Shapeways wants to do for 3D printing, what CSI did for petechial hemorrhaging. Luckily we are not alone, there are many companies working towards similar ends. These fellow travelers all want to in some way enable personal production and give people the ability to make anything. This post is meant to explain my personal view towards those fellow travelers, the future and pizza. It is long, my apologies.
There has been a lot of discussion about what the HP & Stratasys distribution deal will mean for 3D printing. Will it make 3D printing mainstream? Will it put a 3D printer on every desk, or is it just a limited marketing deal that will not change anything? Joseph Flaherty at Replicator thinks that the HP & Stratasys deal is, literally “no big deal.” Al Dean at Develop 3D is more optimistic, while giving a good overview of the industry and challenges. Jeffry Mathias is more optmistic still, and thinks it will be huge. My own opinion on the matter was described as enthusiastic also. This may strike some of you as strange, given that previously I have gone on the record saying some potentially stupid things about desktop 3D printing. In the Singer problem I imply that the desktop 3D printer is basically irrelevant and in the Milk analogy I ask why we don’t all have mini cows at home. Today I will go considerably further out on a limb.
How can I rhyme these seemingly disparate viewpoints of mine? By thinking of pizza. You have a lot of different types of businesses making pizza.
There is the fine dining restaurant where beautiful surroundings, linen tablecloths and jacketed waiters envelope you. This is a place where most come only on anniversaries or special occasions, places that are meant to take your breath away. They serve pizza here, with a twist, a wink of an eye and an eye popping price but pizza all the same. The service, the experience, the feeling of being in good hands and their expertise in cooking is why people go here.
You can also get pizza from Domino’s and Pappa Johns, You order it and it arrives. The pizza is inexpensive, easy and the variation is enormous. This is a scale business that is efficient and competes on value for money, scale, scope, selection and distribution. Technology, innovation and what’s under the hood matter as well as marketing. Within this segment there is variation such as NakedPizza that competes on health and ecology while retaining essentially the same model.
You could also build a pizza oven in your back yard. You could do this in two ways. You could hand build it yourself or get some professional company to ship it to you. In both cases the issues are similar. The initial start up costs are huge, especially compared to the other options. This will leave out a great many people unable or unwilling to make the investment. It will take up a lot of space and require a lot of effort to maintain. Initially you will have to train yourself to use it. You have acquired an asset and this could break, depreciate quicker than you thought or it could, simply not work as hoped. The risks are much higher, as is the effort. But the perceived payoff is higher. The dream of making one’s own. You have to love the idea of it. Just look at the guy above smiling.
And what off the ultimate pizza company? A pizza with all of the taste, skill and pizazz of the fine dining restaurant; with the low cost, variation, innovation and ease of the delivery service; and with the feeling of having made it yourself. This ultimate pizza competitor would for $1.99 instantly produce a pizza anywhere you wanted it to be, to any specification, with any ingredients with an unmatched taste. A kind of ultimate frozen pizza. Would that be cool? Would that be awesome? For shizzle. Where would such an ultimate pizza be more likely to evolve initially? Who would have it first? Would it be accessible as an inexpensive product for everyone to buy? Or would lets say a restaurant somewhere or one of those delivery services be the first to implement it, the first to afford it? While waiting for this ultimate pizza, what would be the best course to take as a consumer?
At one point during our lifetime there might very well be a device that can manipulate at the molecular or atomic level. There might be a Tea, Earl Grey, Hot device, a proper replicator. This will change everything. But..if such a device does not exist a desktop 3D printer is a technophile’s bread baking machine. A space & time consuming device that will bring a limited number of people immense enjoyment for limited use but be unused by the vast number of purchasers and people in general. Even people with a bread baking machine eat bread baked elsewhere. You can not make all bread with a bread baking machine. Skill is an element when baking bread. And just because there were other devices that used to be very expensive and limited and are now cheap and sophisticated does not necessarily mean that 3D printers will automatically follow the same path. Where is my $100 Rolls Royce? Nike shoes would cost less than a dollar and fly me to work if they were chips but they are not.
