The Non-Tail

Posted by in What's Hot

A while ago Jochem our CMO was playing with one of our Monkey Babies. They’re the cute little models that we use to help you compare our materials. During Jochem’s playing/testing of this particular money, he broke off its’ tail. This was both sad and really fitting.

The Long Tail has gone from a little
idea published by Chris Anderson to a huge one that determines a lot
of corporate strategy and business thinking nowadays. There are a lot
of businesses springing up operating in the Long Tail. They are not
going for blockbuster hits but rather lots of small successes with
niche products for small groups of customers.

At Shapeways we allow people to upload
or modify any design and then have it 3D printed. A lot of people
might think of us as a typical Long Tail business. Potentially
however we are actually a non-tail business. Since every design on
our site is unique and made by one single individual for themselves
or as a gift for someone else, typically we sell just one printed out
copy of each design.

Of course crowds bring crowd-like
behavior and in future some of our designs will become popular. For
now however the blockbusters are things like earrings or bookends
where people print two copies of the design. In the future there
might be a lot of businesses out there where every product has a
market of one.

I believe that for cultural products such as movies and books the blockbuster model coupled with the Long Tail will be prevalent. But, in the world of manufactured consumer goods will a market of one not make more sense? 

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  1. Wildsketch

    I think I get what you’re saying but at the current cost of 3D printing does it really make sense that each object printed is in the end used as only one instance? Some of the people in the forums obviously have a background in crafts and intend to make a mold and then cast the printed prototype they order from you. Take the earrings you mention for example. Do you really think that people are going to be wearing plastic earrings? And if they cast them in metal, are there going to be only one pair made?

    I do get the point that as it applies to you it still amounts to the same thing, a single unique print for a single customer. 3D printing will have to get a lot cheaper before it makes sense to produce multiples.

    Your company does seem to me to fit the long tail model though. You aren’t non-tail, so much as all tail. The nearest established industry or internet business model is probably vanity publishing or t-shirt printing, like spreadshirt or cafe press. Like them your website seems set up to produce zero, one or many products for each customer.

    By zero I mean that on this site, as well as on spreadshirt I have uploaded a design that I intend to print, perhaps only once, for myself, but have do not yet have the extra cash to buy a print of that one design.

    I guess what it comes down to is the question of whether vanity press, or custom t-shirts are a long tail business. I believe that they are.

    In the meantime, to use the words of Strike from the Johnny Mnemonic movie: You are a hit waiting to happen.

  2. Joris Peels


    I think we completely agree with each other. But, I’m afraid my post might be a bit unclear.

    What I meant to say was because the cost of printing two unique items is the same as printing two identical things why not customize every single item?

    If we have Shapeways Shape’s like we have now for the LightPoem for more models why not customize every single design? Why settle for something that you like, make it exactly right.

    If that would happen we would have no hits, even long tail businesses like spreadshirt have hits. Items that they sell many exact copies of. But for us everything could just be unique. You’d make a design and everyone that would like it would tweak it so that it was perfect for them.

    I would agree that costs for 3D printing have to come down more, and we hope to be a force to make that happen. Strangely I do think people will wear plastic earrings, if they can make them exactly like they want to make them.

    I truly believe that rarity is the only reason why we like our jewlery made from precious items such as gold. And what is rarer, especially in today’s world, than something unique.

    I would agree that casting is the way forward for series production in the near term though. And in that case we would have hits. Or rather our designers would. And perhaps “all tail” would be a more fitting descripton of the point I was trying to make.

    Johhy Mnemonic, wow, I’d completely forgotten about that! I do hope we are a hit waiting to happen.

  3. Wildsketch

    I see what you mean. I’ve thought that one consequence of 3D printing would mean that the world could turn from being full of nearly identical, mass-produced objects to one that had many many more unique items. Perhaps we then begin to look more like the 19th than the 20′th century, where every object is more a form of artisan craft display of complexity and skill, objects are made more to be decorative and to have appeal to local cultures or internet subcultures and less utilitarian, to satisfy everyone’s needs at the expense of their aesthetic sense.

    What you suggest though, makes it seem as though your design library would have to become less a catalog of geometric shapes and more a set of programs or parameters. Designing every object individually might mean something like a shoe or lamp or cellphone case that is customizable in the same way some video game avatars are. In the case of clothing, it could conform to a scan of individual body proportions.

    You are also right that people will wear plastic earrings. Though I hope not until you have the material safety issues ironed out. But I think you underestimate the natural attraction that people have to metals like gold, copper or bronze. Their shininess, tint and tint are attractive in themselves, and women use earrings precisely because they sparkle and draw a man’s eye.

  4. Shapeways Blog

    Some of you will already know how enthusiastic we are about the Jumbo Jem locket. It is a great example of 3D printed jewelry. Actually one of the first models on Shapeways was an earring by Richard Beumer. We have other models that would make great jew

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