3D Printing

Starting A 3D Printing Business: A Student’s Perspective

There are many intersecting sectors that 3D printing businesses encompass. Many students are now looking towards 3D printing as a business opportunity, a nascent realm where potentiality outweighs the current actuality, and the disruptive effect upon everything from aerospace to regenerative medicine, toys to movie props has yet to be fully fashioned, as much as how the industrialist, designer, maker and end user will connect. One such team of students is looking at this holistic perspective themselves, and their story provides an insight for other students looking to enter the world of 3D printing.

Wesly Jacobs is studying the Commercial Engineering course at the Free University of Brussels (VUB). The course requires tying down a specialisation around half way through the syllabus, which includes selecting a topic for academic research and a unique internship opportunity, which is termed a Technological Business Development Project. The internship lasts an academic year or more, in which multi-disciplinary teams of students are assembled and develop a business model. Afterwards, nothing withholds the students from implementing the model in reality.

Selecting the topic was a relatively straightforward choice for Wesly, who has a deep interest in 3D printing. He reached out to some motivated friends and composed a team with the required skills, talents and capabilities: co-founders Philippe Eiselein, Dimitri Robert, Sven Verleyen and Pieter Vanbellinghen. The balance was a matter of choosing a niche for the internship that would prospectively lead to commercial viability, and that would be accepted by the tutors.

The team worked hard to come up with a business model and with commitment and imagination eventually succeeded. During last year, Wesly and co have been validating this model based on academic research, feedback from the guiding professors, market studies and interviews. They have sought to observe the needs of the 3D printing industry, the 3D printing enthusiast and the person on the street – the end user. The students decided that they would seek to construct a model that would aim to harmonise them.

Right now as the students near the end of their semester they are collating the outcomes of their research and propositions for due diligence, and afterwards aim to enact additional validation to fully ensure that the model is practically implementable. One of the most empowering facets of starting up a business in recent years is the new path of crowd funding, which the team are considering alongside more traditional routes such as business loans and angel investors.

The team have set themselves a goal of creating a future enterprise called PrintPlanet: an online ecosystem connecting what they suggest are the main agents of the 3D printing industry: The 3D modellers, the makers and the users. Printplanet will focus on the specific needs of these three individual groups and the communication between them, in particular with a working theory that the 3D modeller group are often negated or minimised within the interplay of the online dynamic. The vision, Wesly tells me, is to bring these agents together, and through that avail the benefits of 3D printing to everyone. Wesly is keen to create an onus upon the model being an ecosystem, a platform.

Whilst the final nature of this system is yet to be brought to fruition, the ecosystem / platform approach is notable. Technology based platforms have been some of the most successful models in the twenty first century. Facebook started as a way for a handful of people to ‘rate’ who they found hot on campus by a slightly mischievous university student. It has become a platform: For apps, for marketing, for sharing personal media, and much more, now home to a billion users. The genius of Apple’s iPhone was less in the brilliant use of sensory input devices – creating a point of contact between a genuinely portable internet connection with camera (sight), microphone (hearing), touchscreen (touch), accelerometer (balance), compass (orientation), and more in creating a platform for developers to use these data inputs to create applications hosted on a platform, the App Store.

We witness the current leaders in the 3D printing field seeking unique ways to emulate this: MakerBot’s Thingiverse is a platform for users to upload their free designs for users to download and 3D print at home. imaterialise and Shapeways are seeking to expand a platform basis for designs, in contrast to MakerBot their onus is upon models to be printed by themselves as a 3D print shop. 3D Hubs and Makexyz are platforms for home 3D printer owners to create a small business from their printer by creating an ecosystem where the printer owner can interface with end users, and compete for pricing with other local 3D printer owners. There are many other examples that could be given.

These are all models predicted in one of my earliest articles for 3D printing industry, The MakerNet, which suggested that we may witness a stratification of approaches to interfaces and platforms that would create a connection between the various elements of the effected individuals in 3D printing. There is an emergent stratification of services from another perspective, with the owners of industrial additive manufacturing machines at one pole, and the owners of desktop 3D printers at another. All of which can produce, all of which have the opportunity to sell, but not all of which are competing.

Will we witness the trend of the RepRap project becoming more widespread: where patents expire, open source communities emerge, creating a top down and bottom up system where home 3D printers gradually evolve more of the capacities of industrial machines, but at a lesser output quality as a product of their lower cost? This is of course the very essence of modern economics: that things get cheaper, and therefore more accessible to the majority, as businesses compete for pricing, with the twist that open source becomes more of a catalyst in itself.

Regardless, it is going to be interesting to watch the 3D printing industry continue its evolvolution. However we wish to classify the businesses that produce 3D printers, the businesses that sell 3D printers, the businesses that use 3D printers, the businesses that produce 3D printable designs, and the businesses that sell 3D prints, there is a wealth of opportunity in all of these areas. But is it the businesses that fulfil the majority of these niches, and the businesses that create a platform to connect those businesses that fill but some of them, that ultimately have the broadest brush-stroke for success?

Whatever guise PrintPlanet takes, it will be one that may be able to tap into these principles. It’s certainly also interesting watching those who have yet to seek funding, the students, the entrepreneurial inspired by the surge of enthusiasm towards 3D printing, and the children who are just beginning to receive the educational benefits of having a 3D printer in their school, to witness how their ideas — the ideas that with help to shape the future — evolve.