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Friday, April 15, 2016

3D printing sponsorship: getting hired and getting fired ... as with any other job? :(

A blow to Octoprint and to the 3D printing community? May be not.

This short post is triggered by the recent lay off of Gina Häußge by BQ, its sponsor and maker of some opensource 3D printers (notably the witbox and hephestos). And by the fact she goes with a few others, more recently hired, well-known people like Thomas Sanladerer (a well known high-quality educational video blogger on youtube) or Nils Hitze (currently an evangelist for rent, and a pillar in the largest 3D printing community on Google Plus). The are part of a massive lay off, so it shall not be felt as specifically related to individuals or to the open source movement (in my opinion).

But why does it matter to the average 3D printer user? Easy one: Gina is the founder and main developer of Octoprint, a "baby monitor for 3D printers", or more technically a massively popular and very useful software which runs on a Raspberry Pi and which lets you remotely control 3D printers. It can be used on BQ 3D printers as other brands, and many companies even ship it with their own printers (when they are not just stealing it!).

No more sponsorship equals less features and less maintenance.

Octoprint is a milestone in usability as a remote control, just like Cura simplified slicing 3D models.
Both are free and open-sourced, initially made by smart developers on their free time,
and who later got sponsored for keeping on doing their good work.
(hey I realize only now they were printing one of my early designs in 2012 for this action shot!)

I have to agree with a comment in a post I relayed from her on Google Plus though: whatever the reason and whatever the outcome, BQ, the company which hired and sponsored the former three people, still deserves respect for being - or having been - one of the very few companies which did feed open source developers and invested large amounts of money to provide knowledge and education to the mass. Check this section of BQ website to get an idea.

This talks to me further, because for some time I was in touch to do the same work as Nils and Tom for France. At the time I declined the offer, mostly because I practice DIY (do-it-yourself) much more than DIWO (do-it-with-others: empathy vs. sympathy?). Also, my existing work is already so interesting, without a need to travel to school all across France and talk with institutions... So I feel lucky somehow. Most probably, like Richard Horne from Richrap, I have other sources of income (but I am by no mean as productive or useful to the community as him: how he manages to be prolific and have a regular job at the same time puzzles me).

The reason BQ fired Nils, Tom and Gina is unclear. Given this Spanish newspaper article, I understand a lot of employees may be laid off because the company does not meet hyper-capitalists' growth expectations (this is absolutely not restricted to people working for the community). The way people get fired seems to be nasty. The company experienced a huge growth (mostly as an initial smartphone reseller and maker), from 4 million euros of revenues in 2010 to more than 200 million euros in 2014. It certainly goes with management difficulties, re-organization and internal or external greed and ego. Who decides what and why is probably as unclear as who is responsible in the existing social turmoil. I do not know and actually this is not the topic here.

The people that got fired?

One thing is sure: it is a pity for the individuals who were already paying with their time to promote 3D printing. It is even more of a pity as they resigned from their former, and probably more lucrative positions, and switched to an esoteric but passionate new job.

Regular companies and regular job contracts just come to an end one day or another. Sponsorship is no exception.

Like Gina puts it clearly, it may be hard or impossible for her to keep on by working on Octoprint only on evenings or week ends as she did before. Especially when we realize how major features were made possible only with a full-time sponsorship.

Sponsorship as a win-win business strategy?

In my opinion, the overall sponsorship is a real benefit to the community anyhow, one way or another. Let me be clear though: in this case, the additional profits to be expected by firing these people will be totally insignificant for such a large company as BQ, but as I said, they go along many others so it is probably not personal.  Anyhow, Octoprint certainly gained a higher momentum. With sponsoring, Thomas and Nils could also invest more time than with their former hobby, by getting financial support to help even further hundreds of thousand if not millions of users worldwide. This is probably no more the case for them.

For the company itself, having sponsored an open source project and evangelists is no economic failure in my opinion... unless the company destroys the positive image it acquired with it. BQ is a Spanish company that nobody heard of outside of spain in the 3DP community before that (just because of the exclusive language for example). They did a great job in the last years regarding outreach indeed (remember the Ciclop 3D scanner? or the popular Zowi robot -- itself a successful derivative of an earlier third-party work).

I am not sure what benefit BQ will keep here, as it is too early to tell. I only hope that would-be investors and business "angels" always keep in mind the extreme counter-example of Makerbot, which business and image was destroyed by switching from an open-source model to a fully and nasty, counter-productive closed source model... precisely because of the takeover by Stratasys, a massive and vastly profitable company! Moderation is a good thing, and too much greed is killing us all as usual. So I really hope that no forthcoming take over is responsible for the laying off of "non productive" people... in the eye of the stock holder.

