How to NOT Alienate 3D Printing Customers

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The 3D printing world is littered with the bitter taste and empty wallets of consumers. 3D printing is now in a volatile period of growth and market stabilization. Future companies should learn from the examples of the past. In this blog I’ll look at some of the common mistakes that companies have made in the 3D printing field.

Outsourced Quality

The jammed “Smart” extruder at the heart of all MakeBots problems. This is one the author had to take apart.

Many 3D printer companies have their roots in their native countries. As they have expanded they have had to deal with the increase in demand and the pressure to lower cost. Often the first thing companies do is switch from  domestic production to the slave wage countries of the Far East.

Makerbot is the prime example of this. This embattled company recently made the announcement that they will shut down US production and outsource production to Jabil, a Chinese manufacturing firm. MakerBot has earned the scorn of the 3D printing community sense they sold out were acquired by 3D printing giant Stratasys.

MakerBot is already faced lawsuits  from its stock holders due to the shoddy engineering of their 5th generation printers.

While outsourcing production makes economic sense, loosing quality and goodwill does not. If you search any 3D printing facebook group or reddit thread, you will find miles of post complaining about shoddy RepRap kits and bad electronics from overseas.

If you are thinking about starting a company for 3D printers, think carefully about outsourcing your production overseas. Consumers hear quickly about which companies produce shoddy 3D printers.

Crowdfunding Collapse

Others 3D printer companies have started nobly, using crowdfunding sites to bypass greedy banks and get the startup funding they need. These 3D printers promise innovation in return for your contributions.

Pirate 3D is the textbook example of this. In 2013 they raised $1.5 million in Kickstarter for their Buccaneer 3D printer. Despite their record setting fundraising, they have failed to deliver their printers to many of the people who donated $300 for the reward.

Donating to any crowdfunding site is a investment that carries risk. There is no promise that your donation will result in a printer.

If you are thinking about crowdfunding your new 3D printer, plan out ahead of time how you will actually produce the printers your backers want, and have the logistics in place to do so when funded.

Exclusively Exclude Filament

It is understandable that any company wants to protect any Intellectual Property (IP) in their printers. It is also understandable that they want to generate ongoing streams of revenue.

Many 3D printing companies generate additional review by selling their own production line of filaments that are tested to work with their printers. Others do this by patenting the extruder hot end, or selling upgrades to their printers. All of these options are an acceptable part of any equipment company.

But there is a line to what consumers will take in terms of making printers closed source and exclusive. Copping the market example of inkjet printers is not the way to go in 3D printing. Consumers do not like paying $50 – $100 for ink cartridges to a $75 inkjet printer. It is the same with 3D printers. Every printer has a hack or settings that let you run off brand filaments through them. If you look on any file sharing site, spool holders that can take any size spool are popular files.

Cubify 3D was an example of this. Their closed source Cube 3D printer was a solid design for the desktop market, and those who owned this printer sang its praise as a hobby 3D printer.

Mojo 3D printer, which requires exclusive and expensive filament / head cartrages from the comapny
Mojo 3D printer, which requires exclusive and expensive filament / head cartridges from the company

But Cube 3D printer required its own brand of exclusive filament cartridges, and the printers could not accept 3d party filaments without some hacking.

To make matters now even worse for Cube 3D owners, 3D Systems has stopped producing the printer. For now 3D Systems has agreed to continue producing filament, but they have not agreed to let 3D party company produce filament for the Cube. Filament will be at the whim of the company which can pull the filament plug at any time, turning the Cubes into expensive paperweight. If the company stops producing filament and refuses to let 3d parties make filament,  owners will have to hack Cubes to accept commercial filament, or dispose of the whole printer. Either way Cube owners will not want to return to your companies brand of printers and filaments.

Other printers like the Mojo will work only with the companies exclusive filament / print head package. This filament / head package insures that you cannot use a 3d party filament in a Mojo 3D printer. Combine that with the disposable build plates and D-Limonte detergent tablets that you need to dissolve the support material, and the Mojo becomes a money vacuum for Stratasys.

I’ve printed with the Mojo in a professional CAD class. While the quality of the Mojo and the prints are great, the price of their cartridges was just as dazzling. What was worse, the school was struggling to afford the price of the disposable build plates. (PRO TIP: You can cover them in blue painters tape and get 2-3 more prints off of them.)

You Can’t Fix That

Good 3D printers will have access to the main parts of the printer that the owner can field maintain. Every 3D printer has had bad filament jams that require access inside the extruder head. Bad printers will encase everything and force you to void the warranty if you want to fix your printer.

Makerbot is the worst offender in this case. The “smart” heads jammed frequently, and due to the closed source design were not field serviceable. Makerbot not only sold shoddy print heads with their printers, they would not honor the warranty on them if you had tried to field service the jamed heads. To add insult to injury, you would end up buying another head that would jam after a few prints.

Any good printer should be designed to be field serviceable for common problems. Owners should be able to do the following to their printers.

  1. Clear filament jams.
  2. Tighten / replace belts.
  3. Inspect motors.
  4. Check wiring.
  5. Print replacement parts or modifications.

Any 3D printer that does not let you perform these basic maintenance task is not worth owning. Consumers will not be confident in your product if you have to send it back for basic repairs.

Out of Sight Overpricing

Carbon 3D made waves in 3D printing and industry by using their proprietary CLIP technology to 3D print at record speed.

Carbon3D also made further waves when they launched their new M1 commercial printer. Carbon 3D’s business model is unique in the 3D printing world.

They are operating their printer as a subscription based service. That means for $40,000 a year (for a minimum 3 yrs) you get a M1 printer, samples (not whole batches) of resin, software and support. That is not including the additional $12,000 / yr for the accessory pack (which you need to cure the resins), or $10,000 for on-site instillation and training.

And any time you saved in printing will be eaten by the post curing process. You will have to bake the prints in an oven like any other resin to cure them.

The resins themselves are pricey for any 3D printing system, though on par with other SLA printers. While these resins have industrial properties that are desirable for certain applications, consumers loath paying $99 + S&H for 800 mL of the cheapest resin.

At these prices, Carbon3D has priced themselves into a very limited industrial market.

Many 3D printers (myself included) were hoping that Carbon3D would come out with a desktop model that we could justify buying. Small business and mom & pop 3D printing shops would gladly buy a Cabon3D printer if it came in under the $2,000 mark.

At $120K+ cost, only industries with deep pockets and a high industrial demand can justify the subscription.

For the M1’s small build volume, consumers will pay thousands of dollars for each cubic mm for their print. Carbon3D price sheet can be found here.

There are many different ways to alienate 3D printing consumers, but I’ll cover some more in a future blog.

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1 Comment
  1. Mark says

    Brilliant write-up! Great work!

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