Brendan Goh: The End of Scarcity

Co-Founder, Pirate3D
Text by Yong Hui Yow; Photography by Yew Jia Jun
November 27, 2014
Become – Trendsetters

The rain is pelting down on me as I attempt to locate my target. Unwittingly, I had not taken down its coordinates, and in the high seas, this is not acceptable. It’s my sixth time circling Pahang Street, and after checking with some kind folks, I finally spot its bow on the side of a nondescript building. What good is a pirate’s lair if it was easy to locate? With minimal effort, I board, with no resistance. It’s silent as I climb the narrow wooden stairs up to the deck. Half-drenched and exhausted, I plant myself onto the nearest stool I find. And there it is in front of me – a gleaming, chrome-ish-looking machine, wheezing – printing.

My little moment is interrupted as a crew member strolls down the deck without even a glance at the intruder. He is in sandals and berms – not as threatening as I had imagined. “Brendan?” I ask. After a nonchalant acknowledgement, he proceeds to the ship’s galley. I follow. He offers me Green Tea. “That’s not printed, is it?” “No”, laughing at my attempt at conversation. Quite hospitable pirates this bunch, I think to myself. We enter his open-concept lair. The place is built like a ship. The staircase is narrow and leads up through a hole in the ceiling. You can hear the thumps as his crew marches about the wooden flooring. Maybe this is why the place was chosen.

Started in 2012, Pirate3D is a company that designs and sells the small, portable 3D printer ‘Buccaneer’. After raising as much as US$1.4 million on Kickstarter, it has become the poster boy of the local 3D printing movement. Brendan Goh is the ship’s ‘Chief Operations Pirate’, or co-captain.

YONG HUI YOW: How did all this get started?

BRENDAN GOH: You Jun [Tsang] and I were in final year in University, and we were trying to make prototypes, but they were expensive. So we decided to give 3D-printing a go, and we bought this S$3,000 plus machine.

YONG HUI: How was it?

BRENDAN: It was amazing – when it worked. We had this idea – why don’t we sell a service to other engineering students who may also need prototypes. After that, we met this guy, [Neo] Kok Beng, Roger [Chang]’s professor, who suggested we run a more scalable business. We each put in S$4,000 initially, and used a lot of information and knowledge from open-source communities, and also from just playing around with the printers. We bought components and built something on our own. After that, we got funding from Red Dot Ventures. We used that money to build a decent-enough prototype to launch our Kickstarter campaign.

YONG HUI: How much did you raise on Kickstarter?

BRENDAN: About US$ 1.4 million.

YONG HUI: How was your experience with Kickstarter?

BRENDAN: We got the money right away – lowest cost of customer acquisition ever.

YONG HUI: What happened next? Did you have to fulfil deliveries within a specific time frame? What was the deal.

BRENDAN: On Kickstarter, you just have to be accountable yourself.

YONG HUI: How many units have you sold?

BRENDAN: Close to 3,000 on Kickstarter.

YONG HUI: So you guys are fulfilling the Kickstarter orders now.

BRENDAN: Yes, going at it slowly, and trying not to kill ourselves in production.

YONG HUI: How many people do you have?

BRENDAN: About 25, split mostly between research and development, and software development, as well as a few marketing and support staff.

YONG HUI: Why is 3D printing so slow?

BRENDAN: Speed depends on how much quality you want. It also depends on the technology of the 3D printer, and how dense you want the print to be.

YONG HUI: How long does it take to print a cup?

BRENDAN: For a cup, on average a few hours. But it can go up to 15 or 16 hours if you want it really thick, and with intricate designs.

YONG HUI: What about in five years, for the same cup.

BRENDAN: You can probably divide the time by four or five, because it will be a different technology. For example, if you want to go fast, you cannot use plastic. You have to use technologies such as laser sintering, but that might be a bit dangerous for the home. So we’ll see where the technology goes.

YONG HUI: We are still in the early stages.

BRENDAN: Yes. But for the home, you don’t really need speed. In manufacturing, you do, because you need high turnover. For an individual, do you really need to print fast? How many iPhone cases do I want? Even if it takes me one day to print it, I start the process, I go to bed, and I have it in the morning, which is good enough for me.

YONG HUI: What about guns?

BRENDAN: I’d be more afraid to use a 3D-printed gun than being shot at with one, because chances are, you’d kill yourself firing one. And also, where are you going to find the bullets?

YONG HUI: What about in five years?

BRENDAN: I think it’d be the same, because the thing about a gun is that it needs proper rifling, and the parts need proper precision. Even if you use metal powder to print the gun, it will be inaccurate. Besides, there is more to a gun than just the metal parts, such as the spring, the primer, bullets.

YONG HUI: But can’t you print bullets?

BRENDAN: Yes, you can print bullets, but where are you going to get the gun powder?

YONG HUI: You’re saying 3D-printed guns cannot reliably harm someone.

BRENDAN: A cup can harm someone; that would probably be more dangerous than a 3D-printed gun.

YONG HUI: What about the possibility that someone bring a 3D printer on board a plane and print weapons.

BRENDAN: Yeah, you could, absolutely. You could print a knuckle duster. But, it’ll be very difficult, because one, where are you going to hook up the machine to? Second, it will be pretty damn obvious. Three, if you want to print something in metal, you’d need a laser sintering machine, and you’ll not going to be able to bring that onto a plane, and work it, ever.

