The Wisdom of Yoda takes over the 3D Printing market

By: Robert Mullins, CFB Sr. Staff Writer

Photo Courtesy of RoBo 3D

Photo Courtesy of RoBo 3D

Startups in the 3D printing space advertise their device capabilities with samples of products like smartphone cases, gears, or replicas of the Eiffel Tower, but if you want to be taken seriously as a printer maker, you’ve got to give people Yoda.

“For some reason, the Yoda head is kind of the symbol of what your 3D printer can do,” said Braydon Moreno, CEO of the crowdfunded startup RoBo 3D. “Everyone across the board is saying ‘Let me see your Yoda.’”

A review of crowd-funded sites on Kickstarter reveals at least five companies seeking funding for their startups that feature a bust of the iconic Star Wars character.

It’s as if the Jedi Grand Master is imparting fundamental wisdom to these entrepreneurs: “A 3D printer you will not sell, if a Yoda head you do not make.”

While such trinkets may be must haves for touting 3D printer capabilities – like the detail in Yoda’s craggy face — they really just scratch the surface of the potential for the 3D printer market and for the appeal the technology must have to generate donations from the crowd.

Startup executives, industry analysts and others say the real potential for 3D printing is in making precision components, medical devices, prosthetics and other such products.

The prevalence of toys like chess pieces, geometric spheres or Yodas among startups trying to raise money is just one more indicator of the hype cycle that is underway in 3D printing in particular and crowdfunding in general.

“Like any market, when it starts, there are people who want to play around with it,” said Keith Kmetz, a vice president and analyst at IDC whose area of research is 3D printing, although not crowdfunded startups. But the future of 3D printing, he said, “Is not the hobbyist market where they take a bobble-head [doll] and make a statue version of it.”

Instead, said Kmetz, the more promising market is for precision-made 3D products built through computer-aided-design (CAD) and for use in the automotive and aerospace markets. He’s also seen 3D printers used to create molds in dentistry for making crowns and bridges and in health care for making prosthetics.

Yoda in grey copy

Photo Courtesy of RoBo 3D

Although sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo feature numbers of 3D startups seeking investment dollars, and while there’s a lot of buzz about them, the market has a number of established players, although not the ones you might think of.

The two leading makers of 3D printers today are 3D Systems and Stratasys, which Kmetz described as the “Hertz and Avis” of the 3D printer market. The two, both publicly traded, specialize in 3D printers for commercial and industrial markets, though 3D Systems also is pursuing the consumer market.

Noticeably absent from 3D printing are the well-established 2D printer makers such as Hewlett-Packard, Lexmark and Xerox.

HP had a manufacturing and distribution agreement with Stratasys to sell its 3D printers as part of the HP Designjet product portfolio, but that agreement expired at the end of 2012 and was not renewed, HP told CrowdFundBeat.

“We applaud the pioneers who challenge the current set of 3D print technologies in specialized and niche manufacturing,” HP said in a
statement.

Lexmark stated “we are not focused on the 3D printing market,” while Xerox, according to news reports, is researching 3D printing technology at its Palo Alto Research Center in California.

So while 3D Systems and Stratasys lead the market today, there are plenty of opportunities for the crowdfunded startups such as RoBo 3D, given that the commercial printers from the incumbents range in price from $20,000 to $250,000, said CEO Moreno.

RoBo 3D has been shipping a desktop 3D printer since July with a list price of $599 or $699, depending on the features, said Moreno.

A company profile on its Kickstarter page compares the RoBo 3D’s specifications to those of a printer priced at $2,200 from MakerBot, which Stratasys recently acquired.

Photo Courtesy of RoBo 3D

Photo Courtesy of RoBo 3D

RoBo 3D raised $649,000 from 1,251 backers in just 45 days ending Feb. 1 and is currently shipping about 10 printers a day, said Moreno. Like other 3D printer startups, RoBo 3D’s machines are based on an open source design so as not to infringe on patents owned by 3D Systems and Stratasys, he said.

While confident of RoBo 3D’s prospects in the space, Moreno sees a glut of crowdfunded 3D printer startups coming onto the market. He and others in crowdfunding say the hype cycle is driven by, among other factors, a shout-out that 3D printing received from President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address back in February. In that speech, the president touted a state-of-the-art lab in Youngstown, Ohio, “where new workers are mastering 3D printing that has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything.”

But 3D printing is far from becoming mainstream, despite a high profile endorsement from Obama, wrote Vivek Wadhwa, a technology entrepreneur and academic, in an Aug. 2 Washington Post column. He doesn’t see mass production of 3D products taking off until well into the next decade. The major drawback to 3D printing today is that it takes so long to make an object; it takes several hours to make something that’s just the size of a breadbox and that the time it takes to create something increases exponentially with its size. An object twice the size of a breadbox would take eight times longer to complete and cost eight times more. An object three times the size of a breadbox would take 27 times longer to make and cost 27 times more.

“That is the way exponential technologies usually go,” Wadhwa wrote. “Expectations get raised when people first read about a technological breakthrough. Then nothing seems to happen because the growth curve for technologies in their early stages is more or less flat. Disappointment
sets in and the blame game begins.”

[Source: Robert Mullins, CFB Sr. Staff Writer]

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