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August 2009

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Desktop Manufacturing Will Go Mainstream Via Hobby Industry

by Glen Emerson Morris
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Desktop manufacturing will go mainstream over the next few years, the only question is which market will it go mainstream in first. Based on the number of ads from 3D manufacturers, the leading candidate is the DIY market represented by Make magazine. The magazine's 2009 Maker Faire in San Mateo drew SRO crowds, and had a variety of impressive DTM equipment exhibits.

While the Make DIY crowd is a valid market, I don't think it's the best market because it has a relatively low trigger market factor. Let me explain.

Some 25 years ago when I launched my technology evangelist career I began developing what I hoped would be a reliable and repeatable process for introducing new technologies, which I named the trigger process. It's based on the “Critical Path” concept of design scientist Buckminster Fuller, and the “Trigger” concept of science historian James Burke, who explored and chronicled the series of events that triggered specific technologies in the past. I used it successfully at Apple and Radius, and eventually at Adobe, where I was Product Manager for Adobe's first PostScript 3 release.

Essentially the trigger process determines which trigger path is the critical path for the fastest introduction of a new technology with the least amount of resources. It works like this. You apply four trigger market criteria to various markets until you find a good one, and then you develop and execute a campaign, or trigger path, that will leverage that market's existing structure to the greatest extent.

The ideal trigger market would meet four criteria. It would have:
  • A compelling cost benefit argument
  • A large potential market
  • A well developed infrastructure.
  • A user base that can be leveraged
Using these criteria, the Make DIY market doesn't score very well. The most important quality a product can have is a compelling economic argument for people to buy it. The DIY crowd is buying for creativity, not economics, and most other current users use DTM for speed, not for economics.

The Make DIY market also fails the large potential market criteria. Make has a monthly subscription base of about 90,000. Not bad, but you don't see the magazine on supermarket magazine racks. There's also not much infrastructure at this point for the DIY crowd; no major DIY wholesalers, distribution chains, retailers or magazines other than Make. And lastly, the DIY market is not easy to leverage. DIY people tend to be loaners with highly specific needs and little to share with each other.

A much better candidate for the best DTM trigger market would be the model hobby industry, particularly in the area of model railroads.

In terms of cost effectiveness, most current 3D printers are capable of printing at least some model railroad structures cheaper than they can be manufactured using traditional injection molded manufacturing techniques, as long as the buildings are printed in kit form and not as completed structures. Since 3D printers tend to print at about an inch an hour, printing assembled buildings isn't economical. In kit form, the economics become much better, especially for the smaller scales like Z gauge (1/220).

Many common buildings in Z-scale could be printed on one “sprue,” or frame of parts, that measures 2 _ by 5 inches by 1/8 thick. Most 3D printers could print two sprues side by side, at the rate of at least 6 layers of sprues per hour, for a total of 12 kits per hour. These kits would sell for at least $20, and wholesale for around $10. At 12 kits per hour at $10 wholesale, that's $120 an hour, or $240,000 per year running 40 hours a week per machine. Not bad for a printer that could sell for as little as $5000.

The next criteria is whether the market has enough potential to bother with. In this case, there's no question that the model railroad market is huge. The leading model railroad distributor, Walthers, carries over 200,000 items with yearly sales estimated to be in the hundreds of millions. About 50% of the 1,000 pages of the current Walthers HO catalog cover structures and vehicles, and most of these could be printed economically with current 3D printers or laser cutters. Counting the European market too, the annual sales figure for model railroad structures and vehicles is probably north of $100,000,000.

The infrastructure for the model railroad is also well developed. Model railroad magazines are commonly found in supermarket magazine racks, and almost every hobby store in the country sells model trains.

The final criteria, a user base that can be leveraged, is critical because DTM will only be useful to hobbyists if there are CAD files of structures available, and right now there aren't.

Fortunately, the model railroaders are used to helping each other learn new modeling techniques, and there are magazines and clubs to further this. The largest model railroad club is the National Model Railroad Association, and one of its stated objectives is to educate its members on the techniques of building model railroads. When DCC came along, allowing digital control of locomotives, the NMRA helped set the industry standards for DCC, and helped its members learn how to use it. The NMRA could easily do the same with DTM.

There's no doubt the model railroad industry would be a great trigger market for DTM. For the launch campaign I'd work out a promotion with one of the model railroad magazines to have a contest for the best CAD file of a model railroad structure with the winner getting a free 3D printer. The CAD files would become property of the magazine with the understanding that the files would be posted on the magazine's Website for free downloading to the general public, or at least to the magazine's subscribers. I'd repeat the process with the NMRA.

Even if only a few hundred modelers learned the ability to make structure CAD files, by avoiding duplication of effort, they could produce several hundred structures a year, adding up to thousands over the next five years, and creating a significant demand pull for DTM.

Then it will only be a matter of time before commercial developers switch to selling the CAD files and leaving it to the buyer to get it printed out, somewhere. To provide this service, model railroad clubs and hobby stores will have DTM systems able to print on demand thousand of models at any scale, and DTM will at last be mainstream.


Glen Emerson Morris was recently a senior QA Consultant for SAP working on a new product to help automate compliance with the Sarbanes-Oxley law, an attempt to make large corporations at least somewhat accountable to stockholders and the law. He has worked as a technology consultant for Yahoo!, Ariba, WebMD, Inktomi, Adobe, Apple and Radius.





Copyright 1994 - 2009 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved


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