William “Bill” Steele, Co-founder and Chief Engineer of Polar 3D was a guest on the Outlier radio show with Ever Gonzalez. The show features interviews with Founders, Disruptors, & Mavens of the world. This portion of the interview covers the Polar vs. Cartesian aspect of 3D Printing, how the Polar Ambassador program works and how to become involved with the program. Ever Gonzalez: Everybody welcome to Outlier on Air the podcast where we interview founders, disruptors, and mavens. As always I am your host, Ever Gonzalez. On today’s episode, we have William “Bill” Steele. Bill is the Co-Founder and Chief Engineer of Polar 3D. Bill is a former Microsoft executive and has hosted or appeared on over 200 radio shows. Bill, welcome to the show.
William Steele: Well, thank you for having me.
Ever Gonzalez: That’s quite a bit.
William Steele: At Microsoft I did quite a number of webcasts and training sessions. Things like that. So I wound up getting quite a bit of experience on the air.
Local Entrepreneurial Environment
William Steele: We’re in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Ever Gonzalez: What's the start-up landscape, the entrepreneurial community out there in Cincinnati?
William Steele: It's pretty good. There's quite a number of larger firms out here, Procter & Gamble, General Electric, Kroger’s, you know like that that are local, so that tends to foster a lot of the smaller startups that work around the aviation and product-like kind of business landscapes.
Ever Gonzalez: Good. Yeah, it’s funny, when we think of startups and entrepreneurs, we think the Coast, right, the West Coast, East Coast, maybe Chicago, Boston type of stuff. But there're a lot of interesting companies, lot of interesting entrepreneurs making a lot of noise in some of these smaller locations as well. Yours being one of them and one of the things that's making a little of noise here recently is Polar 3D. Tell us about that.
Polar VS. Cartesian Printing
William Steele: Well, Polar 3D is a company that I co-founded with my partner Ed Estes. We decided to build a printer that breaks with tradition the way typical 3D printers worked and lowered the barriers to entry to most folks and, in particular, our customers, the schools.
Ever Gonzalez: How so, now I’ve read up a little bit about how you’re little bit different but explain it to the audience, especially the North, South, East, West type of approach that you’re doing?
William Steele: Okay. The printer we designed works off what's known as polar coordinates, where most 3D printers on the market, in fact, all other 3D printers on the market work in what’s known as Cartesian.
Cartesian is your classic X, Y, and Z. So you have a side to side motion of forward and back and then up and down. With polar coordinates what we wind up with is a rotating build platform that moves forward and backward, so instead of X, Y, and Z we have a radius and angle and a Z. The benefit of that is it lowers the cost of the machine because we actually have some 30% less hardware to deal with and that increases
The benefit of that is it lowers the cost of the machine because we have some 30% less hardware to deal with and that increases reliability and increases the build volume of the printer itself. X times Y is smaller than pi-r2 as an example and allows us to make a smaller machine yet, that can make much bigger parts than other machines.
Ever Gonzalez: So it's cheaper, so obviously that’s an advantage. Is it any faster?
William Steele: It’s not any faster, we’re limited by the speed at which the plastic can melt, and since we’re using the same extruders as all the other companies, we can do it at the same speed, we just do it, again, smaller machine and a much larger build volume.
Ever Gonzalez: And so right now you are focusing on the classroom, is that long term or are you going to try to get into enterprise and do other things like that?
Why Focus on the Education Market?
William Steele: When we first started the company we wanted to do one thing and do it well. And we sat down and we kind of analyzed all the markets and we realized that the education sector was really not being hit by any of the major players, and it turns out that it seemed to us like a huge opportunity, and so we literally spent more than a year and a half actually developing machines working with schools.
We put a bunch of beta Polar 3D printer units into schools and got their feedback, figured out exactly how they work. And that dictated a lot of the design choices we made not only in the printer but also in the control software that we have in the cloud that supports it.
