Hyper-specialization brought it back
A recent article in Inc. heralded the death of the 3D printer. Should I grab a shovel and bury my $2,500 3D printer next to my Segway and my VR headset? Probably. Does that mean the 3D printer industry is dead? Surprisingly, no. Sure, stock values of major consumer 3D printer brands have plummeted, retail stores were closed, people lost their jobs — but is the sky really falling?
It would be logical to think, if a major consumer 3D printer brand's stock value plummeted 92%, that overall market predictions would move in the same direction. However, the opposite is true. Wohlers and Associates, the authority on additive manufacturing for the last 29 years, now forecasts 3D printing will be a $21.2 billion industry by 2020.
What might have looked like the bottom falling out of the industry was actually the bubble bursting — a bubble filled with over-promising and deflated by under-delivering. While consumers were grabbing pitchforks and filing class action lawsuits, industry quietly kept doing what industry does so well: innovate. High-end B2B 3D printer brands continue to thrive by serving hyper-specialized niche markets. While the bulk of the billions will be in B2B, there is room for some consumer 3D printer brands to succeed within hyper-targeted audiences.
How did it all get so out of hand?
Can we blame branding? Sure. The 3D printing hype bubble was a great example of what branding can do and what it can't do. It's true that marketers can get anyone into a bad restaurant. Once. The hype around 3D printing was this principle being acted out on a massive scale. The problem was — the industry was selling consumers a product they fundamentally did not need. Like fine Corinthian snake oil, it sounded great. Everybody wanted one, but 3D printers in practice did not live up to the promise.
Should we blame consumers? Caveat emptor, right? Well, in the case of 3D printers, the emptors got drunk on hype and inflated the hell out of the bubble. I was one of those consumers. We bought our 3D printer in 2014 — partly to support a client, but mostly because we were excited about the possibility of what we could do with it. We're creative. We have smart, creative people working here. Certainly, we'd come up with all sorts of creative uses for the machine. We got as far as calibrating the thing and realized we had no business buying a 3D printer. Like so many, our 3D printer collected dust for a few months, then we donated it to the local Discovery Museum. Tax write-off. Lesson learned.
This same scenario played out tens of thousands of times over. Like the 2008 housing crunch, when a whole lot of people made the same bad decision while an industry cheered them on, a market correction was inevitable.
Our client LCS breeds wheat seed — top quality stuff. Yet we'd never consider buying $2,500 of seed from them and then trying to figure out what to do with it. Buying a 3D printer was the same level of ridiculous, though at the time it felt so exciting. It was more like a cool toy we had to have than a useful tool to serve a certain purpose. That's branding's fault. That's the consumers' fault. That's my fault.
Was it an issue of quality? If all the consumer 3D printers delivered as promised, would the bubble still have burst? Likely. The value proposition made to consumers was one of novelty and not quality. When an entirely new technology is introduced to the consumer market, it's difficult to prove you're selling a superior product. Superior to what? Is being able to print a plastic Yoda head in 6 hours cooler than not being able to print a Yoda head at all? I guess so. But novelty is not enough to make innovative technology stick. It's the flash in the pan that gets the consumer's attention.
In order to stay relevant in the market, innovative technology brands then need to prove how they make their customers' lives easier. Consumer 3D printers couldn't do that. When the novelty wore off and consumers realized they didn't have any use for a 3D printer, it didn't matter whether they had a good useless 3D printer or a bad useless 3D printer.
So what brands will survive the 3D printapocalypse?
The promise of 3D printers as all things to all people fell far short of the mark, but the revolution quietly continues — led by brands who know their audiences, know their strengths and tell a clear, compelling brand story. We're proud of our part in helping these 3D printer companies build brands strong enough to survive the downturn:
Solidscape — a jeweler's secret weapon
Solidscape manufactures high-end B2B 3D printers that produce wax patterns ideal for lost wax investment casting and mold making applications. With the industry's highest standard in surface finish, accuracy and material castability, Solidscape is revolutionizing the production of custom jewelry, a process that had remained essentially unchanged for hundreds of years.
