The desktop 3D printer market dynamics are changing, resulting in a race to the bottom.

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The Era of 3D Printing: A Changing Landscape

The landscape of the 3D printing industry has undergone significant shifts in recent years, marking the end of a race to the bottom. Since the expiration of initial process patents in 2008, the market has become increasingly competitive, leading to remarkable technological advancements and the availability of high-quality equipment and materials at affordable prices. However, this competitive environment has also brought about profound changes in many companies, with some even facing extinction. In order to gain a clearer understanding of where the industry may be headed, let’s take a look back at some pivotal moments in its recent history.

Around 2010, the market witnessed an explosion of start-up companies specializing in desktop 3D printing. These companies initially targeted the do-it-yourself (DIY) market, with the hope that a larger consumer market would eventually emerge. Leveraging open-source principles and aligning with the DIY community, these companies were able to build on existing knowledge and generate sales. However, by 2014, it became evident that the complexities associated with hardware, software, and content in desktop 3D printing would hinder the growth of a consumer market. At this point, low-cost Asian manufacturers started to legally adopt the open-source designs developed by the start-ups, offering similar products at more affordable price points.

Recognizing the futility of competing in a price-driven market, many desktop companies shifted their focus to the educational and professional sectors around 2016. By targeting these underserved markets, they discovered new opportunities for profitability. Unfortunately, not all start-ups were able to successfully migrate, resulting in the failure of several 3D printer ventures. Simultaneously, professional equipment manufacturers watched as their markets gradually eroded due to the influx of migrating desktop manufacturers. In response, professional manufacturers began developing new materials, which enabled the production use of 3D printing. This specialization created a barrier to entry for desktop makers, securing the professional market against low-cost competition. However, convincing manufacturers to adopt “additive manufacturing” remained a significant challenge, and this continues to be the case today.

In an attempt to differentiate themselves from competitors, some professional equipment manufacturers developed “high-temperature” capable devices that could print new engineering materials. This temporary advantage allowed them to maintain their market share against other players. Additionally, some manufacturers created “sticky” ecosystems, bundling the sale of machines with materials, software, processes, and services. This strategy made switching to a competitor more difficult, particularly for larger companies with numerous machines and participants. As the industry evolved, a few dominant entities absorbed multiple professional equipment manufacturers, fueled by venture capital investment. These consolidations aimed to create end-to-end technological capabilities and establish a position as the industry’s leading player.

While professional equipment manufacturers were busy pursuing these strategies, Asian manufacturers continued to improve the capabilities, quality, and speed of their products. In recent years, high-speed 3D printers with exceptional quality have become available at remarkably low prices. These affordable machines now pose a significant threat to professional equipment manufacturers, as companies may opt for lower-cost products instead. A similar crisis looms over the desktop market, as companies unable to migrate to high-speed, low-cost equipment face significant declines in sales.

Looking to the future, it is likely that desktop manufacturers may attempt to follow the same path as their predecessors: migrate to the professional market. However, in this crowded and well-established space, success may prove more elusive. On the other hand, professional manufacturers face a similar dilemma and may consider moving into the manufacturing sector. While this sector is much larger and underserved, entering it would require a considerable investment in expertise. It is possible that the industry will witness the downfall of multiple desktop and professional 3D printer manufacturers as they grapple with these challenges.

In conclusion, the 3D printing industry has experienced significant transformations in recent years, with the race to the bottom coming to an end. As the market becomes increasingly competitive and new technologies emerge, companies must adapt and strategize to thrive in this ever-changing landscape. The future remains uncertain, but one thing is clear: the era of 3D printing is far from over.

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