Chaos 3D: Exploring the current state of the desktop 3D printer market
It seems like it was a lifetime ago that DesignBox3D entered the additive manufacturing space, starting initially as a reseller of desktop and professional grade FDM based 3D printers. As an organization, we have focused on hands-on testing and use of any new product that we were considering adding to our product line. Nothing comes in here without being extensively tested.
While we started on the reseller side, we quickly added consulting and distribution (in the additive manufacturing space) to our service offerings for our clients. Why did we add these services? We added them because we were listening to the market.
Finding a quality 3D printer
Why do we focus on testing? I look at testing as a way to not just become familiar with a product, but also with the organization behind that product. It’s not enough for us to stock “cool” looking boxes emblazoned with manufacturer’s logos – we want to know that the 3D printer is reliable, represents quality and is well built. Is that enough? Not quite.
The best looking product could end up being less valuable than a paperweight if it is not backed by quality support. For the products that we resell, we provide first line support and more but if the end-user needs manufacturer support, we want to be certain that they will be in good hands when they call for help. The only products that we carry are where we have a good feel for the competency of the team behind it – quality product, quality support and continual innovation.
The pace at which new entrants are getting into the desktop 3D printer market on at least a weekly basis is frantic. The direct effect of this on the market is sowing the seeds of doubt and confusion. For even those that are familiar with the 3D printing industry, the decision of which printer to purchase and when becomes a complex one.
What to consider when purchasing a 3D printer
Do you wait a week? Do you buy a well built machine with a toy-like build volume or go large? Can I buy it now or is there a lead time? Will it do what I want? Will it print in the material range that I would like? Is it upgradeable? Is the company going to be around 6 months after I purchase my printer?
These are all the things that a buyer now has to consider. We all know first hand that usually, as soon as you make that large purchase, it is usually obsolete or something better comes along. No one can time that perfectly. With a 3D printer at least, you know that essentially, if you have done your homework, you will end up with one that checks off all the correct boxes and as long as it is upgradeable, your investment is safe.
What’s the market really like?
With well over 200 manufacturers in the desktop 3D printer market (this number is growing faster than it is shrinking), a majority of them are “me-too” products. All essentially using the same technology with varying flavors and design. On the consulting and distribution side of our business, we work with a very select few manufacturers that have a stand-out product that makes it better and different to the majority of the clone-like printers on the market.
Those that aim to address the issues of multi-material capability, automated/assisted leveling, robust build volume, speed, upgradability, quality support, with a constant desire to improve their product are the only ones we work with.
Manufacturing market-ready 3D printers
As a manufacturer already in the space, you have to think about what market need your product is going to fill. Are you imagining that your new product line of small, medium and large machines are going to end up on every desk in homes, offices and design studios? If so, make sure it is market-ready.
Even early adopters want a product that works as advertised. If you release it prematurely, you’re going to lose your market lead, reputation, user base and much more. As a would be manufacturer, do not enter the space unless and until you have something that is markedly different and that your intended target demographic is going to want.
Do you have a small machine that you have built as a prototype? If it is, stop. Go back and rethink your model. While 3D printing is going media mainstream, it is not likely that every home is going to have one and upgrade every Christmas. Take a step back and look at who is buying: designers, architects, schools, libraries, engineering and design firms, to name a few. They want machines that are easy to use, possibly fast, precise and that can take on large projects.
So you want to be a reseller
Repeat after me – a 3D printer does not sell itself. It’s not enough that it is a technology that has a high “wow-factor” and that at any public event, Maker Faire, etc. onlookers are drawn to 3D printers in action. It’s also not enough that everyone you speak with has an interest in the technology.
So whatever you do, do not buy ten or dozens or more units, get a retail space or a warehouse and expect that the machines will sell with one tweet a day. It’s a great and easy sales cycle when your intended client can see a demo that is relevant to them. You have to make those calls and be at those events where you’ll get the exposure you need and you have to have patience.
This sales pipeline isn’t going to build itself and it most definitely will not happen overnight, over a month or over a year. Are you able to stick it out for the long haul? Are you well capitalized? Remember, on the desktop side of the market there are two certainties – change is constant and there is price erosion – already.
Who is going to win?
As a manufacturer, as long as you hold innovation as your core driving principle while at the same time building out your team with great people that understand not only the product side but also distribution, marketing, sales, support and customer service – you are going to win. Most importantly, you have to have mature leadership that is nimble and incorporates constructive feedback into their teams, the way they do business and their products. You also need investors to help you get through the coming shakeout.
We’ve had some great companies come out of crowdfunding platform-based launches. A majority of the others were great for end users (inexpensive machines available in “early bird” tiers) – will they all establish viable businesses? Not likely. Will all of them deliver on the promised products? Maybe, again probably unlikely.