Last week I visited the iheartengineering headquarters in Brooklyn and was surprised to find that they have managed to build a rapidly expanding business around the print-on-demand model and unique product designs. Besides their abundant creativity, the heart of their business is a first generation MakerBot 3D printer that manufactures parts as orders come in the door (or over the internet).
It's not unusual for them to keep the printer running for hours, and sometimes days, at a time when orders peak. They've developed some special techniques for producing large parts with some unique fill patterns that I will post more about later.
Most important, the work, and the business model, that iheartengineering is pioneering convinced me that all the buzz about 3D printing generating a rebirth of manufacturing and creativity in the U.S. is much more than just hype. It is a practical and achievable goal, one that may soon be a reality for a growing number of start-ups.
The 'barrier to entry' is fairly low, and the capital required to fund a start-up is definitely in the 4-5 digit range. MakerBot Industries, the company that triggered the 3D printing movement by commercializing technology that had its roots in Rep-Rap, seems swamped by the demand for their printers. Their online store currently only lists the MakerBot Replicator 3D Printer, priced at $1,749 and with a 10-12 week lead-time.
Of course $1,749 isn't a trivial chunk of change, especially considering the fact that the original MakerBot printers sold for roughly half that price. Still, if a start-up can project selling a reasonable volume of parts produced on the MakerBot, it makes perfect sense. The folks at iheartengineering reported that the cost of their Makerbot was recovered in less than 6 months based purely on sales of a single one of their designs.
While MakerBot Industries seems to be headed way up market, improving the performance (and cost) of their 3D printers, other printer start-ups have appeared on the scene touting new printers at surprising lower price points.
The most recent one to catch my attention is the Solidoodle 2. Sold only as pre-assemblied units, the Solidoodle performance and part resolution seems to compare very favorably with the pre-Replicator MakerBot offerings. While it may not matter much to hobbyists or hackers, the Solidoodle optional case and door give it a professional appearance that is noticeably lacking in the MakerBot laser-cut plywood frames. And, the Solidoodle printer sells for about one third of the Replicator cost.
Of course, I have to wonder how many of the new 3D printer companies will be around a few years into the future. Most of the technology is open-source software and hardware. Customer support is going to be extremely demanding, especially as customers struggle to get up to speed creating and printing their designs. And the cash flow required to feed the market demand can rapidly exceed a start-up's ability to fund.
Who will be the winners, the survivors in the 3D printer game? It's impossible to tell at this point. Even well funded and highly visible companies like MakerBot are going to face extreme challenges as the market matures.
Thankfully for 3D printer customers the future doesn't hold as much risk as it does for the printer manufacturers. As long as they keep their designs, and their business models, fairly generic, it should be straight forward to switch printer platforms with a minimum of hassle and disruption to the business.
In that regard, it might make more sense to source cheaper 3D printers from several sources rather than putting all of their eggs in a single basket with a higher performance but more costly printer.