A Network for 3D Printers

So far in his article series that considers the evolving 3D printing ecosystem, Ivan Pope has introduced the concept, documented the content arm of that ecosystem and looked at the drivers — the control software — that is integral to the ecosystem as a whole. Here in Part 4 of the Series, Ivan delves into 3D printer networks — both distributed and concentrated.

In a world filling with 3D printers, is it possible to distribute access to these printers to a wider user base?

There are already two kinds of 3D printer networks: distributed networks and concentrated networks.

A concentrated network would be established 3D printing companies such as Shapeways, iMaterialise and Sculpteo etc where orders are fed from the network to a cluster of centralised 3D printers managed by the company.

Makexyz 3d hubs 3d printingDistributed networks are emerging however, bringing individual 3D printer owners under their umbrella. Consider that you have just given in to temptation and bought your own (over priced?) 3D printer; you might be tempted to try earning a few pounds/Euro/dollars back from it. The new distributed 3D printer networks — such as 3D Hubs, Makexyz, et al — offer an immediate way to connect your resource to their networks and do just that.

These companies are actually building marketplaces with two sides: buyers and sellers. The sellers are those offering some form of 3D printing service and the buyers are those who want something 3D printed. The trick with all marketplaces is to balance the two sides and to survive while doing so. In the case of 3D printing marketplaces, as with all marketplaces, the supply side is fairly easy to source, buyers harder to find, but a company that doesn’t find a balance will not stay in business.

One of the most obvious things to do with a network and a 3D printer is to provide access to 3D printing for anyone on the network. The first companies to do this took a traditional bureau type approach and offered printing by way of a set of in-house 3D printers.

imaterialise ponoko shapeways 3d printingThe original 3D printer marketplaces were concentrated networks. Shapeways, iMaterialise, Ponoko and others either built in-house facilities and/or contracted with external bureaus to supply all their customers’ needs. Shapeways effectively set up a bureau and built a wonderful front end for it, which encouraged custom by letting their members build marketing shopfronts. Ponoko built more of a distributed network, using a variety of partners around the world. There are two advantages to this: less investment is needed and you can scale faster, but the downside is that your suppliers will want to take much of the profit. Ponko also built a lovely front end for the service. These companies offer a high end printing service with a range of materials.

More recently, with the advent of more widespread, lower end 3D printers, a new type of network has sprung into life, the distributed network. These start-ups rely on the existence of thousands of local printers, all run by enthusiastic amateurs.

The most well known of these distributed printer networks that are aiming to build huge networks of service printers include 3D Hubs and Makexyz, a pair of almost mirror image startups. The former starting in the (spiritual) home of European 3DP start-ups, Holland; and the latter on the other side of the Atlantic in New York.

Competitors in this space also include Kraftwurx, which is the longest established distributed network by far, and Printr, who, at this point, is just promising a distributed network as part of their online presence.

3D Hubs and Makexyz both work in the same basic way. Anyone with a 3D printer can register with the service and gain a presence. Anyone who needs 3D printing done can search geographically for a 3D printer, upload an .stl file, and choose which printer they want to make their part/prototype/design. The printer (Hub in 3D Hubs’ terms) then has 24 hours in which to accept your order. The marketplace takes payment for the order and passes it on to the printer, minus a commission. The premise of these sites is strongly based on the local connection, although producers can opt to use a postal service. 3D Hubs has a concept of Mayors who work to co-ordinate local activity.

kraftwurx myminifactory 3d printing files3D Hubs is so far strictly focused on 3D printers and claims the largest collection of them, almost 6000 now. Makexyz, on the other hand, has added other equipment such as CNC routers, laser cutters and scanners. Kraftwurx has been running for much longer than these two and focuses more on the somewhat up-market bureau type services. MyMiniFactory also offers a marketplace for printer owners.

The promise of all of these marketplaces is two-fold: commercial paid work for printer owners and access to a variety of printers for anyone who wants something 3D printed. As with other parts of the ecosystem, there is a variety of approaches to this service, from the very basic service of connecting printers and users (and taking a fee) to the all singing all dancing approach of someone like MyMiniFactory, where the user may not even realise they are taking part in a marketplace as there are many other services on offer.

It seems almost inevitable that the model that these start-ups are using will be subject to change and evolution over the next few years. There will be a big question mark over the value of such a service at the lower end as 3D printers become more ubiquitous, cheaper and more powerful. It is perhaps inevitable that these services will become richer and more sophisticated, catering to a changing market by focusing on the revenue flows, which inevitably come from 20% of the user base.

These printer networks fit well with a cloud based view of what 3D printers can achieve. They offer a widening of the point of owning a printer and hold out the potential for some to create genuine local businesses, offering services to a varied local crowd. It seems probable that there will be partnerships or even mergers with other parts of the ecosystem such as object stores, secure distribution services and printer management software. One of the original printer service bureaus, Shapeways, has evolved to look very much like the maker site, Etsy, despite offering a completely different service. This observation may give an insight into what works for the service: it may be as much about the objects that are being 3D printed as it is about the printers themselves. It may be about allowing the users to create powerful shop-fronts for their services in order to bring more buyers in. And the whole space may be upended by the next generation of 3D printers. Bets on either the distributed or the concentrated network market models may be premature.

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