When desktop 3D printer manufacturers came onto the scene in the late 2000’s, they generated a fantastical hype in the media apparatus that conflated the affordability and accessibility of desktop 3D printing with the capabilities of industrial additive manufacturing technology. This, plus the visions of dreamers, researchers and scammers in the 3D printing space, made the world temporarily enamored with the technology.
It’s safe to say that in 2014, the consumer 3D printing bubble began to deflate. Stocks for companies like Stratasys and 3D Systems that were priced well beyond their worth began to tumble. Kickstarter scams were as common as Kickstarter successes. And desktop 3D printer companies that had helped launch the technology to fame were starting to go out of business.
Primarily directed at consumers were 3D printing marketplaces, like Shapeways, Sculpteo, i.materialise and 3D Hubs, which promised the production of personalized products 3Dprinted on demand and shipped to a customer’s door. While the bubble may have burst, these companies are still operating in the market. How did they manage to survive the consumer hype? And will consumer 3D printing ever be a thing?
We turned to each of the aforementioned companies to learn how they’ve adapted to the market and what they believe the future holds for 3D printing marketplaces.
Davide Sher, CEO and founder of 3D Printing Business Media and senior analyst at SmarTech Markets Publishing, pointed out that, of the 3D printing marketplaces, Materialise is unique in that it has been in the industry the longest, both as a software developer and a parts manufacturer. Therefore, it may have been the most primed to shift its i.materialise marketplace toward more industrial applications. “For Materialise and i.materialise, it was just a matter of refocusing more on the core business clients,” Sher said.
However, Miranda Bastijns, director for i.materialise, said that the company hasn’t changed its approach. “We haven’t fundamentally changed our strategy. By providing a consistent and reliable service offering, we’ve been able to maintain our business model,” Bastijns said.
“During our nearly 30 years in the business, we’ve experienced a number of ups and downs in the market,” she added. “In that sense, the consumer 3D printing market is not very different from any other market. The challenge is to remain realistic even in times of growth, when the sky seems to be the limit. We started with MaterialiseNextDay service 20 years ago already, so the i.materialise business model is built on consistency, with focus on production quality at a realistic price with reliable customer support.”
Bastijns also said that it’s not really possible to ascertain what the most printed category is in i.materialise. Therefore, it’s difficult to determine if the customer base has shifted.
“It might sound strange, but many parts we print, we don’t know what it is,” Bastijns said. “Of course, some parts are recognizable as jewelry or scale models, but the bulk of what we print and ship every day are undefinable parts. Only the designer knows its application. i.materialise is also the “production center” for a number of smaller companies and startups. These companies count on us for being a reliable partner for the production of their products, which we often send straight to their final customer.”
Of the other two traditional 3D printing marketplaces, Sher said, “I think both were hit a bit hard but seem to have withstood the more difficult times. However, I think they were hit most in terms of expectations. They thought they would immediately become a mass market business, but the bubble bursting showed that they would have to change their business models in order to cater to more professional customers and that high rate growth would be further away in the future.”
In turn, Sher believes that Shapeways and Sculpteo had to change their approach radically, but that “both had built a network and infrastructure, for the online, outsourcing factory of the future, which continued to grow (though less rapidly than initially imagined) and is now ideally poised to collect the fruits of the work.”
If that’s the case, Shapeways did not admit to any major effects from the consumer hype bubble. Greg Kress, newly appointed CEO of Shapeways, associated the bubble with desktop 3D printers, more than consumer-oriented 3D printing as a whole.
Shapeways also offers manufacturing services, printing parts for clients such as Disney, Target and Google.
“Interestingly enough, Shapeways wasn’t particularly influenced by the consumer 3D printing bubble because our platform wasn’t focused on people doing their own 3D printing,” Kress said. “While the desktop printers were enabling people to print in plastics from their homes, we were providing an on-demand service which gave people access to higher-quality 3D-printed materials: from strong and flexible plastics to steel to semiprecious metals. Because of this, we weren’t affected when desktop printers didn’t quite meet expectations.”
