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BotObjects 3D printer promises huge leap forward, draws skeptics

In an interview, BotObjects founders Mike Duma and Martin Warner stay tight-lipped about the groundbreaking claims for their new 3D printer, but they swear it's for real, and that we'll have more details soon.

BotObjects co-founder Martin Warner.
BotObjects cofounder Martin Warner.

According to BotObjects' product copy, this previously unknown hardware and software company has a revolutionary product on its hands in its new ProDesk3D 3D printer. Among other highlights, which my colleague Michelle Starr wrote about earlier this week for CNET Australia, the ability to print objects in a full range of colors from common PLA plastic would instantly put the ProDesk3D at the top of the consumer-grade printer market.

Follow along the reader comments on the various posts covering BotObjects announcement though, and you'll find a common refrain of skepticism.

"So we have computer-generated images of the printer. No images of prints. No images of the device proper. No cost. No details on the 'cartridge system'. No details on the internal mechanics (Either say 'based on the reprap pro' or say 'entirely new guide/position system'). Claiming capabilities and qualities far beyond what the most advanced/expensive devices on the market can claim," said an anonymous SlashDot poster.

Wired's Joseph Flaherty tweeted, "Lack of a proof of concept printed part is especially damning."

The most expansive doubt comes from Joris Peels, a former community manager at 3D printing bureau Shapeways, and cofounder of now-tabled 3D printing maker Origo. In a post on his blog VoxelFab entitled "My doubts about BotObjects," Peels goes through a point-by-point breakdown of BotObjects' announcement, leading off with the following:

I really want this thing to be true and real. It would be wonderful. And I will be the first to admit I was wrong and apologize profusely if this incredible idea is real. If this were a concept I would go easy on it but they say they have this device and it will be on the market in weeks. I am highly skeptical. Technically I don't think it's possible, they also don't seem to have the required knowledge of people who would have done this.

I took a cue from Peels's last point when I spoke earlier this week with BotObjects founders, Mike Duma and Martin Warner.

CNET: I've looked you both up online via Google, LinkedIn, and elsewhere. You have both been involved in Web and software development ventures, but I don't see any hardware engineering experience.

BotObjects ProDesk3D 3D printer.
BotObjects ProDesk3D 3D printer. BotObjects

Warner: (Laughter). That's a great one. What a way to start. You're right, although I've worked with hardware vendors, this is our first foray in terms of creating a hardware venture.

CNET: Can I assume you've brought in engineers for product development?

Warner: Oh, absolutely. The composition of the team is very different from a traditional software venture, although BotObjects is also a software development company. But all of our hardware engineering has a whole different team composition to what we've done before, naturally so.

CNET: So where do those engineers come from? Are they affiliated with a university?

Warner: We're not disclosing anything about the team, because it's just not appropriate. But I can tell you they're of U.S. origin. They're out on the West Coast at the moment. And there's two engineers in the U.K. If you're asking whether they've done research for universities, the answer is 'yes.' Do they come from a university in terms of intellectual property, is this a spin-out? Absolutely not.

CNET: Do they have 3D printing research experience?

Warner: Some have. A bunch of them are engineers from this space. You really can't step into it unless you're deep at the heart of it. It would be almost impossible.

CNET: Your spokesperson told me earlier that you're not going to discuss any product-specific details beyond those on the Web site and in the press release. Can you talk about anything that might calm some of the controversy surrounding your announcement?

Warner: I'm certainly not going to give away our press strategy or concede that we're going to preferred journalists. Keep in mind that we're just telling future customers that it's coming. If you check my background out, you'll know that we're not wasting anyone's time. The only people that have anything at risk are us, because our reputations mean a lot to us. So you'd better believe it's coming. At the outside we're talking two-and-a-half weeks before more information will become available.

Warner, who did most of the talking during the interview, went on to describe the ProDesk3D as a product that will combine both open and proprietary technologies, but he got no more specific than that. He also extended an invitation to an upcoming demonstration BotObjects will be hosting for the media here in New York. The date for that event has not yet been confirmed, but the company has said that it will being accepting pre-orders for the ProDesk 3D by June 1, and that it will release more information about the printer before it begins taking customer money.

Warner also pointed out that, alongside the comments questioning the feasibility of BotObjects' claims for the ProDesk 3D printer, the company has received an enthusiastic response from thousands of commenters worldwide, and inquiries about distribution from more than a hundred different countries.

One of the higher-end desktop 3D printers, the MakerBot Replicator 2X.
One of the higher-end desktop 3D printers, the MakerBot Replicator 2X. Rich Brown/CNET

Given the features BotObjects says the ProDesk 3D will offer: full-color PLA printing, self-calibrating build platform, 25 micron printing accuracy (four times the accuracy of the category leading MakerBot Replicator 2 and Replicator 2X), and for what the company has said will be competitive pricing, it's not surprising that 3D printing enthusiasts would be excited.

So far we have only the assurances of BotObjects founders that the ProDesk3D is a real product. Their entrepreneurial track record -- a business networking site, a film company, a recruiting service -- doesn't indicate a history of hardware product development or technology product marketing or manufacturing, but searching their prior dealings also doesn't turn up any malfeasance.

If BotObjects is a scam, this wouldn't be the first time 3D printing has seen a bad actor. A company called Massive Dynamics claimed to have a 3D printer in development, but it has since been exposed as, in all likelihood, a penny stock scam. But where equity fraud constitutes direct public harm, false claims on a Web site and in a press release are relatively harmless, at least until the pre-order button goes live.

Massive Dynamics' 2013 stock performance.
Massive Dynamics' 2013 stock performance. OTCQB

At minimum, BotObjects has invited criticism by announcing the ProDesk3D and its industry-shaking features without evidence. Based on my experience reviewing a handful of printers and researching and writing about the industry, I don't find the criticism aimed at BotObjects unreasonable. It's also not impossible for major technology breakthroughs to come seemingly out of nowhere.

If the ProDesk3D is real, it could be a fantastic leap forward for 3D printing. Full-color prints in an attractive, easy-to-use product is the holy grail for this stage of the technology. I would like it to exist, and I'm choosing to remain cautiously hopeful. That position will quickly sour if BotObjects starts accepting pre-order money without substantiating its claims. We should learn more in a couple of weeks.