“I think there needs to be a national leader where people can go and pick up their 3D prints.”
A Q&A with 3D Printing Maven Christina Perla
Spotlight articles shine a light on designers and design materials we admire. Our founder and principal designer Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman has met many wonderful designers in her time in the industry, and in our Spotlight interviews we ask them about their work, their design journey, and what inspires them. In this interview we spoke with Christina Perla, the co-founder and CEO of Makelab, an innovative 3D printing and design service that is democratizing 3D printing.
Christina Perla is on the Board of Directors for Women in 3D Printing, where she works to engage the global 3D printing community and inspire more women to join the male-dominated industry. Trained as an industrial designer at Pratt Institute, she brings an innovative, problem-solving mindset to the entrepreneurial task of growing her business, which she founded with her husband Manny Mota in 2017. We asked Christina about her favorite 3D printing materials, the past, present, and future of 3D printing, and diversity in the industry.
Q: What are you working on that’s interesting to you at the moment?
A: I am focused on the business aspect, so I’m thinking about what the midterm to long term vision looks like and how we can execute that. I’m really focused on How does the business scale? What locations are we going to be in next? And how are we going to make that happen? I’m fundraising—it’s at the tail end, which is great—and I’m shifting my focus to Who do we need to execute this? How do we execute this? What are the steps and what do the different markets look like in each region?
We’re looking at a lot of major cities. Anywhere where design and engineering is happening is a good place for Makelab to be. I’m taking cues from different universities and institutes that offer industrial design or that offer mechanical engineering degrees. I also look at nonprofit organizations like IDSA [Industrial Designers Society of America] and SME [Society of Manufacturing Engineers] on the manufacturing side, ASME [The American Society of Mechanical Engineers] on the mechanical engineering side, and Women in 3D Printing. Where they have local chapters is another indication of where we should be. We triangulate.
Q: Could you tell us about one of your favorite projects and share why it is important to you?
A: I personally love when Full Circle Brands come through the door, they’re pretty much an OXO competitor. Their products are in a lot of U.S. homes. I was just at a colleague’s house in Portland and I saw that her scrubber for washing dishes was Full Circle. I was like, No way! We print for them all the time! It’s a lot of recognizable objects that feel very ID [Industrial Design]. I love those projects. I feel like I can see their process in what they’re printing. It makes me feel like I’m back in ID in a way, and contributing to that process.
Q: How did Makelab start?
A: Very serendipitously. My entire career was very flowy, one thing after the next. My last job was actually working for Rebeccah at Interwoven as an industrial designer. A good friend of mine was also working there with me and I caught this bug, this entrepreneurial bug, and I couldn’t shake it. I realized, I need to scratch this itch so I don’t regret anything. I need to try. So I quit, I gave my two weeks notice with Rebeccah, and I started to take on my own clients, doing industrial design freelancing.
Manny [Christina’s husband and business partner] joined me in my effort, so we were doing it together. We used 3D printing a lot, and we found this place that we loved. We were their top 3D printing customer and about a year into freelancing, in 2017, there was an opportunity to acquire the assets of that business. So we did it! We got it all together, and the whole idea was that the 3D printing company, now Makelab, was going to fund the Design Consultancy Firm Startup Dream.
Two years later, in 2019, is when 3D printing really took over. We had all these brands coming in the door and we found that they kept coming back. They were happy. The business grew 3X that year and that’s when we started thinking, Okay, I think this is the way to go. We became passionate about building a business and applying all of our skills towards that. It was hard to let go of ID because we both spent many years doing consulting but, to be honest, I don’t think we were the consulting type. This was a better fit.
Q: Your logo is fantastic, did you design it in-house?
A: Yes! Manny drew some out and we had a bunch of logos all over the place. He was definitely doing the whole sketching iterative process on that. We saw one we liked and he just kept going on it until it was what you see now. I digitized it and that was that. We haven’t touched it since.
Q: What were some of your early challenges after launching the company?
