I just came across a posting from Terry Wohlers that he did in December with some interesting observations on the growth of 3D Printing in retail stores:
3D Printing at Retail Stores
I have to agree with Terry’s assessment that these efforts in Africa and Europe to bring this new technology to a mass market through old business models may not click. Some of the efforts here in the US seem to be a better fit. Reading the article, and the fact that non-technical people are constantly bringing up 3D Printing around me, got me to thinking about the retail space and where it is headed.
Is Online the Future for Retail 3D Printing?
In New York, the VC backed experiment at Shapeways seems like a more viable option for mass retail 3D printing. There was an interesting interview done in December by the Business Insider that sheds some light on how things are going, but does not discuss the business aspect too much. What I am interested in knowing is what type of margin Shapeways is making on their parts with the prices as low as they are, or are they using their buckets of VC money to build market share in hopes that volume will bring their margins up? It would be interesting to know.
A French company called Sculpteo has a similar model. I’m sure there are others.
3D Systems, along with buying up as many technologies as they can, has launched their own retail competitor to Shapeways called Cubify. Their advantage is that they do not have to pay full price for machines or materials. It is early days and in some ways it looks like a vehicle for promoting their low-end FDM CUBE machines, but the reach of 3D Systems may make a difference.
The Brick and Mortar Store
Although these online based models have the advantage of access to the masses to grow their markets, storefront retail outlets for 3D Printing also seem to be taking off. Makerbot, the kings of getting media attention for low-end 3D printing, has a showcase store now in Manhattan. This store may be more for marketing than a direct revenue generator, but it starts a trend. A new startup, 3DEA is also in New York City and they are trying to use similar low-end FDM technology to provide 3D printing to the masses through a corner store, literally.
Here at PADT we are aware of several companies starting the same thing in the west and they seem to have good solid business models that will not only go after the art/accessory/gadget market but they are also looking at other more practical retail applications. We think this broader and more balanced approach has merit.
Is New York the Center of Retail 3D Printing?
Are you seeing a trend here? Retail 3D Printing in the US seems to be focused on New Your City. There is a store in Pasadena called Deezmaker, but it is more hacker-centric selling more kits than home machines or direct to consumer printed objects.
Is this NYC bias because the market for consumer 3D printing is huge there? Or is it the art community? Or is it a tech-infiriority complex with the west coast? A “we missed all this computer based stuff, so we are going to lead on this 3D printing thing” effect?
I suspect it has more to do with the proximity to Wall Street and the mass media than anything else. Which may or may not be good for the additive manufacturing business. It means cash and exposure for something that really captures the imagination of the general public. But is this a bubble that will grow and pop for the full industry? Or will it just be the retail side? Only time will tell.
FDM Rules, but not Necessarily Good FDM.
One other take away from this retail trend is the dominance of Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) technology that is making much of this possible. Although Shapeways seems to use almost all of the technologies, most of the startups that are trying to get the cost down and the volume up are using some sort of low-cost FDM technology. This is reflected in the lower costs and in the poor finished part quality that is seen on most of the websites. It is too bad more are not looking at technology Stratasys, the originators of FDM and producers of machines that make very high-quality parts.
I bring this up not only because PADT is a long time Stratasys reseller, but because the poor part quality might result in a black eye for the industry as a whole. And the concern is not just about aesthetics, but also about part strength. There is a lot of excitement over making replacement parts for appliances, toys, and consumer electronics. Delamination in low-cost FDM parts is a real concern.
I also wonder if the merger of Stratasys and Objet might allow for the development of low cost and reliable 3D Printing based on the Objet inkjet printing approach as a compliment to FDM based systems.
What is the Future?
Anyone that is in the RP business knows that the use of additive manufacturing for prototyping, tooling, and even production is growing and getting better. Machines are faster, more accurate, and offer much better material choices. And the cost of systems that make strong, high-quality parts is coming down. So the non-retail side of this market should see continued strong growth.
The retail side of things is seeing a lot of buzz, a lot of press, and a lot of interest from average consumers. As with any new market it is hard to guess where it is going. But history has shown us that something like this that shows the potential of being a disruptive technology will have a big impact, and the market will whipsaw back and forth a few times before the technology finds its place and becomes mainstream.
For the record, just to see how close I get, I predict the following landscape for retail 3D Printing in five to ten years:
- Two or three large on-line outlets, focused on art, fashion, and accessories as an outlet for small designers.
- One or two large business supply/service chains that offer 3D Printing alongside traditional printing and copying using high quality FDM technlogy
- A variety of specialty local almost neighborhood stores that offer duplication using 3D scanning and printers along with part printing.
Hopefully someone will remind me of this post in the future and we can see how far off I am.