Formnext 2022, Day Three: Fleet Footed


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My feet feel like they’ve been put in a blender and then repeatedly slammed by a door. How did humans cope with standing so much before we invented desks?

I don’t even pretend to take an interest in your products anymore. I just swoop in for the mini Twix and Mars bars. I’m like a predatory carpet tiger on the hunt for gummy bears. My only emotion a blank, quizzical, half-comatose look when someone is trying to explain to me what powder bed fusion (PBF) is. Why is the default assumption that I’ve never heard of your company? Most of us were here last year and the year before. Surely I’m here to find out the updates? Also, a sandwich would be good. Maybe next year someone could put a Subway in their stand? Or perhaps a small Dominos that delivers to other booths? I’m feeling that this would really motivate me to buy whatever it is that they want me to. I’d get ERP or PLM or MES or whatever if they gave me pizza. Did you know that they replace the carpet every time after the Rave Till AM party? That’s one thing that I’ve learned today.

Three Problems to Be Solved

There are three other things that I’ve learned. One is how hard it is to be a small supplier to our industry. Another is that there are misgivings about market size in the industry. The third is that integrated applications are the only way to grow.

Companies such as AMT, AM-FLOW, and DyeMansion have enough wherewithal to reach out and do the sales and marketing to find all of the production sites worldwide for 3D printing. They can cater to this market. Furthermore, they have a full product portfolio that starts from a relatively inexpensive product but can grow to big ticket solutions. Their revenue should let them perpetuate their success.

What of smaller firms who don’t have the funding to create their own inertia? I’m worried about the small suppliers that sell oxygen monitors, drop cameras, spools, PBF powder packaging, motion control, specific AM software. These are all relatively small firms that depend on the AM market, but it is difficult for them to find us all. Of course, every year someone small breaks out into the big leagues, but this is usually the shiny new stuff, not something mundane but essential. I don’t see them surviving.

The Small Suppliers

E3D is a wonderful business. It provides hot ends and other consumables to the desktop market. There is nothing similar for the enterprise space. I really think that a global reseller focused on productivity in 3D printing could be enormously successful. Kind of like a Snap-On for AM. You could resell vacuum cleaners, sieving stations, sensors, materials, and software to AM players. You could establish relationships with production sites worldwide and then sell them exactly what they need, the way they need it. You could give them the service they need and be available.

An alternative would be to roll up a lot of these constrained players into a integrated firm that is a trusted supplier of all the consumables and inputs needed to run a successful AM company. This could be a very defensible and successful business. Another model is Gil Lavi´s 3D Alliances, which could work in various forms to alleviate this issue.

How Big Is the 3D Printing Market, Anyway?

Now, I’ve also noticed that a number of people have grave misconceptions about market size. A lot of ideas and business plans in 3D printing seem to be written on air.

Let’s use a simple example of how many 3D printing production sites there are. How many sites worldwide manufacture 3D printed parts at scale. Intermediates, end-use components, everything. At volume.  How many locations are there that do this worldwide? I’d estimate around a 1,000. Not more than that. Most knowledgeable people I spoke to today and yesterday also thought that it was between 500 and 1,000 sites. I asked around 20 people in a completely unrigorous manner. However, in doing that across a day or two, I seem to have taken more time and care than some. Now, your growth estimates may vary and would depend on the economy, which is in a bit of a funk and fog at the moment. But if we double that in five years, I’d be extremely happy. I’d also be happy if it took ten years to do this.

Now, if you’re an old hand you’d probably agree with me. Others seem to think that there are thousands and thousands of sites performing manufacturing with 3D printing worldwide at scale. And they seem to think that you can just magically increase this number by buying 3D printers. Sadly, this is not the truth.

Integrated Applications Are the Only Way to Grow

It takes time to learn how to scale with 3D printing. It takes time to become a quality supplier. There is still not enough automation, conveyancing, or quality assurance in the market for 3D printing. It is still too difficult to go from prototyping to manufacturing. Intrinsically almost, we are baking a thousand cakes all slightly differently. This issue is at the heart of our difficulty and vulnerability.

In metal printing, specifically, the investment is simply too great. The companies that have the motivation and wherewithal to invest $5 million or more to do metal properly have done so. The rest either doesn’t have the business case or the money. Now One Click Metal is making this easier, as are Headmade Materials, bound metal filaments, and more. But, on the whole we’re asking people to spend up front and invest considerably to adopt our technology.

What if we just had a simple website: buy a 3D printed heatsink here. Input your requirements and we´ll ship it to you in a few days. This can be done. You can just plug in Twikit and hire designers to craft optimal parts for you. This is more difficult than it sounds. You will need good application engineering expertise, as well as a good understanding of the underlying product. But this is what will grow our market.

We need to give all of the companies and individuals on the planet a chance to buy a 3D printed product. This is simply not the case now. Just try to buy something 3D printed. There’s some plastic jewelry out there, but there are precious few things that I can acquire with a few clicks.

We need to create integrated applications where good parts are easy to buy for businesses and people. This is the way to grow. Now, it’s just as if we´re asking everyone on the internet to build a website before accessing it.

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