About a decade ago, Maxwell Bogue was nearing the end of a 14-hour job on his 3D printer when disaster struck. The 3D printer skipped a layer, effectively ruining the part. “We had two perfectly completed pieces that weren’t attached,” Bogue recalled with a shake of his head. “My business partner said, ‘I wish you could just take the nozzle off the 3D printer and weld the pieces back together’.”
And just like that, the original 3Doodler was born. Often compared to a glue gun that extrudes melted plastic rather than adhesive, the idea is deceptively simple. A 3D pen is effectively a handheld extrusion-based 3D printer, “drawing” designs in midair — that stay there, building up from a desktop base.
A year of iterative design taught the team that would become WobbleWorks, the company behind 3Doodler, that “the concept is simple, the execution is more complex, as most things are,” as co-founder and CTO Bogue noted. In addition to the pen shaft and extruding nozzle, a 3D pen needs a precise motor, fine-tuned temperature control and extrusion speeds, easy material switch out, all in a handheld, user-friendly package.
Once they sorted the tech out, the growing team at WobbleWorks sought to take it to market. For co-founder and CEO Daniel Cowen, a primary point of focus ahead of full launch was patenting their work. “A lot of people produce something new and say, ‘Oh, that’s neat.’ We knew we’d created a new category when we made this. We came out of the gate with a provisional patent in the US.” Ensuring that they were strategic in their approach to safeguard their hard-won intellectual property, “we filed patents in China, the USA, and Mexico, as well as Hong Kong, as that’s a major shipping point.”
Cowen guided the team toward paying attention to the data behind Kickstarter, where they’d decided to launch. “We looked at a lot of markets that backed us strongly on Kickstarter and used that as a guide,” he explained of the IP strategy. “We covered America, Canada, Europe, Australia, South Korea, and Japan. We were also mindful; patents are expensive and take a long time to grant.”
The launch itself seemed virtually the perfect example of a Kickstarter go-to-market. An easy-to-use, easy-to-understand 3D printing product — first launched in 2013, at the heyday of consumer hype for these technologies — brought in significant support. Over two crowdfunding efforts, the WobbleWorks team pulled in nearly $4 million in support. Not bad for products that today retail from $30 for a young kids’ version to a $200 professional-grade model.
And then came the harsher realities of being a first-in-class product. While the 3Doodler was the first 3D pen on the market, it was not the only one for very long. The team were well aware of the importance of IP protection — while awaiting their patents to be fully granted, they filed design and trademark registrations, what Cowen called “pieces of paper we could wave around in the immediate” — but still, it didn’t take long for lookalike products to arise.
“Any new tech, copycats are going to come fast and furious,” Cowen said. “They didn’t care about what we care about, when it comes to compliance, safety, quality, education. We care about these things because we’re trying to grow this market. We care about 3Doodler because we are 3Doodler, but we care about 3D pens because we are 3D pens. If these copycats take enough market share and users have a bad experience, will that destroy the market? We’re doing this to protect ourselves and protect the category, which is still in its infancy.”
Within the first two years of launch, copycats 3D pens had hit the market in a big way. They used imagery from 3Doodler for their own marketing. One memorable video showed only the tip of a ‘new’ 3D pen in action and “it turned out it was our pen; theirs wasn’t good enough,” Cowen said.
“We also improved along the way,” Bogue noted. “And we saw those improvements incorporated into the copycats along the way as well. They even copied mistakes.” In one 3Doodler supply error, some pens shipped from the supplier with a piece of Kapton tape left inside the unit. “I always buy the knockoffs and take them apart and check them out. They started coming out with tape in them,” Bogue said.
By 2018, five years after coming to market, “we’d seen a lot of our market share eaten up,” Cowen recalled. “That’s a very hard pill to swallow.” Knockoffs copied branding, technology, and IP — and made big enough sales to dent 3Doodlers’. The difficulties then came as quickly as success initially had. The company “hit rock bottom,” struggling to drive revenue, laying off staff, and occasionally wondering why they had gone through all the effort in the first place.
For many startups, that might have spelled the beginning of the end. But 3Doodler fought back. In what would become a pitched battle, the team ultimately spent more than $2 million in legal fees to protect what they had created.
The 3Doodler team gained some leverage in 2018 as many of their patents were fully granted. “We started to finally have the ability to enforce them,” Cowen said. “You could argue that we shaped the market to where it needed to be, which included taking copycats off platforms. We don’t need to own the entire market; no one needs to monopolize a market even if they created it. But there needs to be some level of quality.”
Cease-and-desist letters saw knockoff 3D pens removed from online retailers. Court rulings upheld WobbleWorks’ claims of specific examples of new 3D pens’ infringements. The team engaged their own lawyers as well as third-party legal experts to “make a measured and judged decision on whether these pens were infringing,” Cowen said. They have since “been able to fairly vigorously enforce” their rights; per Cowen’s recollection, their legal actions have “taken down over 5,000 listings, which really speaks to the proliferation of copycats.” He was clear that “that’s not 5,000 pens; it’s maybe five pens with color or name variations, from various online marketplace sellers. We’ve been able, one by one, to take those down.”
“As a company focusing on innovation, you don’t want to waste your resources on legal fees,” Cowen said. “But would there be innovation without patents? No. Patents let us play in the market, which lets us make money, which lets us keep innovating. We have several lines now. It takes money to innovate.” Recalling a recent call regarding IP protection, Cowen added, “It’s always the innovator doing that investment. We’ve always put every dollar straight back into the company to keep innovating.”
That legal investment has, it seems, paid off. Now with a stringent licensing strategy in place, the team has seen sales more than double. To date, more than 2.5 million 3Doodler pens have been shipped to customers.
Especially with the launch of higher-end 3D pens, quality control and market awareness is quite necessary. The newest 3Doodler offering, the Pro+, is targeted firmly at professionals: architects, artists, designers, engineers. It can work with seven different materials, including plastics reinforced with wood and copper.
It can also function as “a useful repair tool,” Bogue pointed out: “it’s a handheld plastic welder.” Using a wood-filled plastic filament, the Pro+ pen can fill in cracks between floorboards that can then be sanded down to match the look of the floor. Other materials are suited for other repairs as well, welding PVC piping on-the-go, repairing plastic parts inside cars, and other small plastic fixes are surprisingly useful applications for a 3D pen.
On the more entry-level side of the 3D pens market is education. With 3D pen kits appropriate for K-8, grade 8-12, and university levels, more than 8,000 classrooms worldwide are equipped with 3Doodlers. Curricula tailored to these markets have continued to evolve, including “from-home kits developed as Covid hit,” Cowen noted.
Such evolution in offerings is possible now that the team can focus on R&D again. Funneling funds into IP fights rather than ongoing innovation held back next-generation product development for some time. A capital-intensive R&D project will soon lead to a launch now planned for mid-2021. This upcoming introduction would have come out a year ago “had we not been beset by copycats,” Cowen noted. “Fortunately we now have the money to invest in R&D. That’s in direct correlation to these platforms finally allowing us to defend our products.”