Ultimaker Is Winning. We Found Their Black Magic
Of all the early players in the desktop 3D printer market, Ultimaker has by far become the most successful.
It is a bit puzzling, as they started out in much the same place as MakerBot, Solidoodle, and several others, but the outcome is vastly different. Their early competitors mostly went out of business or were acquired by larger parties (like MakerBot).
Certainly Ultimaker produces well-regarded equipment, but a close look at the machine’s features reveals no miraculous differences from their competitors. Yet Ultimaker consistently outsells these competitors.
How do they do it?
Ultimaker’s Black Magic
One vendor I spoke with seemed to feel that Ultimaker had some kind of “black magic” sales team that was mysteriously able to repeatedly infiltrate companies and persuade them to buy quantities of equipment.
And those quantities are large. Ultimaker tells us they now have over 125,000 machines deployed, and surprisingly 65,000 of them were sold by the end of 2017! Their sales is incredibly strong, yet their unit price is not inexpensive. Their sales are much larger than almost any other desktop 3D printer manufacturer.
What are they doing to achieve these sales levels? Do they employ sales staff with superpowers? Is it really magic?
It turns out their system is not magic at all, but is rather scientific. And truly brilliant.
Ultimaker In The Enterprise
Ultimaker seems to have a goal of selling large quantities of equipment to enterprises. This is a very powerful goal, because it means that they might gain the sale of a large number of units in a single sale, much unlike the typical one-by-one sales of competitors. This is a vastly more efficient sales process.
To achieve volume sales in the enterprise, they have deeply understood how the acquisition process works in larger companies. I resonate strongly with their concept, because I lived in that corporate world personally for many years and can vouch for its validity.
They’ve divided their sales sequence into three phases, each of which they address differently.
Ultimaker Champion Phase
In the first “Champion” phase, there is usually a single engineer in an enterprise that wants to incorporate 3D printing technology. At this phase, Ultimaker has organized a specific set of equipment and services to assist that individual.
For example, they keep the pricing low. The new Ultimaker S3, for example, is specifically targeted at this phase. It’s priced at under US$5,000 on purpose, because that is very typically the maximum signing authority allowed for purchases in large enterprises.
Another service Ultimaker provides at this stage is a “site scan” service where Ultimaker specialists can assist the engineer in determining good opportunities for demonstration parts.
Their materials system allows the lone engineer to very quickly get started productively on the S3, without involving “wasted” time tuning materials. More often than not, the lone engineer is sneaking the machine into the enterprise as they have little or no support from management, and wish to keep things less noticeable. Spending many hours getting the machine working would be noticeable.
I should say that in general, management in large enterprises tends to not want to change anything. That’s because their annual bonuses are typically dependent on predicting what will happen throughout the year, and they’ve already made plans for the year using approaches they’re familiar with.
Once the lone engineer gets the machine working and can physically show results to management, they may begin to become convinced that 3D printing is a thing that could be “explored further”.
Ultimaker Professional Competency Center
“Exploring Further” is essentially what the next “Professional” phase involves, which is setting up a centralized competency center within the enterprise. At this stage certain parties in the enterprise are somewhat familiar with the technology, having seen it demonstrated by the lone engineer. They have confidence to create a competency center composed of several engineers and several 3D printers.
For this stage Ultimaker has again designed specific services and equipment that build on the previous capabilities. Their cloud service, in particular, is useful here because it allows the several 3D printers to work together in the competency centre.
Interestingly, the Ultimaker equipment is able to generate its own network: one machine automatically acts as the master, and the others become slaves. This is really critical, because this allows the department that has set up the competency center to avoid calling the enterprise’s IT department. If they did, many IT departments would automatically shut down work for a long time until they could inspect the equipment and ensure it was secure — or simply ban its use entirely.
The competency center, once in operation, can then accept requests from other departments across the enterprise. Usually these would come from interested engineers wishing to demonstrate the value of 3D printing to their management, in much the same way as the first lone engineer. Except here it’s far more efficient.
Ultimaker Distributed Phase
Eventually departments all across the enterprise are then exposed to the technology, and “critical mass” of support is generated to enable a much larger deployment. This is what Ultimaker calls the “Distributed” phase.
In this competency centers are created all across the enterprise, and Ultimaker has designed equipment specifically for this phase, too. That happens to be their most recent announcement, the Ultimaker S5 Bundle. This system provides an ability to perform consistent production through sophisticated handling of the material environment throughout the printing process.
The Bundle addresses several typical objections that might arise during an enterprise’s debate over whether to deploy Ultimaker equipment.
These might include:
Safety: the Bundle includes sophisticated air control and an ability to eliminate nanoparticles
Costs of extra labor to operate the machines: Ultimaker’s bundle includes an automated spooling system to dramatically reduce labor time required for operation
Deployment concerns: Ultimaker provides a squad of professionals to show the enterprise how to adjust their workflow and processes to efficiently deploy the equipment.
Ultimaker Decision Made Easy
I think you can see just how dramatically Ultimaker has knocked down most of the barriers for enterprise acquisition of large quantities of their 3D printers. It’s a brilliant strategy that matches up precisely with the normal sequence of events in an enterprise when switching to radically new approaches.
Now when you look at an Ultimaker 3D printer, know that they are definitely not competing on technical features; they are actually competing on workflow.
It’s not black magic; it’s science.