As another year closes, it’s time to reflect on what’s happened in 3D printing.
2017 must have been the most successful year in the history of 3D printing, at least for several companies and 3D printer operators. This year more 3D printers were sold than ever before, putting this amazing technology in the hands of many more designers.
You’d expect to see growth of this type, but it is quite spectacular in certain cases. While some 3D printer companies are thriving, others are merely surviving. This is part of the continuing evolution of the technology, as companies and projects make a stab at an idea to see if it sticks with the market. Some do, some don’t, and that’s how we all figure out what works.
But during the year I noticed a few important trends that seemed to shape the industry.
The Death Of Irrelevant Crowdfunded 3D Printer Startups: In past years we were besieged by countless 3D printer manufacturing startups who seemed to appear on Kickstarter and Indiegogo several times each week. Unfortunately almost all of these have died out, and there’s a very good reason for that: industry maturity.
Many years ago it was acceptable and sometimes extraordinarily profitable for inventors to paste together a rudimentary 3D printer and launch it as a product. Some of these early startups have massively succeeded, mainly due to their professional management approaches and quality products.
But the days of an inventor throwing together a desktop 3D printer and having a successful launch are virtually gone. Why? Because the earlier firms have matured; their products are now quite sophisticated, reliable and their scale allows lower pricing. With near-identical technology, a startup has virtually no chance of succeeding at this point. Even in 2016 we saw some folks attempting to launch such products - but some literally ended up with ZERO backers.
The only way a 3D printer startup can successfully launch is with something very unique technologically and a ton of investment cash wouldn’t hurt. Even the low priced models are having a hard time as the margins grow ever-thinner as rock bottom prices are approached.
From now on, make something new or don’t bother.
The Acceptance Of Professional Desktop 3D Printers: While the consumer interest in 3D printing lagged for a variety of reasons, many 3D printer manufacturers sought alternative markets for their ever-more sophisticated products. They found one: professionals. These architects, engineers and industrial designers increasingly slurped up thousands of powerful machines, particularly those capable of 3D printing in more interesting engineering materials.
These machines also set a new pricing level for the industry: we now see many powerful machines sold in the USD$10-50K range, which previously sat mostly empty in-between the inexpensive desktop machines and the traditional “big iron” from the major 3D printer manufacturers.
The Appearance Of Major Chemical Corporations: With the acceptance of professional 3D printing came a large demand for more unusual 3D printing materials. Most 3D print material suppliers are merely distributors, and they’ve increasingly turned to the major chemical companies for new products to meet the needs of their clients.
This seems to have “turned on” the major chemical companies to the industry, several of whom are now going full bore in 3D printing by opening up new divisions dedicated to the technology. Previously these companies seemed to be satisfied with being an invisible, behind-the-scenes supplier, but now that’s no longer the case: they are very visible and their brands will soon dominate the industry.
The Explosion Of 3D Metal Printing: GE figured it out; 3D metal printing of production parts is actually a highly profitable approach. They’ve used the technology for some years and refined their understanding to the point where they realized this field would explode. Thus in 2016 they pursued and acquired a couple of 3D metal printer manufacturers.
In 2017 they accelerated their 3D metal printing ventures to full speed, with the introduction of multiple new technologies and techniques. This demonstrated to the entire manufacturing industry that 3D metal printing was indeed a “thing”, and as a result there has been fantastic demand for 3D metal printing equipment, materials, services, processes, and associated hardware. They’ve even leveraged their financing arm in this market.
The Continuing Absence Of Consumer 3D Printing: During the consumer 3D printing “boom” in 2012-2015, several device manufacturers partnered with major retail chains to put 3D printers on the shelves of their stores and websites. The idea was for consumers and small businesses to buy them in the same way they purchase 2D paper printers and WiFi routers.
It largely didn’t work.
Consumers might have had a small understanding of what the technology was, but when directly confronted with the notion of actually using one - which would require 3D knowledge, software and a definite purpose - they could not do so. As a result sales were most likely very low for such devices in retail chains.
In 2017 we saw virtually no mentions of such ventures as we had in the past. The shelves of major retailers by and large do not carry 3D printers anymore, although you can still occasionally find them in the bowels of online stores. Sometimes with marked down pricing.
It will be a long time before we again see a blast of usable 3D printers in consumer retail stores.
The Triumph of Asian 3D Printers in the West: While those in the West have long followed different Western 3D printer manufacturers, there have been many years of development of the technology in Asia. For many reasons, the Asian tech was separated from the Western sphere, sometimes leading to incorrect notions of the quality of the equipment.
That’s now changing as in 2017 multiple large and highly successful Asian 3D printer manufacturers have begun marketing their powerful products in the West. Yes, there have been a few in previous years, but in 2017 it became a trend. We saw many companies introducing 3D products to Western markets, where buyers were frequently surprised at the power of the machines and the highly competitive pricing.
This phenomenon occurred at all levels of 3D printing capabilities, ranging from the least expensive desktop hobby machines to huge 3D metal production printers. However, many Asian companies still struggle with marketing efforts in the West, which seems to be quite different than what they have traditionally done.
The Success of (Some) Open Source Ventures: Open source ventures are those that base a business on a publicly available open source framework. To traditional business leaders, this is an enormous risk, as the public availability of the key technological features means, in theory, that the barrier to entry to that market is lower and you could expect to see competition. This leads some inventors and their investors to patent technology to prevent this effect.
However, 2017 saw massive success of at least two ventures who base their entire operation on open source materials: Prusa Research and Aleph Objects. The two companies produce low-cost desktop 3D printers whose designs are open sourced to the public.
One might suggest their success lies in the fact they are open sourced, and to some degree that may be true. But I believe there are two other reasons that have driven these companies to absolutely incredible sales levels: their products actually work very reliably and they don’t cost very much.
Good company management is going to help a company succeed, regardless of whether the product is open sourced or not, and that seems to be the case in these two ventures.