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Writing, tweeting, debating and occasionally getting a little over-excited about 3D Printing. But always aiming to keep it real!

Friday, 8 October 2010

3D Systems Buys Bits from Bytes — A Significant Manoeuvre for 3D Printing?

On Tuesday the news broke that 3D Systems had acquired Bits from Bytes (BfB). This strategic move is not surprising in itself, and is precisely the sort of acquisition that 3D Systems is renowned for — and seemingly very good at. I'm thinking back to the middle of last year when 3D Systems acquired Desktop Factory.

So the company has bought up two low-end 3D printing manufacturers and all of their IP in just over 12 months.

I suspect the dust is settling all round — the news has been spread far and wide across all the usual distribution channels, but there has been surprisingly little commentary on this. It's taken me a few days to formulate my own thoughts into some sort of order on this news, and it's definitely not clear cut yet, but here goes ....

Despite the surface similarities of the two acquisitions there are also some huge differences. The Desktop Factory machine, despite clever marketing had never actually reached the market, it was more about acquiring R&D and a very good marketing professional (Cathy Lewis, formerly CEO at Desktop Factory, is now the marketing spokesperson for 3D Systems). Bits from Bytes on the other hand has been shipping 3D printers — the Rapman kit and latterly the plug & play BfB 3000 — through various global channels to some acclaim for two years, with an ever increasing order book.

My first ruminations were on the motivation for these acquisitions. Call me cynical, but I could not help but wonder at first if the company motive was to buy the low-end 3D printer vendors to suppress sales, and protect market share within the whole additive manufacturing (AM) industry. 3D Systems does have a reputation for being aggressive and pretty closed off to journalists and customers alike. But although hard to interact with, it is hard to deny the success the company has achieved with additive technologies. I have come around to thinking that there were probably different motivations for each acquisition rather than one holistic subversive conspiracy!

Desktop Factory was hitting the headlines at a similar time to the 3D Systems V-Flash 3D printer — both hailed as the answer to the industry's needs in terms getting a foot on the AM ladder. Indeed the prospects of both were great but neither ever seemed to fulfill the promised potential. For Desktop Factory lack of financial backing and some technical / production issues prevented the company from actually reaching the market. The technical problems may yet be resolved, but the Desktop Factory concept has still not materialised into a working machine for sale. For the V-flash — well no one ever did get to the bottom of why the launch date kept getting postponed. However, the machine did finally filter through, but lost some credibility as a result; plus the market dynamic had shifted significantly too with the arrival of working 3D printers under £5000, namely the Makerbot, RepRap and RapMan. Since then there have been more changes with the arrival of the UP! 3D printer and the BfB 3000.

So why has 3D Systems bought Bits from Bytes (BfB)? Well, as stated, 3D Systems is very protective of its position in the AM industry. It is one of a very small minority of AM vendors that occupies space selling across the whole spectrum of machines — low to high end. Stratasys is the other, but does not have a product offering under $10,000. I suspect that the V-Flash has not met expectations — internally or at large — and therefore the BfB product line was an attractive proposition in that it was a ready-made, working solution. It has been bought as a going concern, and the 3D Systems announcement asserts that the Bristol, UK-based BfB facility will be undertaking business as usual. The 3D Systems website has the BfB machines on its product selector feature already too — and they are the only machines offered under $5000. Not something the company could offer last Monday!! I can't see the BfB brand disappearing as too much is invested in it, but based on historical performance I don't think it will remain without some sort of 3D Systems trademark for very long either.

This is beyond a doubt a significant development in the 3D printing arena. How far it will penetrate remains to be seen, but with the competition heating up things are getting very interesting again.

3 comments:

  1. I am confident that 3D wants to grow the low end market, not kill it off.

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  2. I spoke to a V-Flash early-adopter back in January & February. His early issues might provide some clues about "why the launch date kept getting postponed." His company was satisfied with the results the machine delivered, but disappointed that at the issues they initially encountered:

    1. Builds were impaired by anything that obscures the optical path, particularly contaminants on the transfer film. If any hardened resin hadn't adhered to the model it would stick to the transfer film and contaminate subsequent layers or the next model. Cartridges sometimes became hopelessly contaminated with such debris. 3D Systems had a solution "on its way" but I don't know what it was. (But MCADCafé's Oct 2010 review didn't mention the issue, so it's probably been addressed.)

    2. Models dripped uncured material onto the glass, where it hardened during subsequent layers. Hence the glass needed to be laboriously scraped cleaned between builds or quality would suffer. Again, 3D Systems might have addressed this.

    3. Completed parts can't be handled with bare hands until they've been cleaned and cured using accessory stations. Parts aren't ready-to-use. Early promo material didn't mention the washing & curing stations, so I wonder if they were late additions. The MCADCafé does mention this, so presumably it's become a fact-of-life for V-Flash operators.

    I'll bet V-Flash satisfied its principal business goals despite these issues; they're manageable-inconveninces, not disqualifying faults. It does exactly what its owners expect at that price-point, if properly cared for.

    The move to purchase BfB seems to complement 3D Systems's existing assets. The BfB offerings probably won't erode V-Flash sales but they could create up-sell opportunities. Can't you imagine 3D Systems might offer an intermediate model between the BFB3000 and the V-Flash?

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  3. They are buying as much as they can from others because they can't build a good machine since the SLA and SLS process. The V-Flash machine is not a solution for AM its just a big bulk of problems. Thats the most unreliable machine we have ever used. And let me tell you that their service is just as bad. They will let that machine die just like they did with others (ex: Invision). We have worked with hundreds of company's in different fields and they are the worst we have seen.

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