A: The things that no one tells you about business, that no one prepares you for. Even business school doesn’t really prepare you for starting a business. They teach you strategy but they don’t teach you basic things like how to hire, how to fire, how to recruit, best practices, things like that. How to manage people, how to really roadmap and get to a point where you can delegate effectively. That management and leadership aspect was my biggest learning curve. I’ve focused on it so I’ve become a lot better than I was on day one, but that’s the thing that no one talks to you about; all the nitty-gritty behind-the-scenes, the admin stuff, the non-glamorous stuff.
I’ve always been someone who asks for help. I try to quickly—very, very quickly—identify what I don’t know. I try to look from the 80,000 foot view to see what’s missing, what gaps are there? That’s where my designer brain comes into play. I’m able to see those different views because that’s what we did at Pratt: you went in and you went out and you went in and you went out. There was a lot of repositioning so you could see different facets of a situation, or a problem, or a part, or any sort of product. It’s the same thing with business. I try to see from that 80,000 foot view, the airplane view.
Also, if I didn’t know something I would Google it. If I wanted to hear it from somebody, I’d reach out and just start talking about the things that I’m learning. People would say, Oh, you should talk to my friend! Oh, you should talk to my advisor! Oh, I should connect you! And that’s how it starts. All of a sudden you have this network, this community of people who are vested, who want to see you succeed and who are rooting for you.
Q: At what point was the vision you had for Makelab clear?
A: The 3D printing industry is very much like the plumbing industry: there’s no clear winner in the space. You have the 3D printing marketplaces where they don’t actually print anything, so if I—as a designer—am going to print at one of these marketplaces sites, not only do I have to have it shipped, I don’t know where it’s printing. I don’t know what practices they have. I don’t know how they handle my data, which is especially important if it’s protected by an NDA. I’ve been on the manufacturing partner side of those networks and there’s not very much control. The same goes for quality.
In 2019 we had this vision. It’s cheesy but I envisioned the T-Mobile map, like cell phone coverage but instead: 3D printing coverage. I think there needs to be a national leader where people can go and pick up their 3D prints. You know the team that works there because this is part of your process, it matters for you. If we don’t deliver, your timeline is messed up, your budget is messed up. You need to have those close proximity relationships in place. We experienced that ourselves as designers, which is why we stuck with that one location in Bushwick that had a really small team, and we would drive over and pick up our prints for each job.
So we had this vision of the whole country—and then the world—having all these Makelabs, and then we thought, Maybe we don’t want to own everything. We realized that we could leverage a franchise model to expand quickly and enable others to start their own businesses. We can give those who are interested, who don’t want to start from zero, the tools to help them get started. It’s a lot of systems designed for mutual success and alignment.
I’ve always been a people-person. Coaching and mentoring, I love that, either on the receiving or the giving end. This whole model of how we’re going to scale Makelab is core to my personal passions, which is great.
Q: Could you talk about 3D printing as a sustainable strategy?
A: In terms of carbon footprint, 3D printing is a lot lighter than many alternatives. It has less of a carbon footprint than traditional manufacturing. You do have supports but there are some technologies where you don’t need to print with supports. Even if you do, that material is often 100% recyclable and it feeds back into the raw material of the machines. There is much more impact in injection molding and the supply chain for getting the raw materials for that. If you think about CNCing, you’re taking a block of something and carving away at it, all that waste is created.
With 3D printing, for the most part, you print only what you need. There are supports, yes, but it’s still pretty minimal and supply chains are localized.
Q: Makelab offers a blend of printing and design services, what does the design side of your business look like?
A: We call it design for marketing concept creation. From an industrial designer’s or mechanical engineer’s perspective, we help with the file. That means that there are already dimensions associated, there’s already a proof of concept, all of that. We don’t do concept creation. The concept development part that an ID person would normally tackle, we don’t do. What we found, though, is that sometimes in the iterative process our customers go so fast. They don’t have much time and they’re juggling multiple projects, so they may not have time to revisit something to make sure it’s scaled up a little bit bigger, or that the walls are a little bit thickened. That’s where we come in. We consider ourselves to be gap fillers on the design side.
Q: What are the core uses for 3D printing that you see at this point, is it mainly prototyping?
