From the Ashes: The Return of Printrbot?

There aren’t many names as renowned in the hobbyist 3D printing community as Printrbot. Since its wildly successful Kickstarter campaign in 2011, Printrbot has been manufacturing 3D printers of its own design and construction from Lincoln, California, until ceasing operations in July 2018. But recent news would have us believe that the small US-born manufacturer is staging a return.

The company’s road to fame kicked off with a Kickstarter campaign starring a machine of founder Brook Drumm’s own concoction. At the time, the only way to get started with 3D printing as a consumer was with the $750 Makerbot Cupcake, which took some twenty hours plus to assemble. So when Drumm came along with a $500 kit which he claimed could be put together in under an hour, people jumped on board – roughly 1800 people, actually.

The Printrbot Kickstarter campaign marked the early stages of the Maker movement, which hit consumers full swing in the following few years. It’s in the heat of this Maker storm that Printrbot released the Printrbot Simple Metal, a kit featuring a self-pioneered innovation: automatic bed leveling. Combined with the folded steel construction and competitive value-for-money (at the time), the Simple Metal was a success.

The Lincoln-based manufacturer released several other machines at a healthy pace in the years that followed. There was the rock-solid, beginner-friendly Printrbot Simple, the workhorse-style Printrbot Metal Plus, as well as other eccentric experiments like the Printrbot Printrbelt.

The original Kickstarter-edition Printrbot kit. (Source: Kickstarter)

Shifting Markets

Soon enough, more players started entering the market, flooding it with cheap and, crucially, capable machines. Many of these new competitors such as Anet and Creality 3D, hailed from China, but solid contenders from the West such as the Prusa i3 MK2s and the Lulzbot Taz 6 didn’t make Printrbot’s game any easier.

In response, the California-based Kickstarter success made a shift: trying its hand at the ‘prosumer’ category with the debut of the $1000 Printrbot Simple Pro in 2016. This was a modern iteration of the classic Printrbot Simple, augmented with hotter features such as a touchscreen, cloud slicing, and wireless printing.

But the Simple Pro never gained significant traction. Perhaps the trendy bells and whistles were lost on Printrbot’s customers who were initially hooked by a compelling budget proposition, rather than fancy features. The result of all this: on July 18, 2018, Printrbot officially closed its doors – the cause cited on the website was “low sales.”

The Printrbot Simple Pro. (Source: Amazon)

Revival of an Icon?

On May 7th, Brook Drumm, founder of Printrbot, announced in a YouTube video that he would be moving out of California and selling his remaining Printrbot inventory for a fraction of its original cost. The funds raised would pipe into the resurrection of Printrbot. In this video, he mentioned this comeback might happen as early as “this summer.”

The exact form in which Printrbot makes its return remains to be seen, so we’re going to indulge in a little guesswork.

There’s no denying that the Printrbot brand still has significant value – perhaps it need only to deliver a machine that’s merely *above average* and depend on a healthy marketing and branding budget to bring in revenue. On the other hand, 3D printers aren’t like shoes or phones. They don’t get purchased or replaced as often, thus a positive consumer sentiment towards a product, on its own, might not drive sales.

In that case, they would need to bring a show-stopper to market. Either a machine 1) outstanding enough to make consumers retire their Original Prusa, or 2) unique enough to convince them to make extra room on their desktop.

The former would be nearly impossible, since established operations lusch as Prusa Research have full teams, filled coffers, and tons of experience optimizing, producing, and distributing machines. They would be hard to dethrone immediately.

The latter possibility of carving out their own niche, however, is a feasible avenue to explore. Companies like Snapmaker and Formlabs have done this in the past (in Snapmaker’s case, more than once). In addition, Drumm already showcased functional prototypes of unique machines such as the Printrbelt, which boasts an ‘infinite Z-axis’, shortly before Printrbot shut down. Could the new Printrbot make its debut with a polished, ready-to-ship Printrbelt? It’s certainly conceivable.

Printrbot’s prototype belt printer. (Source: ALL3DP)

Printrbot as Software?

On the other hand, a business focused on selling hardware tends to require a lot of money. Product development, order distribution, and inventory management all tend to dry coffers – and if Drumm is resorting to selling leftover Printrbot kits to fund a comeback, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to guess that he doesn’t have too much wiggle room in the financial department.

What if Printrbot were to take a page out of Apple’s book? The Cupertino-based tech giant recently announced a pivot in strategy: doubling down on their services sector to increase its contribution to revenue, to cushion falling hardware sales. They’re essentially making their software services like cloud storage and news account for a higher percentage of revenue.

Printrbot could do the same by shipping a software experience to monetize, alongside their hardware. For instance, they could debut a decent, reliable printer with basic wireless capabilities that work in tandem with a software product which charges a monthly subscription fee. This way, they could offer a competitively priced machine by subsidizing its cost with revenue generated by the software product it’s designed to work with while providing a novel experience for customers. Granted, software isn’t Printrbot’s strong suit – even the cloud service they shipped with the Printrbot Simple Pro reportedly felt slow and limited at times. But developing software would put less strain on Printrbot’s finances than developing hardware.

Moreover, a new software-focused Printrbot could even design their software product to be compatible with popular open-source machines, such as the Prusa i3 lineup. This way, even consumers using their beloved non-Printrbot machines could potentially become Printrbot customers by using their digital services.

What would such a service look like? Who knows. Perhaps Printrbot could harness the power of its community with a digital media platform providing tutorials, for example. Regardless, digital services would be an enticing option for Printrbot because of the lower financial barrier of entry.

Whether or not the brand makes a second debut, they made some decent machines that delighted tinkerers. It’s not too late to pick one up, before Printrbots as we knew them are gone forever.

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