What one founder learned about sustaining passion (and the future of manufacturing) from working in 3D printing. By Kegan Schouwenburg (Co-founder & CEO, SOLS Systems)
A little over nine months ago, I made the decision to leave my job at Shapeways as the Director of Industrial Engineering where I was managing a team of 17 and running the Factory of the Future. I left Shapeways to start SOLS Systems. The new mission: design and develop custom mass manufactured products engineered to enhance our human capabilities. We’ve started off by 3D printing corrective orthotic insoles, but in the future, the systems we’re building will support custom mass manufacturing of many of product types.
“What If You Get Bored?”
During our fundraising process, one of the questions that continually arose was “what if you get bored?” SOLS today, but what tomorrow?
Things change. I find it easy to stay engaged while they change. My ability to adapt and move beyond the initial problem comes not from boredom or flakiness, but from my excitement about evolution and elasticity. When I started SOLS, I was motivated by my passion to create a 3D printed product that pushed the technology into the consumer sector and validated the application layer. My passion evolved as I realized we had the potential to fundamentally change the way people walk.
It evolved again as I began to understand that it wasn’t the 3D printing that interested me the most. It is the fact that 3D printing enables us to develop product in realtime, in response to market needs. My previous company relied on overseas manufacturers and a long lead time; at SOLS, we are building a code base to generate customized product. If product is a manifestation of code, then new code can be pushed out any minute, and products can literally evolve in front of our eyes. I believe this concept will play a pivotal role in the next generation of product startups.
A New Concept in Manufacturing
This shortened, circular development cycle (ship, analyze, improve, repeat) lets products evolve -- like passions -- in response to our everchanging access to new information and rapid market evolution. At SOLS, we are addressing this not by focusing on “more,” but on “when.” We are not developing a series of products, but a singular product with many manifestations. Psychologically, this is a very new way of looking at product development and market relevance. Practically, this looks like a code base which outputs physical product that can be adapted, modified, changed and expanded upon in real time.
We know where SOLS is today, and much like software development, we trust that responding to data will direct it toward what it should become. Our product will never be obsolete because our product will never be done. This is a new concept in manufacturing, and it’s an incredibly powerful tool for any founder: it has the potential to radically speed up time-to-market, sustain relevance, and reduce costs.
I’m elated to say that today, SOLS is a team of eight, steadily working through $1.75M in funding.
To the investors that say I have too many passions, I would say that what I have is a unique ability to find magic in every aspect of the product and process. Recognizing and capitalizing on tangential threads is just as important as fixating on broad, definable goals.
I once had a teacher at Pratt tell me that the answer was not in my product sketches, but in the hatch marks and scribbles I drew in frustration. The accidents between ideas. The places where one’s mind wanders. By focusing on the journey as well as the goal, new ideas surface, evolve, and grow. This is where the magic happens, and this is how passion evolves.
How do you maintain your passion for your startup over time?
About the guest blogger: SOLS Systems co-founder and CEO Kegan Schouwenburg (@Kegan3D) is a leading voice in 3D printing and mass customization. Previously Kegan spent four years running a consumer design and manufacturing firm, learning the in’s and out’s of physical product, before leaving to join Shapeways.