We've received countless emails over the past few months regarding BigBox, and while we are sorry for the delay in response, we were reluctant to make any announcements before everything was completely certain. This blog post is a big one, going into the good, bad, and unexpected challenges of the BigBox project. However in short:
Commercially producing a machine was hard - much harder than expected - primarily due to non-engineering reasons such as logistics and costs. We are still 100% committed to supporting the machines we have out there. Support is available through the forums and direct contact, and we are keeping a stock of custom spare parts. We have, however, stopped production and direct sales of BigBox printers. This is not how we wanted things to turn out, but with a heavy heart we’ve reached the conclusion that it no longer makes economical sense to keep running BigBox. We’re incredibly grateful to everyone that has supported BigBox, and we want to reciprocate by assuring our ongoing support. Please read on for the full story.
The BigBox Story
E3D met Greg (aka Greg_The_Maker) by sheer chance, as he often came by to collect parts and filament from us in person. After a few months he nervously invited E3D to check out the printer he was designing, looking for technical feedback and possibly even endorsement. We were hugely impressed with Greg’s machine and the quality of prints being produced, and came away with the seeds of a plan. The next week E3D and Greg had a meeting, and together decided to form a new company; BigBox. The idea was that we would collaborate on the design and look to launch a large volume, hackable machine for enthusiasts and tinkerers.[caption id="attachment_347" align="aligncenter" width="300"] E3D's Dave building a prototype[/caption]
A few months later the machine was ready to be shown to the world on Kickstarter, which is when things started to get a bit crazy. In just four hours we had met our funding goal, and the pledges just kept coming. Initially we thought it would mainly appeal to advanced users and be more of a niche hackable fun platform for ourselves and the community to push forward the capabilities of 3D printing - but far more people wanted it.
As we neared finishing delivery of the Kickstarted rewards and pre-orders, it became clear that as a result of unforeseen circumstances (detailed below), BigBox would not be able to complete fulfilment of all orders with just the funds from the Kickstarter campaign. However, because BigBox was backed by E3D it was possible for E3D to take a loss and financially assist BigBox in order to ensure that every single pledge and pre-order was delivered.We feel we owe it to those that supported us to explain fully, and in detail exactly why we have come to the decision to cease production at this point. But first, we want to make one thing very clear:
BigBox will be supported, and maintained.
E3D is absolutely committed to support as we always have been. Although BigBox is technically a separate limited company we feel that we have a moral obligation to support BigBox customers.
Although manufacturing of BigBoxes has stopped, E3D is still going strong! We have a print farm of 20+ BigBoxes ourselves, so you can be sure that we also want to see BigBox maintained. Greg is now on the E3D design engineering team, and will still be available on the forums. BigBox support is available through firstname.lastname@example.org - Dan and Lawson in E3D customer support are ready to answer customer emails and take phone calls.
We will be maintaining the software toolchain to keep it current with ongoing developments for as long as there is demand:
Will be updated with latest stable releases to incorporate new features.
While less likely to change, we will ensure that these stay current in order to utilise any new features S3D may incorporate in the future.
Many machine parts are easy-to-find generic components such as RUMBA boards, ball bearings and so on. However there are of course some parts that are specific to BigBox. We have enough of these parts on hand to ensure that we can provide spares to existing owners for the foreseeable future. These specific parts will not be put on the website for direct ordering as the BOM is so expansive it would be infeasible to list every component. Should you need a part just get in touch.
Greg continues to work on the BigBox design updating it and keeping it current. BigBox owners and afficionados are also more than welcome to keep tinkering and remixing the design.
What went wrong
So what didn't go to plan?
This was probably the largest factor that affected us, as the demand for the product was much higher than our intended production methods and our facilities were capable of handling. BigBox simply was not designed to be produced at this scale. The laser cutters and printed parts that were integral to the BigBox design are great for moderate volumes, but scaling these production processes to our demand levels was extremely difficult.
Physical space also soon became an issue. The sheer volume of parts and materials exceeded the capacity of our warehouse. This meant that we had to order materials in small batches despite needing larger quantities in the long term. Constrained space also made packing and production inefficient. Without space for a production line the process of building the machines was slow and awkward.
