Where is open source 3D printing going?
August 3, 2011
Today, while looking at the Make Magazine blog, I noticed a post about the Ultimaker, which the magazine suggested might be a “Makerbot killer”.
I remember the first time I heard about Ultimaker earlier this year. I watched the clip from Dutch TV of these guys demonstrating their product, which you can see at the right. If the full potential of this machine is achievable by a typical consumer builder, that’s amazing. It looks from the clip as if the default print quality is much higher - and much faster - than a typical Makerbot. Though at more expense.
But with the launch of the Ultimaker, you’ve got a lot of different open-source / RepRap based printers out there:
|RepRap (Prusa Mendel)||$500||Various (e.g. MakerGear, TechZone)||Totally open-source printer manufactured by several companies; unbranded. Many versions available (Prusa, Huxley, others). Not aggressively marketed.|
|Makerbot Thing-O-Matic||$1,300||Makerbot||Broadly-marketed 3D printer intended for mass adoption.|
|Ultimaker||$1,700||Ultimaker||Slightly more expensive; design allows for higher-quality, faster prints.|
|Mosaic Printer||$1,000||MakerGear||Based on a different type of design vs. the Makerbot and Ultimaker (which in turn are both based on the RepRap design).|
Next few years
My guess is that there will be at least a couple more notable new entrants, and that everyone in the market will have room to grow - though perhaps not at the growth rates necessary to attract a lot of venture capital. I did a bunch of research on consumer interest in 3D printing earlier this year, and there’s a large number of people out there who are interested, and just need a little bit more of a push to try it out for themselves.
These weren’t 3D printing nerds like me and some of the people I know who are experts in the technology - these were architects, artists, and other people who were interested in the technology for its creative and design possibilities. As soon as one of their friends buys one, or the price comes down a little bit more (the magic point seems to be $999), they’ll start buying.
Over the longer term, however, there seems to me to be one major problem with the industry, and that is that it’s open source. I love that it is open source from a philosophical and humanistic perspective. But when people are willing to produce your product for a very low price, possibly for fun, and when they can do it well because they know everything you do, that seems like a problem - at least if all you do is manufacture and sell the machines.
Eventually, interest will get intense enough that (a) all production of the basic components will move to China, and (b) designs will improve so that better and better results come with less and less investment. One day, not soon, but sooner than we expect, there will be a $299 3D printing kit. And it will be really good. But who will produce it?
And let’s not forget the special twist in this industry. The answer to “who will produce it?” might eventually be: “you”. These printers print parts. In fact, the RepRap project, on which they are all based, has as its goal the building of a 3D printer that can print_ all the parts necessary to build another 3D printer_. Even today, I’d bet the majority of the sellers (by number) in the 3D printer market are just guys who own a printer and are making parts for people who don’t have one yet. This trend will only increase, and intensify. In what other hardware market is the long-term goal _zero _barriers to entry and _zero _marginal production cost?
By that point, or beforehand, I think there will be a much bigger market for value-added services. Even today, I think at least a moderate amount of money could be made through servicing of home 3D printers, and especially training - a big part of customer reluctance today stems from the many stories out there of people who bought a kit and just never got it working. (I would have been one of those people myself if I hadn’t found a like-minded group here in Philadelphia to help me.)
Perhaps the printer itself will become an afterthought - something given away with a service or “ink” contract. And isn’t that sort of similar to how the other big, self-replicating open source project - the Linux kernel - evolved? As far as I know, nobody is making money by just selling boxed copies of Linux. The money’s in configuration, training, consulting, and hundreds of other value-added services.
Another possibility is that many of these guys will get bought by the public 3D printer manufacturers, like Stratasys and Z Corporation. This is what happened to Bits from Bytes, one of the very, very early kit manufacturers, who were eventually bought by 3D Systems. I haven’t been able to find much information about the result of that acquisition, but you don’t hear much about their kit, the RapMan, these days. I’d guess the point of this acquisitions would be to buy customers, which means they’re a ways off yet for the current crop of kit manufacturers.