3D printing or Additive Manufacturing, as it is formally called, became hugely popular amongst hobbyists, enthusiasts & aficionados during the past 5 years. Over the years, there was a flourishing DIY culture and there were several domestic users of 3D printing who made toys and lego bricks and jewellery and such.
The current year is seeing a new trend emerging. There is a rising professional consumer and business user market which is more demanding and is starting to try out demanding applications on a micro scale.
I would like to analyse different reasons why the shift in trend is happening. Comments are welcome.
Consumers typically jump on to any trending bandwagon and try it out. But a huge majority of them do not have the necessary process rigor or discipline to master the intricacies of a technology that is not yet mature enough to be able to support novices.
When a business is developing a product, it takes at least 3 iterations and several rounds of testing before the product is sent to production. (see graphic below)
3D printing is still nascent and requires enormous patience for set up and design integrity. Most home users and hobbyists do not put in the required level of trials in order to get a final successful working product.
Technology adoption cycles are more successful in businesses than in consumer markets. Geoffrey Moore describes the adoption cycle very elegantly in his book “Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling High-Tech Products to Mainstream Customers”. Moore classifies typical adopters into 5 buckets – the Innovators, the Early Adopters, the Early Majority, the Late Majority and the Laggards.
The most difficult part for a technology to cross over (the chasm) is between the Early Adopters and the Early Majority. The technology adoption cycle as described in the book still works as we can see from what is happening to the 3D printing industry. A majority of the Early Adopters have moved on to other pastures and the chasm is still to be crossed.
The “chasm-crossing” will happen when a significant number of early adopters (essentially professional and business users) drive the industry such that more of such kind will start adopting the technology and grow into an early majority.
The industry is going through a metamorphosis that has happened to similar industries. More serious players are coming in. Hewlett Packard, Xerox, GE and other big names have already entered or are close to entering the market. These companies are well established in the B2B market and understand the dynamics of this market well.
When the big boys enter the market, they will come in with focus on serving business customers and this will in turn help a whole new playing field to develop around 3D printing B2B.
It is an obvious fact that more business users tend to go for repeat purchases than consumers. Consumers may buy just one printer to play around with it. Business users, when they find their printer to be useful for their businesses, would buy more of the same or more powerful versions in order to scale up on their business models.
3D Printer makers find that there is repeat business potential in B2B business as compared to consumer markets. B2B also makes higher margins and helps the market to consolidate. To cite an example, 3D Systems recently announced end of life for its consumer printer, the Cube.
More demanding applications such as metal and ceramic do not have too many B2C applications. They are demanding, expensive and subject to rigid process discipline – qualities that an enthusiast typically doesn’t have.
While the industry already has a plethora of 3D printers that can handle plastics, the serious metal printers are where there is still bang for the buck – for the printer maker as well as for the business user.
There will be more serious entrants into the fray in the coming years and that will be good for the customers.
The gunfight goes on, and we will wait to see who emerges from the dust out there. In the meantime, serious players continue to woo business customers. The road is long and winding, and will only let the real ones standing at the end. This is good for the industry. And I’m glad this is happening.
As always there are differing views. All of us (including me) are making informed guesses based on currently available data. Several sources support my view but there are others who differ too. Here are some links, if you would like to read more on the subject:
Fortune Magazine: Differs slightly from my view. However they’re talking about consumer products made with 3D printing. That’s not what I’m talking about.
Investing News: Supports my view.
Stratasys Consulting: Stratasys Consulting is the consulting arm of the 3D printer maker Stratasys. In this article you can see an argument put forth that consumer demand pull and not technology push will help to grow the consumer 3D printer market. I find that take interesting too.
Vox.com: More support for my views.
Title photo credit: CreativeTools.se at flickr
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