A massive discussion of 3D Hubs’ recent moves is taking place and it seems that some participants aren’t very happy.
The post that started the discussion is aggressively entitled, “3D Hubs is Dead”! I can say that 3D Hubs is definitely not dead, but perhaps it is in the minds of some of their operators.
But a bit of background first, in case you’re not familiar with 3D Hubs. It launched in 2013 as a kind of “AirBNB” for desktop 3D printers. At the time it was forecasted that there would be many desktop 3D printers installed across the world, many of which would have significant idle time.
3D Hubs’ brilliant observation at the time was that while interest in 3D printing would be high (at least at that time), the challenges in actually doing 3D printing were still high. They correctly saw that the practice of 3D printing was likely not going to be available to everyone due to the expertise (and patience) required, so only a subset of desktop 3D printer users would be competent operators. But if they had idle cycles, why not capitalize on that resources by making a system that routed print requests from buyers to these idle operators? That’s the genesis of 3D Hubs.
The company grew hugely, but ran into the same issue that everyone else did: consumer interest in 3D printing dropped precipitously when it became known that the technology wasn’t up to Star Trek replicator standards.
There was (and is) still a need for outsourced 3D printing, but the large consumer demand diminished significantly. What remains is a growing demand from professionals – architects, engineers, product designers, etc. That’s where the desktop 3D printing market is mainly focused these days, because that’s where the money is. While some consumers and hobbyists still have interest in the technology, they are also notorious for expecting low – or no – costs for most things. That’s not the case with professionals who expect to pay for quality products.
This put 3D Hubs is a bit of a dilemma, as their original system was targeted at hobbyists and consumers. If they stayed solely with that market, they would not grow significantly, and perhaps even jeopardize the future of the company. Their only reasonable move, like almost every other 3D printing company, was to address the professional market.
So they did. They gradually introduced higher-grade industrial participants into their network and changed up their system to allow for more exotic materials, those that are in demand by professionals.
Unfortunately, many of their original – and loyal – participants don’t have the equipment or quality capabilities demanded by this new market. It seems they are not seeing as many requests for printing as they had previously.
There are likely a number of reasons for this, some of which may have to do with 3D Hubs’ internal optimization systems that we cannot know. But I think a lot of it might be due to the change in ratio of hobbyist to professional requests over time.
A second reason could be the dramatic increase in the sales of common desktop 3D printers. There are a few rather successful ventures selling inexpensive equipment at large scales.
Consider Prusa Printers, who apparently now sell over 6,000 machines per MONTH. That equates to 72,000 new desktop 3D printers operating in the world per year.
That’s 72,000 more machines that might be doing their own 3D printing for casual prints that in the past might have been routed to 3D Hubs or other 3D print services.
And that’s equipment from just one vendor. It’s likely there could be perhaps 200,000 new 3D printers issued each year now, most of which would not use 3D Hubs for simple 3D prints.
As for the heated discussion, 3D Hubs responded with what appears to be a reasonable explanation. However, that doesn’t change the fact that the market is changing underneath the 3D Hubs operators. 3D Hubs is adapting, but perhaps some of the operators are not and they don’t like it.