Two brothers set the tone for next industrial revolution: 3D printing

27 Aug 2013

Mcor Technologies founders Conor and Fintan MacCormack

One of the biggest revolutions in consumer technology is just around the corner and two brothers from Dunleer, Co Louth, are in the eye of the storm. Conor and Fintan MacCormack’s Mcor Technologies has developed 3D printing machines that use one of the most affordable materials around – A4 paper.

Having already raised €2m in funding, the company is now in negotiations to raise a further €15m-€20m from some of Silicon Valley’s top venture capital firms.

Mcor Technologies this year reported that sales of its low-cost eco-friendly printers are up 600pc year-on-year. The company’s flagship IRIS full-colour 3D printer can deliver more than 1m colours simultaneously and produce a 3D printed model at 5pc of the cost of competing printers, according to Mcor.

Retail giant Staples has forged an alliance with Mcor Technologies to launch a 3D printing service, beginning in the Netherlands. The service will allow students, designers and consumers to print photorealistic 3D items in Staples stores.

3D printing for the masses

Until recently, 3D printing has been an expensive luxury available only in the R&D departments of firms such as car, computer or aeroplane manufacturers. At those firms, scientists and engineers would meticulously print a realistic, plastic version of an important part or end product.

Now, the costs of 3D printers are falling and their capabilities are increasing. Soon these machines could be as commonplace in homes and offices as inkjet printers.

Garage inventors will be able to print off a physical prototype of what they hope will be the next big gadget, kids will be able to print Meccano toys and Lego sets, and doctors are already looking at printing medical devices and even organs, like lungs and ears.

Controversially, the first 3D printable guns have already been test-fired, suggesting a potential security nightmare. Just this past week, a gang of bank ATM skimmers in Australia successfully used 3D printing technology to make skimming devices used to steal around stg£58,000 from machines.

Recognising that 3D printers will become commonplace, software giant Microsoft is planning to bundle software drivers for 3D printers in the next version of its operating system, Windows 8.1.

Conor MacCormack said he and his brother came up with the notion of a 3D printer that used paper rather than plastic more than a decade ago. They left well-paying jobs in the aerospace and electronics industries to start their company in a 1,000 sq-foot shed in Ardee, Co Louth.

The beginning of Mcor Technologies

It was almost Christmas in 2002. Conor had been working with Airbus on a project to stress test how metal behaves under pressure, using CAD and 3D printing machines in his analysis.

At the same time, his brother Fintan had been working in Philadelphia in the semiconductor industry.

“It was apparent to both of us, the enormous running costs of 3D printers at the time. Just one cartridge would cost €1,000. We both agreed that one day 3D printing would be in homes and schools but that the biggest issue was running costs.”

The brothers decided that in terms of consumables, paper was the easiest and most available material.

With Fintan in Philadelphia and Conor living in Dublin, where he and his wife were looking after their one-year-old, the brothers tried to run the business at night. Fintan sent software code by email and electronics by post.

“We went to Enterprise Ireland at the time to tell them what we were attempting and no one had heard about 3D printing. We were that much ahead of our time, I guess,” said Conor.

In 2005, the brothers decided to give up their jobs. They went to the bank to raise loans and put all their money into a single bank account.

The brothers also realised that if they were to produce a 3D printer that could produce designs based on A4 paper, they would have to basically invent their own print head.

“That was the part we thought would be the easiest bit but it turned out to be the most complex,” Conor said.

By 2008, Conor’s wife Deirdre came on board to help with international marketing.

“We found from the web that if we could build it, people would pay for it. Our website got 2m hits in the first 10 days and over 1,800 sales enquiries. Still at that point we had no machine.”

In 2009, the company succeeded in selling a small number of beta machines in the UK. The following year, the first full production versions of Mcor Technologies’ 3D printers were available for sale.

Mcor Technologies was a finalist in the Irish Technology Leadership Group’s (ITLG) Company of the Year awards in 2011 and secured a US$1m investment from its Irish Technology Capital venture capital arm, which has since been increased to US$2m.

