There’s the Lulzbot, BeeTheFirst, DeltaWasp, and the Ultimaker. You might not have heard of any of them, but collectively they’re crushing it in a desktop 3D-printing market traditionally dominated by brand-name rivals like MakerBot.
That’s the big takeaway from 3D Hubs’ 2016 Best 3D Printer Guide: Smaller 3D-printing companies are successfully disrupting their bigger competitors, offering desktop printers that are more reliable, cheaper, and easier to operate.
Released this week, the second annual guide highlights 20 of the best desktop printers as reviewed by about 5,300 3D-printer owners signed up on 3D Hubs, an online, global directory pairing local designers with local 3D-printing production services. The full index of 126 3D printers, winnowed from 441 different models of 3D printers used by 3D Hubs members, is worth a look: In addition to desktop printers, it also includes a ranking of popular professional printers, which is expectedly dominated by 3D Systems and Stratasys.
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But the desktop market, at least by 3D Hubs’ members standards, is decidedly not dominated by the two giants of the 3D-printing industry. Notably absent from the top-20 list of desktop 3D printers are any of the models sold by 3D Systems or Stratasys’ MakerBot subsidiary. MakerBot not cracking the top 20 is especially surprising, since its Replicator 2 printer had traditionally been one of the most popular printers across the world on 3D Hubs’ monthly trend report.
So what explains smaller 3D-printer manufacturers’ success at displacing their bigger, more moneyed competitors?
Expiring patents, like the one for Stratasys’ fused deposition modeling technology, have helped fuel an abundance of new 3D-printer manufacturers over the last half-decade. With access to 3D-printing technology comes an overall democratization of the industry, as innovators can find creative ways to package 3D technology into more user-friendly packages.
“There are a ton of new manufacturers on the market whereas only a few years ago, there weren’t,” says Balazs Kisgergely, head of marketing at 3D Hubs. “Many of these are smaller manufacturers with great products.”
But a different sort of sales strategy is helping drive a shift toward 3D printers produced by companies without the same market reach as larger competitors like Stratasys and 3D Systems.
“Some of the larger manufacturers are trying to live off of a business model that worked for 2D printers—selling expensive proprietary materials—and this just doesn’t work for the desktop 3D printing market,” Kisgergely says.
Desktop 3D printing, more and more, is driven by a “hacker state of mind,” according to Kisgergely, that emphasizes a do-it-yourself approach over buying replacement parts or accessories. Plus, a robust crowdfunding market for small 3D-printing companies has emerged, giving them access to funds to manufacture their own desktop models. Combine the ease of raising funds with that DIY ethos, and the percentage of the desktop market held by a company like MakerBot—which continues to report year-over-year decreases in product sales—will continue to give way to newer entrants.
“It’s easier than ever for somebody with a great 3D printer idea to get their product into the hands of their niche market,” Kisgergely says. “There are many new 3D printers under the sun now that users are eager to try.”