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Why Some 3D Print Research Never Makes It To A Product

The pyramid of 3D print technologies [Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay]

Very often you’ll see amazing research into new forms of 3D printing appear on our pages, but you might wonder why you can’t ever buy a product with that technology.

Some of the research is astonishing, and upon reading you might immediately recognize substantial benefits of using it in your own operations — that is, if you can get your hands on it.

Most often you cannot, at least for a while, and sometimes the answer is never.

Why is it that some of these seemingly amazing discoveries cannot make it into commercial products that you could actually use in real life? It turns out there are a series of barriers that the technology must pass through before it appears on a product list.

Let’s take a look at those barriers.

Financial Feasibility

If the new process works, there is a question of whether it is financially feasible. That is, if it were used, is the cost of the process less than what you could charge a client for it? This has to do with how efficient the process is, but also whether the process is valuable to the buyer. If the buyer can obtain similar results with an alternative solution at lower cost, then you’re not going too far.

Sometimes this aspect is neglected by researchers who are simply trying to achieve a result. It may be that they required the use of very expensive equipment, skills or materials to achieve that result, and those elements may not be present or affordable in a commercial situation.

Potential Market Size

Even if a process works well and is financially feasible, it may still not go forward into commercialization because the size of the possible market is too small. An entrepreneur would ask this question:

“If we built this product perfectly and sold it to every possible client that could reasonably use and afford it, how much money could be generated?”

In some cases, the market is so small that it literally isn’t worth the bother proceeding; entrepreneurs and investors could direct their efforts and funds to other more profitable ventures.

Ownership

Many new discoveries are made at or through major educational institutions. As you might expect, the ownership of the intellectual property would at least partly, if not wholly, be held by the institution. Thus, for a process to be commercialized, it must be somehow licensed out to parties that know how to do so.

That “technology transfer” is a complex process that is very well done by some institutions, but others are simply terrible at doing so. They may offer lousy business terms that few entrepreneurs would accept, and thus the discovery silently orbits a university while bureaucrats await deals that never happen.

Business Acumen

Commercialization is a very difficult task and requires very specific skills, and those skills are not technical: they are business skills. Very often the technology inventors, while terrific at inventing technologies, are simply terrible business managers.

In some cases the inventors hold the majority control of a technology startup, and mistakenly feel they are the proper folks to run the business. I’ve frequently seen academics feel that the business aspects are “easy”, simply because their normal work is “hard”. In fact, business management is not “easy”, it is “different”. And they don’t know how to do it.

I’ve seen multiple promising technologies die simply because the stubborn inventors fail to yield business control to expert managers. Don’t make that mistake!

Patent Conflicts

With major corporations publishing hundreds of patents each year, it’s possible there is an overlap with an already-published patent by another party. Given that patents these days are written in the vaguest possible manner, a big corporation could easily threaten a tiny startup if they feel there is even the slightest overlap.

Situations like that deter investors from funding startups, and it’s a difficult barrier to cross.

Corporate Blocking

Large, established corporations depend on their long-time business models. But what happens if a startup company threatens to disrupt that business model with a new technology? It’s very difficult for a large operation to shift gears at the same rate as a nimble startup, so they have to take action before they lose control.

Sometimes that involves buying or licensing the new technology from the startup and incorporating it into their products. But other times they simply buy the tech and shelve it. This is why some technologies seem to disappear entirely.

Poor Marketing

Finally, even if a product passes all of the above, and the product is launched, it can still fail because it’s not marketed properly. No one knows about the product and few sales occur. Eventually, the venture fails.

This may seem like a minor point, but in fact it is critical. I’ve seen many startups exhibiting their products at major 3D print trade shows, only to find they don’t have a hot clue how to portray their “secret sauce” in a way to attract buyers. I’ve had many long discussions with companies only to discover they have something amazing they are not telling anyone about!

The Pyramid Of 3D Print Success

These barriers are part of what I would call a pyramid: there are countless experiments occurring constantly that make up the bottom of the pyramid.

As they are evaluated, some make it to the next layer, and so on until the very top. Only a very small percentage of all the ideas will become successful commercial products, as they have to make it through all of these barriers.

That’s why you don’t see all these amazing research findings suddenly becoming new 3D printing products.

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