“Since then, we’ve gone from strength to strength with two main machines on the market, the Matrix 300 and the IRIS,” Conor said.

3D products

3D-printed products from Mcor Technologies: A children’s toy, an iPhone prototype, and a house

Mcor Technologies occupies a unique segment in the marketplace, since its consumables are based on A4 paper versus its rivals, whose printers use plastics.

Using a process called selective deposition lamination, Mcor Technologies’ machines take a series of digital slices through the object to be replicated. These are then sent to the printer, which reproduces each layer page by page and by applying adhesive to each sheet of paper. A blade slices an outline of the end product and the end product has the same consistency as a piece of wood.

Mcor Technologies said this process consumes only 5pc of the cost of materials for rival 3D printing systems.

It was for this very reason that the US$25bn a year stationery giant Staples – which sells a lot of paper from its 2,300 locations worldwide – saw merit in forging an alliance with Mcor Technologies to make sure it was part of this dynamic new, emerging marketplace.

Award winner

Last year, the Society of Manufacturing Engineers awarded Mcor Technologies the Best Exhibitor Innovation Award and NASA Tech Briefs named the IRIS machine Product of the Month in January this year.

Conor said raising the capital to develop Mcor Technologies was no easy task in Ireland and it wasn’t until the ITLG held its annual Silicon Valley Comes to Ireland event in 2011 that he finally found an audience that appreciated his and Fintan’s vision.

“It was our first opportunity to pitch to someone from outside Ireland and we were surprised at how willing the Irish in Silicon Valley were to talk about hardware.”

He said that in Ireland, venture capital firms were only interested at the time in talking about software and products that could only deliver a gross margin of 95pc, which negates virtually everything but software.

Conor said that nearly every venture capitalist he and Fintan met in Ireland found it hard to see the value in hardware. “They just didn’t understand the risk profile.”

Not long after the Irish Technology Capital investment, John Ryan joined Mcor Technologies as chairman. Ryan is the Irishman who founded the multi-billion dollar video rights technology company Macrovision.

“It is unique to get someone like John Ryan to come on board as chairman,” Conor said. “He’s done it, he started from scratch and has built a company worth over US$3bn with 2,000 employees. John will continually ask about the technology and applies business acumen with technical knowledge.”

Within the public, perception of 3D printing is growing, said Conor.

“Initially, we would have only gone after the professional segment for customers like engineers and architects, anyone who designs in 3D. Nowadays, we meet hotel workers who tell us they’re big fans of 3D printing,” Conor said.

The deal with Staples means home workers and consumers also have access to 3D printing without having to own a machine. “Our main market is professional but we definitely see the longer tail in the consumer market,” said Conor.

Businesses like Disney and video-game platforms like Xbox are also looking at 3D, Conor said.

“Kids used to print out colouring sheets, now they can print out toys, if they wish. Soon you’ll have games for the Xbox Kinect where you could literally scan people and print them out in colour. Medical professionals are looking at printing out organs, such as ears.”

3D printing becoming more accessible

Conor said Mcor Technologies is only at the starting level, yet the machines are getting better and faster, and the materials are getting less expensive.

At present, Mcor Technologies employs 50 people in Louth responsible for R&D, sales and supply chain management. Manufacturing of the machines is outsourced to the UK.

Demand is growing, Conor said. The company has been doubling the number of employees consistently year-over-year for the last three years.

“We are at the point where we are close to a large Series B funding from Silicon Valley investors,” said Conor. “Our goal is ultimately to be a big employer in Ireland. We believe that the manufacturing space among indigenous companies has been overlooked in Ireland for too long now.”

Ultimately, he is glad he and Fintan stayed true to their vision. They always loved solving technical problems and weren’t really thinking about a business at the start. Conor said they just felt the status quo in 3D printing needed to be shaken up and that the companies at the time were making far too much money out of people like them.

“We set a challenge – could we build this machine and would people want it? We researched like crazy and it became apparent to us that it was never going to happen on a part-time basis,” said Conor.

“We took a risk. We quit our jobs. I’m happy to say that risk paid off.”

A version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times on 25 August

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years