In May 2013, Singapore start-up Pirate3D launched a wildly successful crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter for their product, The Buccaneer, billed as "the 3D printer that everyone can use".
But now, nearly two years after their much- celebrated campaign, there are irate backers who have still not received their printers, and others clamouring for long-overdue refunds.
Boasting a price tag of just US$347 (S$464), while competitors priced their printers in the thousands, Pirate3D hit its US$100,000 crowdfunding target in just 10 minutes.
It went on to raise US$1.43 million from 3,520 backers, who were each promised their own 3D home printer, during the month-long campaign. The company, co-founded by Mr Brendan Goh, Mr Tsang You Jun, Mr Roger Chang and Professor Neo Kok Beng, were celebrated as pioneers on the cutting edge of an exciting new technology.
Initial projections stated that 500 units would be sent out by December 2013. After some delays, orders began to be sent out in February last year.
In August, Mr Goh told The Straits Times Digital Life that they had mailed out about 200 units. The 27-year-old graduate from the Nanyang Technological University's School of Materials Science and Engineering added that they hoped to fulfil all orders by the end of last year.
However, the company continued to face delays and other problems. It began offering backers the option to keep waiting for their printers or request a refund.
Some, like local backer Alex Quek, decided to continue supporting Pirate3D.
"My interest is in digital 3D art, and I always wanted a personal 3D printer to explore what it can deliver," said the 24-year-old 3D graphic artist and web designer. "I was extra supportive because it was a local company, so I decided to wait it out."
To date, Pirate3D has fulfilled about a quarter of the Kickstarter orders and just over half of the refund requests. Despite this, it has opened retail sales of the printer to new customers for US$999, which has left many of its earliest backers feeling betrayed.
"As much as we would love to do all the fulfilment at one go, it would kill us. If we didn't sell anything new, that would have been the end of the road," Mr Goh explained.
He admits that continuing to make printers is the top priority, and not handing out refunds. "The last thing I want is to give out half the refunds, fulfil half the orders, and just die halfway. We need to raise new cash and fulfil the orders at the same time."
Mr Goh also told The Sunday Times that Pirate3D faced many unforeseen difficulties along the way. "Around last August, we realised that in order to ship into Europe or the USA, you need to get home-use safety certifications," he said. "We had no idea. And it set us back by about six months."
Mr Goh said that the certification requirements also forced them to drop support for Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) filament, a plastic that is desirable for its strength and high-temperature resistance, because printing in ABS created toxic fumes.
Many backers were enthusiastic about this feature, and its cancellation caused some to opt for a refund.
Another stumbling block came in the form of finding reliable channels for global distribution.
"I sent one spare part as requested, an extruder assembly, to a backer in China, along with a pallet of 20 printers. But because the declared value of the extruder was below what the Chinese customs felt was appropriate, they sent the entire thing back," said Mr Goh, referring to a returned shipment at the firm's facility in Kallang.
Pirate3D fulfils orders by region rather than chronology. They recently finished shipping out all orders to the Australia and Oceania region.
But performance issues and delays aside, the biggest grievance that backers have is a lack of communication. Many were frustrated that their e-mails and questions went unanswered for months.
Canadian backer Matt Melvin, 45, said that he has yet to receive his printer, and that Pirate3D has not responded to his numerous e-mails despite its earlier willingness in sending out updates.
"The situation has been disappointing," he said. "I'll never back or pre-order anything on Kickstarter again."
But Mr Goh is hopeful that his company can rise out of the mire of mistakes and regain the faith of its first customers. Backers who did receive their printers, which can create 3D objects by "printing" successive layers of material, typically plastic, report that it works smoothly, and is as user-friendly as promised.
He said he is also making an effort to respond to Facebook comments and reply to e-mails, some of which have been positive and encouraging.
With so many online platforms, including Twitter, Kickstarter, and their own community forums, Mr Goh said he plans to slowly consolidate customer relations onto one platform.
The firm also had a $2.5 million injection of funds from private investors last September, and is making more fund-raising efforts.
"We messed up. I admit that we bit off more than we could chew at the beginning. We were grossly unprepared in manpower and experience," he said.
"But we finally have stable production numbers we can depend on, and that's only been the case since a month or two ago."
This article was first published on June 21, 2015.
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