YONG HUI: Even in first-class.

BRENDAN: Yes, not with all those dudes sitting around. In the future, all printers are going to be connected to the cloud, and with that, you can easily through algorithms, monitor what people are printing, block or stop it. But for places like the US, it’s probably easier to just go buy a real gun. But you know what? I say, just go for a knuckle-duster. Maybe in 25 years, it’ll reach a point where you can print guns reliably.

YONG HUI: Can anything and everything be printed one day?

BRENDAN: I have seen an atomic printer – that is amazing. It basically moves atoms. Who knows, maybe, one day, you’d have a level of atomic manipulation which allows you to print anything you want. You want a piece of gold, you get a piece of gold. You want coffee, you get coffee. You want diamonds, you get diamonds.


For 3D printing, the ultimate goal is the ‘end of scarcity’. In 50 or 100 years, nothing will be scarce anymore because everything can be made.

YONG HUI: Is that the end goal?

BRENDAN: For 3D printing, the ultimate goal is the ‘end of scarcity’. In 50 or 100 years, nothing will be scarce anymore because everything can be made.

YONG HUI: What will this future be like for consumers?

BRENDAN: The future can go two ways – one, where you have some kind of Kodak-like 3D-printing shop, where you can go print and buy anything you want. Two, it could be something you have at home, which will be pretty cool, because that means you can probably print a car.

YONG HUI: Do you think the manufacturing industry will sound its horn like how the music industry sounded theirs over Napster?

BRENDAN: A lot of companies are afraid of things like copyright infringements. But once we move to a post-scarcity future, you can’t fight it – there is nothing you can do. Once 3D scanners become highly advanced, everything I own, I can scan and print 10,000 copies of them, share the designs, and everyone else can print them too. Like the music industry, the manufacturing industry will have to learn to adapt. Yes, it is scary, and no one really knows how a post-scarcity future will be like.


Now, you have all these layers, you have your logistics, warehousing, distribution, retailing, and all that crap.

YONG HUI: What about luxury goods?

BRENDAN: Say a brand charges you S$5,000 for a wallet, and I can make a 3D-print of that same wallet. If I charge you S$1.50 for the designs, and S$150 for the raw materials and you can print it yourself, would you take my offer? I think you’d do it. Plus, this way, you cut out all the middlemen. Now, you have all these layers, you have your logistics, warehousing, distribution, retailing, and all that crap. In the future, everything in between the producer and consumer disappear, and it’s good for consumers. It’s like in software. Paying S$10,000 dollars for software is just stupid. Already, companies cannot use this model anymore.

YONG HUI: Do you think everyone can be a designer?

BRENDAN: I believe everyone has an innate ability to create things. It’s just that from young, that wasn’t nurtured. If you look at toddlers, when you put them in a place with random items, they will make something out of it. The next generation, or even the current one, will learn to create things – I have an idea, how do I make it. The important thing about 3D printing is that it democratises creativity.

YONG HUI: How does this future model look?

BRENDAN: You come up with a nice design, you sell it for S$0.50 or a S$1. If 5 or 10 million people like your designs, and pay and download it, you’d be loaded.

YONG HUI: You’d still have to get the materials.

BRENDAN: Yes, but you’d only get what you need.

YONG HUI: Will retail be made redundant?

BRENDAN: In the far, away future, yes. You’d go into a digital shoe shop and view hundreds of pairs of shoes. Then, you can choose what you like and customise it. Right now, how often do you go into a shop and see a nice shoe, and go “bloody hell man, whoever chose that colour is a dumb-ass.”Yet, you can’t have it customised because that’s expensive. What the world will go back to is a very high level of customisability at a mass scale.

YONG HUI: Can we ever print things so quickly it’ll be like conjuring things?

BRENDAN: I don’t know if we can ever print things instantly, but I hope I can live long enough to see it.

YONG HUI: What are the impediments to the growth of the 3D-printing industry?

BRENDAN: Nothing much, except intellectual property. Up until recently, the patents for 3D printing were held by two large companies – 3D systems, and Stratasys. 3D systems held the patent for the 3D-printing filament for a long time. It’s actually a 30-year-old technology.

YONG HUI: Why is 3D-printing only taking off now?

BRENDAN: Because guess what? In 2009, the patents expired. And look at the leaps and bounds the industry underwent since then. This year, the patents for UV-printing, and metal sintering are expiring. So we’ll see a lot of development over the next few years. Back then, if you bought a 3D printer from one of these guys, it was S$500,000. Suddenly, in 2009, you could get one for S$2,000.

YONG HUI: What’s next for Pirate3D?

BRENDAN: Our goal is to put a 3D printer in every home, and we want to make the experience as seamless as possible.

YONG HUI: Are you going to retail alongside a Canon printer?

BRENDAN: Maybe end of the year.

YONG HUI: And which retailers are you looking at?

BRENDAN: I don’t think I can talk about that.

YONG HUI: What have you learned from hiring people?

BRENDAN: Well, you have to hire people who fit the culture. Hire fast, fire fast. People who cannot fit in, there is no point, it’ll only harm the company in the long-term. But people who fit – make them stay.


As the meeting draws to a close, I say ‘Goodbye’ to his crew, to no response. Brendan chuckles at my attempt, as if that happens all the time. I stop to marvel at the wheezing ‘Buccaneer’ one last time, before hopping off the vessel.

Brendan disappears into the galley.