Out of 3-D Ink

TO PRINT OR NOT TO PRINT: The idea of every home having a 3-D printer has proved to be a pipedream, as problems with lowcost printers have led companies to refocus on more expensive models designed for business.

BY Arvind Dilawar

January 3, 2014, was a momentous day for the 3-D printing industry. The stocks of two of its leading companies, 3D Systems and Stratasys, peaked after nearly 30 years in business, and hopes were high for the technology. Most thought it would democratize manufacturing, allowing consumers to produce customizable goods from their homes. There’d be no point in retail stores anymore; customers would instead log on to the websites of their favorite brands, download personalized product files and print them within minutes. The price of goods would be slashed, international trade deficits reversed, ethically suspect supply chains rendered unnecessary and the environment spared untold amounts of degradation. It was to be the next industrial revolution.

But January 3, 2014, was also the start of a two-year decline that saw 3D Systems’s shares lose more than 92 percent of their value and Stratasys’s fall by over 86 percent. Expectations plummeted too; 3-D printing turned from savior to gimmick. Industry analysts and researchers now agree that the hype far outpaced practical applications.

Additive manufacturing—the original, less-sexy term for 3-D printing—has been around since the 1980s. Stereolithography, which uses ultraviolet lasers to solidify light-sensitive plastic resin built up in layers to produce three-dimensional objects, led to the formation of 3D Systems in 1986. Stratasys was founded in 1989 on another technique: fused deposition modeling, which uses heat to melt plastic filament that is then built up in layers. The majority of 3D Systems’s and Stratasys’s early business was with industrial clients who needed rapid prototyping solutions and could afford printers that cost at least five figures.

The price of 3-D printers began to fall in 2005, with the launch of RepRap, an open-source project seeking to develop a low-cost printer capable of producing its own parts. Hundreds of developers around the world built upon recently expired patents and kept their new designs freely available to others, making progress swift and inexpensive. As a result, the cost of 3-D printing dropped “by a factor of about 100,” says RepRap founder Adrian Bowyer. In 2009, MakerBot began selling $750 printer kits online and demand outstripped MakerBot’s in-house production capacity. The company had to solicit customers who had already received their 3-D printers to help produce parts to fulfill new orders. That kind of demand draws investors. In 2011, MakerBot raised $10 million in venture capital, and in June 2013 Stratasys acquired the company.

The enthusiasm coursing through the industry created a gulf between expectations and realities. Make Mode, a digital design and fabrication studio, tried out two low-cost machines—first MakerBot’s $2,500 Replicator 2, then Formlab’s $3,000 Form 1—but both were constantly breaking down, says Make Mode co-founder Blair Gardner. So Make Mode had no choice but to upgrade to Stratasys’s uPrint SE and 3D Systems’s ProJet 660, which respectively cost $22,000 and $65,000—right back in the five-figure range.

Make Mode wasn’t the only one having trouble with low-cost 3-D printers. In February 2015, a class-action lawsuit was filed against Stratasys alleging that it knowingly rushed defective MakerBot printers to market. Throughout 2015, MakerBot laid off staff and closed down offices and Stratasys’s stock dove.

And although 3D Systems had attempted to build its own line of low-cost printer, it seems to have been pulled down by Stratasys’s sinking ship, its shares peaking on the same day, then falling even faster.

Analysts remain optimistic. In 2013, Wohlers Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in 3-D printing, predicted that the sector would grow to $10.8 billion by 2021. Despite 2015’s horrors, the firm now forecasts even greater growth, with the industry reaching $21.2 billion in 2020. While the firm is skeptical about the value of low-end, consumer-oriented printers—“You can only make so many lime-green Yoda heads before you get a little bored and wonder, Why did I buy this 3-D printer?” says Wohlers senior consultant Tim Caffrey—the results of its surveys suggest that more and more industrial clients will be buying high-end, expensive 3-D printers.

For example, printers capable of working with metals are now being integrated into production lines. They are even producing some parts completely on their own, as in Stratasys’s contract with Airbus to produce more than 1,000 components for a line of aircraft. Stratasys and 3D Systems both describe branching into other verticals, like automotive, medical and dental. 3D Systems has abandoned the consumer market, discontinuing its line of low-end printers in December 2015.

At MakerBot, the hope is to convince schools from the elementary level up to colleges that 3-D printers can be learning tools; thus far, MakerBot has printers in 5,000 educational institutions, including every public school in Montclair, New Jersey. The company also believes it can fill a void in the prototyping market.

But what of the new industrial revolution allowing us to print customizable goods at home? “I believe in that world,” says MakerBot CEO Jonathan Jaglom. “My guess is we’re five years away from it.” He’s confident the challenges—such as reliability and lack of printing material options (right now, you can really only print with plastic at home)—will be met. In April 2016, Jaglom announced that Thingiverse, the brand’s website of open source product designs, would open up to developers, creating an application programming interface (API) on which apps could connect software with hardware, designers with printers, and users with services. Jaglom believes this scheme will lower the barrier to entry, just as the App Store helped push the iPhone.

But the Thingiverse API unveiling appears to have done little to reassure investors. On April 25, MakerBot laid off the majority of its remaining factory workers, choosing to outsource the production of its printers. Over the next month, Stratasys’s stock fell almost 14 percent, and 3D Systems’s shares tumbled twice as far. Investors may have realized that if the 3-D printing industry needs to rely on traditional manufacturing to produce its wares, there will be no revolution.

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