An Unexpected Discovery: Businesses and 3D Printing.
Recently, I attended a tech industry event here in New York that led to an unexpected discovery. The event was hosted inside the offices of a notable consumer-market goods company— one with products common in many American households. Much to my surprise, the main floor of the open-plan style office hosted a large collection of 3D printers.
These weren’t just any 3D printers, mind you. All of them were consumer-grade, FDM printers using PLA filament. The printers were off-the-shelf models — think Makerbots and Ultimakers and their Chinese-clone brethren. Looking around the floor, it was evident that there weren’t any enterprise-grade 3D printers in the office. Nothing from the enterprise lines of Stratasys, nothing by 3D Systems. No SLA or SLS rigs: just plain-old FDM consumer printers.
As to use, half of the machines were idle. The remainder were working on larger prints that needed to run overnight.
“What’s with all the 3D printers?” I asked an employee that was grabbing coffee in the company kitchen.
“Those? We use ‘em for everything,” he replied.
After a few additional questions, I was able to extract the full story.
For the company’s work in developing new products, they had found that early stage prototypes were often good to hold and feel, even in the nascent stages of the design process. While this company had previously used enterprise-grade FDM printers — think Dimension series or Fortus models—the designers had found the machines were too slow to provide immediate prints, too annoying to conduct maintenance and upkeep on for daily use, and too expensive to purchase filament for regular running. Worse, because these enterprise-grade machines were so expensive and painful, it didn’t make sense to buy more to meet the company’s needs for producing inexpensive, no-frills prototypes at scale.
While this impediment could have shaped behavior in enforcing a status quo of not producing many prototypes, the desire to scale prototype production was so strong that it won out.
The company went for an inexpensive solution: consumer-grade printers for early stage “looks like” prototypes. Today, whenever the company needs a high-quality print — think pitch meetings or for integration with the “works like” hardware prototypes — the employees go to a professional additive manufacturing service bureau for higher-end SLA or SLS prototypes.
As for the prior infrastructure, the enterprise-grade printers were happily tossed or sold.
In the additive manufacturing industry, there’s a lot of talk about how consumer rigs are sold in substantial quantity but — because of their low price point — don’t generate the real dollars that drive revenue for the additive manufacturing industry. In the contemporary 3D printer landscape, this conception does not tell the whole story. Here, we see at least one notable business adopting consumer-market products for a clear enterprise need.
What does this mean?
While it’s evident that additive manufacturing has finally moved past the Trough of Disillusionment and moved firmly onto the Slope of Enlightenment (PDF), the market continues to surprise us in unexpected ways. It looks apparent that a disconnect exists between what large 3D printer manufacturers are putting on the market and the consumption habits of some enterprise entities.
To ignore this market segment would likely be at their peril, lest a hardware startup decide to seize the opportunity and move into the space.