the bank shot: the hardest question in 3D printing/replication

When Adrian Bowyer invented the RepRap 3D printer, he set forth a vision of the future of manufacturing based on self replicating robots–3D printers that make parts for other 3D printers. In the time since, 3D printing has advanced dramatically, in terms of reliability and cost. Design options have proliferated. There is enormous experimentation going on in the field. Many new open and closed source printers are available.

I often wonder what the 3D printing industry could learn from the history of open source software. As I compare the open source software and hardware businesses, I notice an interesting difference: the most successful companies producing open source software are not primarily in the software business, whereas the open source hardware businesses all seem to be primarily in the hardware business.

Red Hat and Canonical are certainly successful businesses, don’t get me wrong. But do they return the same level of shareholder value as IBM or Google? All these businesses produce open source software, but two have direct models and the other two are more indirect.

By ‘direct,’ I mean Red Hat and Canonical have open source as a foundation of their business. They give the software away, but charge for service and support.

And by ‘indirect,’ I mean IBM and Google are really in other businesses, but contribute to open source development  strategically:

  • IBM is really in the services and hardware businesses, but open source software helps it leverage commoditization against its software-industry competitors.
  • Google is primarily an advertising company, but it relies on an ecosystem of open technologies powerfully reinforced by open source software. Google needs Internet specifications to be freely available and widely implemented in a consistent way. Competitive, freely available open source software makes it easy to choose to interoperate with the rest of the world, and hard to choose otherwise, in a way that benefits Google’s business directly.

So what does that have to do with hardware? I’m not sure, but I suspect it could be a powerful direction of inquiry.

All the 3D printing businesses I see are in the business of either making and selling 3D printers (Lulzbot, Stratasys/Makerbot), or 3D printing services (Shapeways). Neither of which benefits from sharing source designs.

I’m curious: is there a business that could gain strategic advantage from using replicating 3D printers, but doesn’t necessarily sell them?

I love Adrian Bowyer’s vision of replicating machines, but it needs a business model. I’m envisioning entire industries being taken over by replicating bot farms, selling cast-off but still useful machines for belo cost once they’ve returned their investment, throwing off massive production capacity as a waste product.

But to unlock that possibility, we still need an entry point. We need a suitable business that will benefit from replicating 3D printers that doesn’t sell 3D printers or 3D printing.

The Google strategy doesn’t seem that relevant to me at this point. I do think interoperability and software standards are necessary, but we’ve had them for a while now and replicators haven’t taken over yet. We have the .stl file standard, and sites like Thingiverse, and sharing capabilities with Mediagoblin, and an open source software toolchain to drive these devices. The software toolchain does need work, but even an excellent open source toolchain wouldn’t increase replicator virality much: it’s necessary but not sufficient.

The IBM strategy seems closer to me.

I’m looking for the bank shot. Is there a bank shot here? Or is there one that’s close–an industry one could go after with a bit better technology than we have now? Is there a direction we could push things that would open this up?

Such a market would need to have these properties:

  • sufficient margins/ROI from replicators to suport investing in the technology;
  • potentially high levels of production–millions of units;
  • some locus of intellectual property central to the business but outside 3D printer design;
  • products that match the parameters of current (or soon to be available) 3D printing production–tolerances, sizes, and materials;
  • high demand for customization.

I find it hard to imagine such a business working in plastic items (PLA or ABS being the main feedstocks for 3D printing at this point). The large-scale production of plastic stuff I know about is pretty low margin. To me that says you need devices that work in metal, which at this point means CNC (subtractive) manufacturing. Maybe you need a device that combines the two. So as I write this, I don’t have an answer.

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One comment

  1. Closest idea that comes to mind is a model like 3D Hubs, which is basically a Shapeways without the hassles of manufacturing and shipping:

    – leverage millions of replicators without selling or managing them directly
    – high demand customization
    – products that match current printers quality, and improve every time they get new, better printers or when makers get better at it

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