Helping Students Become Entrepreneurs
Ever Gonzalez: So you're into this and you know I feel like obviously this is a business model way to generate revenue and something that’s going to be a leader in the classroom and education. But it seems like you also have a focus on trying to build entrepreneurs with the software that you have with the design, the different things that you're doing, tell us about your approach to trying to help students become entrepreneurs?
William Steele: When we built this company, I had already retired; Ed, my business partner had just sold his previous software-as-a-service company and then we brought on a couple of other folks who had also recently left their previous company after a buyout. And we were all sitting around wondering what to do and we thought putting together this company would be a really good thing.
We realized that one of the successful ways to make a business is not to think about it as a profitable business but thinking about it as or, at least, think about profit in a different way, maybe in a philanthropic type of scenario, right. And one of the things that we thought, well in the school system what do they do? They educate. Well, let's teach them about the design process, teach them about the engineering concepts and things like that.
That led us into this whole concept of getting the students to be inspired and to think like entrepreneurs, how can they use these products that they're going to be using for the rest of their lives and their future; how do we get them introduced to it and get that ingrained to them, that this is a powerful tool that they'll be able to use and allow us maybe in the future to actually become a profitable company as well.
Ever Gonzalez: So tell us about that, are we talking high school students or are we talking college students, what types of students are you looking for?
William Steele: I would say the majority of our customer base is in the middle schools. We have everything down from elementary all the way up through post-graduate. But I would say the majority of it's right the middle school and high school spot.
The Polar Ambassador Program
Ever Gonzalez: So what does it look like, you're in Cincinnati, you go out, you work with the school districts I'm assuming, and you work to get the printers in? How do you do that? Do you get the printers in and then the educators, the teachers take over or is there a program that you help them run?
William Steele: Oh, yes, so that was a real problem that we ran into initially where we had a kind of chicken and the egg problem. And a lot of other companies are throwing printers into schools, and they walk away and say, well, we have a printer in that school. Like yeah, but the school doesn't use it because they don't know what to do with it. They don't know how to use the printers.
To address that issue we developed a program we call the Polar Ambassador program. It helps teachers or anybody who's interested in becoming a 3D thought leader in that school to help others within that school. The reason we did this is that we found out that we had this issue very, very early on. The teachers didn’t know how to use the printer, so we thought, well we would just build content and give that content to them to allow them to use it. And it turns out that that wasn't enough. We really needed somebody local to help them out. And one of the other things that we recognized is that whenever we put a printer into a school, somebody would step up and learn how to use that printer. They would just be enthralled by it, and they would just sit and work on it for hours and hours and hours to try to figure out everything that they wanted to do. So we quickly latched onto that, and we created this ambassador program to help those individuals and give them free material. For example, we might ship them a filament to use in their printer and in return we ask that they help any of the other locals out.
And it turns out that our system works really well for our support models where a customer might have an issue with their printer. We can engage the local ambassador; they can go look at the printer and say, 'well it's not a printer problem, it's an education problem. Let me show you what you need to do.' And that worked out well.
Now what we've done is created groups for these ambassadors that allow them to work with each other to share their knowledge and then to disseminate that to anybody that's local, so it builds upon itself not only from the support model but also from the curriculum.
For example, using a collaborative ambassador approach I created a curriculum that shows the kids how to build a rocket and another ambassador created a curriculum that shows them how to do complex math simulations and things like that. And so they can now share this and share this with all the teachers so that the entire ecosystem if you will, gets lifted up it.
Ever Gonzalez: And so these ambassadors, do they have to be in the school, can they be local entrepreneurs that are just interested in what you’re doing?
William Steele: No, they can be anybody. Our focus is in the education market, so we typically see them in schools. But it isn't unheard of, we’ve got several of them that are from the local community who have an interest in the school. So, for example, I know coincidentally another Microsoft alum who started a robotics club, a local robotics club, and he brought the printers into the schools, and now the schools are buying the printer. So it's an interesting little twist on it.
End part 1 of a 2-part interview.