CES has come and gone, and as usual a lot of people have done “journalism” on topics they don’t understand. For example:
Glen Stantos of Geeky Gadgets seems to be unclear on the concept of a “work in progress,” describing the Thing-o-matic as “working exactly like your trusty printer.”
David John Walker of Seer Press News took Makerbot a little too literally at their word in describing just how “maintenance free” their extrusion system is.
Gizmag managed to get their description right by simply parroting Makerbot’s description.
At least the Tested guys , who have been running Makerbot products for a while now, were coherent.
Anywho, that stuff’s not the point. The point is that Makerbot is starting to approach that time in the life-cycle of successful startups when they go from small to large. Or, at least when they have the chance to go from small to large. All this press, and it is well deserved press even when it is inaccurate (reporters overstating something is par for the course), is a good indication that Makerbot has “made it” and needs to seriously consider their business model.
The way I see it, Makerbot can remain true to the open-source “maker” idea they started with and keep putting out a product that appeals to DIY enthusiasts. A big part of that model is continuing to let their customers do a lot of their testing for them. This ongoing extruder problem is a perfect example. Since they can get a dozen bots to print for days without any problems, and there aren’t hundreds of people crowding the forums asking about their dead extruders, this failure mode is reasonably rare … for a DIY project. But (and I don’t have any numbers) it seems like this failure mode is too frequent for a larger enterprise. If Makerbot starts selling an order of magnitude more bots they are going to run out of early adopters. While they might be able to get the general public to assemble a Thing-o-matic (at least a full day of work) they are going to have a really hard time getting them to be patient when it doesn’t work or gradually stops working over a couple of weeks. But even ignoring the assembly time (maybe they sell them pre-assembled), you can’t sell something for $1500 that only works for a few weeks. Not to the general public at least.
Which brings me to the alternative business model. Makerbot could go for the expansion that interest in their product supports, but they’d have to dramatically change the way they operate. Selling thousands of bots per quarter will require an obvious expansion of physical and personnel resources, which (since they’re in America, more specifically New York) will start to cost an awful lot. There’s a reason so many things are manufactured in China. The DIY, early adopter, solder fume addict community will pay a premium for something they can hack … the general public won’t. Also, Makerbot’s current clients will “pay a premium” in the extra time and effort required to make the product work properly … the general public won’t. In fact, selling something designed to be hackable to the general public pretty much guarantees that the first people to buy it will be the members of the general public who THINK they can hack, but actually can’t. These people will probably just poke it until it just breaks, and then demand a replacement. Additionally, since Makerbot’s business is based on open-source designs, if they start to create a new market they will find themselves with competition. Even more fun, they’ll find themselves with their first lawsuit as soon as someone leaves the bot printing overnight and their kid reaches in to grab the extruder nozzle, or someone opens their bot up and leaves it lying on the carpet with the z-motor powered up and starts a fire, or someone sticks their eye under the extruder to see if it’s clogged.
I don’t think it’s practical for Makerbot to actually pursue that second option. Not only do none of the founders seem interested in the corporate mindset, there are already tons of pre-existing corporations that can fill up the consumer marketplace with plug-n-play 3d printers. The fundamental technology really isn’t particularly complex or expensive, so as soon as a demand exists it will be supplied. But that does put Makerbot in an interesting position. They can run full speed to become a large corporation and fill the consumer market’s demand for 3d printers, or they can stay where they are with the open-source early adopter thing. They already pretty much guaranteed that they can’t get their company acquired (bought out) since they release all their IP to the public for free. If they wanted to do that they’d pretty much have to rely on the value in their brand.
What they could do, and what I think makes the most sense, is they could expand the “Makerbot umbrella” to include more products. Whenever they get their 3d printer’s mean time to failure low enough, they can start on something else. We can already see that they’re sort of pursuing this strategy since every now and then they mention that they also sell other things like a 3d scanner and an egg plotter. However, I’m unsure about how long that strategy could last. It seems to me that it would only work if they came up with a new flag-ship product that attracted just as much DIY community interest as the Cupcake/TOM did. See, once someone has a TOM, they don’t need a second one, and the market is just too small for them to continue to run a business off of consumables like plastic.
Basically, I think Makerbot needs to stay in the DIY market, but to do that they need to come up with a new flag-ship product. If they don’t, I fear their initial success will be short-lived rather than sustained. An initial expansion followed by a long, slow contraction. And my intuition tells me that the kind of guys who would start something like Makerbot are not going to stick around when their business becomes boring and gradually shrinks, but they can’t really sell it to someone else since all the information someone needs to copy their business is available for free. So, if they don’t come up with a new Cupcake-type-thing in a year or so they just might call it quits.
So, what could Makerbot work on next? I’d like to hear your suggestions, but in the meantime here are some of mine:
- I suppose the most obvious product is a plastic recycler. It’s a more popular topic in the RepRap forums, but pretty much everyone everywhere is already interested in the idea. Something that could take bulk plastic (even if it’s just failed ABS prints) and turn it back into filament for the printer, would be quite popular. Additionally, a lot of work on this topic has already been done in the open source community, so Makerbot wouldn’t have to start from scratch. That seems in keeping with what made the Cupcake/TOM successful (it was pretty much entirely based on the RepRap). Finally, they might even be able to run the recycler off of the same electronics kit already sitting in the bowels of the TOM. The Gen 4 electronics have extra actuator/sensor connections that aren’t being used. A firmware upgrade, a new version of ReplicatorG, a second power supply, a few wires and you’re up and running.
- They could introduce new models of 3d printers that don’t use plastruders. There are literally several dozen different methods of printing in 3d and not all of them require a million dollars. The most obvious method is ACTUAL 3d printing, where a powder medium is smoothed flat and an inkjet head prints a picture to bind it together.
- A complimentary subtractive manufacturing process might be good. If they could build a CNC machine that automatically took parts the TOM had finished, and cleaned them up, drilled holes, maybe even produced a smooth surface finish, it would probably be bought up by the same people who already have a 3d printer. So, not just Makerbot customers, but also RepRap owners and UP printer owners and whatnot.
- Perhaps they could expand into technologies that would compliment the desktop manufacturing paradigm. For example, I have a wet/dry vac that is totally plastic (printable) except for the motor, switch, and wiring harness. In fact, the limitation of “but what can a plastic part do” is the first thing people think of when I show them 3d printing. ABS is structural. To make it generally useful it needs to hold electrical and mechanical systems in position. Since their market is (and should be) the DIY early adopter hacker type, they could create a sort of Legos system for DIY projects. For example a pick-n-place bot that could build circuit boards by putting components in position and soldering them, and then put them into a 3d printer to have the housing built around them, would be quite attractive to that community.
- One of the biggest limitations is that everything is in plastic. Metal is much more useful for many practical applications, but machining it is a pain. Building up the shape of the metal part you want in easy to handle plastic, and then casting it in metal, would make the machining of metal nearly unnecessary. Perhaps Makerbot could build a sandbox casting bot that takes the part the TOM spits out, dumps sand around it, melts some metal, and injects it into the mold … turning the plastic part into a metal part automatically.