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Cover Story | September 2015

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Ahead of the curve.” “Bleeding edge.” “Off the chart.” Pick your description, or add your own – they all apply to ORD Solutions, a new Waterloo Region company that designs, manufacturers and sells 3D printers that are reportedly light years ahead in the field.

The key to all of this is the unusual mind of Chris Gibson (left top), a self-described “maker” who solves challenges with passion, vision, and a long-suffering spouse.

Gibson is President and Lead Architect at ORD Solutions, responsible for research and development, design, vision, and all things innovative. He has two partners – his wife, Jenn Gibson, Vice President and Marketing Director (left bottom), and Andrew Evershed, Director of Operations.

Sourcing and manufacturing is carried out partially in China, with final assembly in Waterloo, all facilitated by Global Operations Integrity, owned and operated by Gang Pan.

The end result? A 3D printer often described as the Cadillac of the industry, a printer that includes an unprecedented five-nozzle capacity, unparalleled temperature control, flexibility beyond the imagination of most 3D builders, and a far happier customer base that is the norm in this emerging sector.

ORD has clients around the world, a remarkable growth curve for a company that funded its launch through a Kickstarter campaign. Their campaign attracted 91 backers who pledged $132,120; the project started June 23, 2014, and was fully funded by July 28 of the same year.


In the beginning

This all started in Chris Gibson’s basement.

Gibson admits that he has a history of creating innovative enterprises in basements – when he was a teenager, while other kids were making some pocket money delivering newspapers or pumping gas, Gibson “refined gold from computer components using acid, in my Mom’s basement… I’ve always kept a list of different things I might create some day.”

Prior to launching ORD, he “spent 15 years as a software architect. I ran my own business, did consulting work, business systems mostly, for the medical industry, construction, law enforcement.”

He says he has always been a “maker”, tinkering with machines, inventing mechanical solutions.

His “aha!” moment came when one of his children (the Gibsons have four kids -below photo) brought a toy to him, and asked, “do you think we could make some more of these?”

Most fathers would say, “No,” and leave it at that. Gibson responds differently. He thought, “’What if I prototyped my own thing?’ I started Googling it, found this open source community of makers – in 2011 – so I downloaded plans for a 3D printer, and I built one. Took me six months.”

He admits some of that time was taken up with convincing Jenn to let him invest in the materials he needed. “My wife took a lot of convincing to just let me buy the parts for my first prototype.” Today, as VP, Jenn is completely committed to the company.

Building the prototype wasn’t easy. Chris says, “It took a long time. And I realized through that process that nobody is ever going to adopt this technology en masse, unless it changes. I saw a need for somebody to give people pre-built machines with a set of instructions on how to run it, and with support.” And in that sentence is a good description of the product provided by ORD.

Gibson was hooked on the challenge. “That’s what got me to a start point.” But he admits to a certain irony: “I never did make the toy. I totally forgot about it.”

But he did start making 3D printers, which are the new star in the advanced manufacturing universe. And he began to sell them. By early 2014, “We were selling three or four a month to an odd mix of people,” half of them businesses, half for home-based use.”

Some clients were simply early adopters of high tech who were experimenting at home. But industry was quickly realizing the benefits. One of his first purchasers owned an injection molding shop. Their customers wanted to see and feel a three-dimensional part before they confirmed their order, and Gibson’s client realized that using 3D printing was much less expensive than a $20,000 machining bill.

So Gibson’s business was growing. And that’s when it took a year-long detour.

Distribution & Marketing Collaboration

For the past year, Gibson signed on with a company created exclusively to market and distribute ORD’s 3D printers. The company, headed by Tim Scott, was founded as ORD Solutions Distribution. Scott and Gibson had met through connections with Scott’s work as an entrepreneur in residence at the RIC Centre for budding entrepreneurs, in Mississauga.

In his first interview with Exchange, Scott praised Gibson: “A great mind for looking into the future. He’s ‘out there’ in terms of developing technology for 3D printing that nobody else is even thinking, about much less doing.”

However, their agreement abruptly ended, during the production of this article; it has been a rather acrimonious divorce, although Scott agreed, in a subsequent interview with Exchange, that numbers from the distribution company “were not there”.

So Gibson, with his two founding ORD partners, is going back to what he feels passionate about, a “makers” world market – returning to their original, in-house distribution and customer targeting model. Scott and his business partners are left with about 120 3D Printers which they hope to sell “at reduced prices” over the next few months. Then, says Scott, the odds are “better than 50%” that he and his team will move on to market and distribute other products, perhaps even within the 3D printing world.

