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Saturday, June 7, 2014

Entrepreneurial opportunities from 3D printing

This week has been my week for 3D printing in Europe. I gave a talk on the industry’s history at a workshop in Germany on the business of 3D printing on Tuesday, and listened to a number of other academics talk about their own research. On Thursday, I visited Materialise, a (soon to be public) 3D printing service bureau in Belgium. On Friday, I interviewed one of the founders of Ultimaker, a Dutch startup and a leading maker of consumer 3D printers.

In my talk, I said the flurry of consumer 3D printing startups since 2005 can be attributed to

The first created both a market and a pool of potential entrepreneurs, while the latter two reduced the entry barriers for those entrepreneurs. Together, this brought dozens of new entrants into making 3D printers in the past decade.

From my interviews (including the two this week), it is clear that 3D printing has had a transformative impact on the entrepreneurial careers of engineers and other technical entrepreneurs. When they learn about 3D printing, they drop everything and try to figure out how to make a career out of working in the industry — usually by making a better mousetrap. (Obviously not everyone who learns of 3D printing does this — but the entrepreneurs are the ones who do so.)

This reminds me a lot of my earlier research on mobile apps and open source software, what I witnessed in internet services (Web 1.0) and the PC revolution, and what I read about the airplane and the automobile. An exciting, high-growth technology attracts hundreds of entrepreneurs, many with more technical than business acumen. The lucky ones ride the growth rocket to make multimillion dollar companies, while others crash and burn.

If (as we all expect) there are scale economies, then the excess entry by firms will bring a dramatic shakeout. In another 10 years, there will be 5-10 major personal 3D printer makers — some of which will have been bought by the existing industrial makers (as Stratasys did with Makerbot) or other companies (HP, IBM, GE, etc.)

On the other hand, many of these companies will survive (or profitably exit) by migrating to niches within the product category, or upstream or downstream (or laterally) to other parts of the value network.
For example, the co-host of our workshop, Frank Piller, showed a plastic model mini-me that was scanned, hand-edited, and then printed in color. At €995 per model, it’s not a high-volume growth business, but it is a way to build resources and capabilities to pursue other opportunities.

This is an exciting time for these entrepreneurs, and for those (like me) studying such entrepreneurs. It will be also an exciting time for engineers to join the industry, just as it was 20 years ago for Internet services or 30+ years ago for personal computing.

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