We underestimated the amount of labour power we would need outside of engineering. Compared to the less complex products we’re used to, the huge number of components and suppliers needed an entire new person (Catriona) to manage and coordinate the logistics of the project. This problem was exacerbated by the many variants, versions, and add-ons we offered to the standard machine. This exponentially increased the complexity of organising ordering, logistics and packing. More components meant more suppliers, adding further delays in deliveries and quality control. The large number of components in the kits also took far longer to pack than anticipated.
Keeping up with customer support and communication also quickly became an issue. BigBox was originally targeted towards enthusiasts and was quite complex to assemble. However we captured a wider userbase than anticipated and this increased the volume of support we needed to provide. Kickstarters also by their nature have a huge amount of involvement from backers and community members. As much as we truly appreciated all the suggestions and feedback, we were overwhelmed with the amount of time needed for communications.
Working to the ideal timeline created by Kickstarter and pre-ordering was also an unforeseen difficulty. All the aforementioned issues created longer lead times, and finding ourselves behind instead of our normal intent of being ahead on stock and production was very uncomfortable for us as we didn’t want to disappoint our customers and backers.
To make things harder for ourselves, we also sought to continually improve the BigBox’s design. This meant improved quality but also higher-cost parts. We don’t regret trying to make the best product possible, but this did cause some financial strain and smaller and smaller margins. In hindsight, a single design-locked printer would perhaps have been a more straightforward option!
We extensively tested the level of packing and cushioning the BigBox might need during shipping. Despite our printers surviving being lobbed down the stairs, we soon heard that the acrylic frame was getting cracked in transit and reaching our customers in an unacceptably damaged condition. Modifying the existing packaging and adding additional protection was necessary and ultimately solved the problem, but caused further cost and delay.
Eventually we realised with disappointment that we wouldn’t be able to continue to sell BigBoxes at the price we initially projected, and that some cost increase would be necessary. This quite understandably put off many new customers, and meant that we were fighting against much cheaper competition.
Imagine our confusion. In prototyping, every BigBox we built was reliable and pretty near perfect, creating smooth, well-formed print surfaces every time. When it came to manufacturing time, we had improved the quality of materials. Yet Josh and Sanjay, armed with clipboards, printing rods, and annotating charts, soon discovered a Z-axis wobble on the first set of fully-built BigBoxes.
Eventually we traced the issue back to the Z-axis rods. While the prototype rods had been of lower quality than the production components, the bearings were better. As such issues with Z-axis rods weren’t noticeable until we went into production. Additionally the lead screws and nuts were not of the same high quality and tolerancing as the samples that we had tested. A full breakdown of the issues is available to read on the Kickstarter page.
Thus began a seemingly-endless back and forth of waiting for replacements, having them shipped, and finding further errors once shipments had arrived. Replacement nuts had the wrong bolt holes, and so on. All this created more delay, and as supportive as our backers were when we explained our woes, it added yet more pressure.
All of these problems compounded - delays meant that the stock system was a continuously moving target and that additional customer support was needed to reassure backers. During this stage we weren't selling any new printers but were still paying staff salaries and working at full capacity. This situation quickly became untenable.
What went right
Of course, it wasn’t all bad. The BigBox itself is an excellent machine with some exceptional features not seen in other reprap 3D printers. We believed in this project and were committed to delivering the product we’d promised, and managed to meet every goal and fulfill every pledge. We continually pushed ourselves to deliver as well as possible, and although our timing slipped beyond what we were comfortable with, it wasn’t terrible compared to other Kickstarter projects. When customers pointed out issues we did all that we could to troubleshoot and resolve them. We never settled for 'good enough', if at times it became clear that parts weren’t up to scratch then we were willing to stump up our own cash to replace them.
It was with a great deal of reluctance and sadness that we decided to end the Bigbox project. It had been an exhilarating, crazy, and exciting time but the long days, sleepless nights, and constant anxiety that came with it were ultimately unsustainable. We would again like to emphasise that Bigbox customer support is ongoing - Greg is still active on the forums and the E3D support team are happy to answer emails and calls. However new BigBoxes will no longer be sold.
We would like to thank a number of people for their help and endorsement throughout this project. Thomas Sanladerer and Richard Horne for their feedback during development. Tim Elmore, Olivia Lam, Mike Kelly, All3DP, and Alex779. Everyone who is still using and developing the BigBox, and everyone who continues to support the forum. And, of course, every amazing backer and buyer without whom this project would never have been possible.
Greg would also like to give special thanks to E3D for their belief in both him and the project.