It’s the beginning of a new year, and it’s time for predictions. Anti-predictions, actually.
Usually I try to give some hints on where I think things might head in the coming year, but I decided to do something different. Here I’m going to predict what won’t happen.
Let’s take a look at my thoughts.
New Startups Will Not Disrupt the 3D Printing Market
Over the past year we’ve continually seen new startup companies suddenly appear with something seemingly revolutionary. Often they look quite promising, such as the new metal technology from Seurat, for example.
There’s almost certainly several others cooking behind closed doors, almost ready to be announced some time in 2023.
But will these companies with their possibly amazing tech take out the existing major players in 3D printing? Or even some of them?
I think not. There’s a massive momentum required to deploy businesses like these, and it takes many years to do so. Today’s giants, like EOS, 3D Systems, Stratasys and others spent literally decades building up their sales networks, customer relationships, suppliers, and more, and while those might not appear to be technologies, they are utterly critical to grow a business. Even the most astounding new technology has to be surrounded by that stuff in order to grow.
That will happen for these new companies, just not immediately. This is a slow burn scenario.
Asian 3D Printer Companies Will Not Dominate
I’ve said this before, but I’m continually impressed with the trajectory of inexpensive Asian 3D printers. From laughable entries years ago, today’s desktop equipment from these manufacturers is often very powerful and available at the lowest prices in the industry. Their pricing is now lower than several leading Western providers.
Will these Asian companies take over the low-end market in 2023?
In spite of their advancing technology and benefit per buck ratio, I say no.
While these companies seem to have figured out the technologies involved, and in particular the equipment manufacturing processes, they stall when facing another challenge: marketing and relating to the customer.
The documentation, support, interfaces, design styles, software UI flow and advertising slogans are almost universally ineffective when dealing with Western users. I’ve literally advised several of these companies to simply hire the right people to figure this out, but no manufacturer seems to be interested. It is possible to do: DJI, makers of consumer drones, seem to have figured this out. Why can’t 3D printer manufacturers?
Until this is changed, the Asian companies will not dominate the desktop 3D printer market.
3D Printer Companies Not Likely to See Tremendous Growth in 2023
In recent years we’ve seen tremendous growth from many 3D printer companies. Some have grown so rapidly they’ve been able to absorb others and grow even faster.
Some of the companies I’ve spoken to recently continue to talk of “Doubling” their size last year.
You’d think this would continue. But I think not.
The only companies talking about notable growth are the smaller entities. Most of the bigger ones remain quiet, which suggests that in general, they’re not growing very much. The fact that few of these companies have announced anything much new beyond a material or two tells you a lot.
I suspect 2023 will be somewhat flat for the majority of larger players in 3D printing, particularly with predictions of economic recession looming.
Diversity in 3D Printing Industry Won’t Be Solved in 2023
There’s been quite a bit of attention paid to the issue of diversity in the world of 3D printing, or more specifically, the lack of diversity.
Diverse environments are almost always better, because there are more points of view shared and taken into account. Many 3D print companies now realize this and are taking steps to increasing their diversity, to one degree or another.
While that’s generally good news, it doesn’t mean the diversity issue will be solved in 2023. In fact, there is so much ground to be made up it will most likely take some years before the state of diversity reaches desired levels. Hiring practices have to change, work environments have to evolve, people have to retire. All of this takes a great deal of time.
Like building a new business from scratch, this is also a slow burn.
Financial Challenges for 3D Printing Companies Will Not Disappear in 2023
Adding to the earlier point, my suspicion is that there are multiple 3D printing companies that are quietly having ongoing financial challenges.
In 2022 we saw some companies execute massive layoffs, with substantial portions of their staff being surgically removed. One company even let go of their sales division in an effort to refocus on existing clients.
It’s likely there’s more of this brewing behind the scenes, and as a result we may see abrupt changes in the space. Some companies will be suddenly acquired by others, which seek to scoop up talent, tech or customers at a discount. Others may simply fold up entirely.
It’s going to be an interesting year.
Pause in Public Offerings in 2023
When we started this publication there were basically two publicly-tradable 3D printer companies, 3D Systems and Stratasys. My, how times have changed. In the past two years we’ve seen a couple of dozen companies “go public” and enter the stock market for trading.
That move enabled many to raise massive amounts of capital that were used to expand operations and in some cases, acquire competitors or companies with complementary technologies.
The success of some persuaded others to follow, and in the rush we saw many go through the difficult “IPO” process, or short circuit that path with the now out of fashion SPAC route.
Will we see more of this in 2023? I can’t see that happening. Any companies with valuable tech would not want to put it up for sale in a public offering when the economy is down. They’d lose value. I suspect we’ll see a pause in public offerings for a year or more, and things will resume when the economy picks up.
No Heavy Consumer Adoption of 3D Print Services
One of the most incredible features of 3D printing is the ability to make custom objects, even in single units. This is quite different from mass manufacturing, where a complex production process is tediously built and then runs continuously to make identical objects.
3D printing allows an operator to literally build a different object each time the machine runs. This means it would be possible for a business to set up an operation where a customer could request a unique product on demand.
Several ventures have done such a thing. There are sites where you can order perfectly fitting shoes, eyewear or even bicycle frames.
But all of these things have one thing in common: they are expensive, especially when compared to mass manufactured — but not customized — equivalents. The extra cost is due to the underlying expensiveness of 3D print technology and materials.
As a result, with one exception, we still will not see mass adoption of this style of item production, even though it is the ultimate vision of how manufacturing will be done in the future. There will continue to be niche services to produce this or that, but none in widespread use.
The exception is in healthcare. Currently the majority of dental aligners are 3D printed, as are some types of implants. They’re an exception because those items are already expensive and the consumers were already prepared to spend on them.
For other items that are available at lower costs, we’ll have to wait for new and less expensive 3D print technologies to emerge.
2023 In General
The beginning of the year is a time to envision all manner of incredible progress, and that’s a good thing to do. But at the same time it’s important to recognize that most change, particularly at larger scales, happens very much slower.
2023 will be another year where some steps in progress will happen.