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Business Observer Friday, Sep. 2, 2016 1 year ago

Teenage techie

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Fourteen-year-old Rocket Burns wants to give everyone an easy entry into the world of 3-D printing.
by: Beth Luberecki Contributing Writer

Lots of 14-year-olds spend their free time playing video games. But Rocket Burns has been there, done that, already having built from scratch a full-sized, arcade-style system to play 1980s classics like Pac-Man and Galaga.

The Venice-based electronics enthusiast also built his own 3-D printer, a multiyear project he calls his “crowning joy.” That experience and his passion for 3-D printing has led him to his next endeavor: a company called Rocket3D that's working to produce a 3-D printer kit that costs less than $100.

“I've always been fascinated with how systems fit together and how everything plays nicely with each other,” says Burns. (And yes, Rocket is his real name.)

He sees two markets for his printer kit. One is schools, and the ninth-grader is already working with teachers at Sarasota County's Pine View School (which he attends) to create a lesson plan for incorporating the printer into the classroom.

The other market is in the home, where there aren't a lot of 3-D printing options for kids that aren't complex or expensive. “This printer, which would come in under one-third of the cost of most common gaming systems and tablets, provides an educational experience for children and leaves them with a tool they can continue to use as they expand and grow,” says Burns.

Part of that educational experience would come from assembling the kit, an approach that helps keep costs down and creates a better understanding of the product. Burns says it's only when one assembles a 3-D printer that he grasps how it functions. He says assembly will be simple, with no special equipment needed. “It will be like putting together a piece of Ikea furniture with a better-written manual,” he says.

Burns is about 25% through the prototyping phase. While specifications are constantly changing during the prototype process, the printer's current capabilities are 60-by-60-by-80 millimeters, which is about the size of a phone case. That would allow users to print items just for fun (like little statues or action figures) as well as create attachments to add on to the printer, which will be licensed under the open source license so that users can modify it as they choose.

Burns has done a lot of work on the project at the Suncoast Science Center's Faulhaber Fab Lab in Sarasota, using machines like laser cutters to make components that he pairs with parts like CD-ROM drive motors, an affordable and easily available option for running the printer's X and Y axis. He's already found a supplier for those and has a list of other resources from past projects.

He's also working with a mentor from Manasota SCORE who has a background in manufacturing and has presented his idea at maker fairs and before entrepreneur groups such as the Gulf Coast Community Foundation's BIG (Bright Ideas on the Gulf Coast). All of the connections made through those efforts will help him take the project further.

Burns estimates it will cost about $10,000 to develop the kit to the point where it can be manufactured and distributed. He's raised about $300 through crowdfunding and uses money he earns doing commissioned projects to fund his work. He's hoping to get some investors but knows the timing may not be right for that yet.

“The big problem with my company is that at this point it would be strange if an investor decided to fund it,” he says. “It's still very early stages and a very low amount of funding with a very high risk factor, considering I don't have a product yet.”

He's hoping to have a final prototype by this holiday season and is already in talks with U.S. manufacturers about producing the necessary parts on the scale needed. His goal would be to partner with a large company already selling 3-D printers to distribute through it.

While there are still plenty of unknowns, Burns believes he won't have any problem achieving his under-$100 target. “One of the things about me that is both a fault and a benefit is the insanity I go through to plan things out,” he says. “Months of research have gone into this, so I feel fully confident I'll be able to hit that price point.”

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