Desktop 3D printers, will be a tax on “makers” living in the early 21st century. Don’t get me wrong, I will happily pay it. I am enthusiastic about open source 3D printers and HP. But, look at your toolbox. What is the best tool? The best hammer? For all use cases? I know you have a dream tool, an ultimate but is this the best tool for everyone, in all cases? Could you even imagine an ultimate hammer, a screwdriver? A tool that could do everything? A tool that could do everything better than every other tool, no matter how specialized? How about a factory that could make everything? More likely, but improbable. How about a service with lots of factories, could they make everything? More likely still but even they could not simultaneously be the best at pizazz and afford ability. They would have to make choices, choose a path. They would, Oh I don’t know opt for building a service and a community instead of a machine. Indeed this is why I work at Shapeways. Because if a replicator comes on the market we will be the first to buy it. Because if the dream is to let everyone make everything the challenge is (counter intuitively) not one of machinery but rather one of infrastructure such as software, helpful community members, designers, scale and scope. There is a broad host of problems that we are tackling and this will be essential for making 3D printing mainstream. Confused, at this point during the diatribe? Try win Command and Conquer with one unit. Try find a shirt that fits all your friends. Try find a shirt that everyone you’ve ever met will like (and no, not everyone likes the Wolf Moon shirt). To make everything is an almost insurmountable mountain of complexity, to let everyone make everything adds a plethora of pitfalls, to limit your solution to within the confines of a desk is delusion. A desktop 3D printer will for some use cases for some people provide a completely compelling way to make something of any shape less well than larger machines owned by people who have more space or money.
So why am I going to buy a desktop 3D printer at one point? Because its cool. I’m a 3D printing fan boy. I’m like one of those people with every Barbie, all the Pokemon, I’m compelled. And this is where my enthusiasm for the HP deal comes in. If enough people believe that desktop 3D printing will happen, then it will. This, like the internet in the 1990s. This is the: no matter what the economics and technical challenges are, if we all go nuts and act like lemmings we are capable of incredible achievements. The hysteria, millions of people working towards the same goal, billions more to go into things like boo.com, dark fiber, data centers, coders, code, software, routers and the marketing, PR and news that brought everyone to the internet. The internet became a frenzy, a self fulling prophecy that defied any economic logic. Anything that brings people closer to believing that desktop 3D printing is inevitable, is great. Because a massive investment of time and money in one thing, in one dream, is bound to do amazing things.
But..you started this talking about pizza? Yes, I did and may I congratulate you on your perseverance as well as thank you for it, in this part of the story.
If I asked you about the pizza industry you might think that all companies that made pizza compete with each other. They don’t. Each slice is consumed by different people for different reasons. Yes, there could be overlap. I could buy a Pizza at night because I’m too lazy to fire up my pizza oven or order one from this one place because they have flavors or ingredients I don’t have. But, essentially these companies do not and will not derive significant gains or losses in revenues from these other pizza category companies. These companies would not thrive or fail if they did well or badly as compared to or in opposition to the overall pizza market. Each of their futures will be determined by different tactical and strategic choices and in competition with different players. Even if the market was saturated, they would not predominantly compete. Domino’s is more worried about McDonalds than fine dining. The “build your own wood fired oven” pizza people actually compete more with hot tubs, hobbies & vacations more than the other categories.
Shapeways aims to be Dominos of 3D printing. The guys at RepRap & Make@Home are the “build your own pizza oven crowd.” Stratasys, Objet, Zcorp, 3D systems and EOS are the professional pizza oven retailers. Makerbot is a unique hybrid of the two. 3D printing service bureaus such as Materialise are the fine dining restaurants. We all would like to offer the ultimate in production technology. We all would love to have or sell the ultimate replication machine. If there is an internet-like hype we might all get the chance, eventually. But, our energies are wasted in competing across categories.
We are all fulfilling a similar need but essentially not exactly the same need, and not to the same people and not in the same way. The differences between those needs and how we meet them will mean the difference between success and failure for individual companies and products in this industry. Domino’s might be the most excellent pizza delivery company out there but they could not do fine dining. There are six billion people on this planet that have no concept of what 3D printing can do. Lets divy these up first and then start thinking about the other guy.