Brothers' passion for 3-D printing inspires backers to invest
March 29, 2015 12:00 AM
BoXZY, which houses a 3-D printer, a computer-controlled router and a laser, was created by Justin Johnson, left, and his brother Joel at TechShop in Bakery Square.
By Len Boselovic / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Joel and Justin Johnson’s ambition to build a desktop 3-D printer that does more than spit out plastic toys has become on all-consuming obsession.
The plaid-shirted, naturally caffeinated brothers eat, drink and sleep BoXZY, their aluminum box that houses a 3-D printer; a computer-controlled router that cuts metals, wood and plastics; and a laser that engraves wood, leather and plastic.
Joel Johnson, 34, admitted that when he recently took a break from their seven-days-a-week routine and went to bed, he had a nightmare about the desktop manufacturing tool. “I was troubleshooting BoXZY, but I didn’t know what I was troubleshooting,” he said.
The brothers of invention’s around-the-clock persistence is paying off. At $373,000 and counting as of Thursday afternoon, BoXZY has become Pittsburgh’s most richly funded Kickstarter campaign. About 150 of the venture’s more than 210 backers have plopped down money for some version of BoXZY, ranging from $1,399 for one that comes with just the router to $3,500 for a model that performs all three functions and includes accessories.
Those who have mentored BoXZY’s inventors at TechShop in Larimer’s Bakery Square development say the brothers make a perfect team. Joel, who majored in philosophy and psychology at the University of North Florida, is the team’s spokesman and manages most of the business-related issues. Justin, 29, dropped out of college two semesters before he would have graduated with a mechanical engineering degree. He cited financial issues, something that plagued their family growing up.
The brothers said they moved constantly growing up. Their father, an itinerant, serial entrepreneur, pursued various ventures. Some failed and others were turned over to co-owners so that their father could pursue the next big thing, Joel said.
“He was a really fast learner, but had no respect for consistency,” he said.
Justin is the team’s tinkerer and said his wonder years included rebuilding the engine of another brother’s Hyundai Tiberon as a young teenager.
“By the time I was 10, I had already disassembled everything we owned twice. I even put some of it back together,” he wrote in an email, adding that he not only read every hot rod magazine available, “I thought on it. I absorbed it.”
Joel said Justin moved to Pittsburgh to help his father with one of his companies, then invited him to take part in on a venture built around the ideas of creating things and educating people how to do that. BoXZY is what they came up with.
The brothers’ entrepreneurial savvy is a mixture of genetics, do-it-yourself spirit, and a willingness to learn from the other “makers” and entrepreneurs based at TechShop, a breeding ground for tinkerers and techies. The Johnsons swapped ideas with others using the incubator, learned how to use the manufacturing equipment housed at the facility, and received guidance on developing business plans, understanding costs, and designing products that can be made efficiently.
“It’s a comfortable nest,” Justin Johnson said.
One of their TechShop mentors has been Eric Galbreath of Made Right Here, a non-profit that is using a $3 million federal grant to teach welding, 3-D printing, and other manufacturing skills to the unemployed and underemployed.
“They’re basically two sides of one coin,” Mr. Galbreath said of the Johnsons. “They complement each other very well.”
Another of their TechShop colleagues is Ben Saks, an entrepreneur and video producer who serves on BoXZY’s board, directed the company’s Kickstarter video, and bought a BoXZY to use in his KerfCase business.
“Their whole lives are invested in BoXZY. ... That’s basically all they do,” Mr. Saks said. “They feed off of each other in terms of their energy.”
Pittsburgh-based KerfCase makes high-fashion smart phone cases out of custom woods. BoXZY’s test trials included carving a case out of a block of wood, a process that takes about seven minutes. Mr. Saks said BoXZY’s computer-controlled cuts were better than those made by the $30,000 machine KerfCase has been using.
“We’re getting better results from BoXZY, which is a $1,400 machine,” Mr. Saks said. “They’ve engineered this machine around a very precise piece of equipment.”
The Johnsons said their target markets are artisans like Mr. Saks as well as the growing number of home-based businesses built around making objects using 3-D printers, which convert digital images into finished products. Eventually, they want to get BoXZY into schools so students can learn design and manufacturing skills.
Several Chinese parties have inquired about buying a BoXZY, inquiries the Johnsons are convinced stem from an interest in copying their machine.
“If someone tries to replicate this, there are a lot of little things they’ll miss,” Joel Johnson said.
But the brothers are not that concerned about copycats. Joel said BoXZY is part of their larger vision: creating a device that helps people create things, then training them so that they can use equipment like BoXZY to do it.
“You can’t really replicate that in China,” he said. “We’re selling more than a machine.”
Len Boselovic: email@example.com or 412-263-1941.
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