When technology history is written, 2013 and 2014 will be noted as the years of “peak hype” for 3D printing. The promise of a “3D printer in every home” was a popular one in technology news. As we near the dawn of 2018, the hype has receded, and 3D printer manufacturers have realized two things: most people don’t need a 3D printer in their home, and even if they had one, they’d spend more time on the phone troubleshooting with customer service because of the printers’ inherent complexity.
Before computers had easy-to-use operating systems, the Internet and consumer-friendly apps, most people who didn’t know a computer language didn’t own one. 3D printers are in a similar place today: Unless you're an educator, designer or engineer, or you’re in possession of CAD and design skills, you probably won't have much use for one. This has left the creators of smaller printers scrambling for new market footholds.
The new platform’s connection with Thingiverse was added to allow users to share in a “collaborative sandbox” of ideas. Image credit: MarketBot
Manufacturers such as MakerBot (once a card-carrying member of the “3D Printer in Every Home” hype), now a subsidiary of 3D printer giant Stratasys, have refocused their efforts in more realistic directions outside the consumer sphere. The company is now tailoring its Replicator+ and MakerBot Print models for different audiences (as are other small 3D printer companies) in an effort to find new niches rather than rely on a consumer market that doesn’t exist and (if it did) was too broad to serve well in the first place.
“The ‘consumer’ market is sort of a mystery -- the result of some contradictory definitions being applied to it,” Josh Snider, public relations manager for MakerBot, told Design News. “On one hand, you have the garage-based hardware hackers and cosplay designers, who are highly technical personas that likely have some CAD and fabrication skills. On the other, you have unskilled home users, the chef or lawyer, looking to 3D print a replacement dishwasher knob or custom cup holder for their car. Do these vastly different users really belong to the same ‘consumer’ market?”
Last year, MakerBot CEO Nadav Goshen announced a new strategy to address the bulk of the company’s users – those in education and small business – and tailor its solutions directly to those organizations’ needs. One of the fruits of that strategy is a new version of the company’s experimental software platform, MakerBot Labs. In the latest release, the company has opened the software a bit, as one would expect with a refocus on small business professional and educational markets rather than home-based consumers. It also offers more advanced print settings and a collaborative community on Thingiverse to give advanced users a place to share best practices, print modes and custom modifications. Inside an organization, users can build an ecosystem that allows for collaboration between designers and devices.
The changes were made to the platform because professional users and educators – MarketBot’s new target audience – required more advanced capabilities and more control over their printers, as well as the ability to explore different materials and hardware modifications. The updated and opened MakerBot Labs platform supports a new feature for several of the company’s printer models: the Experimental Extruder, a modified extruder for more advanced users. The tool enables four interchangeable nozzles for printing with different materials at faster draft speeds.
It’s a tall order to serve both the DIY community and the small industrial prototyping community simultaneously, as both groups have very different needs and value sets. DIY users are looking for high fidelity, good surface quality and the flexibility to customize their 3D printer. They tend to print more sculptural objects and explore exotic materials like wood or bronze for their unique looks and feel. Professional designers and engineers, on the other hand, need high-dimensional accuracy and functional mechanical features, and have a much greater need for reliability and ease-of-use. If a hobbyist's printer jams, or fails to print a new material, he or she can take the time to tinker and explore a solution. If a professional's printer fails, each hour spent troubleshooting detracts from the company’s goal of rapid prototyping.
“In some ways, it’s not possible to serve both communities at once,” Snider told Design News. “One community demands a fully open system and the other community demands reliability and controlled quality, which can only be delivered by a closed system. In reality, the market is not so absolute or binary, and our current 3D printing solutions are a mix of both, with the new MakerBot Labs product family bringing a strong touch of openness back to the fold.”
The changes will be particularly relevant to small businesses looking to engage in rapid prototyping but which lack the ability to afford the six-figure price tag of an industrial machine.
“There's no shortage of small, 10-person design shops or product startups that can't afford a half million dollar machine, but can afford a $2,500 MakerBot,” said Snider. “Most professionals working in rapid prototyping have the skill set to operate a larger industrial 3D printer, but the costs are simply too high. This is a really exciting market segment for us.”