Just announced today, Pinshape, one of the most designer-friendly 3D Print communities, is closing their site with 75,000+ users on March 31, 2016. With a series of down-sizing and product line discontinuations throughout the 3D Printing industry, investors have cooled off considerably on the consumer sector of 3D Printing. Makerbot's 2015 revenues were down by 55% causing layoffs and the parent company, Stratasys took a large goodwill impairment charge for the acquisition. 3D Systems discontinued their consumer sub-$1000 printer, the Cube and closed their design community to focus on their core industrial business departing completely from the consumer marketplace.
3D Printing industry analysts are calling it a sign of a 3D Printing bubble burst, but as a 3D Print designer and co-host of the WTFFF?! 3D Printing podcast, I am hearing the exact opposite from the education, consumer and designer prosumer markets. So here are some of the reasons that now is the smart time to double down on 3D Printing:
Steep 3D Print Learning Curve
The learning curve on 3D Printing is much steeper than revenue investment predictions. We have been product designers for over 20 years and it took us six months to create something we were proud to Instagram. Expecting pros to adopt 3D Printing while continuing business as usual was never going to be a quick conversion. It takes time. This is not a technology that can be implemented without training, process changes and perhaps even new technical employees. But, for those who have experienced 3D Printing, the shift in design and productivity has tremendous potential worthy of much more than the return on time invested.
Material & Color Expansion
Even with the majority of products sold at retail each year already being made of plastic, the objections to 3D Printing has been that it is only plastic. All that has been rapidly changing and new materials are emerging like glass, ceramic and metal. They are becoming viable and even cost competitive when traditional manufacturing tooling costs are factored. Color still needs more investment and research but even that is near future.
Next Generation Expectations
China has invested heavily into 3D Printing in their classrooms starting with 400,000 elementary schools by 2017. In the U.S., school districts like Montclair, New Jersey have invested heavily in 3D Printing as well, putting printers and educational plans in every school from elementary through to the community college. The next generation of kids exposed to 3D Printing in the classroom, including my two girls ages six and two, will come out of school with three-dimensional visualization skills. The positive and accessible educational experiences with 3D Printing will spill over to parents and grandparents and a demand for 3D Printing in the home and an appreciation for well-designed premium 3D Print design downloads. Too bad Pinshape and the Cube won't be around to capitalize on this demand from all generations of consumers.
All indications across retail for both printers and consumables like filament is that 3D Printing sales are slower than expected but are on the rise. Retailers who aren't carrying 3D Printing equipment and products stand to look out of touch. Unfortunately for the 3D Print industry, a lack of experience with how the retail environment works has not been helping. Even Amazon, unencumbered by brick and mortar reality has had a difficult time making 3D Printing work within their retail system. They shut down their 3D Printing store in late 2015. But you shouldn't count Amazon out just yet. They have the best ability to integrate 3D Printed products throughout their site. When the retail system finally handles vendors and products that cross categories and buyers, 3D Printing products will become mainstream and stiff design competition for traditional manufacturers.
Zero Inventory Future
A zero inventory future is the most compelling reason to double down on a successful consumer 3D Printing future. Today, a retail buyer might order anywhere from 5,000-30,000 units on a product that will be on the shelf. They typically spend upwards of $1 million on the inventory, logistics and warehousing costs of a single item in a single color. From the time of purchase order placement to the time you buy it in a store, months have gone by, maybe even up to six months at an average carrying cost of $5000 per day.
Imagine instead a retail buyer investing around $20,000 in a new seasonal product with zero inventory and minimal daily carrying costs. They commission and invest in a design, put a sample on the shelf and you order it on demand - in your color with your personalized options. It's delivered to you the next day or in some cases even the same day. Even if it took the same six months to sell enough units, the carrying costs are reduced to just over $110 per day. Welcome to a more sustainable, locally manufactured and delivered future that can save the $22 trillion worldwide retail consumer market and is arguably worth doubling down on an investment like Pinshape and being patient.