3D Printing Archipelago: Islands of In-company 3D Printing Bureaus


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In essence, I believe that the 3D printing industry is turning into Indonesia. Rather than have a market that is ostensibly globalized or local in nature, the sector will have very segmented markets, each in competing within themselves. If you look at the first article in this series, you can see that the theory is that we have gone through four stages of growth. a local stage with local firms operating locally; a ¨globalized¨ stage, where a few companies act globally and regionally; a continental stage, whereby regional, national, and technology-specific power bases predominate; and, finally, an archipelago 3D printing industry, which we are now transitioning into.

In other words, we are shifting not to a single, global market, but rather very specific sets of materials, services, market conditions, verticals, and offerings. I think that this has deep implications for the sector’s mutual competitiveness and the direction each business should be taking. Overall, I believe that, in order to properly understand market dynamics, competitiveness, and where the segment should play, we should not consider the additive manufacturing (AM) segment as one true 3D printing industry. We are not one world. We are an archipelago of islands.

Split One: Commoditization in Powder Bed Fusion

One example of this is in powder bed fusion (PBF), where I believe that we shall see a split in the market between, on the one hand, the most powerful and capable systems for defense, aerospace, new space, and other high-end markets and, on the other hand, a commoditization of quotidian systems at each quality level. It will be possible to buy any number of metal PBF systems at similar price points that could be used for jewelry and other products of similar quality levels. This idea is laid out in more detail in this article.

Such a trend will mean that market for metal PBF will, in fact, become a commodity market that competes on different quality level on one island, while on another island, a different market will be vying to make the newest combustion chamber components at unheard of sizes. If you’re looking for a $300,000 quad-laser machine with a build volume of 250 mm by 250 mm by 330 mm, you’re unlikely to also shop on the same island as a $5 million system with 12 lasers.

Split Two: High Service vs High Autonomy

High Service

If you imagine running the prototyping or 3D printing department for a large corporate, like Hyundai New Horizons Studio or D.Ford, what would your needs be? What keeps you up at night? Uptime, ease-of-use, and high degrees of service are your worries. For that one deadline, you absolutely need that part to be there.

So, you would demand or enjoy excess capacity in your supplier network for prototype and limited production items. You would like your in-house machines to be easy to operate. Ideally, you’d have an iron clad service agreement or be able to get machines replaced quickly. Consumables costs don’t really matter to you. You know you’re getting ripped off on materials, but that isn’t important because the component cost is nothing when compared to delays before the executive suite or in multi-million dollar projects. You wouldn’t mind a closed architecture or many restrictions on what materials you can use, as long as the machine works. The software or experience could be completely proprietary or stand alone. Part handling and labor cost are okay, as long as key personnel don’t suffer interruptions or they have to fix machines. That wouldn’t work.

To me, a corporate 3D printing department would evolve into a high-service customer. You wouldn’t mind paying a monthly service fee if everything just worked. You wouldn’t care about understanding the machine. You want to click to print. You wouldn’t want to learn about designing for 3D printing, ideally, the real world parts would be spit out automagically, looking identical to the ones you’d use in molding or other processes.

High Autonomy

Meanwhile, imagine that you’re Bosch, ZF, Sony, or Ford that has to perform short-run production, mass-customization or actual mass production with 3D printers. You’d care a lot about consumables costs. If two equal printers perform about the same, but the materials for one are much higher, then you’d go for the one that has the lowest total cost of ownership (TCO) at adequate yield. If one had an open architecture that wouldn’t lock you in, you’d opt for that so that it provides you with redundancy.

You’d want software to work with enterprise resource planning (ERP) and lots of other software you operate. You’d want your machines to work autonomously. You’d balk at high service prices and would want to service your own machines by yourself as much as possible. Ideally, you wouldn’t need anyone to come tell you anything. You’d like a lot of training initially, but then to never have to call the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) again. You’d love to have a deep understanding of design for 3D printing in order to optimize the parts you’d be printing. You’d be very interested in quality assurance, automation, and lowering part cost.

The Now is Not Indicative of the Future

In the recent past, a Formlabs printer, Ultimaker S5, HP multi jet fusion system, or EOS P110 would be the ideal machine for both the High Service and High Autonomy customers. However, going forward, the needs of these parties will diverge. At the same time, lower cost entrants will be good enough for a lot of lower cost manufacturing. Also finishing processes, part handling solutions, and software will make up more of the cost and cost reduction picture.

As machines become more specific, on one side, we will see a further divergence between high service customers who want a lot of uptime, a lot of help, and don’t mind costs. On the other side, will be high autonomy customers who prefer a thorough understanding of (and access to) their machines, software, materials, and processes in order to produce at low-cost, high-yield objects at the right quality level. In some cases, the same machine or software would make sense for both but we would expect specifically designed solutions for one market segment to significantly outperform depending on the prevailing metric for that segment. So, a material extrusion manufacturer would ideally want a large Prusa i3 with all of the electronics in the bottom and easy part ejection with a 20kg spool that is completely customizable for them.

Of course, there will still be commonalities between these two markets. For example, same day replacement of machines will be an exciting prospect for both the cash strapped manufacturer and the design center of a major corporate.


Therefore, some possibilities to offer singular products to the whole market will be tantalizing. But, as a general rule, we’d expect a balkanization of the systems, materials, markets, machines and service offerings, as everything more perfectly conforms to the very specific values of very specific markets. We will not be one market, but an archipelago.

Images by: Lau Svensson, Dmitry Teslya, Егор Журавлёв.

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