On Friday, the Zeepro Zim 3D Printer hit Kickstarter. It has dual extruders, a consumer-friendly print interface, wifi capabilities and the aesthetic of a true consumer product, all for under $1,000. While not the first printer to have some or all of those capabilities (see also the Buccaneer and while a different technology, Formlabs nails the precision and aesthetics) it marks the growing trend of moving beyond raw, exposed RepRap style printers so beloved by the hacker/hobbyist. While the past few years have been dominated by RepRap and the open source community efforts, I believe we’re in the midst of a transition to the next phase of the market.
The Capitalism Transition
What started for many as simply a desire to make printers for people like them is now becoming a very competitive business. Those that want to continue on those efforts and compete with the 300+ other consumer 3D Printing companies are challenged with keeping pace with current product developments or be lost in the dust.
With all the hype, it’s easy to forget how early it still is. Even the most optimistic estimates only show 200,000 consumer printers owned as of the end of 2012, which isn’t much if you spread that across 300 companies and know the leader has 20-30,000 of those. As a consequence, some companies will starve as they fight to stay relevant and get a piece of the growing revenue pie.
In this new era, a number of changes are occurring:
1) A different kind of founding team
As the market matures, it is attracting more experienced entrants. Zeepro was founded by successful serial European entrepreneurs. They have significant manufacturing and business building experience having previously taken companies to IPO. I’ve spoken to another stealth startup with significant, relevant manufacturing experience with similar designs of conquering the market and starting out with many of the most common problems solved and requested features included in version 1.
This stands in stark contrast to many of the founders to date who are either students/recent graduates or small teams of hobbyists. Many of the post-Kickstarter manufacturing challenges faced by some of the early entrants are unlikely to affect these new teams.
2) A race to feature parity
The roadmap for most companies has been clear for awhile: add a second extruder, a heated bed, eliminate manual calibration, network the printer, expand your print size and improve reliability and stability. With more entrants like the Buccaneer and Zim as well as Makerbot charging ahead, the stakes are raised. To stay relevant, you have to be able to meet those same feature demands faster. As competition heats further, I expect more companies to push the innovation envelope so they can make feature comparison charts that make them stand out.
3) The slow decline of open source
If it were not for the RepRap movement, we would not have the printers of today. Every company has borrowed from open source and in many cases contributed back. However, as competition has heated up, the amount opened back to the community appears to be decreasing and talks of patents and keeping technology closed has increased. As companies try to stay one step ahead and create breakthroughs based on their own efforts, I expect the lure of a competitive advantage leading to more sales to supersede their desires to contribute to open source.
This will mark the steady decline in relevance of the open source movement for 3D printing as companies with employees working intense hours will surpass what hobbyists and researchers can contribute.
4) A new focus on user experience
As we move from the innovators to the early adopter market, the needs of the user are changing. For every user that wants to build their own printer from scratch, there are many more who lack the skills or interest to do so. New printers that “just work” will become the standard and companies that can both minimize support issues with a quality product and provide great service when there are issues will stand out.
Some companies will not survive this. Having had a Solidoodle 3 for a month now, I have easily spent more time fixing problems and emailing back and forth with support than I have printing. Like other printers currently on the market, when it works, it’s great, but it is not stable enough to recommend to others, especially if they’re less technical.
5) The quest for the killer app will intensify
With more reliable printers with greater functionality hitting the market, new uses will emerge. As more people own the printers, experimentation on how and what you can print will grow. As this happens, we’re likely to finally see the emergence of the “killer app.”
In the PC market, early consumer computers were considered toys and a hobby until the invention of the word processor and spreadsheet changed everything. When PC features finally allowed for a quality version of each, consumers changed their tune from, “Why would I want a computer?” to “I’m buying a computer specifically for that application.” Today, we’re still in the “Why would I want a 3D printer?” phase as scanning your favorite gnome figurine is far from a killer app. That will change in the next few years.
The 3D Printing market is in a rapid state of change. This new phase of the market is one of the first shifts of many to come. Companies that adapt will not only survive, but thrive, while others are soon headed for footnotes in history like IMSAI and Kentucky Fried Computer in the early days of the PC market.