“The maker movement”

The three original principals of ORD are focused on refining and distributing their unique 3D printers to a ready-made market – what Chris calls “the maker movement.” This, say Chris and Andrew, is where their future lies.

Chris told Exchange, “What we’re looking for are people who are already motivated to buy 3D printers, who know what 3D printing is, who knows it had a place in their lives.”

Those people, he says, are members of “the maker movement.”

That may sound like a small group of geeky brainiacs, but the ORD founders insist that this is not at all the reality.

Andrew talks about attending events like “maker fairs,” where “more variety of people are showing up. It’s getting bigger. We see young people on dates… at a maker fair!”

Chris looks back to an era where “makers” were the people building their own computers. But building home-made computers is a thing of the past, he says.

And while there were people – like Chris, himself – who used open source information to build their own 3D printer, that, too, is not what the future holds, in his opinion. “Most people will buy a ready-made 3D printer, but they’re still going to make stuff.”

Stuff – ranging from custom jewelry, custom orthotics, even fitted parts for hearing aids for growing kids. ORD printers have been used to produce the equivalent to bones, tendons and vertebrae, for university study in Switzerland; a car built from sustainable parts, in The Netherlands; parts for advanced manufacturing; machine gears; and a hush-hush product that will be going into space.

Makers, from corporations to scientists to home-based hobbiests, are excited about the unique features of ORD 3D printers – the five-nozzle, multiple material capacity, made possible because each nozzle can operate at very different temperatures (up to 450 degrees Celsius).

Being a “maker” isn’t going to be a niche avocation, according to the ORD principals. People – lots of people – “will realize they need to have a 3D printer. Business people do limited production runs and prototyping, they’re all makers.”

Chris adds, “When this new generation grows up, everyone is going to be a maker…. all of a sudden it will go ‘boom’.”

The ORD printers will continue to be manufactured Gang Pan’s company, especially, says Chris, because of the excellence of “quality control.” ORD is a fan of the way Pan (left) completes the manufacturing in the more tightly controlled environment in Canada.

When Chris, Jenn and Andrew enthuse about their product – and their clients – it’s clear that a collaboration with a more traditional distribution company would inevitably have led to a troubled marriage.

Chris explains, “We are more grass roots. They’re more corporate.”

It’s also clear that the original ORD team is a close-knit trio, and that the collaborative attempt to go corporate carried them out of their comfort zone – and their internal commitment to teamwork.

Jenn explains a lot in eight words: “Andrew and I are back in it again.”

Chris is emphatic: “I want Jenn and Andrew involved in what’s going on here.”

Jenn adds, “We had a year of trying to figure out what was right and we came to a point where it was time to make a decision, now, before we back track too much. We have had to take a step back, and now we’re able to move forward.”

They are definitely going back to their own tried and true formula – including taking another run at a Kickstarter project. Jenn mentioned that, in 2016, “we’re doing another Kickstarter program. We have our backers, our loyal people. Those are our original people. They always seem to follow us.”

Andrew (below right) adds, “Our supporters from Kickstarter would always support us.”

Chris says that this support reaches far beyond $130,000 in initial financing. He says that occasionally, clients will post on line about a problem with an ORD 3D printer – although their return rate is less than 6% in a business where 22% is the norm. When a complaint does appear on line, he says, before ORD can respond, its typical that one of their company’s fans will respond with suggestions for solving the particular problem.

Their market is international and has always been. Andrew says, “50% of our sales are outside of North America.”

Although the final interview with Chris and company came only a few days after the split between the two entities, it was clear that the ORD team is clear about their approach, going forward. During the past year, there has been a lot of emphasis on educating people about 3D printing – the benefits and the practical operation.

However, Chris is skeptical about that approach; he believes well-prepared clients are out there, and he stresses that “Our position is to make new technology and to sell that technology. I’d rather partner up with people in the community [in education].” He believes that institutions like public libraries are ideal places to educate the public about new technology. They have also been connected with Kitchener’s Kwartzlab Makerspace, since its early days – an obvious link. “We’ll come to Kwartzlab to do training and education.”

So what’s next for the newly streamlined operation? Just watch them: Chris says, “We’re not one-trick ponies. In some companies, they have a product, and if that product doesn’t work out, they’re done. This technology hasn’t even ramped up. We’re constantly iterating through new technology. Right now, we’re working on a new thing, and we’ll never stop. We might have had some hardships in the last year, but it’s not even phasing us.” EX