A: It is a lot of prototyping. I think part of that is because Manny and I come from this world of product design and development. We inherently attract that, and I think our brand does a good job of attracting that as well, so that’s what we’ve seen. The use cases of 3D printing go way beyond that, though. You can do prototyping for planes, for rockets. You can create parts that will go up into space. 3D printing offers the availability of unique customization, mass customization. In any given industry there are components that reflect industry standards. A lot of that can be disrupted, you can create more unique parts. You can create more unique designs in these antiquated industries, which is interesting.
Q: What are some of your favorite 3D printing materials and what do you like about them?
A: Oh my gosh. I’m so excited about metal! I think metal is so, so cool. The technology still needs work, we need success rates to be higher and failure rights to be lower, but it’s such a promising material. You can do precious metals. You can print stainless steel and aluminum, and there’s copper, which is great for models that you need to show or get plated. I’m also excited for nylon powder as well because you don’t need supports for that one. You can do much more complex geometry and it’s strong.
Q: It can be intimidating to get into 3D printing. For someone who is curious, where do you think is a good place to start?
A: I’m going to be biased and say: Makelab!
I’ve been in this industry for five six years now and even today, when I go on those online marketplaces I was talking about before, I feel dumb. I don’t know what the scientific names of the materials are, there’s nothing I can relate to. A big part of what we’re doing is about how we present all of this technical information. It’s about how we package it, how we use analogies, and how we explain it to people. It might be a simple thing like calling a material rubber-like or silicone-like and giving the Shore Hardness. Things like that make it easy for you as a new user of the technology to understand your options. When people come in for a materials consultation and they see all the samples, there are a lot of light bulbs that go off. That’s what I like to see. I think we do a good job of being the first entry point into the industry.
Q: What changes have you seen since you started in the 3D printing industry?
A: Metal has become really big. So have industrial use cases, and we’re getting closer to end-use part manufacturing, at least for some parts. Cost is still something that needs to be figured out. It’s too expensive to manufacture everything via additive [manufacturing]. It’s like saying that everything needs to be injection molded. It’s just not going to happen.
There are different manufacturing processes for a reason and this is one of those processes. It’s exciting but it’s not going to take over. What I see is a lot more large-scale projects. I love to see rocket parts being 3D printed, I love to see homes being 3D printed. I think that’s such a valid use case. It can replace drywall. It’s structure. Those those use cases are great and I think we’re going to see more of them. I think you’ll start to see more small, custom things. Manny bought something off of Amazon once, a hook for the home. A portion of it was 3D printed because it was so custom that it wasn’t worth setting up the [injection] mold. It was from a smaller company so it didn’t make sense to go the injection molding route, instead of millions of units to produce they only had hundreds of thousands, or even less. At that point, 3D printing technology makes sense.
Q: What do you see in the future of 3D printing?
A: You know what’s interesting? I think about this industry more in terms of business use cases than consumer use cases. In 2012 there was a big focus on consumers, there was this narrative that one day everything in your home is going to be 3D printed. But the technology is not really consumer-ready. It’s like saying that vacuum forming is going to be in everyone’s home. There is a machine to make that process more friendly but…my family over in Pittsburgh is not going to be getting that machine and trying to make everything in their home out of that machine. It’s the same with 3D printing. It’s similar to a sewing machine: super cheap, super accessible, but that doesn’t mean that you’re going to make all your clothes by yourself.
Q: Could you talk about diversity in the 3D printing industry?
A: I could talk about that forever! I’m on the board for Women in 3D printing, I’ve been really involved with the organization ever since 2018. The stats are that women make up 12-13 % of the industry, which is abysmal. You go to these trade shows and you can definitely tell that I stand out, Manny and I both. We look like designers, we think like designers, we ask questions like designers, we converse like designers. We stand out. And if 12-13 % is the number for gender, I’m pretty sure the numbers for diversity are much, much worse.
That’s one thing about me and Manny that attracts customers too, I think, because they look for these things. They want to work with diverse partners. We’re both first generation immigrants. He comes from the D.R. and I come from China. I was adopted but my mom is also an immigrant. I don’t know the exact percentage for our team but we only have one team member that is not first generation or immigrant. And we didn’t even intend for this! It’s just part of how we are and how we talk about our culture. We’ve become known for celebrating these things and we make a point of it, it’s very important to us. I hope that we see more diversity in this industry, and I hope that we can be part of leading that change with our model.
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