So? Is open innovation and humanism incompatible with real business?

Certainly not. Let me give examples...

Ultimaker was an early advocate by paying David Braam for Cura's development, and it still holds as far as I know. The printer itself is largely open, and it helped building a large and very strong enthusiast community of makers and "helpers".

A few companies like LulzBot keep on their amazing open stance: not only their products are perfectly open, but the business itself is transparent, and even up to preliminary research documentation (how noble!).. And they still make money. Less known companies like BCN make and sell rare but open-source hardware: the BCN3D is a functional dual-head opensource printer - uncommon because it is not easy to achieve reliability with more than one head (most companies which tried it retracted afterwards).

I certainly forget a lot more companies doing open-innovation, like BeeVeryCreative or Printrbot which have educational programs in their portfolios in addition to their own printers. Or E3D-online that keep on making well-document and well-justified products, from their E3D hot end and with their BigBox 3D printer. This may not be direct sponsoring, and "non commercial" creative commons licences may not all be "open source" or "open hardware" technically speaking, but it is part of a more open business than regular companies that try actively to protect their intellectual property and do not contribute to the community at all, or worse, that fear and try to control user feedback.

Anyhow, let us just I hope that all of such companies are enough profitable for their investors to keep on... Else skeptics will draw lines too easily. The balance between profit, open and closed world is neither all black or all white though and I already talked and wrote about it in an older post (the maker and the businessman).

Patreon for octoprint: a viable and independent solution?

Let us just hope the wheel turns and people like Nils, Tom and Gina find new and interesting sponsorship or regular jobs. Feel free to get in touch if you are an employer reading me and I will relay the offer.

As for Octoprint, we simply need to keep this essential and unique tool alive. Interestingly, I am not using Octoprint myself regularly, for obscure reasons (may be: not enough room under my printers, modified LCD menus and firmwares, always at home when printing?).

Patreon is a crowd-funding service, that provides
recurring funding for many artists and creators.
Let me know if I am wrong, but I know no real alternative software. Actually, the crowd-funded printopeer shall be mentioned here (check this good review ... made by by the very same Thomas Sanladerer that got fired!). Also, pronterface is enough for the hard core users (I like it in some case), but it is not meant to be as user friendly and feature-packed as Octoprint. The latter goes as far as to have web-based webcam viewing and automatic timelapse made while you are printing.

Among any other regular sponsoring Gina is willing to accept, direct sponsoring may not be unrealistic. Say, with as low as $1 a month on Patreon, it looks like she could get a living when/if more people contribute to the already existing 142 "patrons" (as of today 15 april 2016).

Now, at $3 you even get an interesting foot in the door, by voting on the upcoming features. Compare this to well known commercial products like the $150 Simplify 3D licence that many bought and like (not saying it is not worth -- but I will not buy it when good open source solutions exists). I am just putting things in perspective: this price amounts to a 4-year long equivalent right to vote for the features you wish, and anyhow unlimited free use of Octoprint and its upgrades.

Now even if $150 seems far-fetched to some, here is another point of comparison: most of us know how horrible and unreliable it is to print with a USB tethered laptop. As soon as I tried an LCD screen and card reader I never went back except for debugging the firmware.

But if ever you do not have an LCD controller already, then Octoprint is probably a must. Period. Seriously: even the cheapest reprap LCD at a Chinese online reseller costs about $12. And $12 is one year of sponsoring at $1/month on Patreon for her. So whenever you have a $35 spare Rapsberry Pi in a drawer (everyone has one, right? many other hardware will run octoprint btw), then please just give the LCD money to Gina instead, and install Octoprint on the Pi. It is as easy as with the stock distribution, and it is well documented.

Octoprint gives you much more than an LCD screen with a remote control. It is why it was sponsored by a company in the first place: BQ with Octoprint was as smart as Ultimaker with Cura. The main difference is that Cura is no more the only 3D printer slicer now ... and that Ultimaker is still sponsoring it! Octoprint has no alternative, and it is no more sponsored.

As usual, please let me know what I missed and where I am approximate. I hope I have more time in the next days to publish. I also wish I could afford more time on our fully forthcoming open-source printer, meant to be as easy to use as possible, but with unusual features in addition. My "other" feeding work is sucking my time. I cannot decently complain about it anyway, but I get the picture quite clearly how sponsorship is such a good thing to move faster.

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