April Staines is a seasoned technology leader and passionate girl geek with over 15 years’ industry experience. In 2012, April founded Open Source Prop Alliance. The Facebook group, which now has over 600 members, uses electronic media and 3D printers to design and create props and is constantly growing. The myriad of skills made her ideal to lead Girl Geek Academy’s world-first #SheMakes event in 2014, a makerfest on 3D printing and modeling for women. A digital visionary, April designed and made her own 3D printer before they were even on the market. She is currently bootstrapping her own digital fabrication business, April Storm Props. her projects include 3D printing a 1:1 Scale R2-D2, as well as a human-sized robot for a locally produced movie. On the speaker circuit, April has been a guest speaker at the Inside 3D Printing event in Melbourne since its inception and has talked at a number of other events, covering everything from movie props to STEM to digital fabrication and – of course – women in 3D printing! 

April, could you let us know about your background and what brought you to 3D printing in the first place?

Back in the 90s when I first started my tech career I wanted to work in robotics, but back then jobs where virtually non-existent in Australia, so I became a software engineer and have been to the most part ever since but have always been passionate about tech in the physical world. I guess I classify myself as a bit of a dreamer, I grew up watching science fiction thinking that one day I too would work in a space station or travel to distant planets, but the real world is a bit more realistic and one eventually relegates these dreams to the realms of fiction, or at least I did. But as a software engineer, I am a bit more creative, artistic and out there than your average and combined with being a massive science fiction fan, I adopted many hobbies, including prop collections and started fabricating science fiction props myself.

What was your very first experience with 3D Printing?

I saw my first 3D printer Back in 2010 at a comic con in Melbourne. It was a first gen rep-rap and terrible by today’s standards but I immediately saw the possibilities as a tool to enhance my creative side into the physical world.  

Why did you decide to run a 3D Printing shop? Who are your members and what are they printing? 

I had designed 3D models to print science fiction props and made them open source, but not many people in the early days of 3D printing had the machines or the technical expertise to make the designs.

When I had started, I had fabricated my own 3D printers and designed them to print in ABS plastic at a relatively large scale and create fairly durable props so people from around the world kept on asking me to make them for them because my quality and price was good and most other makers where still restricted to printing in PLA which wasn’t particularly durable, especially in the early days. I initially started taking orders via paypal, but it quickly became unmanageable and I ended up moving to an Etsy store to handle bespoke print requests as well as sell standard 3D printed items.

Most of my customers are either filmmakers who need bespoke props or Science fiction fans who want a replica prop, like something from Star Wars. I am currently designing a humanoid robot for a local filmmaker (not Hollywood scale, nor budget) but 3d printing something that scale has its challenges and is very time-consuming.  I also run my 3d printing business as a part-time gig. I now employ two of my sons to physically run the shop as I still work as a software engineer. The 3D printing shop business just doesn’t make enough money to justify me leaving my day job, not yet anyway.

Have you run into any challenges from being a woman entrepreneur in 3D Printing?

About 50% of my customers to my store address an opening message to a male so that probably says something. It happens all the time, but we often don’t even see it because we get used to it. There is always the assumption that you are not technical and don’t understand deeply technical problems. I have to tell you, I know and can fix things I probably shouldn’t need to know but guess who fixes the machines in my shop? Me. Guess who also understands that one needs to allow for material shrinking on the exterior of your model and how much depending on the process etc. 

Luckily, I have a fairly strong brand and am known to others as someone who knows what she is talking about so it tends to only happen from people who are not introduced to you via a referral.

Do you have any (fun or not) story about the company or your career to share with us?

What’s not fun is power outages that kill 15 machines all through 20-hour prints. Uninterruptable power supplies only do so much.

But I also love messing around with the science fiction props I make, often at things like comic con. Here is a picture of me and my partner at the premiere of “Star Wars The Force Awakens” I 3D printed the costume I am wearing as well as the BB8 droid.  I also had to purchase a ticket for BB-8 because he took up a seat.

Can you tell us a bit more about Girl Geek Academy?

You can find much more info here, but our moto is to teach 1 million women technical skills by 2025.

What services are you providing with Girl Geek Academy?

Basically, we run workshops and events,  we started off as a meetup group and quickly outgrew it. Today we run Coding and hackathon events like SheHacks, Games events like SheMakes Games and a Makerfest for women called SheMakes.

What is the most impressive or impactful use of 3D printing you’ve seen so far?

I think without a doubt it is the use of inexpensive 3D printed bespoke limbs for children who need artificial limbs. The fact that we can now easily and cheaply make children’s lives just that little bit better because of some pretty basic technology is amazing, you need to remember that it may just be a neat toy for some, but for these kids, this technology is a life changer.

What do you consider game-changing technologies in Additive Manufacturing?

Firstly, I can only answer this from the perspective of a prop manufacturer,  I can’t really answer this for something like aerospace for example.

I think the advancement in materials we use is where this will happen. The plastics we mostly use in FDM have all sorts of limitations. So I see innovation coming first from materials, then from the way we process, eg moving to powder etc, but to me, this isn’t going to be a game changer unless its open sourced and becomes commercially viable at scale. Eg one could argue that some propriety makers already have this technology, but it has yet to make a wholesale difference. I think we need to look past 3d printers being simply used for prototyping and start looking at bespoke finished products, and for that, the current materials and technology just isn’t really there yet.

What makes the 3D printing industry particularly interesting for you:

  • As a business person?

It should eventually change the manufacturing landscape and open markets for more bespoke manufacturing

  • As a woman?

For me it’s been a massive enabler,  I have not had the physical engineering background to make half the things I make today using conventional means

What do you think of the 3D printing industry today? And how would you like to see it evolve?

I think we are still in our infancy,  we still meet people who have never seen a 3D printer and still think its an object of science fiction. The fact is, we don’t really know how its entirely going to evolve only that it will

In your opinion, how could we encourage more women to become involved with 3D Printing?

Female Makers, Craft and Making.

I think we really need to look at what we call Craft and what we call making.  Is “Making” just a masculine version of craft, because if we include crafters into the making scene and we start looking 3D printing as a type of sewing machine, what becomes important is the IP, the 3D models that drive the printer and not the printers themselves.  

If we include craft into the making scene we then also then bring the realm into parity because traditionally Craft has been the domain of women, have you ever been to a craft show??

But if we take a more proactive lens and look at the bespoke craft platform Etsy, you will find that up to 89% of stores are run by women or something like that (you will need to look at Etsy reports for the exact figures) but they are promising and certainly in the majority. Most of what Etsy makers make is bespoke, again prime candidate for digital fabrication and 3DP where competition from mass production markets is not going to have such an impact. Etsy stores, like mine, would be classified as microbusinesses, but as the economy evolves, its nothing to snigger at, as microbusiness is on a growth vector and is likely to become a significant part of our future economy.  I think 3D printing will play a more significant role in this market than what it has as purely a prototyping technology for the mass market industry. Its certainly a lot more fun anyway.

So to answer your question,  there are probably a lot of women already involved in craft that may use 3D printing but may not label themselves such, or if not, it’s certainly where I would be focusing my efforts.

Favorite 3D tool (could be a software, machine, material…you name it)? Simplify 3D has been a life and filament saver in recent years.

Favorite moment in your day job? When people freak out that something is 3D printed.

What’s on your 3D Printing wishlist for the next 5 years? Upgrading my older FDM printers to newer Wombots.

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