“My main learning is to act faster”: Interview with 3D Hubs founder Bram

3D Hubs, founded in 2013, is the brainchild of Dutch entrepreneurs Bram de Zwart and Brian Garret. Having worked in other 3D printing companies, they saw the need to speed up the pre-manufacturing process, and have harnessed AI to reduce the process from 2 weeks to 2 minutes.

We sat with 3D Hubs’ founder Bram to find out more about the Amsterdam tech scene, his thoughts on the future for 3D printing and advice for other founders about taking risks.

Tell us the story of 3D Hubs – how did you come up with the idea and what is your mission

It began with my co-founder Brian Garret and I, working at a 3D printing company in Amsterdam between 2009-2013 (Freedom Of Creation, acquired by 3D Systems). Through that experience, we started to understand that this amazing technology could be the driver of a more automated and decentralized manufacturing future. 

This is because CNC machining and 3D printing are agile, computer-controlled methods of manufacturing that reduce the need for labor and tooling. This enables manufacturing to be done in smaller batches and more locally. From the very beginning, we had a vision to pioneer this future, by building an online platform that intelligently matches manufacturing capacity to demand. 

Nowadays with our platform, we use our millions of data points and the latest developments in artificial intelligence to automatically price, qualify and route manufacturing jobs to our network of manufacturing partners. This allows us to maximize machine utilization and minimize inventory and transportation, leading to a cleaner model for manufacturing. 

What differentiates 3D Hubs from your competitors?

Compared to traditional manufacturers we massively shorten the pre-manufacturing process including quoting, manufacturability analysis and job scheduling. Traditional manufacturers usually do all this work manually, which typically takes around two weeks, with lots of back and forth on the customer’s specifications. 

Our AI-driven software does this all instantly for customers, reducing their time to production from two weeks to just minutes. With the average production time also being two weeks, this means they save about 50% of their time going from a ready design to finished parts in their hands. This allows engineers to make faster design iterations in the early product development stages and thereby get them to market and revenue much sooner.

Besides the automation of the pre-manufacturing process there are several other customer benefits of using the 3D Hubs platform over a traditional, single factory:

  • They can access a very broad range of manufacturing technologies, materials and finishes, across many different specialized suppliers. 
  • Our instant quoting and competition in the supplier network lead to transparent pricing and lower cost.
  • A large number of suppliers means there’s always one with instant capacity, shortening lead times. 

How has the 3D printing industry developed in recent years and what does the future hold?

3D printing is going through the hype cycle like any new major technology. A few years ago we saw massive excitement around consumer applications; today broadscale adoption is happening across the manufacturing industry. This is not yet very visible to the general public, but nonetheless exciting. For example, the latest Airbus A350 has over a thousand 3D printed metal parts inside that are only a fraction of the normal weight. Rapid advancements of especially metal and composite 3D printing will enable companies in the aerospace, automotive, healthcare, electronic and robotic sectors to create better products, faster and with more design freedom. 

Have you raised any funding, and do you intend to in the future?

We’ve raised €28.8 million from top VC funds such as Balderton, EQT, Endeit and Future Shape. We may consider further funding in the future if this enables an accelerated and sustainable path towards modernizing the manufacturing industry. 

What is your strategy for taking on the manufacturing industry outside Europe?

The US already makes up more than half of our global revenue. We have a large team in Chicago which is lead by the former co-founder of Shapeways, Robert Schouwenburg. In China we work with a dozen manufacturing partners specialized in CNC machining. We are continuously expanding on a global level, both on the supply and the demand side. 

What advice would you give yourself 10 years ago, if you could?

In general, I’m still happy with the path I’ve taken as I enjoy working at the intersection of software, design, and manufacturing. I also enjoy going through different company growth stages and experiencing both a mostly operational (in the beginning) and a mostly strategic role (today).

One thing I would suggest to my former self is to spend enough time disconnecting from work emails and Slack. You need to be in control of your computer and how you spend your time on it, rather than the other way around. This is crucial for having the headspace required to get extreme clarity, see the bigger picture and make the most impactful decisions. If I had done this 10 years ago, I would have likely found it easier to make the important decisions I had to make.

What has been one of your biggest failures, and what did you learn from the experience?

Two years ago we decided to change our strategy and focus our platform on business clients, instead of consumers, as we saw that the opportunity there was much larger and that it aligned more clearly with our goal of truly disrupting the traditional manufacturing industry. This resulted in 425% growth over the last two years. 

We were contemplating this strategy 1-2 years before we made the actual decision, but were hesitant because we spent so many years optimizing the consumer platform. My main learning is to act faster when you see a bigger opportunity, independent of how much you’re already invested in your existing product.

You were founded in Amsterdam. What is your opinion on starting up a company there? What is lacking that you would ‘steal’ from other ecosystems?

Being based in Amsterdam, it’s very easy for us to attract top talent from abroad, as people love the idea of living there. We operate in a specialized industry, so 2/3rd of our workforce is international, representing 38 different nationalities. We’re getting loads of high-quality inbound candidates from Europe, but surprisingly also from the US lately.

The more Europe can become a single market with unified tax treatments, regulations, etc, the easier it becomes to build very big businesses here. This is an advantage that US startups still have today, being able to easily target 330 million consumers that share a similar culture, rules, currency and language.

Finally, businesses would benefit substantially if Europe were to review its government subsidy system. In many cases, subsidies actually hinder innovation rather than furthering it. Nowadays, companies that are ‘optimized for bureaucracy’ often still have an unfair advantage over companies that may be more innovative and optimized for growth, which creates an uneven playing field and can stymie competition. Unless the money goes to very fundamental research, my view is that subsidies do more harm than good for market dynamics and innovation. 

You’ve spoken about how Europe is missing from the 10 largest tech companies in the world. What do you think Europe needs to get a spot?

It would help if the European market became more unified, so tech companies can directly access their 510 million consumers without big roadblocks. 

But a cultural change is also needed. I’ve experienced that the European appetite for both change and risk is smaller than in America and China. Building a very big tech business requires founders and investors to be risk-taking until they’ve fully achieved its global potential. 

It also requires its users to be open and excited about the technological change that the business is bringing. My sense is that the US and China rely less on their traditions and have a more positive attitude towards new innovations and ways of working.

I believe that an ecosystem that embraces change and risk, will have increased chances of seeing very large tech businesses being built.