3D Hubs’ journey is officially in another direction based on a policy change they’ve published.
The company launched in the midst of the consumer 3D printing craze in 2013, with a bold strategy: to become the “AirBNB” or “Uber” of desktop 3D printing. Their view, which was notably correct, was that there would be thousands of idle desktop 3D printers that could be put to work producing prints for those without equipment.
And it seemed to work. The company rapidly gained participants, growing to perhaps the largest – in number – of 3D printers connected to their network. Tens of thousands of participants were able to provide 3D prints to produce prints for regional customers.
However, I believe 3D Hubs was caught in the consumer interest in 3D printing downturn in 2015 period. There are only so many individuals seeking 3D prints, and even fewer when you subtract those who acquire their own desktop 3D printers. And that last factor is increasing with the plethora of low cost units now available. Many consumers who want 3D prints these days likely have their own equipment and thus don’t really need to use 3D Hubs as a buyer. They can be suppliers, obviously.
I suspect this led to a scenario where a large portion of the 3D Hubs network simply never were able to gain significant business; there probably were not enough customers to spread around the vast network.
What was 3D Hubs to do? They did undertook the same strategy that many other consumer-oriented 3D printing companies shifted towards: serving business rather than consumers.
This makes a huge amount of sense for companies, as it turns out the professional market has a number of advantages:
- It is a relatively large market, not nearly as big as the consumer market, but still large enough to support many companies
- It is a market that can justify paying larger fees for 3D printing products than consumers withstand
- It is a market that can provide consistent 3D print needs over years
But in order to serve this market, 3D printing companies had to adapt to meet their somewhat different needs. These changes include:
- Use of different materials, especially higher temperature substances
- Larger print volumes
- Higher reliability
- Higher quality
- Simplified operational requirements
- Lower print durations
- Workgroup networking features
And that’s what many companies have done; they’ve adapted their equipment to adopt some or all of these features.
But what is a 3D print community service network to do? I’ve observed them subtly changing their activities over the past year or two, and now it seems official. According to their post, they have switched from:
The go-to-place for 3D printing
A peer-to-peer open marketplace
The go-to-place for manufacturing
A turnkey manufacturing platform
This is their way of shifting markets. They’re addressing the needs of manufacturers and professionals, rather than consumers.
They’ve gradually added features to their system that support these goals, most notably being the addition of industrial-capable participants, far different from the hobby-level participants they originally sought. They’ve also begun to add non-3D printing capabilities to round out the manufacturing angle more fully.
This puts 3D Hubs squarely in competition with other major 3D print / manufacturing services, which have been good business for other companies in the past, so why not for 3D Hubs in the future?
The shift will be good news for 3D Hubs, as it opens up their potential to larger markets that pay more and likely provide the best opportunity for them to survive and thrive in the future.
However, for those who joined 3D Hubs under its previous mandate, this may be disappointing. But the truth of the matter is that the old business model simply wasn’t sustainable given the shift in the market and lack of growth in consumer use of 3D printing. They did what they had to do, something any smart company would do.
Via 3D Hubs