Shapeways recently announced $30 million in new funding and, along with that financing, the company appears to be strengthening its focus on the consumer market. Though Bastijns from Materialise argues that there’s no killer app that can replace quality CAD skills at the moment, Shapeways seems to believe that its “Design with Shapeways” program can help facilitate the creation of goods, regardless of design experience and background. Shapeways also plans to offer marketing and business tools for store owners.
“Having developed an extremely strong service foundation, our focus is now on developing free and easy-to-use creators, tutorials, and design-support that eliminate the frictions people often encounter with 3D printing,” Kress said. “We want people to not only understand what’s possible via 3D printing but feel like they have the tools to access that technology for themselves.”
Given the company’s focus on consumer goods, the products produced with Shapeways seem to be consumer oriented. “Our community has been printing everything from jewelry to tabletop gaming, prosthetics to eggs shells for wildlife conservation, prototyping to alter-ready wedding rings,” Kress said.
Unlike the head of Shapeways, Clément Moreau, CEO and cofounder of Sculpteo, did admit that the market wasn’t ready for consumer 3D printing, as much as it was for business applications.
“At first, when we created Sculpteo, we strongly believed that people would print their own design and participate in the creation of the objects of their daily life. It was underestimating the challenges of personal creation,” Moreau said. “It became clear [from 2013 to 2014], that the real revolution was not 3D printing made directly by the consumer, but by businesses, using this technology to get new types of objects [made], that would integrate some 3D-printed parts with some other parts (electronics, displays …). As a result, we shifted from being an individual consumer-oriented company to working mainly with professionals in need of high-quality 3D-printed parts.”
Sculpteo has expanded beyond 3D printing to offer laser cutting, as well.
Moreau said that, because the company had already established quality operations and “providing a professional result to our existing customers,” it simply needed to rebrand its image to be “more compatible with businesses.” Sculpteo also had to diversify its material options in order to deliver some that had specific mechanical properties for professional customers.
Sculpteo offers a number of industrial 3D printing processes and serves clients such as eBay, Autodesk and MIT.
In addition to shifting its focus more toward business applications, Moreau highlighted the power of 3D printing as one of the main reasons the company was able to weather the storm of the consumer hype bubble.
“3D printing is a very powerful manufacturing technique, with impressive benefits for companies,” Moreau said. “It is useful in numerous fields, such as mechanical engineering, architecture or healthcare. That’s why it hasn’t been too difficult to meet companies willing to use our 3D printing service.”
Now, Sculpteo sees the biggest representation of its customers in the health-care sector. “We really work with companies from a very wide range of fields, but the most represented one is healthcare,” Moreau explained. “Indeed, 3D printing is a great technology to produce medical devices, as it’s possible to create custom-made objects easily, at a lower cost than with other manufacturing techniques. We also print a lot of prototypes—for mechanical engineering projects, for instance, even if we tend to produce more and more finished goods.”
Though 3D Hubs is not an online market where users can shop for 3D-printed designs, it is a service bureau. As a distributed network of 3D printing services, 3D Hubs couldn’t necessarily take the same approach as some of the other service bureaus in the space. When it began, the company relied on a number of desktop 3D printer users.
“When we first got started, our main goal was to become the world’s largest network of distributed 3D printing services around the world, with hobbyists and makers joining the platform with their desktop machines,” George Fisher-Wilson, communications manager for 3D Hubs, explained.“An important part of our strategy was to become the ‘3D print button of the Web,’ allowing all online content to be 3D printable with a single click of a button. A great example of this was the Fairphone partnership, where we made over 20,000 phone accessories locally for phone owners.”
Fisher-Wilson continued, “The lack of mainstream adoption of 3D printing, however, led to us doubling down on the B2B applications for 3D printing, focusing on hyper fast prototyping and short-run productions. At the time, we discovered that many of our professional users were looking for a similar setup for CNC machining services and injection molding services, which we then added to our expanding manufacturing portfolio. In short, we evolved from a 3D printing service to a fully-fledged manufacturing service.”
