In this series, I’ve guided you through a fragmented landscape where the shift from investor funding to making money from selling components, services or machines is imminent. Traditionally, mastering 3D printing has been a slow and costly process, often requiring millions of dollars and several years of effort. This approach demands excessive time, money, and risk from additive manufacturing (AM) clients, making it feasible only for a handful of wealthy and determined companies.
Although the 3D printing industry offers services, they typically assume you possess the necessary knowledge and expertise. While there are consultancies and experts available for assistance, the reality is that you’re mostly navigating this terrain alone. Instead of investing millions and years in acquiring and learning to operate machines, I propose a more efficient alternative.
Servers and Websites
Until now, the industry’s approach has involved producing servers and marketing them as magical, all-capable boxes. Certainly, servers are essential for the internet’s existence, but selling these complex, enigmatic devices brimming with promises is challenging. While they may appeal to pioneers and academic institutions, they don’t resonate with the broader market. Moreover, the financial returns from selling these ‘boxes’ are limited and the process is sluggish, often taking months for both the sale and for clients to become proficient in their use.
I’m not dismissing the profitability of selling servers or, in our case, 3D printers; their improvement and sale must continue. However, applications have the potential to reach a far wider audience and do so more rapidly.
Instead of focusing on hardware, we should pivot to launching websites. Websites can be developed swiftly and tailored to various audiences, from general interest (like Weather.com) to specialized groups (such as Pets.com) or even very specific niches (like the Romanian Puzzle Association). The beauty of websites lies in their adaptability: they can be modified quickly, fail fast, and by targeting specific needs, they become incredibly impactful. Essentially, I’m proposing that the real financial opportunity now lies in websites rather than in the underlying infrastructure. Rather than investing months in designing and selling a server, we could rapidly develop a website and swiftly generate revenue from customers.
The Old Way of Doing Applications
Companies have long struggled to develop successful applications, primarily due to their failure to employ cross-disciplinary teams, exercise strategic patience, and exhibit empathy towards customers. Often, they latch onto a single beneficial feature (like the ability to lightweight an assembly) and try to build a business case around it without thoroughly understanding the client’s business, its key drivers, or decision-making processes. Additionally, many companies fail to grasp the specific needs of the industries they are selling to, resulting in pitches to the wrong people, inability to meet price expectations, or failure to provide necessary functionality.
The applications that are successful tend to be those that are easily adopted by the value chain, while the unsuccessful ones are often too complex. Institutional resistance plays a significant role in the failure of most 3D printing initiatives. For instance, the operations personnel, whose work life might be disrupted for an extended period, often don’t see personal benefits from the implementation. Typically, there is no executive or individual whose career would advance because of the project, presenting it as a risky venture for people who have mortgages and little to gain. The notion of risking one’s career on a project that offers no personal benefit is unappealing.
To overcome these challenges, we must delve deeper and understand the needs and perspectives of those involved with empathy. This understanding is crucial to counteract the inherent resistance and make meaningful progress in the field of 3D printing applications.
In Depth Versus Shoot from the HIP
The process of discovering new applications for 3D printing is often a hasty and resource-intensive endeavor. Many companies adopt a ‘shoot from the hip’ approach, rather than a thorough, in-depth strategy. This has led to a lack of originality, with firms frequently imitating each other and pursuing the same ideas, such as eye glasses, jigs, and heat sinks. They often copy an appealing application and attempt to market it to the largest nearby companies.
Finding the right balance between creative exploration and the meticulous process of properly developing an application is a challenge for companies, individuals, and teams alike. Similarly, striking a balance between rapidly experimenting with various ideas and then committing to deep, focused development is difficult. Companies often spend considerable time discussing innovative concepts with prospective partners, leading to a cycle where everyone is willing to discuss a new 3D printing idea, but this frequently results in wasted time and effort.
After extensive effort, it’s common to discover that although a company may be interested in an idea, they are unwilling to invest in it. This phenomenon places 3D printing in the ‘friend zone’ of many large corporations. These constraints make it challenging to effectively discover new applications. The process can be both too haphazard and too time-consuming, with many months potentially spent exploring unproductive avenues.
