Brahma's new creation: 3D plastic printouts

3D printing has been around since the 1970s or so, though it was rediscovered and repurposed from a consumer angle around 2008-9 when the likes of Makerbot came to the fore. Though this technique might be familiar in many parts of the world, it's still finding its feet in India.

Kamakshi Ayyar July 03, 2014 12:21:21 IST
Brahma's new creation: 3D plastic printouts

When someone talks about using a 3D printer to create prosthetic limbs or parts of a skull that can be used to cover up real exposed brain matter, or having made multi-dimensional puzzles in Braille that allow visually impaired children to learn better, you are intrigued and want to know more.

That was the case when Firstbiz spoke to Nikhil Velpanur, co-creator of the Brahma3 Anvil - one of India's wholly-indigenous 3D desktop printers, in a telephonic interview from Bangalore.

"There was always talk about using technology to change the world and make things of significance," Velpanur said. Keeping that in mind, Bangalore-based Velpanur and his college friend Arvind Nadig, both 30-year-old IT graduates, decided to ditch their day jobs (Velpanur was involved with various other startups and Nadig with his digital education company, Li2) and start a design studio in 2013.

A 3D printer was one of the items they planned to tinker with. However,once they realised that the purchase and shipping costs (at the time these printers were primarily manufactured overseas) were beyond their budget, they decided to try their hands at building one. With Rs 50 lakhs as seed money from their savings, the duo set out to make a 3D desktop printer.

The technique

Making a 3 dimensional object is like making a jalebi, says Velpanur. The object is made by adding materials in layers. After the design is chosen, the specific materials needed for it is usually sprayed, squeezed or otherwise transferred from the printer onto a platform. The 3D printer makes passes (much like an inkjet printer) over the platform, depositing layer on top of layer of material to create the finished product.

The process of printing a three dimensional object has been around since the 1970s, though it was rediscovered and re-purposed from a consumer angle around 2008-09 when the likes of US-based Makerbot came to the fore.

According to a 2013 Gartner report, titled Forecast: 3D Printers, Worldwide, 2013, the number of 3D printer shipments for the Asia-Pacific region is expected to grow at 89 percent to over 14,000 units annually from the present 610 units during 2012-2017. The interest for 3D printing in India will only increase, says the report, thanks to the technology's accessibility, affordability and the freedom it offers to play around with it.

A quick survey of the demand for these printers in India reveals customers across categories from educational institutions to medical centres to small manufacturing companies to plain curious folks who want to try their hand at this relatively new wizardry.

The genesis

A motley crew of innovators and hobbyists has been using open source designs and software to create their own 3D printers. That's also how Velpanur and Nadig started. ""We just want to make the best 3D printer out there," says Velpanur.

The software, design and all things needed to build a 3D printer was available online and within two weeks, Velpanur and Nadig had their first prototype ready. But it wasn't ready for the market. "Once we started printing, we understood that the model had to evolve," Velpanur said. This was around mid-2013.

The duo decided to expand their team to include experienced aerospace and mechanical engineers and in a span of four months, they had a printer ready for the market. Named Brahma3 Anvil-'there really is no better name than Brahma, meaning creator', says Velpanur-it was showcased at the INK Conference in Kochi in October, 2013.

The INK talks, similar to and associated with the TED talks, serve as a platform to let innovators and game-changers share their ideas with a large audience.

When the idea clicked

The response at INK was unbelievable, Velpanur says. The next step for the team was to pack up their cargo and head to Berlin the night the INK Conference ended, to participate in the TechCrunch Disrupt conference, a forum for innovators to share what they think could be the next big thing to invade the tech space.

The Brahma3 Anvil received an enthusiastic response, this time from a global audience. "There was a well-funded team from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) with their own printer," Velpanur recalled. "They had a buzz about them but so did we! No one expected Indians to put out a 3D printer because that isn't something we are known for," says Velpanur.

Back home, the team began to seriously work on making the Brahma3 Anvil accessible, and affordable to consumers. They wanted the printer to be easy to use and so it was adapted to work with a built-in Android tablet rather than like a traditional printer that has to be hooked up to a computer. "You don't need to know anything at all to operate the printer," Velpanur says, "It works straight out of the box."

The cost factor

Though bringing about a change in the market with an innovative product was a major driving force, the team had to be careful when it came to pricing. They wanted around two million people to buy it, says Velpanur. The team finally decided to sell the product at Rs one lakh per printer, which is one-tenth the cost of any printer in the world, claims Velpanur.

They seem to have hit the sweet spot - there are already 250 orders from small manufacturers, hospitals and educational institutes for the Brahma3 Anvil, more than the team is capable of producing quickly. The first batch of 10 printers was shipped out in early April. The current wait period for an order is about four months.

Challenges for the firm

Mahesh Murthy, managing partner, Seedfund Advisors, expressed doubt over the product being a financially accessible. He says, "To win in this business, a company needs clarity - who exactly are your consumers - are you catering to the Maker movement? Or to large-scale localised manufacturing?" he asked, adding, "The company's positioning and plans to achieve scale and dominance in its segment aren't clear either."

The biggest challenge for the team is to create a market in a country where the concept of and familiarity with 3D printing is still very nascent. Getting word out about the printer and its capabilities is what will bring in the revenues, says Velpanur.

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