3D printing industry leader 3D Systems announced last week that it plans to stop making consumer 3D printers. They’re going to concentrate on supplying the industrial markets. It’s the culmination of a significant reversal from just a few years ago when the media hype was fueling a bubble among these additive manufacturing makers like 3D Systems and Stratasys. The trend now is moving away from supplying the much publicized hobbyists and enthusiasts and towards the more reliable demand of professional customers
The company has indicated that the discontinued product line will account for < 2% of revenue, roughly $13M in sales, which is much less that the ~$45M in “Consumer” sales we had projected in our model. The primary difference is likely to be materials (which the company has indicated will still be supported), desktop printers, scanners and Gentle Giant studios.
The revenue numbers are a big disappointment because the printers were supposed to follow the time tested and much beloved razor blade model with most of the sales coming from resin filament. The markup on the filament in most cases is a holy grail level 1000% – 2000%. The fact that 3D systems, the pioneer of additive manufacturing, couldn’t make this work is bad news for the industry as a whole.
Stratasys, the other big competitor in the sector, isn’t doing much better. Last year after acquiring Makerbot, perhaps the current top brand in consumer 3D printers, they let go about 1/3 of the workforce (just after making the founders wealthy, of course). Now after seven years and several different updates and revisions, they’re still trying to make a product that works. The class action wolves are now circling, so it may be only a matter of time for their consumer business also.
Meanwhile, dead tree printing stalwarts such as HP and Toshiba are poised to enter the 3D fray, but they will be making industrial 3D printers. The plan is to leverage their already considerable strengths in sales and distribution to medium and small businesses. Mostly they’re drawing on their experience in the consumer sector where they long ago learned that consumer hardware is a commodity business with little prospects for the big growth expected of startups.
One business model for 3D printing that seems to be working isn’t selling the devices but making and selling the final product. Such is the case with Proto Labs.
Proto Labs, on the other hand, enjoys far less competition because the manufacturing services industry is highly fragmented and often slow to turn around orders. This dynamic has allowed Proto Labs to establish itself as lowest cost and fastest provider that can take a product developer through the entire design and manufacturing process — from conceptual model or prototype using 3D printing, to a mid-volume manufacturing run exceeding 10,000 units using injection molding — all in a matter of weeks.
Years ago, I used to do a lot of business with their rapid prototyping division, Fineline, before they bought them out. They were a nice little group of industry experts in the Research Triangle, and it was always super easy and inexpensive to get anything made and in your hands within a few days. There’s a wide moat, as they say, with this business because of capital requirements and technical skills, so I’m sure acquiring Fineline was a great value. This is a good example of the discipline of Proto Labs, unlike 3D Systems which gorged on any over-hyped acquisition it could find until it suffered its current debilitating indigestion.
Another business model that seems to be flourishing along with supplying industrial customers is metal 3D printing. In fact, despite today’s overall market drop, 3D Systems stock was up double digits on an announcement it would aggressively pursue this market. Aside from appealing to deep pocketed industrial customers, metal printing may have certain other advantages over plastic which could win it over in the consumer market.
Metal printing may have the fabled killer app that every innovation must possess to be successful and that has heretofore been so elusive for current 3D printers. Unfortunately, that killer app is firearms, and they are now fighting for their lives. 3D printed guns may save the desktop 3D printer, but first their advocates must save themselves against a State Department ban claiming the guns violate export controls on weapons.
This case is an exceptionally complicated one that hinges on several legal rulings that honestly I don’t see being resolved until it is kicked up to the Supreme Court. Namely, are digital files considered free speech or are they considered objects, and are 3D printable guns covered under the Second Amendment? Several court cases have been working their way through the courts asking similar questions for different reasons, but as of yet there has been no precedent set–though on the other side of the world New South Wales, Australia has been working to ban 3D printable gun files.
While everyone is waiting to hear how Obama plans to slap more regulations on gun sales, the additive manufacturing industry is waiting for the Supreme Court to finally potentially unleash their long awaited and much hyped consumer devices. So stay tuned. Defense Distributed is being represented by Josh Blackman, who as far as I can tell is one of the best experts out there on constitutional law. If he can get the case before SCOTUS he’s got a good chance in my estimation to win it, and with that salvage the consumer 3D printing business.