Chris Labelle is the co-founder and COO of Mosaic Manufacturing, a 3D Printing hardware company. Mosaic has developed a new technology that enables virtually any single colour desktop 3D printer to print in multiple colours, as well as select materials with different properties.
When my co-founders and I started Mosaic Manufacturing, a 3D printing company, in Toronto in 2014, the market for 3D-printing technology was at a very early stage. The process sounds simple enough: 3D printers pull in plastic filaments, melt them down and then lay down layers of that material on top of each other to gradually build whatever object you want to make. But back then there were two major problems.
The first was that affordable 3D printers, of the kind that regular consumers might buy, were terrible. The second was that the high-quality machines, which were also limited in their capacities, were expensive. For example, when we started Mosaic, the only machines that could print an object using different colours and materials cost at least $100,000. This combination of low quality and high cost led to widespread scepticism about the utility of 3D printing.
Our aim, then, was threefold. First, we wanted to improve the capacity of 3D printers to blend colours and materials so that they could produce more complex and sophisticated things. Second, we wanted to improve the machines’ automation, in order to increase their productivity. Third, we wanted to reduce their cost, to open up the market to companies and individuals who had been priced out before.
Developing the technology, however, was only one part of the story. The other was persuading people that 3D printing could help their business.
In the early days, events in Canada were crucial in that effort. In 2013 we took part in Startup Open House, which was jointly organised by a seasoned entrepreneur and a venture capitalist. They invited 30 startups to take part in the event, where each company could present their business in an informal setting: as the event’s website put it at the time, it was a night of “beer, darts, and demos”. The evening was aimed not just at founders like us, who wanted to spread the word about our ideas, but also at young people who wanted to work for a tech start-up. Startup Open House was incredibly helpful in bringing in potential new employees, and building awareness about the tech we were developing.
That atmosphere was mirrored at the Toronto events we took part in. Early on, we began attending round-tables put on by MaRS (which originally stood for Medical and Related Sciences), an organisation in Toronto that supports tech start-ups and is a big supporter of the hardware ecosystem in the city. It was through one of these events that we met representatives from Next Generation Manufacturing Canada, or NGen.
Several years ago, the Canadian government decided to focus on developing particular sectors, and built superclusters for these industries in different locations around the country. NGen is the supercluster in Toronto. It has several functions: it is an incubator for advanced manufacturing firms, a funding partner, and a forum in which entrepreneurs whose businesses intersect can meet each other and collaborate. The NGen get-togethers were invaluable for a new business like ours – a way to network with other manufacturing start-ups in the city, discuss funding opportunities and discover new customers and partners who might benefit from our hardware.
On the investment side, NGen has been a great source of non-diluted funding for Mosaic Manufacturing — that is, funding that doesn’t involve the sale of equity in the business. If we go out and drive investment for a particular product, we can match that investment with an influx of cash from NGen. That has allowed us, and many other tech companies in Toronto, to grow more quickly and has added to the vibrant tech ecosystem. We launched our first product in 2015, just a year after we founded Mosaic. Called Palette, it is a printing system that pulls in multiple filaments and then splices them together, allowing manufacturers to create multi-colour and multi-material objects.
As for the connections we have made through meetings and events in Toronto, they have been local, global, and invaluable. Our customers are manufacturers of the smallest machine parts up to automotive and aerospace companies who are 3D printing large components. Through an event at NGen, we met with people from a company in China, which has since made thousands of products with our printers. Closer to home, through the Toronto start-up scene we met another of our clients, who is among North America’s biggest manufacturers of athletic jerseys. They used to have their jerseys embroidered in China, where their lead time on each order was between four and six weeks. They now 3D print the names and numbers on all their jerseys here in Toronto. Their lead times are down to one week.
Since we launched Palette in 2015, we have been adding new functions to our printers. Our machines now automate the process of switching materials, for example, so when it runs out of plastic it simply draws in another spool of filament to allow for uninterrupted printing. We also have a product called Array, which is a network of 24 automated 3D printers. Some of our clients have six of these machines locked together, producing up to a million parts per year.
Creating that technology has been one part of our success. The other is being able to demonstrate its benefits. That is what events in Toronto have given us the chance to do.