About a decade ago a group of Dutch startuppers envisioned ways to bring the “boring” technologies for rapid prototyping to the masses and basically invented 3D printing. Today, while the mass media report on the impending doom of 3D printing in a sort of “reverse hype”, Holland-based companies show that dream is far from dead. Instead, it is evolving in something that has empowered more people than ever opening the doors to the world of advanced manufacturing to everyone who could afford to buy a desktop 3D printer.
What the industry as a whole has come to realize is that 3D printing is not something that can stand alone. It is the culmination and materialization of a series of creative processes. 3D printing is the final step of a complete creative solution that includes hardware as well designs and ideas, software, materials and service.
The Dutch envisioned a way to bring this complete solution to everyone who would want to embrace it, eliminating the price barrier. It began with Amsterdam-based designer Janne Kyttanen and his Freedom of Creation studio. It continued with the FabLab Utrecht and the open-source Ultimaker desktop 3D printer, it opened new possibilities of business and applications with colorFabb’s ever-growing range of compatible materials, it expanded globally with the 3D Hubs 3D printing network, and it got real with the Shapeways online 3D printing service.
All these companies and visions were born in the Netherlands and now, after overcoming the challenges of starting up, they are leading the – far from dead – desktop 3D printing industry in new and directions.
Let’s start with Ultimaker. You can say all you want about them not delivering innovation at a sufficient speed, about them not being responsive enough at fixing issues (such as the filament feeding system), about their 3D printers been no more reliable than competitors’. However, the bottom line is that they are selling more than any other company in their price range and, perhaps more importantly, they keep growing at breakneck speed. That does not happen by chance. It takes corporate management abilities and the even more important ability to make those coincide with the company’s open-source and community-based nature. And, of course, it takes luck, as CEO Burger said himself, and it takes competitors making just about every mistake they could.
Moving on to Shapeways, I wrote plenty of articles about the fact that they had over-invested, that they could not possibly have a valid profitable business model, and that they were charging too little. However, that is why I’m here writing articles and others are running the business. Perhaps it was not forecastable (or maybe it was, since its development began in 2011), but HP’s Multi Jet Fusion technology is going to provide that speed, cost of materials and machine price that is going to take Shapeways into a new era. The company built up a huge portfolio of professional, prosumer and (yes) consumers with high-cost SLS, SLA and binder jetting 3D printers. Now shifting to HP-powered increased productivity is going to be a breeze.
3DHubs is a little more of a mystery since it has been somewhat quiet in recent times. I am not sure the pay-to-print business model is 100% viable however the network keeps growing which means it has a future. The company founded by young industry veteran Bram de Zwart and Brian Garret keeps hiring developers in order to provide that one software to control all 3D printers. Competition is fierce, however, no one else can count on information from over 30,000 registered 3D printers and 3D printer users.
For colorFabb (and FormFutura, and DutchFilaments) it is the same story. I visited the company two years ago and now they have already moved to a much bigger location. The extrusion lines have doubled to six (from three) and the business is literally booming. Not bad for a company that focuses many of its products (especially the wood and metal fills) on consumer applications. Not bad especially considering the intense competition in the open filaments market, from China, the US, just about every European country and even South America. How is it that Dutch desktop 3D printing companies are just more successful?
Maybe it’s because much of it all started from Holland. A lot of it started with Janne Kyttanen’s vision and it is significant that he has now moved on to bigger things with his WTFVC process-agnostic design project. When the hype exploded in 2013 he understood that everyone was just copying one idea instead of innovating in new directions. He tried to help bring the consumer 3D printing concept to the masses with 3D Systems but combining open desktop 3D printing with 3DS’s 100% closed jewelry and prototyping business mentality was more than a long shot, it would have been a miracle. Now (no matter what Newsweek says about it) that miracle is happening. It began in Holland and that is where its next phase is also going to begin.