The New Way: Rapid Applications
Now I don´t entirely know if this is going to work. I´ve spent many months thinking about this, and many years trying to find applications. And I have found some good ones for clients. But, I´ve failed a lot of times too. Based on my experience what I’m sharing with you may work. I don´t know. But I’m going to try to do this. Because I’m tired of all my friends getting airplanes and not having a pool. I want to share this with you now so we can both reflect upon this in two years or so. I´m essentially going to on 3DPrint.com do a live fire exercise in trying this out for you. Succinctly put: Rapid Applications are 3D printed products that we launch soon and iterate quickly in order to improve their utility and value in conversation with customers. We then will continue refining these applications until we are successful or move to the next one.
To me, what could work is the following:
No Nike. Instead, Try to Destroy Nike. Nike has emerged victorious, the essence of triumph. Therefore, engaging with Nike is a futile endeavor for us. The athletic giant has little to gain from partnerships with 3D printing companies, being risk-averse as market leaders. Consider the idea of ‘Air Jordans in pastel.’ This is a simple idea that could generate hundreds of millions in revenue with minimal risk, no need for new business processes, no substantial investments, and no jeopardized careers. It’s a straightforward path to promotion based on a trendy color scheme.
Work with Challengers. Instead of trying to work with Nike, the AM industry’s focus should shift to those who crave success and are prepared to embrace risk, those who are left with no other option but those who are determined to succeed. I prefer the hungry over the fat, any day of the week. Even if you secure Nike as a client, they are likely to pressure you into reducing prices eventually. On the other hand, if you contribute to making a brand like Saucony the top name in footwear, they will value your partnership for a long time. Consider brands like Veja, OnCloud, CommonProjects—relatively unknown five years ago. What if we had assisted them or the likes of Celine or Gucci in creating sneakers instead of the major sneaker companies? This approach promises more fun, faster results, greater impact, longer-lasting relationships, and less pressure on margins.
No Large Companies. We get it, you are a giant, you hang out with other giants. Let’s meet at Davos. But, large corporations are sluggish. They are often mired in inefficiency and bogged down by legal departments where innovative ideas go to die. Instead, approach companies like Jameson Shoes. Speak directly to Sara Jameson, the CEO and primary shareholder, whose intentions and motivations are transparent. With her at the helm, decisions are made swiftly—either with a prompt approval or a quick rejection. This approach accelerates the process of finding suitable partners: ten rejections in three months are preferable to a drawn-out, unproductive collaboration with a well-known brand that takes years to close.
Focus on Items with High Value per Cubic Centimeter. Adhere to the principle of prioritizing items with high value per cubic centimeter, a tenet long preached by Materialise. Others lack the discipline to effectively implement this, often ending up with prohibitively expensive parts. 3D printing works best for flatter and more compact designs and must fully grasp the constraints of the ‘basketball-sized’ world it operates in.
Redefine Value. Value extends beyond mere financial metrics. It encompasses various aspects, such as criticality, lost revenue, costs, reputation, time savings for workers, better ergonomics, higher revenue, profit, and opportunities for soft signaling (like showcasing innovation) or securing a win for a board member.
Identify Problematic Geometry Early. Avoid engaging in projects with unsuitable geometry from the onset. For instance, flat objects are not ideal for powder bed fusion, and wine glass shapes often fail in binder jetting. Recognizing and discontinuing work on problematic designs early saves time and resources. Similarly, assess the feasibility of materials and their compatibility with specific chemicals, uses and certifications to avoid futile efforts.
At Least Five Advantages from a 3D Printed Part. A 3D printed part should offer at least five advantages, not just one. They could be cost-effectiveness, enhanced and specific properties, improved texture, lower inventory, and reduced part count. Additionally, it could enable faster time to market, optimize the buy-to-fly ratio, allow more iterations, quicker updates, better capital deployment, and the creation of previously impossible or superior shapes and textures. Often, the development process is halted too soon, resulting in products that are merely adequate instead of transformative.
