As today is Fabbaloo’s tenth anniversary I felt it wise to do a recap – of everything that’s happened in the story of 3D printing over the past decades.
Yes, this is an ambitious project, but I feel it important to put the vast accumulation of events of the past ten years into broad themes, from which it is possible to perceive the large movements of companies and technologies. This will likely be our longest post ever. Let’s start at the very beginning.
It all began in the early 1980s, when two innovative engineers developed the most basic two 3D printing processes. Chuck Hull invented a method of creating objects exposing photopolymer resin to ultraviolet light. Meanwhile, engineer Scott Crump invented the process of plastic extrusion, apparently on his kitchen table using leftover parts from an inkjet printer.
These were both cases of innovators taking technology elements available at that time and combining them together in new ways to provide a fantastic new capability.
I was extremely fortunate to see – and actually handle – the world’s very first 3D printed object, a simple shape made by the resin process in the 1980s, imaged at the top. This historic object is held with great reverence by those tending to it, and those who see it. It must have been difficult to imagine back then what astonishing things would follow this object in decades to come.
But many, many things did happen.
THE INITIAL INDUSTRIES
These two initial processes were patented by their respective owners, which led immediately to the formation of two 3D printing industry giants: 3D Systems and Stratasys, both of which dominate the industry to this day.
The patent locked out other competitors, but honestly, it wasn’t much of a market to start with. The technology was rather fragile and thus it was seen, correctly, as a form of prototyping. The materials available at the time were few and engineers of the day weren’t particularly impressed. I recall attending an early trade show attended by such engineers, and literally heard several proclaim that “3D printing is a fad”, as they moved on to more “serious” making machinery.
Nevertheless, both 3D Systems and Stratasys grew significantly and dominated the prototyping space.
THE CONSUMER EXPLOSION
Something very fascinating happened in and around 2009: the initial patents on this technology began to expire. This meant that anyone could use the same technology to produce a similar device. The first patent to expire was Stratasys’ basic thermoplastic extrusion system.
This opening led the way for academics to consider ways to perform 3D printing at a very low cost. One key project was RepRap, whose goal was to produce a machine that could 3D print itself, hence its name. They were eventually somewhat successful, at least for the plastic components. The machine could not 3D print any metal parts, nor the electronics and certainly not the high-temperature components.
The release of that inexpensive machine to the public sparked a new concept: could ANYONE operate a machine that manufactures stuff? Could this be done cheaply? Apparently so, or at least that’s what many people thought at the time.
MakerBot deftly marketed towards this goal, with statements such as “everyone is a maker”. They gained enormous media coverage, which was assisted by MakerBot’s NYC location near TV headquarters and by their incredibly charismatic CEO, Bre Pettis. Pettis’ singular marketing strategy put 3D printing in the minds of so many more people, captivating them with a profound vision of the future.
That vision was so incredibly popular, it became a lure for investors seeking to capitalize on this new interest. Unfortunately at the time there were only two 3D printing companies who offered publicly traded stock, the same 3D Systems and Stratasys as earlier. Their stock prices rose to ridiculous heights during this period.
While Stratasys took a conservative view and more or less observed what was going on around them, 3D Systems had a very different strategy.
In retrospect, this appears to be what happened: 3D Systems embarked on a massive campaign of corporate acquisition. During this period, the company acquired one way or another, dozens of 3D print-related operations. In fact, we did an analysis in 2015 showing they had obtained no less than 54 companies!
Many of the acquisitions made sense: GeoMagic was a well-regarded maker of 3D software, whose acquisition could bring a strong relationship to 3D Systems, for example.
Other strange activities from 3D Systems during this period included the addition of a number of food printers, which would produce sugar objects or simple chocolate structures. We did not think this would ever be a big market, but food printers took on a huge presence in 3D Systems’ marketing. At the 2014 CES event the company announced so many new products we posted a story entitled “3D Systems Announces – Everything!”
3D Systems also dove deep into 3D design: the company hired a number of creative folks to produce innovative 3D designs for printing, but somehow these never made a big splash. 3D Systems even contracted popular singer Will.I.Am to be their “Chief Creative Officer” and be the front man to boost their EKOCYCLE desktop 3D printer, something else that never took off.
If you suspect this was unsustainable, you’d be right.
THE CONSUMER IMPLOSION
It all fell apart in mid-2014 when the public finally realized that desktop 3D printers were actually not like a Star Trek replicator and were really a type of manufacturing machine that they would rather not operate themselves.
Yes, there were hundreds of thousands of makers who loved this stuff, but there were millions, perhaps billions, who would not. The massive market for consumer 3D printing did not exist, and the bubble popped rather abruptly.
A number of negative articles began to appear, taking the shine off the technology. In reality, nothing had changed with the technology itself, only the perception of the public had changed, and with that went the stock prices.
This sudden swerve of interest was a surprise to many, although there were always pundits correctly suggesting that the notion of the general public performing 3D CAD to design and manufacture their own products was a bit of a stretch. To me the foundational problems were:
- The early desktop machines were generally unreliable, offered poor quality results and were far too complicated to operate than most consumers could possibly withstand. They were also expensive
- The lack of 3D design capability, both in skills and available of usable software meant few could make creative use of the technology, even if it were reliable.
- The absence of a popular usage scenario implied that even if the above were resolved, there were essentially no widespread uses for consumers to benefit from the technology, although many suspected one would eventually be discovered. None has yet been found to this date, but many keep looking.
Nevertheless, a huge number of startup companies had emerged by this time, all counting on a big consumer take-up of the technology. This crash put all of them in a difficult predicament.
Many operations simply folded up, but the smarter ones pivoted their activities.
INDUSTRIAL 3D PRINTING CONTINUED
During all this fuss, the industrial 3D printing technologies and their manufacturers were purring along, aside from the disruptive effects of huge stock price swings. Their technology continued to be developed in an evolutionary manner, and generally, their customer bases grew somewhat, and some of that is likely due to the increased public awareness of 3D printing technologies.
The major challenge for the industrial equipment manufacturers was and still is, to convince manufacturers that 3D printing is a viable option for some of their activities. While they had sold many systems for prototyping, countless small and large businesses were simply unaware that they could benefit. Therefore we saw the rise of “case studies”, showing how an industry could benefit. We saw the emergence of entire company divisions dedicated to, say, “aerospace”, or “medical” applications of 3D printing technology.
These ventures indeed have moved the use of 3D printing in industry forward, but perhaps not as much as most 3D printer manufacturers may have wanted. This continues today.
But that’s just the beginning of the story. Read the rest of this decades-long saga in full at Fabbaloo.