It is only inevitable that, with time, the rampant irrational exuberance about the joys and wonders of 3D printing starts losing its steam, while gradually being replaced by the sober realities of the cold and uncompromising market forces. This, however, does not negate the fact that this new technological frontier continues to hold potential for discovery and innovation, with breakthroughs in materials and technology looming on the near horizon.
It is by now clear to most experts that the 3D printing industry is entering a stage of consolidation (size of operations more directly proportional to the rate of survival) and is shifting away from hobbyist to business orientation. Facts and numbers speak for themselves. 3D Hubs, for example, has announced a strategic shift in focus toward B2B-oriented business development. Sculpteo, in their thoughtful analytical report ‘The State of 3D Printing’ from June of last year, clearly identified not only a dominating imperative of professionalism/specialization, but also a comparatively overwhelming growth in the segments of ‘prototyping’ and ‘production’ at the expense of the ‘hobby’ segment.
A dangerous oversight of not treating 3D printing as, first and foremost, a business can quickly lead to a commercial decay. It is still a both capital- and labor-intensive engagement space, and bottom line is still the king. Just being excellent at manufacturing per se is not good enough anymore. Competition is becoming fierce. Money is harder to raise. Margins are getting squeezed and the fight for every order is very demanding.
How does one assure survival in this race? Successful and busy 3D printing bureaus quickly come around to having a solid strategy in place, structuring it around core competencies and carving out own market niches. Here are some of the directions companies take:
- Expertise in certain technologies/consumables
- Fastest turnaround and delivery
- Industry expertise (automotive, jewelry, etc.)
- Small- to medium-size batch production
It is important to note that, unless the whole business consists of a single FDM printer in a closet at home, putting the hobbyist segment at the center of one’s strategy would not bring sustainability and prosperity. For three simple reasons:
- Small and shrinking market size
- Inherently low purchasing power and high price sensitivity
- Single order customer dynamic
Hardly a new or doubtful fact: if one wants to conquer professional market, he has to equip himself with professional tools. Be it an auto repair shop, or a merchandising company, or a Hollywood film studio – they all expect transparent and expedient handling of their RFQs and orders. They need to know they are not dealing with an amateurish tinkerer at the other end. And, once they are happy, they are bound to bring more repeat business. Let’s run a quick check list of their fundamental expectations:
- Clean, informative, actualized and fast-loading dedicated website
- Deployment of technologies and materials to satisfy their product requirements
- Deployment of services (design, serial production, etc.) to fit their demands
What’s missing from this list is the often overlooked issue: ease of doing business, which boils down chiefly to speed and transparency. Every 3D printing bureau needs to ask itself these questions:
- Can my customer upload his model for instant quotation on my website without my involvement, while allowing him to choose from a maximum variety of production options?
- Do I offer convenient methods of payment and transparent line-by-line invoices?
- Do I provide my customer with easy-to-use communication interface for submitting questions and special post-production requests?
- Will my customer be receiving automatic regular notifications about the status of her order?
- Can my customer readily access her history and setup with me for when she needs to see what and when was printed, and to possibly put in repeat order while skipping the whole upload and pricing process?
Maybe something like this would catch the attention of a desirable prosumer and make him more willing to give it a try?
There are readily available and quickly deployable SaaS solutions in the marketplace that offer impressive return on investment and solve all the questions listed above. Of special relevance and value is the productivity suite from DigiFabster, which for over two years has been proactively offering all-in-one turn-key solutions tailored to the exact needs of the 3D printing professional community. They currently offer a no-risk free trial onboarding option. If the content of this article rings true, make sure to check them out! Discuss in the Going Pro forum at 3DPB.com.
Sergey Sirotkin is the Managing Partner and CMO, DigiFabster, Inc.