The Part Has to Be Transformative. It must transform an individual’s career, the fortunes of a company, a particular business line, or an entire industry. It’s not enough for the part to simply aid or distinguish a company; it must be a driving force for success and transformation. This could be through a company-wide initiative or at the behest of an executive.
It Has to Help Them Win. The part should enable a company to conquer new industries, reshape business models, revitalize their business, enhance cash flow, and save millions. Mundane solutions won’t suffice. The part must be recognized internally as a critical factor in achieving a significant victory for the company.
Be Honest. We must acknowledge the limitations of our technology, understanding what our machines and components can and cannot do. It’s better to receive multiple rejections than to accept a single agreement that results in a prolonged, disastrous engagement.
Easy Adoption by the Value Chain Is Essential. For instance, in the hearing aid industry, the process involves an audiologist making a wax impression, which is then used to custom-make a better-fitting hearing aid with less effort and cost. Many 3D printing applications, however, require extensive work from various parties, sometimes without clear benefits to them.
Deliver on User Value. The part must offer a tangible, understandable, and clear benefit to the user. Many proposed 3D printed products lack any user value.
Target a Specific Demographic. The component, assembly, or product should cater to a well-defined group. For example, creating products for the blind allows for a clear definition of success, advantages, and functionality. If targeted at blind business professionals in Mexico City, the product can be finely tuned to their specific needs, enhancing both the product and our understanding of the market.
Engage in Dialogue. 3D printing’s unique advantage is the ability to rapidly adjust designs, but this is only effective if we actively seek and incorporate feedback from actual customers and partners. Without this interaction, we lose a crucial advantage and fail to adapt in real-time to market conditions and customer needs.
Simplify Availability. The product should be easily accessible, either in stores or on a straightforward website. The process should be hassle-free, with the most challenging aspect being typing in your credit card details.
Compensate for Expertise. Often, large companies expect to gain insights without proper compensation. If we engage in numerous discussions and seek advice, we should recognize the value of this expertise, especially when dealing with smaller market participants. Each collaboration should be mutually beneficial, ensuring all parties involved uniquely benefit from the product or the engagement.
Recruit Top Talent. Seek out the best designers, engineers, and production personnel. These individuals are rare but have a significant impact on the successful implementation of your projects. Their expertise and skills are crucial for driving innovation and efficiency.
Choose Your Approach: Asset-Light or Full Force. You have two paths: either go big by investing heavily, like purchasing 500 Bambu Labs machines, producing your own filament, and developing custom automation solutions; or adopt an asset-light strategy by outsourcing everything and relying entirely on external resources. Straddling the middle ground is unlikely to yield success.
Optimize Design, Material, and Process. There are often substantial differences in costs, performance, and yields across various systems, technologies, or combinations. Thoroughly exploring and optimizing these aspects is critical. Once you have a viable product, challenge it by experimenting with alternative designs or technologies. Being too attached to a specific polymer family or production process can limit your ability to discover the most effective solutions, confining you to what’s feasible within your current constraints rather than what’s optimal.
Scale Up or Keep It Under Wraps. Success often comes from either going big and public with your product, making it so prominent and established that competitors can’t catch up quickly (as seen with platforms like Amazon, eBay, YouTube), or by keeping your niche product under the radar, allowing you to enjoy high margins for an extended period without drawing the attention of competitors. Either significant inevitability or discreet operation can be effective strategies, depending on the nature of your product and market.
So far, this is my understanding. In the coming months, I plan to experiment with these strategies and more, aiming to either validate or disprove them. Are you interested in joining me on this journey? Together, we can explore the potential of selling actual products created through 3D printing to generate revenue. Perhaps this technology will enable us to embrace failure as a stepping stone to success. I am firmly convinced that Rapid Applications represent the future. This doesn’t mean we should cease improving our technology and products. However, to achieve growth in the present, we must leverage our technology to create superior products that truly deliver value.
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