Shapeways, The Community

Desktop 3D printing: The milk analogy

I was thrilled by the response to the Singer problem post so I’ve decided to once more share another one of my tortured analogies with you.

The Milk analogy

Milk is a huge business. A typical US consumer consumes 178 pounds of milk products a year and drinks 21 gallons of the milk. In 2007 in the US alone the dairy industry had revenues of $99,700,000,000. There are approximately 34,000 supermarkets in the US & 13,000 small grocery stores.
In addition there are many other retail outlets that sell milk. Many of
these milk retailers are well located and have long opening hours,
while others compete on price. It is therefore easy to get milk in the
United States.

There is however a huge business opportunity here.
I will give you this business idea, completely free of charge and even
get you started with the marketing of it. This business idea will turn
the dairy industry and milk consumption on its head as well as
revolutionize food retailing and have a lasting impact on society.
Riches and fame await for the person that is lucky enough to read this
and able to capitalize on this idea.

Major revolutions in
retailing and consumer behavior typically often when distribution
problems are solved in inventive ways. Milk distribution in the US
seems to be an efficient affair with high barriers to entry that
depend on scale and scope. That is until you apply real insight and
inventiveness to the problem. To be “at arms length” at all times to
the customer is the dream of any distributor and retailer in any
industry. You can do this for the dairy industry by implementing this
simple idea:

put a cow in every home.  

Consumers like milk and
respond very well to “freshness”, wholesome, healthy and immediacy. A
cow in every home will allow these consumers to consume milk in the
most healthy, fresh and immediate form. Furthermore, in the long run
they will be able to drink this much fresher much healthier much more
available milk at lower cost than store bought milk. The environmental
benefits would be self evident. A cow could in addition to being a milk
dispensing device also function as a household pet. The cuteness and
docility of cows will drive widespread adoption.   

distribution channel will focus directly on the consumer and allow for
high margins by cutting out the middle man. Furthermore by supplying
the inputs for the cow such as hay and “superfood for your cow” you
have a potential high margin secondary revenue stream similar to
Proctor & Gamble’s razorblades model. If you act quickly the
“aftermarket” in cow accessories such as pens, toys and grooming
equipment could be yours also.

Some of the skeptics will invariably see problems with this idea. They will say things like:

81% of the united States is urbanized.
In a city home there simply will not be any room for a cow. In suburban
homes there might in some case be room but it will be difficult. Cows
also produce a lot of waste, they stink and specialized training will
be needed to care for them. It also takes a lot of work to take care of
cows.The market will soon be saturated with other firms offering cows
for sale even if it does work.”

I will quickly repudiate any and all objections from these naysayers.

genius of this plan is to create: mini-cows. Through genetic
engineering you can create low cost, small footprint, low waste, low
maintenance cows. This proprietary technology is patentable and will
create barriers to entry. No one will be able to sell your excellent
breed of cow at the same price point and with the same low footprint.
The prime mover advantage in this industry will be enormous and while
others struggle to catch up and genetically engineer similar cows you
will be free to conquer and own the market.

As for the branding
and marketing I have some suggestions. I would not go for the Holstein
breed of cattle. Although iconic I would not consider this a wise
choice. The black and white patterning will tend to breed tired visual
and marketing as well as limit your brand. Tucows and Gateway
(remember when they both were cool?) both have copyrights in the tech
arena with the typical black & white patterning. A lot of dairy
firms already use similar patterning in their respective fields.
Instead I would suggest going for a Jerrsey, Brown Swiss Cow or Guernsey breed.
These are all good milk producers, docile, smaller than Holsteins and
have a distinctive look. This will make for easier patent and
intellectual property development and protection. By taking a
distinctive breed you can also dominate and define the “category” of
the in home milk producers more easily.

As for the consumer
marketing itself it would be simple. Focus on cuteness, utility and
originality. I would also advocate for a social media viral marketing campaign.

Take the photograph below, tastefully insert your brand and URL
somewhere and submit a link to the image on your site to services such
as Reddit and Digg and you should be golden.

Please remember to attribute it to Law_keven correctly and realize it is a Share Alike Creative Commons

As you will have gathered this post is not about milk at all but about desktop 3D printers.

Fist some background for you, 3D printing in a nutshell:

A 3D printer today costs from $10,000-$900,000. When I use the term 3D printing I mean it in the broad sense as explained here. 3D printers are typically the size of coke machines.
An experienced 3D modeler has to make a 3D file that is watertight,
2-manifold and with the normals pointing in the right direction. This
3D file has to be checked and often repaired. Then the machine software
takes this file and calculates how the machine will make it. The
support structures
and orientation of the part have to be calculated also. Next, layer by
layer material is built up into the resulting object. There is a manual
process for removing support material
(the brown stuff in the picture right) and many processes require
additional steps such as curing or hardening in some way. The printer
requires a skilled & experienced operator to be run efficiently.

Some machines can work in an office environment but the removing of
support material is often not suited for an office. Other machines
produce a lot of dust or work with toxic materials and I would not want
them within a city block of my home. Price of the machines depend on
build volume, build speed and the types of materials they can work
with. These materials also vary widely in price. There is no clear
“best” 3D printing technology or material, it all depends on the use

The Desktop 3D printing revolution will put small and easy to use versions of these machines in everyone’s home. Inspired by this T-shirt however I have begun to doubt that this revolution will be as easy, quick or complete as promised.

I work for Shapeways which is a 3D printing community which is based on
giving access to the most expensive machines for the lowest prices
through scale I must confess to definitely being biased and perhaps
suffering from confirmation bias. I also realize that I am exposing
myself to a Thomas Watson type of risk as expressed by this comment to the Singer post

But, with that in mind I do want stimulate discussion on desktop 3D
printing and point out that the path to the mainstream will be a bit
slower than anticipated. Furthermore, it will not be a case of
“laser printers were expensive” now they are cheap, ergo the same will
happen with desktop 3D printing. The drivers for the adoption of this technology will be
different ones entirely.

Just because a lot of people like a technology, just because it could change anything and everything does not mean it will be implemented successfully. Good ideas do not win just because they are good ideas. The milk analogy, hopefully, illustrates barriers to profitability and implementation for a commercial company attempting to put a desktop printer on every desk, in every home. Even if the obvious technical challenges could be solved, instantly and right now, would mini-cows or desktop printers in every household work?

The reasons why mini-cows would or would not work depend on consumer behavior, consumer perception, the ability and willingness of someone to engage with a particular new technology and the usefulness of this technology to them at any given moment. A device’s perceived and actual utility to a person making a decision to buy it, or not.      

The $5000 desktop 3D printer does not matter.

Its existence an sich will not magically make a market. If I created a $5000 consumer friendly desktop nuclear reactor tomorrow, would it sell? Regulatory issues aside and imagining that government bodies would certify it as safe. It would be mega high tech and interesting and would be sure to get a lot of techies blood flowing faster. The marketing launch would be immense. I’m sure that there would be people that wanted one. But, would a lot of people buy one? Would you? Why or why not?

To me the price point would not matter at all. The inventiveness and sheer possibility of it would not matter either. Even the fact that the thing would be an incredibly good investment for consumers would not matter. What would kill such an initiative ultimately would be that people are afraid of the word “nuclear.”

The technology itself and the possibilities, although endless, would be immaterial.

As for the desktop 3D printer market: The real barriers to adoption by consumers should be similar to the ones expressed in the Singer post and the drivers for adoption would come from the materials and the ability of everyone to design, not the machine itself.


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