Incoming: A Third Wave of 3D Printing Companies

Metal AM Markets
AMR Military

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The Desktop Factory 3D Printer 2009. Oh What Could have Been.

The first wave of desktop 3D printing startups were bootstrapped companies that started with kits. MakerBot and Ultimaker are examples of these companies that were pioneers in the desktop 3D printing market. Relying heavily on their communities for ideas, feedback and product development, they took simple kits and made them more sophisticated. They moved to assembled systems. Rickety metal frames became lasercut boxes and then sturdier chassis. Software was first made by others and then developed by the companies themselves. They first all went direct then switched to resellers to get global coverage. Some of these companies went from a couple of guys around a table to multi million dollar revenue companies with over 300 staff. Other firms of the era fizzled.

Unforced and Forced Errors 

Pioneers that died were either quickly overcome by a hyper-Darwinian competitive landscape or made some unforced errors. In the case of the latter: lack of operational excellence, time to market, little in the way of marketing or sales skill and lethargy doomed these firms. If one cause of death was to be repeated more than others it was issues with outsourcing. A number of firms died on the vine because they could not find the right outsourcing partner or due to issues with quality control. Lack of experience with outsourced manufacturing was also a recurring problem. Other firms were strong in engineering but not strong in software. As complexity increased they relied on too few software staffers. This meant that the firm would be bad in software without knowing that it was bad in software. Or they did not fully respect the 3D printing triad of machines, material and software at all. By not considering the complex interplay of factors affecting a 3D print their performance was hindered. Often they could not even see what was holding them back but from one month to the next they were gone. The competitive landscape was also pretty inane and insane. No one knew what they were doing. No one knew where the market was. No one knew what to charge for anything. Companies that took too long to develop or improve their products were surpassed in months.

Dobby the House Elf 

Build volumes went from 5 x 5 x 5 CM to 20 x 20 by 20 CM while accuracy, reliability and repeatability all increased. It’s as if you learned to juggle while walking on a tightrope while learning Japanese. I’ve said before that initially buying a desktop 3D printer kit was like buying Sputnik but with parts missing and instructions in Russian. First wave machine users spent on average 100 hours assembling their kit machines. Most didn’t work. And then if they did, with the big reveal what did you get? It was as if Dobby the House Elf was on a rollercoaster with a glue gun and tried to make the cheapest bit of plastic in the world and had failed horribly. Meanwhile people on comedy shows proclaimed that everyone would have one on their desktop. Why? What were they going to do with these things?

The Quick and the Dead 

Eeer….eeehh…eeeerh…uuuuurn…rrrrrr for seven hours and then the noisy flea trapeze would break. What on earth was “everyone” going to do with these things? “Hey, I thought I’d buy a thing that totally doesn’t work so I can feel much better about my other consumer electronics purchases. Yes, it did short actually, but the 3D printer is making me feel a lot better about my Zune.” Meanwhile the luckiest guy on Alibaba had just sold a kilo of ABS welding wire to a few nutjobs for $50 a kilo. The nutjobs would then worry about their baby birds dying as the styrene headaches permeated their nights. And the software OMG. Just like totally OMG, what good are ten thousand options if no one can make anything work? For the first four years I swear no one got within 100 feet of a graphic or UI designer (OK, apart from Onno). Marketing was a department that built stands at Maker Faire and above all else shouldn’t do too well because we didn’t have enough machines to sell. Many companies were swamped with orders, running to increase capacity. Chaos. More than anything everything was chaos. No one knew anything except that they had to be better than the other guy. The quick and the dead.  

These companies had to build the desktop 3D printing market. Often they had problems scaling and went from maker businesses to professional larger companies. They focused on consumers and makers and only later found out that businesses were responsible for most of their revenues. They had first mover advantages but also had targets on their backs. They were inventing the market as they went along and were soon beset by competition.

The Clone Wars

This competition came in the form of the Clone Wars. New companies took a perfectly good Ultimaker II design and slid it into a black powder coated chassis. New labels and bolder promises abutted savvier marketeers, better design and no real improvements of any substance. Hundreds of competitors swamped the market, one choosing to copy the Ultimaker design, the other the Replicator. They copied the entire machine, down to the mistakes. Amid the clone maelstrom there were other firms who were innovating but it was hard to tell who was whom. Closer inspection of a “super new totally open source 3D printer” revealed it to be “Yet Another Prusa Clone,” only this one was indeed a copy of an open source printer but gave nothing back to the open source community. Open source in marketing slogan only while essentially being the same printer as they battled each other on price or empty promises.

Kickstarter, Lies and Videotape

Then came the confluence of effluence which was the exciting combination of 3D printing and Kickstarter. It is as if you had invented timeshare tin foil hats. It takes a special kind of engineering genius to come up with a printer design that doesn’t even work on paper. Of course good startups emerged from Kickstarter. Printrbot was a Kickstarter project that was honest, clear and delivered while afterwards blooming into a great company. SLA is still dominated by Formlabs, which executed so well on their initial machines and launch the rest of the market forgot to compete with them. Others are still around by the skin of their teeth. There were projects that were totally completely consumer fraud. Things that could plainly not work. Rather than poor old VCs getting burned too badly, it was hopeful future 3D printer owners who got screwed. Engineering and software were irrelevant; instead cool videos and a hipster aesthetic were what got you funded.

Shake out

The Cube would have been darn good six months earlier. With a closed filament system they had safe filament and it worked OK. Six months onward however, everyone was having fun with lots of different filaments and the thing was hopelessly surpassed. The same happened with many other products that could not keep up. We would have gladly received those printers only a year earlier, with open arms even. But there was a shake out with some companies developing features and capabilities to make them less of a clone and more of a Borg. Prices were increased and more reliability was found. Meanwhile we could now buy actual working 3D printers for around $600. Quality increased across the board and some companies went on to sell tens of thousands of units.

The Third Wave

At the TCT Show last week we could all have a palpable feeling that the third wave had arrived. First wave companies are the pioneers who managed to stay upright, second wave companies were scrappy competitors that broke through while third wave companies are more sophisticated beasts. Whereas few first and second wave companies do anything with their software, third wave companies predominantly do. Third wave companies also generally have a design focus and try to out execute not only on design but also on marketing and sales. Content, marketing and things such as warranties are all better organized. These companies have to try harder in order to catch up in a crowded field. They don’t have the installed base of earlier entrants so have to try harder. At TCT I saw companies such as 3DGence, Craftbot, Raise3D, Mass Portal, Omni3D, Dynamical Tools, Intamsys, Vshaper, nScript, ZYYX, MiniFactory.Fi and others. These companies were developed to outcompete previous 3D printing companies. They tend to focus on the enterprise or business users and tend to have higher price points than previous 3D printers. Often having their own slicing and collaboration software, they have higher tolerances, better build quality and wish to supplant the existing order. Over the coming weeks we’ll look at the third wave of 3D printing and get to know some of these companies.

Discuss this and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com, or share your thoughts below.


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