There is an issue I have picked up on in 3D printing land that is the result of positive growth, but it also poses a problem that exists across every sector of industry.
As the 3D printing industry has continued to grow, at an increasing rate, the number of companies both large and small that enter the space, increases in parallel. The larger these companies are, the more noise is made about them. HP epitomizes this point particularly well. Everyone within the industry and many that are not directly involved, knows that this giant conglomerate has developed a new 3D printing / additive manufacturing technology platform that is not commercially available yet, but will/may be by the end of next year. The dedicated HP marketing machine has made it so.
But, what about the smaller, new start-up companies with an interesting new proposition for the 3D printing market? Here, things are very different. Not only are they competing with the corporate giants but they are also fighting to get their voice heard amid a cacophony of like-minded small start-ups also seeking to be a part of an industry that seems ripe for the picking. Many of these are offering "me-too" products and/or services and thus produce seemingly endless white noise that can drown out singular developments and voices. With often shoe-string budgets and one or two founders having to perform myriad roles (R&D, product development, sales, marketing and finance), the challenges of each role alone are many, and the primary challenge of being seen, heard and, more specifically, understood can be formidable.
There is one company, with a (relatively) new machine offering, that made me confront this issue this week, namely 5axismaker. I confess my guilt in overlooking this young company and failing to recognize the originality behind the proposition until I saw it in person at the TCT Show. I did see the Kickstarter campaign that launched them around this time last year though — I can’t remember what my precise thoughts were a year ago, but a pound to a penny they went something like this: “another desktop machine, another Kickstarter campaign, 5 axis CNC milling – it’s not 3D printing but with a promise of hybrid technology, probably worth a story, who has the capacity to write this up today?” Thus amid the hundred or so other news stories passing across my desk top that week, it didn’t get a second look but it did appear on 3DPI (where I worked at the time), and, of course, other similar sites in the third week of September 2014. From what I can tell, there have been a couple of follow up stories in various places since, but 5axismaker has not really stood out in the crowd as, in my opinion, it could do.
This mid-sized desktop machine now has a number of inter-changeable tool heads that enable it to perform multiple operations, namely 5 axis CNC milling of multiple off-the-shelf materials, 5 axis touch probe scanning and 5 axis 3D printing capabilities with both ABS and PLA materials. The machine is retailing at £5000, is developed and manufactured in the UK and is only one of two machines globally, according to the company’s Managing Director, with these capabilities at this price point.
Even acknowledging the problem for small start-ups, I don’t pretend to have a guaranteed solution. Editors working with voluminous, fast-moving news stories can and probably should try to be more discerning (but that is SO much easier said than done) and the small start-up companies can try and be more original (but, from experience, that can get dismissed as ‘gimmickery’). At the end of the day, however, success seems to come down to an unquantifiable combination of factors, the greatest of which is that the technology proposition will ultimately, eventually stand-out.
Funding is obviously an essential factor in helping to make this happen. But, as a number of “successful” crowd funding campaigns can testify, funding alone does not bring success — execution and experience are vital too. As is networking, via well-selected events and/or shows, which is more likely to garner the type of attention required, if not the volume. Even if, as in this case, it’s tucked away from the main show action. If the tech is physically out there, it provides an opportunity for people to see it in person and to understand its relevance. The audience may be smaller but the impact is greater — person by person. After talking to the 5axismaker team myself, I stood back and observed awhile as visitor after visitor at the TCT show displayed unmistakable comprehension at what this machine could actually do, at a very pleasing price:performance ratio. Two people (within 10 minutes) expressed an interest in buying one “at the earliest opportunity.” You can’t get that sort of engagement from a news story, particularly one that sits among 10-20 other similar news stories on a given day.
Other factors include entrepreneurial spirit, personality, good choices and, of course, just a little bit of luck! Unfortunately, there is no fail-safe formula. I guess if there was, everyone would be doing it!?
There is one new company that seems to have got the formula (whatever it is) right though and as a consequence, is all set to reap the rewards: Carbon3D. The experience of the founders, some serious financial backing, faultless execution, great personality and clever networking have all ensured that the this start-up company — proposing a radical new 3D printing process — has garnered phenomenal attention ahead of commercial launch. Personally I have no doubt that this process is radical and will have a significant impact on the processes currently in the mid-to-top range of the plastic 3D printer platform hierarchy. And, I am reliably informed, not too long to wait to see if I, among others, am right!