What life after 3D Systems Cube has to tell us about Consumer 3D Printing

The media has a habit of judging the health of the orchard by a few bad apples.  The IoT, UaV, digital consumer healthcare and consumer 3D Printing industries have each fallen in and out of favor with the media and consumers alike based on a few select stories, both positive and negative.

3D printing is no-stranger to media scandal thanks primarily to Cody Wilsons 3D printed pistol, with many consumers now automatically associating “3D printing” with home made “Guns”.  Although persistent, this sour story of 3D printed weaponry has not damaged the overall shining image of consumer 3D printing to any great degree.  Has 3D Systems abandonment of the Cube consumer 3D printer however triggered sufficient negative media speculation as to blight the entire orchard that is the at-home consumer 3D printing market?

Promises, lies and start-ups

Look up Theranos in a dictionary and according to every headline on the web you’ll see the words “Investigation”, “Lawsuit” and “run”.  This start-up promised to up-end digital healthcare diagnostics by providing a wealth of health data from a single pin-prick of blood using their proprietary nano-tainer technology.  As it transpires, Theranos’ proprietary technology was digital snake-oil and this bursting $10 billion bubble (coined the Theranos effect) has become a prime example of how a single venture that’s made overly prominent by media hype and massive investor financing but ultimately fails to deliver on its promises can damage the potential growth of an entire industry.

Could 3D Systems discontinuation of the Cube 3D printer line and the closure of their Cubify platform trigger a Theranos effect within the consumer 3D printer market?  It awaits to be seen, however close to 6 months “life-after-Cube”, it is a safe estimation that if this was indeed the devastating seismic shock to the industry some predicted it would be, we would already be standing amongst the rubble.  Instead, 3D Systems share price almost tripled in Q1 2016 and the sales of consumer 3D printers continue to grow with price points continuing to fall.  So what is happening?  I would argue that 3D Systems “end of life-ing” their consumer division is a symptom of a far more elemental problem at the heart of consumer 3D printing and one far more lethal to its long-term survival.

Printers, printers everywhere and nothing good to print

3D Systems not only sold consumer 3D printers.  Knowing that consumers are not proficient CAD users, 3D Systems developed the online 3D printable data repository Cubify.com.  This website provided proud owners of not only Cube 3D printers but any 3D printer to download digital files with which they could print on their machine.  Makerbot employs a very similar business model via their online data repository Thingiverse.com and IMakr similarly promotes at-home 3D printing by providing data via their repository MyMiniFactory.com.  This tactic of 3D printer vendors providing printable data to encourage the purchase and on-going use of their machines is entirely logical; it drives machine and consumable sales. But 3D Systems Cubify site, arguably the most highly-curated of all the vendor associated data repositories, failed to perpetuate sufficient Cube printer and material sales.


consumer 3d printing
Cubify.com, Thingiverse.com, Myminifactory.com

You don’t buy bread from Toaster manufacturers

As I stated previously, consumer 3D printer sales continue to grow with 22% YOY growth.  On the surface, this suggests no underlying issue with consumer demand for 3D printers.  However, a high proportion of this growth rate is fueled by highly-targeted marketing and sales of consumer 3D printers into education, from primary schools through to universities, not the general consumer tech market.  Moreover, many machines initially aimed at a consumer market, are now finding useful application within the commercial product development domain, in companies traditionally using high end 3D printing machines and service bureaus. The proposition of at-home consumer 3D printing seemingly appears to be abandoned in the long-term strategic roadmaps of the larger 3D printing vendors.  As they see it, they developed the product (capable, price-competitive 3D printers) and provided a value proposition to consumers to buy and use their product (downloadable content, apps, intuitive design tools).  And yet, with all this investment and incentive on the part of the vendors, they are still not successfully diffusing from the early adopters phase into the early majority phase.  Therefore, the prevailing thinking could be the consumer 3D printing market is unlikely to grow and any attempt to induce growth through investment may carry considerable risk, as demonstrated by 3D Systems valiant but unsuccessful effort.


Consumer 3D printing
Desktop 3D Printing has transitioned from consumers to classrooms

In my view, this is a miss-interpretation of the root-problem.  To use an analogy, you don’t buy bread from the same people who manufactured your toaster.  Breville have never, and will never, get into the baking business; Breville manufactures toasters so that you can easily toast bread.  Toast as a valued foodstuff has existed since the Romans.  They used metal frames to toast bread in fires, we use heated wire filaments.  Regardless of the process, the end-goal has always been toast.  The first “modern” toaster, invented in 1919, identified something of value to consumers (toast) and developed a device to make attaining this value easier.  3D printing vendors have essential delivered a toaster into a world without bread, or perhaps more simply, developed consumer 3D printers for a market that has no need for them.  Yet.

Don’t push, Innovate

The basic logic of developing an ecosystem around a new technology innovation to increase market adoption is sound.  The iPhone is a good example of this, developing a range of well-designed and streamlined apps that complement the core function of the phone upon its market debut.  3D printing vendors did not invest in building the value proposition in the form of downloadable product platforms, customisation apps and design programs and, most critically of all, major brand partnerships at the point of launching their consumer 3D printers.  Instead, they were launched as stand-alone devices without any supporting digital content ecosystem, specifically for the early adopter/majority consumer.  This was developed post-launch in a fractured and inconsistent way to repeatedly kickstart machine and consumable sales.

3D Systems drawing down their consumer division teaches us that the “technology push” business strategy will not work, at least in this instance.  The solution to growing the consumer 3D printing market in a meaningful way is to adopt a “market pull” approach.  By partnering and innovating with market leading brands and retailers who have strong, existing and well-recognised value propositions, products and intellectual property, 3D Printer vendors can develop and capitalise on 3D printable content that is genuinely appealing to consumers via strong brand recognition.  The consumer will hence begin to “pull” demand for 3D printing because they have a want and a reason to 3D print something.


Consumer 3d Printing
The Thingmaker, the toy 3D Printer from Mattel

Looking ahead, it is highly likely that brands and retailers will grow the interest in consumer 3D printing amongst their customer base as a result of trialling new 3D printing value propositions and even by employing 3D printing as a marketing tool.  The key for consumer 3D printer vendors is to closely follow this growth of consumer interest driven by brands and retailers then begin to relaunch their own 3D printer lines and/or partner with leading brands and retailers to develop exclusive brand content partnerships or simply market their 3D printer at a specific market segment.  We already have the Mattel ThingMaker toy 3D printer, why not a Jimmy Choo shoe printer?