Low Volume Manufacturing With 3D Printing: Local or Global?

An array of production 3D printers

An array of production 3D printers

I’ve been reading the details on yet another low volume manufacturing operation and am wondering where this is all leading. 

There was a time when “3D print service” meant a place where you could upload an STL file and get a quote on having it printed on the latest machines. I suppose you can still do that these days, but that market became very crowded, very quickly. There were some success stories and many failures.

Some of those who survived and thrived were companies that invented variations on the theme, such as Shapeways and similar companies that had the idea of designer-operated online stores to sell 3D printed products - through their 3D print service behind the scenes. Other variations included services like 3D Hubs and similar networks that connect buyers with independent 3D print service operations. 

More recently another variation has emerged: the “Low Volume Manufacturing” service. In this concept the idea is to capture the market that’s not well served by the traditional manufacturing industry: those requiring a low volume of units produced. 

In traditional manufacturing, the idea is to “tool up” for mass production. This is a fairly expensive step, but is usually easily paid for by the profits from millions of units produced. 

That works, unless you don’t have millions of units to produce. 

Enter Low Volume Manufacturing, where 3D printers are used to produce the units WITHOUT the cost of “tooling up”, as the machines can print arbitrary objects without issue. It’s more expensive per unit than mass manufacturing many units, but less expensive per unit when manufacturing in low volumes. It’s a great idea. 

It’s so great that multiple service bureaus have emerged to attack this market, some of which we’ve written on previously, like Voodoo Manufacturing and Xometry.

And today I’m looking at another one, Star Rapid, which terms itself as a “One Stop For Your Prototyping And Low-Volume Manufacturing Needs”. And I’m sure they do this quite well. 

But here’s what I am wondering about: how many such enterprises are supportable by the market? It seems there are many of them, and more than likely a few more still unannounced. 

Is it possible the growing group of such services might be consolidated in the future by an aggressive entrepreneur set on cornering that market? It would seem that’s possible - 3D Systems did much the same thing in the past ten years, scooping up 3D print services around the world. 

On the other hand, there is something I think these services may provide to their clients that cannot be easily equalled by a global conglomerate: trust. 

When entrepreneurs develop a product that requires prototyping, they need services they can absolutely trust to provide excellent service, simply because they are budget constrained and sometimes cannot afford to prototype at more than one firm. 

Similarly, if bigger companies use these services, they will quickly switch to alternative providers if they aren’t getting the service they require. That comes with a dedication to service. 

Thus, if you are considering launching a low volume manufacturing service, I strongly recommend you organize your firm around the concept of customer service first. 

General Fabb

Kerry Stevenson, aka "General Fabb" has been writing Fabbaloo posts since he launched the venture in 2007, with an intention to promote and grow the incredible technology of 3D printing across the world. So far, it seems to be working!

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