre Innovation, which means the hardware and software they create is free to be copied, modified, and converted by all users.
CEO and Founder Jeff Moe and Ben Malouf, director of marketing, explained in our interview the challenges U.S. manufacturing companies have faced and, in particular, how manufacturing looks different than what it used to. I like how their experiences and insights, particularly on growth and innovation, expand notions of what business owners may expect as they dive into the world of manufacturing.
Q: The company has seen rapid growth since it was founded. How is the company handling it?
A: We set out to build a company, not a 3D printer. Making a quality product is just one part of building a successful company. Aleph Objects has been successful because we focus just as much on the less visible parts of the company as we do the product. Growth was always a part of the plan. For example, when we bought our manufacturing facility in late 2013, it was with the future in mind. We had a lot of extra space to start with, but that gave us room to grow. When vetting vendors, we are very careful to consider how they will be able to serve our future needs, not just the current ones. Always look ahead.
What are a few tips you’d give a new business owner starting in manufacturing?
Strongly consider the ways Free/Libre/Open Source philosophy can benefit your business. The collaborative community built by sharing what you learn is far more important than keeping “secrets.”
Don’t take pre-orders. We’ve seen countless companies fail because their backlog of orders outpaced their ability to keep up and/or they didn’t set their prices high enough to buy raw materials to fill those orders.
Demand quality from everyone, from employees to vendors. Never compromise on that. All you have is your brand’s reputation, and if that is tarnished by lousy products, you’ll never get it back.
There is a perception — maybe a misperception — that manufacturing companies are struggling in the U.S. What is your take?
It is impossible to deny the challenges that U.S. manufacturing companies face, particularly in electronics categories. However, there are bright spots and reasons to be encouraged. We partner with many U.S. vendors and are proud that our products are “Made in the USA” with domestic and imported components. Our focus on quality and customer support resonates with our customers in over 85 countries around the world.
Additionally, we use our products to manufacture our products. Our 3D printers run 24/7, printing parts to make more 3D printers. Our customers are also leveraging additive manufacturing to bring down costs and be more agile. Manufacturing is coming back, but it looks much different than it used to. Instead of a huge warehouse full of people and robots, you may have a micro-factory in the basement next door that is 3D-printing custom products that are better suited to their buyers.
What do you enjoy most about being in manufacturing?
Every day brings new challenges, but there is genuine satisfaction in solving those problems and making world-class products. We build workhorse 3D printers that are built to last; and if they need maintenance, repairs are relatively easy. We still see printers we built in 2011 running in businesses and homes. Thousands of people around the world depend on our LulzBot 3D printers every day; it makes the challenges more than worth it.
What has surprised you about the 3D printing business?
Just when you think you’ve seen all the potential applications for the technology, five more spring up that you never considered. Our customers include NASA researchers, middle school teachers, product engineers, doctors, at-home hobbyists, and more, so the breadth of projects is hard to fathom. It is pretty cool to see your product furthering scientific knowledge, educating kids, prototyping the next big thing, improving medical outcomes, and just bringing fun and utility to home workshops. All these applications are gratifying, so serving them all is a privilege.