From Software to Hardware: Will 3D Printer Manufacturers Embrace Subscriptions?

By on August 1st, 2023 in Ideas, news

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How angry will we be when 3D printer subscriptions arrive? [Source: Fabbaloo / LAI]

What happens when 3D printer manufacturers catch on to the subscription craze?

I don’t know about you, but I came from a world that had few subscriptions. Maybe there was the newspaper and some magazines, but that’s about it. Nowadays, things are vastly different.

We pay subscriptions for almost everything. Cable TV, streaming services, email, apps, software services, and more.

A lot of this is due to software companies. Originally software was sold as-is with a one-time payment. The software makers would create longer term revenue streams by producing upgrades, which would then be purchased by those wanting to upgrade.

But then that changed with the introduction of software subscription services. Adobe was perhaps the company that really brought this forward, as they switched their user base to subscriptions.

It makes sense for the company, as it allows for more control of the software — only the current version is valid, and it can be upgraded anytime. It also provides a guaranteed revenue stream each month. Finally, it also produces more revenue because the pricing of these services is typical a bit higher than the cost of upgrading one-time-cost software at each release.

As a result, we all find ourselves swamped with subscriptions. And it’s getting ridiculous. I’ve heard, for example, that BMW is considering charging a subscription fee to enable the seat heaters in their vehicles.

But there’s few subscriptions in the 3D print scene, at least not yet.

I thought about what forms of subscription might be attempted, and it didn’t look like a lot of fun. It might be that in the future the 3D printers are “free”, but instead you pay subscription costs. Here are some thoughts about what might be used to monetize 3D printers with subscription fees, and why we don’t see it today.

Printer Subscription

This would be the most basic subscription. Get the machine at no charge, but pay a monthly fee to make it work. There was one attempt to do this some years ago, but evidently it didn’t catch on.

There are two reasons why we don’t see this today. First, machines are often DIY-capable, so any attempt to lock out the operator would likely be defeated by ingenious users. Secondly, the printers change in capability so rapidly that no one would want to pay the same fee for a machine for, say three years. They’d expect upgrades, and that likely won’t make financial sense for the manufacturer.

Material Subscription

Instead of buying material, a subscription would allow the subscriber to select a fixed quantity and type of material for delivery each month.

This is actually done, but is applicable to only a few 3D printer operators. They must have consistent printing needs, which is actually pretty rare. Most 3D printer operators are occasional users and have bursts of activity when projects light up. Having a consistent amount of material delivered each month probably wouldn’t make sense for most people, especially if choices are limited.

Upgrade Subscription

In this model, one would purchase a 3D printer as usual. Then, if you have paid the monthly upgrade fee you would be eligible to receive the next upgraded equivalent model when it’s available in a year’s time — at a discount from the list price.

This might not work because the space is quite competitive and you cannot know what amazing devices might be available in a year’s time. What if you had committed to buying a normal upgraded machine but missed out on a high speed machine when they came out? I suspect this approach would not work at all.

Feature Subscription

Imagine buying a 3D printer but requiring a US$25/mo fee to enable “high speed mode”. Or another US$5/mo for advanced, near-perfect automated calibration?

These are approaches that I could see happening in the near future. It would make sense for the manufacturers as they could make one hardware design that becomes, via software, multiple models through software engagement. It’s the entry level model, but becomes the flagship model if you pay more — per month.

Could this work? Technically yes, but I suspect it would be entirely infuriating for most 3D printer operators, and could sink any manufacturer attempting to do so. However, once someone manages to get this in the market, I could see other manufacturers doing the same quite quickly.

Cloud Subscription

There are plenty of cloud systems for 3D printers these days, but they are there mostly to help create a useful ecosystem for the convenience of the operator and thus attract more sales.

But what if every provider had this and it wasn’t a differentiating factor anymore? Could a manufacturer then require a fee to access their cloud system? Could they require slicing be done in their cloud to enforce this? I could see this happening, but it certainly wouldn’t make the manufacturer very popular.

Subscriptions are a way of life these days, but fortunately there are few in the 3D printer world for the reasons above.

At least for now.

By Kerry Stevenson

Kerry Stevenson, aka "General Fabb" has written over 8,000 stories on 3D printing at Fabbaloo 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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