3D Hubs – Building a Global 3D Printing Network

3D Hubs is the world’s largest network of manufacturing services – www.3dhubs.com

In essence, the company being discussed (3D Hubs) created a network of 3D printer owners, allowing them to generate revenues using their privately-owned devices through a Peer-to-Peer (P2P) network. With 10,000 different 3D printers available in more than 80 countries, 3D Hubs connects people who want to use the technology to 3D print parts, but buying a 3D printer does not make financial sense for them, to communities who have 3D printers and excess capacity to print for them their parts for a fee. After parts are made, they are shipped using the company’s logistics infrastructure to the respective party.

For communities who are significantly involved, 3D Hubs rewards them with platforms to meet with like-minded individuals to share thoughts, collide ideas, showcase printers, discuss new trends in the industry and meet with current and potential clients. As patents continue to break, many startups are going to make noise in the industry. Iterating on the existing technology and building cheaper 3D printers. This will give the ability for freelancers and hardware hackers to redo a prototype, no matter where they are in the world and have a product within hours. This allows creators to continuously work while they travel and promote their products.

 

The concept of a “shared economy” is a fairly recent idea. Ride-sharing services like Uber/ Lyft are disrupting the Taxi industry. Airbnb enables people with an empty home, or even a spare room, an opportunity to make extra money. This concept is optimizing the efficiency of the resources. Why not apply it to 3D printers too?

3D Hubs took advantage of the “90% downtime” – the theory that people who own 3D printers only use them 10% of the time. It transformed the desktop 3D printer to be an investment, providing access to people who want to print, developing it into a community building, resource sharing, and overall evangelization of 3D printing.

To start, the 3D Hubs team consisted of only 35 employees. Since initially, they wanted to keep overheads low, while testing the viability of the platform, the website functionality was quite limited and had little more than a simple landing page. Google sheets was used to monitor transactions. Transactions are processed by hand, while delivery was done initially by the founders.

Operating the platform without automated systems proved to be important to gain a better understanding of the user experience. Additionally, it also highlighted the weaknesses in the system and focused attention on areas of improvement to accelerate growth as they scale. Also, during this initial phase, the founders were able to meet many other like-minded individuals and got introduced to the many tightly-knit and passionate 3D printing communities in their area, who also shared common views about “democratizing” additive manufacturing.

 

In the near-to-medium future, 3D Hubs should start to get the industry leaders on board by communicating directly with the 3D printer manufacturers. Since the founders had already spent time in the industry working with some of these manufacturers, they have a high chance of being able to convince them to represent their brands on the 3D Hubs platform. Satisfied 3D printer owners will probably talk highly of their machines within their local community, creating good publicity for the manufacturer brands.

Also, approaching manufacturers and encouraging them to add 3D Hubs promotional flyers with their sold printers to help encourage their customers to put their new 3D printer on our platform would be a feasible approach to reach more of their target audience. If adopted, within a few months, this promotional strategy can quickly be implemented with several 3D printer manufacturers.

Since many of the customers pick up their orders locally, often watching a live demonstration of the 3D printer manufacturing their part, this will excite them to consider buying the same 3D printer for themselves. Also, since 3D Hubs publishes performance data of 3D printers on their platform, manufacturers have an incentive to get more of their 3D printers signed up to the network as it increases their visibility within their target community. This would enable manufacturers to tap into the growing 3D Hubs community, and vice versa, creating a win-win situation with minimal cost.

 

Moving forward, a few things that 3D Hubs needs to consider are:

  1. What steps does 3D Hubs need to take in order to become an industry thought leader?
  2. How will 3D Hubs be able to scale and have a more global presence?

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References

[1] C. Schellya, G. Anzaloneb, B. Wijnenb, J. Pearcebc, Open-source 3-D printing technologies for education: Bringing additive manufacturing to the classroom.

[2] I. Vernera, A. Merksamerb, Digital Design and 3D Printing in Technology Teacher Education.

[3] B. Zwart, Five things we learned from building a global 3d printing network. Accessed November 12, 2018.

[4] B. Roca et al., Getting past the hype about 3-D printing. MIT Sloan Management Review 58, no. 3 (Spring 2017): 57–62.

[5] https://www.3dhubs.com. Accessed November 12, 2018.

[6] https://www.facebook.com/3dHubs. Accessed November 12, 2018.

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/3D_Hubs. Accessed November 12, 2018.

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5 thoughts on “3D Hubs – Building a Global 3D Printing Network

  1. Very interesting. While I understand the benefits of using the untapped 90% of 3D printers, I wonder how sustainable this business is in the long run. As 3D printing becomes more advanced and automated, will the competitive advantage of the distributed network evaporate as manufacturers purchase their own 3D printers and have them run autonomously 24/7/365? It seems to me that major manufacturers would rather purchase their own printers and control the entire process rather than leverage a distributed network of printers with potential quality assurance issues. It will be interesting to see how 3D Hubs does!

  2. Love 3D Hubs. Just used this site to print some prototype parts.

    One challenge I found on 3D hubs is the lack of selection who prints the part and a lack intermediary steps to ensure your part was printed to specification. It seems an underlying algorithm selects the height of printed layers and thus the tolerance of the part. Do you see this lack of control on printing to specification potentially deterring small businesses from using 3D Hubs for larger volume orders than hobbyists?

    1. HA,

      I think John Smithwick brings up a really good point about the limitations of scale. I would imagine that as 3D printing becomes more mainstream, the need to effectively “lease” someone else’s printer to produce your product might be quite limited, especially in the B2B arena where businesses have the capital to own their own printers. The B2C market might have a little more life left in it as 3D printers are still a novelty. However, where I really see scale here is the intellectual side. By integrating ideas and iterating off others peoples’ shared designs, 3D hubs could reap the benefits of the network effect and be a catalyst for cutting edge ideas. I would recommend that the company really invest in a structure that incentivizes idea sharing. For instance, the platform could recognize star performers employing a user rating system (like Yelp) for their designs, or the company could measure the frequency that individual designs get iterated upon as a way to identify quality. This could be an ideal way to access untapped, human intellectual capital across the globe. Furthermore, it could incentivize people who are trying to make a name for themselves and are looking for stronger hiring credentials.

  3. Very interesting article! What I find very insightful is how they capitalized on existing successful business models such as Uber, Airbnb, etc to create a platform that makes use of network effects and aims at optimizing current resources by increasing the utilization of existing 3D printers. With regards to your question of “How will 3D Hubs be able to scale and have a more global presence?” I have a follow up question that I believe may be relevant to the scalability issue addressed in the article. Given that the 3D printing technology is advancing very quickly and in some sense feels like it’s almost being commoditized in the near future and the costs are being reduced drastically with time. How do you see customers still adopting such platforms given the very low cost of actually owning a 3D printer in the future?

  4. Thanks for sharing! This is certainly an interesting application of the share economy to an emerging technology! My two biggest concerns are addressable market and sustainability. Regarding addressable market, it seems like there is a limited number of people who would need 3D printing technology sporadically and can’t justify the investment cost. I’d be curious to know more about their target customers, as I could be very wrong about this. Are they targeting early start ups, hobbyists, B2B businesses or someone else? Regarding sustainability, you mentioned that the cost of 3D printing will likely continue to decrease, especially as patents expire. This seems like a critical existential threat to this network, as the greater accessibility of printers would decrease the demand for outsourcing.

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