“I’ll cut to the chase. I love the store. I love the kit. But I wouldn’t buy anything there….. yet” says designer Andrew Walker
Last week saw the opening of the largest 3D printer store in the world – the iMakr store in London. It was such an oversubscribed launch party that the organisers had to spread the event over two nights. A small crowd gathered on Clerkenwell Road at 6.30 sharp to get in. They, like me, were 3D print geeks and for many this was a first chance to get up-close and personal with the new generation of home 3D printers.
I’ll cut to the chase. I love the store. I love the kit. But I wouldn’t buy one of their machines just yet. Confused? I was. You see, we don’t often encounter stores at the bleeding edge of consumer technology and that makes even a die-hard plastic nut like me pause for thought.
The party was fun, the booze and snacks were plentiful and the iMakr crew were approachable and helpful. The store itself is also a very nice place to be, with a cool loft apartment vibe. There’s loads of space and the machines, spools of filament and array of 3D gallery objects for sale are tastefully displayed. When you visit you’ll get to see, talk about and touch a Makerbot Replicator 2, the UP! range of printers plus Solidoodle, Leapfrog, Cubify, iRpaid, Weisteck and the range available on the iMakr.com website. You can also pay to have yourself 3D scanned in a booth. Great. But is the iMakr store going to transform 3D printing from a niche to the mainstream? There’s a few hurdles to jump first.
Firstly… the US vs. UK price conundrum.
Last year consumer magazine Which? studied a range of US electronic products and found in the UK we’re paying up to 26% more than American consumers – even adjusting for local taxes, but 3D printers aren’t mass consumer products yet so we can’t really consider them like iPads or Kindles, which are overpriced for UK consumers. After a long chat with the store’s founder Sylvain Preumont, he expects prices to be fluid and shift up and down over the next year whilst the UK market establishes. If you buy a Solidoodle Gen 3 in-store at iMakr it’s £690, about 5% less than you can buy one in the US and get it shipped to the UK. If you buy online at iMakr.com, it’s going to cost you £749 plus shipping, which is about 6% more expensive than buying direct from the US. That’s a little confusing for today’s bargain hunting online consumer.
You might expect a keener price point for a retail outlet than buying and shipping direct because retailers benefit from bulk purchasing and shipping costs, but Preumont doesn’t see this as being an issue for iMakr. He argues that the value proposition of iMakr isn’t purely about the numbers. The iMakr store has created the first UK hub for 3D printer sales, offering a local point of contact, customer service and support in the UK. Preumont believes that outweighs the prospect of buying the items a bit cheaper elsewhere. The store allows the iMakr team to experiment with sales promotions and training courses which they believe make it a compelling value proposition regardless of any small additional costs.
3D printing is a technological frontier market, meaning there is a long way to go before investments pay off, before the market players are fully capitalised and before there’s liquid consumer cash financing development, marketing and sales. There isn’t a home 3D print consumer yet. It’s a world where ready-assembled plug’n’play devices are a new product in a market that, until recently, was dominated by DIY kits. This economic uncertainty leads to hurdle number two: Ready assembled machines aren’t must-have items yet.
After the event, I got a pizza with an old engineering buddy of mine and we considered the near future prospects for small filament extruders. Our conclusion? These products aren’t ready for mass consumption because the output is a bit lumpy, whereas cheap mass produced stuff is glossy smooth. So who would buy one? Probably designers and engineers. I want a printer to prototype my 3D design work quickly to get a hands-on feel for a product before I send it off to an on-demand laser sintering service like Shapeways. He wants one to prototype machine parts for the same kind of rapid prototype process before going to a manufacturer. People like us accept the low resolution output of home filament machines because it’s still useful. But it’s not a compelling reason to buy a ready assembled machine just yet. Why?
The answer is frontier economics, again. When you upload a model to an on-demand service the downside is you have to wait a couple of weeks to get it back, but the upside is you receive a market ready, laser sintered finish (which is smooth and polished) in a variety of materials at a fraction of the cost of a home printer. Compare that with the downside of spending upwards of £800/$1200 on a printer plus filament, the time to set-up the software and print a model at home to end up with a low res finish that isn’t market ready. For that result, you might as well get a DIY kit RepRap printer, which is the rock-bottom end of the device market. To put it another way, home 3D printer devices for designers are a bit like a journalist printing out a Word document – useful for editing, but you can’t make a newspaper with it.
Certainly iMakr is aware of this. Adrian Bowyer, inventor of the DIY pin-up device the RepRap, was at the launch party and it has been hinted by iMakr that they might begin stocking RepRap kits. While the plug’n’play consumer market develops, they need to service those poeple who (like me) would like a 3D printer, but don’t necessarily view the output quality of the ready assembled items as justifying the extra purchase price just yet.
The iMakr store in London will be remembered as a landmark event in the history of 3D printing. It’s a great place to visit, but as a store you can’t help but wonder who it’s for. 3D print geeks? Kind of. Designers and engineers? Probably. Joe Public? Not really. Will it succeed? Predictions are a mug’s game, it depends on the economy and whether PC World muscles-in on the act as soon as demand increases.
The bottom line is for the domestic home user, a 3D printer is still more of an expensive curiosity than a new dawn in personalised manufacturing. These machines are like 48k home computers from the 80s. Cool, educational, fondly remembered but not really practical. If you’ve got a business need to prototype cheaply and quickly, it’s a new opportunity, but sheer variety of prices and options don't automatically make iMakr your first port of call. Undeniably though, what iMakr has achieved here and should be applauded for, is taking a brave first step in creating a UK hub for developing the 3D print marketplace – a move that should put them ahead of the big boys when the 3D printer market matures.