With 5,000 printers operating in over 80 countries, Solidscape, founded in 1994, is riding out the storm comfortably. Vice President of Marketing and Communications Bill Dahl does not see the 3D printing hype as bad for business. "I think the heightened awareness of 3D printing in general was good. I don’t think the bubble bursting in the consumer industry will negatively impact the B2B side."
Dahl is confident jewelers will continue to adopt 3D printing as the industry migrates from traditional hand creation techniques to more modern, hybrid blends of 3D CAD/CAM and hand techniques. "Ali Matossian at Bostonian Jewelers uses 3D CAD and 3D Printing to create the piece, yet in some cases she relies on bench jewelers to add hand finishing touches to give it a real 'hand-made' feel."
Solidscape's jeweler customers see their 3D printers as invaluable business tools, worth their weight in gold. Dahl elaborates, "They think longer term, they think in terms of supply chain and business process disruptions, they think in terms of the technology as an enabler. In short, B2B 3D printing is a tool, not a toy."
How to make sure your additive manufacturing brand is strong enough to survive
The death of the consumer 3D printer is a great example of how branding can harm an industry. When a brand promise is founded on a fundamentally false value proposition (you can easily make useful things) — it's destined for collapse.
While the public opinion of 3D printing has gone from “I must have one!” to “that's so 2014,” general public opinion is not as important for highly specialized 3D printer brands. In fact, the hype around 3D printing is a great conversation starter, an opportunity to tell your audience how you’re different and how you will truly improve their lives. Branding efforts can be focused on studying those who already love your printer, learning what makes them tick and reaching more people like them.
The innovative technology behind 3D printing is certainly compelling, but it's not a differentiator. The sooner you think about your company as not only innovative technology, but as a brand, the more effectively you'll tell your story and the sooner you'll be able to start winning the hearts and minds of your potential customers. Technology is cold. Brands are warm. People use technology. People love brands. Building a strong brand fosters strong love connections between your company and your customers.
To ensure your additive manufacturing brand is strong enough to survive the downturn, follow these steps:
1. Brand Assessment. You can't get where you're going until you know where you stand. Brand assessment gets to know your team and your customers on a heart, mind and gut level. Start with your own house; interviewing key staff and stakeholders can uncover valuable insights and build internal consensus. Audience interviews dig deep to learn more about your potential customers. Document audience personas to profile your distinct audiences, identify their emotional triggers and prescribe how to effectively engage them.
2. Brand Strategy. Inspire your audience to take action. Brand strategy articulates your unique place in your sector, how you're different and why people should care. Brand messaging establishes the voice of your brand and forms the foundation for all brand messaging to come.
3. Brand Implementation. This is where your brand starts to interact with your audience. Corporate identity establishes your overall look and feel. Web identity builds your total digital presence from website to email to social media. Marketing touchpoints are individual pieces prescribed to meet your needs and can include videos, direct marketing, advertising, infographics and print materials.
$21.2 billion bakes a big pie — carve out your piece
The 3D printing market is trending hard toward hyper-specialized B2B solutions. For innovative 3D printer brands, doing one job better than anyone will be more important than being many things to many people. Demonstrating real ROI will be more important than producing the lowest priced printer. Being right will be more important than being first.
Additive manufacturing brands that survive the 3D printer downturn will have a deep-rooted culture of innovation and hyper-specialized, best-in-class solutions. They'll embrace and nurture their corporate brand on a holistic level, understand the ethos and emotional triggers of their audience and consistently articulate their value, supported by real data and and realistic brand promises.
About Toolbox Creative:
Toolbox Creative offers a powerful engine to grow technology brands and take on the big players in the field. We help innovative technology companies look and sound as good as they truly are, increasing brand equity, boosting media buzz and making the most of marketing dollars.