In addition to other fabrication services, like CNC and injection molding, 3D Hubs has networked with companies that use industrial 3D printing technology. It also attempted to take on some of the features of manufacturing service providers.
“We doubled down on our B2B offering, which took advantage of the core benefits of 3D Hubs—getting parts quickly at a very competitive price,” Fisher-Wilson said.“We expanded the platform around these advantages, with features such as instant quoting, real-time manufacturability feedback, and 24-hour turnaround. Our goal is to be the smartest and fastest manufacturing solution on the planet.”
Among the features that 3D Hubs added to tailor the technology to businesses and engineers is automated design for manufacturing analysis, in which files are automatically checked for potential manufacturing issues and the proper manufacturing technology is suggested.
There’s also a “Reverse Dutch auction sourcing setup” that sees a submitted order presented to the best matching suppliers based on capabilities and location. The first matched supplier to accept the price and lead time fulfills the order. “This competitive sourcing process leads to the best price in the market whilst giving the fastest turnaround times as the order is accepted by suppliers with instant capacity,” Fisher-Wilson said.
3D Hubs also boasts a pricing algorithm that relies on “dozens of parameters” collected from over 1 million parts to allow instant part production pricing. “We use a deep neural network to which is continually learn the best way to price parts for different manufacturing technologies,” Fisher-Wilson explained.
3D Hubs’ shift to B2B has resulted in having customers who are typically mechanical engineers and purchase managers, with prototypes, machine parts and electrical enclosures fabricated on the 3D Hubs network. The industries most served by the network are sensors and instruments, aerospace and healthcare.
The Future of Consumer 3D Printing Marketplaces
Now that most of the firms have redirected their focus toward business and industrial applications and technologies, will there ever be a consumer 3D printing marketplace the way many of them believed and some still believe is possible?
“Consumers have still not really even begun to use 3D printing,” Sher, of SmarTech and the 3D Printing Business Directory, explained. “Some consumers use it, but, generally, these are highly talented designers, engineers and makers, not the mass public. I don’t think consumers will use 3D printing for a long time still, but they will eventually. When that happens, Shapeways, Sculpteo and other online AM marketplaces that will be able to reach out to the consumer target will truly reap the benefits of their work and become a global reference for custom products, much like Amazon is for e-commerce.”
Bastijns, from Materialise, also doesn’t anticipate consumer 3D printing to take off in the near future the way the media once projected. This is due, in part, to the skill required to design 3D models.
“The main hurdle for large-scale consumer 3D printing remains the lack of 3D design knowledge and people’s CAD skills,” Bastijns explained. “You can find some nice apps, and the output of scanning devices is also getting better, but there’s no such thing as a killer app, and scanned items are a niche market.Fortunately, students are getting more and more acquainted with 3D design and printing. As a result, the group of potential users will grow in the coming years, but this will happen gradually and not in a booming way. We believe this market will continue to grow, but it will happen at a steady pace.”
Sculpteo’s Clément Moreau echoed this point. “The growth of consumer 3D printing is undeniable, even if it’s not as direct than expected,” Moreau said. “The major issue that prevents it from becoming mainstream is the difficulty to create your own 3D models without being a professional designer. Indeed, to successfully 3D print something, you need some design skills, and it takes some time to acquire them. If this problem is solved, consumer 3D printing services might indeed become as prominent as expected. The other main issue is that price might be a bit expensive for individual consumers, but it tends to decrease thanks to newly developed additive manufacturing technologies, and there’s no reason for this evolution to stop.”
Shapeways CEO Greg Kress is betting on consumer 3D printing in the short term. His predictions for the future of consumer 3D printing reflected his initial views regarding desktop 3D printing, as well. “I think that 3D printing in the consumer market will become prominent but in a different way than was initially expected. Instead of every American having a desktop printer in their home, we believe that on-demand 3D printing will become the norm for mass personalized goods like jewelry, home accessories, fashion and beyond,” he said.
It’s clear from Shapeways that not all of the companies are targeting primarily business customers. However, most believe that consumer 3D printing marketplaces will take off, if not in the short term, then in the future at some point.