3D Printing

The Everlasting Gobstopper: 3D Printing Models & Markets

3D printers are getting cheaper. The home-designed home 3D printer community continues to thrive and produce ever-increasing numbers of 3D printer models, at ever-lower prices. Whilst MakerBot maintains an ‘early leader’ hold on the more expensive end of the home/prosumer 3D printing market, cheaper alternatives such as Solidoodle already bare witness to the stratification of markets: one ‘race to the bottom’ costing solution aimed at the mass market; a ‘race to affordable quality’ for home 3D printing; and even smaller niches, from portable printers, such as the Portabee, to extendible devices, Deezermaker’s BukoBot for example.

All pretty standard for a product in a Capitalist market place – right? Demand drives innovation and competition drives cost efficiency.

But this is the technology predicted to cull Capitalism, decentralizing ownership of the Means Of Production from Capitalist investor or Communist State to the individual… things can’t be that straight forward?

The over-all market place has been quantified and publicised, analysed and rationalised. There’s a USD$3.1 billion generic market to compete for and a myriad of players entering the competition.

But, wait: that’s a USD$3.1 billion marketplace for 3D printers by 2016. It’s already possible to purchase a 3D printer for USD$300. Do these projections account for the rapid price plunge? How far can the race to the bottom go? How will this affect profitability?

After the bargain basement niche has been explored to its limit, where will the profit margins be for 3D printer manufacturers – from the industrial giants such as 3D Systems, who entered the ring with 3DPs aimed specifically at the consumer market last year, to the brilliant innovators (and me-too tinkerers) crafting models at home to crowd-fund?

Gillette has come to dominate the home razor market. The company has maintained a strategy of producing a loss making lead product, the razor, with a highly profitable refill: the razorblades.

Home printing, in its two dimensional manifestation, became far more accessible to a mass market place with a product that was also initially deemed specialist by following this loss-leading business model. Cheap printer, with profit margins maintained by printer cartridges.

Today’s profits are made selling generic reels of filament. It’s no surprise therefore to find a burgeoning market for reels of PLA on eBay.

‘Home refills’ for 3D printers, devices for plastic recycling/ upcycling such as the Filabot, will likely be felt, by any near future mass market, to complicate a complex technology: few 3D printers promise, let alone achieve, anything like ‘plug-and-play’ at the moment. Until that usability challenge is overcome, ‘home refill’ solutions will remain for the enthralled, experienced makers.

Standardisation wins, and the ‘hidden cost’ of filament creates a wide market for materials that feed any 3D printer. Not quite…

Since the announcement last week of the world’s first, multi-colour home 3D printing machine, by botObjects, the online 3D printing community has been abuzz with considerable surprise at multi-colour home 3D printing technology emerging so soon – and that technology runs on brand specific cartridges.

A world’s first necessitates brand-specific in add-ons: but odds are we aren’t about to witness a new wave of multi-colour 3D printers that share the same filament the same way a mass-produced MakerBot Replicator 2 and the RepRap 3D printer created in your garage do.

This is not new, although it is rare — the UP! 3D printer uses brand-specific refills, amongst others. But multi-colour printers will quickly bite into the market share of higher cost monotone home 3D printers. botObjects’ 3D printer, if/when it materializes, may well set a precedent for future manufacturers, following what may be described as an Apple Corp model: innovative high specification technology with peripherals and paraphernalia specific to the device.

Varieties of business model for 3D printer manufacturers will most likely begin to solidify this year. For the consumer new to the technology, this means being aware of the ‘hidden extras’ – just how much are those brand-specific filament refills going to cost? For the RepRap hobbyist this means continuing to compare the cost and quality of a range of filament producers.

For the industrial printer designer, are your users going to find the price of refills makes the technology unaffordable? For the home maker of printers for sale, will now generic filament earn more of a highlight in your specification list?

Inbuilt obsolescence and hidden costs can make or mar any market. A certain caution in adding elements that may deflate realisation of expectations, for an already over-hyped ‘Make anything at home for free’ technology, may be advisable – unless, like the everlasting gob-stopper, marketability is to remain in novel claims that cannot be fulfilled. But, then, like the candy shop treat of fame, will the market just grow out of it?

More on this topicMcor Does Generic too