The Tiko Printer: What Happens When You Innovate Too Much

Sometime in the very distant future, the Universe will become the domain of black holes. Energy and entropy will be compressed into minuscule quantum fluctuations. Even in this domain of nothingness, there will still be one unassailable truth: you should not buy a 3D printer on Kickstarter.

We’re no strangers to failed 3D printer crowdfunding campaigns. Around this time last year, backers for the Peachy Printer, an inordinately innovative resin printer, found out they were getting a timeshare in Canada instead of a printer. This was unusual not because a crowdfunding campaign failed, but because we know what actually happened. It’s rare to get the inside story, and the Peachy Printer did not disappoint.

For the last few months, we’ve been watching another crowdfunding campaign on its long walk to the gallows. The Tiko 3D printer is another 3D printer that looks innovative, and at the time of the crowdfunding campaign, the price couldn’t be beat. For just $179 USD, the backers of the Tiko printer would receive a 3D printer. Keep in mind the Tiko launched nearly two years ago, when a bargain-basement printer still cost about $400. Fools and money, or something like that, and the Tiko 3D printer campaign garnered almost three million dollars in pledges.

Now, after almost two years of development, Tiko is closing up shop. In an update posted to the Tiko Kickstarter this week, Tiko announced they are laying off their team and winding down operations. It’s a sad but almost predictable end to a project that could have been cool. Unlike so many other failed crowdfunding campaigns, Tiko has given us a post-mortum on their campaign. This is how the Tiko became a standout success on Kickstarter, how it failed, and is an excellent example of the difference between building one of something and building ten thousand.

Why the Tiko Was a Hit

The Tiko printer was an easy sell. All you had to do was look at your favorite tech blog and see someone was selling a 3D printer for less than one hundred dollars. Yes, that was the super early bird price, but that’s cheap for a 3D printer. In 2015, unimaginably so. The regular price, and what non-early bird Kickstarter backers paid, was only $179 USD. Even today, with the machinations of dozens of factories in China, this is a very inexpensive price point. In fact, only with the upcoming release of Monoprice’s $150 delta printer will we see a printer that is as capable while still being this inexpensive.

The astonishing economy of the Tiko leads to an obvious question. How did the Tiko team plan to build a 3D printer and send it out the door for less than $200? Even today, sourcing and building the most bare bones i3 clone will cost more than that. In 2015, the costs were even higher.

Tiko’s unibody construction. By building a linear motion system into the enclosure, Tiko significantly reduced the cost of their bill of materials.

The answer comes from something that sounds like it’s glomming onto Apple ad copy: unibody construction. The body of the Tiko is a single part with an integrated c-channel used as the linear rails of this delta bot. This unibody construction is, quite simply, ingenious. If you’ve ever assembled a RepRap Mendel, or any of the other threaded rod printer monstrosities from back in the day, you know the frame of a 3D printer is what makes or breaks the build. By using an extrusion with integrated rails, the Tiko team brought the cost of a frame down while making their assembly easier. From a manufacturing standpoint, Tiko’s unibody construction is brilliant, and we won’t be surprised when we see another delta bot with the same sort of enclosure.

At its very core, Tiko was innovative. This is a 3D printer that was built around standardized manufacturing processes. Yes, building a ‘unibody’ 3D printer will require a significant capital investment to get the first printer off the assembly line. Once that’s done, though, the creators of the Tiko printer would have a viable product that could be manufactured for far less than their competitors.

Why the Tiko Failed

Tiko put a lot of innovation into their unibody frame. Unfortunately, they decided to extend that innovation to the rest of the printer. Even before the Tiko Kickstarter was a week old, the 3D printer forumheads had questions about the Tiko printer.

The usual method for linear motion in a 3D printer is a stepper motor. NEMA 17 stepper motors are par for the course. The historical pricing of NEMA 17 motors is itself interesting: back in 2008, before the RepRap project came to fruition, it wasn’t unrealistic to spend $40 on a single NEMA 17 motor with a driver. Now, you can pick up the same parts for less than half that cost.

Instead of relying on the ecosystem that has enabled very inexpensive printers, Tiko chose to go their own way. They used cheaper but much lower torque stepper motors on their printer. This would cause severe issues with the printer. Of the over four thousand units Tiko shipped, there were far too many reports of layer shifting and missed steps than you would expect. In the most severe cases, the Tiko printer could not print a simple cube.

This should be a cube. Because of poor component selection, the Tiko printer was not reliable. Image source.
This should be a cube. Because of poor component selection, the Tiko printer was not reliable. Image source.

Even in the electronics, Tiko strove for innovation.

Right now, the state of electronics for 3D printers is heavily derived from the original RepRap projects. Derivatives of the Arduino Mega, using the ATmega2560 and ATmega32u2 microcontrollers, are the norm. The new LulzBot Brain Box uses a RAMBo board with this microcontroller. The electronics for the vast majority of 3D printers is derived from those initial 3D printer experiments, and that means a decade of technical debt.

Tiko advertised WiFi printing during their Kickstarter campaign. Right now, the easy way to do a WiFi printer would be a standard ATmega-based controller board with an ESP8266 WiFi module. This would be easy, but it wouldn’t be cheap. Instead of the easy solution, Tiko turned to a neat WiFi-enabled microcontroller released by Texas Instruments. The CC3200 gave the Tiko a powerful ARM Cortex-M4 microcontroller and WiFi. Given the smooth acceleration found in even the cheapest ARM controller boards, this is a win.

But there’s a reason everyone keeps using older Arduino-based controller boards. Nearly all the firmware for 3D printers is built around the Arduino Mega. Building a printer controller board around a relatively new part means building everything from scratch. This is development time Tiko didn’t have, and engineering time Tiko couldn’t afford.

Despite this, Tiko actually managed to build and ship over four thousand printers. Given Tiko took in nearly three million dollars from 16,000 Kickstarter backers, this doesn’t sound like much. Consider the decisions Tiko made, and it’s remarkable. They had ordered their complete BOM before a prototype was finalized. The decision to use cheap stepper motors led directly to the very poor performance of the finalized design. The efforts to fix hardware problems in software were not effective. Eventually, Tiko had too much technical debt to pay off. It certainly didn’t help that this was a 3D printer selling for a bargain-basement price, either. There’s only so much margin on a $200 printer, and from the start there wasn’t much left over for the engineering needed to make a good, cheap 3D printer.

The Future of Tiko

By the end of 2016, Tiko was effectively dead. Last week, they gave up, shutting down production, and refusing to refund backers. Tiko has even refused refunds on shipping costs, a move that led to an online petition and — get this — a Kickstarter campaign to start a class action lawsuit against Tiko. Tiko is dead, although they are actively pursuing additional investors.

Far too often we look at Kickstarters from an engineering perspective. What’s missing in these discussions is a look at Kickstarters from a business perspective. What Tiko has done is out-innovated themselves. They came up with a rather remarkable system for the frame of a 3D printer, but one that isn’t quite right for a hardware startup. They developed brand new hardware for the 3D printer community but backed themselves into a corner when their engineering team couldn’t keep up. They spent all their money buying components before their design was finalized. These aren’t poor engineering decisions, they’re poor business decisions.

Twelve thousand people have spent $200 (plus about $60 in shipping) on a printer they won’t receive. Four thousand people have a printer that doesn’t live up to their expectations. The Tiko team has a three million dollar failure hanging over their heads. No one is happy with this situation. Yet it can all be traced back to a single problem. This is what you get when you innovate too much.

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