Ben Roberts, co-founder and owner of Modfab, began his career in commercial radio engineering working on everything from professional tape machines all the way through to satellite uplinks. When 3D Printers emerged onto the market and he saw what the possibilities were, he was like a kid in a candy shop. Ben, an engineer, and his wife, a teacher, wanted to make a difference in the area of education and empowering students with future skills not just in STEM but also in the arts, special education, history, PDHPE and Indigenous Studies. This was the motivating factor in building Modfab as a business.
Can you tell us a little bit about your idea and what made you decide to take the plunge and make it happen?
In around 2010, affordable 3D printers were beginning to come onto the market and as Ben had an abiding interest in electromechanical devices it seemed natural to buy one and start making stuff. The first machine was imported from the Netherlands and was a total disaster. It was very poorly designed and unreliable but we learned more about 3D printers from this machine than we would have if the printer had been flawless. In spite of this setback, we could see the limitless potential of 3D printing and were convinced that we could form a business around it.
With new technology, it’s hard to judge when to get into it. Was it too early or too late? As a retail business, Modfab discovered that the market was beginning to get saturated with re-sellers of equipment and consumables. In 2014, we formulated an idea to take Modfab into the education space. With two self-funded pilot programs behind us, we were pretty certain about what needed to be in place for schools and educators to start using 3D printing in schools. The choice was made to write two training courses and get them endorsed by the NSW Board of Studies (BOSTES). The 3D printing and Computer Aided Design courses we wrote became the first professional development courses available that combined those two elements. Our courses are not just STEM specific but we also have teachers from all faculties such as History, Special Education, PDHPE, Library, Maths, Art and learning support all participating.
Can you explain your business model for us?
Modfab is primarily in the education and training space. We train teachers and students, mainly in primary schools and high schools but we have worked with TAFE and Universities also. Modfab also runs workshops for students and the general public at places like the Wollongong Science Centre, the Carbonne Corridor Project, Australian Design Centre, and the University of Wollongong Learning Labs for gifted and talented students, starting with year 1 students through to Year 10. We also train teachers at Teacher Training Australia. We maintain a retail component and have become a trusted supplier of hardware and consumables to schools around Australia.
What are you working on right now and what are you most excited about in the next year?
We are creating new courses which are designed to be follow-on training. 3D printing has so many potential applications, we want to open up the possibilities for teachers and students by providing them with advanced skills in the technology. Ben is also working on a similar idea for Autodesk Fusion 360, a 3D design software application that is taking off in the education sector. We have been training with Fusion 360 for the past year and it’s been very exciting seeing a truly modern 3D modelling and design software being taken up by schools across the board.
How do you make ideas happen?
We hunker down in our home office, discuss, trial and write!
What role have mentors played in your business life?
In the early stages of the business, I picked the brains of two old friends who had set out on their own businesses. Both of them had many years under their belts and were very encouraging. We have never paid a mentor to assist us as we’ve not reached a size where one could really help (based on conversations with professional mentors).
What does your typical day look like?
A typical day for us could be working on course material at home or on-location at a school training a group of teachers. However, depending on our day and month we could also be in remote Arnhem Land communities training 3D Printing and CAD to Indigenous adults.
What challenges have you faced when starting or growing a business/organisation in Australia?
Starting a business is easy, but the devil is in the running of it. We adopted Xero accounting software from the get-go and while it’s been a steep learning curve, it’s ended up being a smart choice. We haven’t expanded the business from the perspective of staff, we’ve just used sub-contractors where necessary. Actually employing people would take a big leap of faith for us as it seems to be fraught with expense and high levels of commitment.
What is one idea you are willing to give away for free?
“If you can’t get a seat at the table, make your own table.”
What other companies do you think are doing really cool stuff in your industry in Australia at the moment?
Anatomics is a medical imaging company based in Melbourne, and they’ve just opened a specialised medical 3D printing unit in Wollongong Private Hospital. The owner of Anatomics, Paul D’Urso has an abiding interest in 3D printing and is leading the way in many medical applications.
What about internationally?
I’m impressed with what I see happening in construction, with large scale concrete printers being able to create a house in a couple of days. The medical area is another one with new techniques and advancements seeming to pop up every day. There’s so much intellect and research being applied to 3D printing, it’s quite hard to keep up.
What role do you think business can play in affecting social change?
A business like ours can offer the opportunity for people to learn future skills. It has been projected that automation and artificial intelligence (neural networks) will devastate employment around the world. We can create opportunities for people to create diverse/thinking occupations and jobs where automation can’t easily replace a human.
Is there a particular charity or social enterprise you support?
Name 3 websites you would recommend to our readers.
Name 3 Australians we should follow on Twitter.
Are there opportunities for people to get involved with your idea – for example are you looking for funding, interns or marketing help?
We would love to get funding and expand the business and yes, having interns would be something we would definitely like to explore in 2017.
We’re aiming to build a community of Australian idea makers helping each other. If you could have one question answered about start-ups, marketing, social media, accounting, monetization, product development etc. What would it be?
It’s not a specific question about start-ups, but really a bigger question for us as a nation:
Where is our venture capital network and a government that truly supports it?
What’s your favourite bar, café or restaurant?
JJ’s Indian Cuisine in Crown Street, Wollongong, NSW