Remember all the hype a few years ago about 3D printers and how they could print literally anything? Remember how that wasn’t really true and how disappointed many consumers were by the steep learning curve most 3D printers required and the bad quality of cheap 3D printers?
Unfortunately, I do too. Back in 2013, I bought a Prusa i3 and had nothing but problems for a year, which prompted me to return the machine and buy a Printrbot Simple Metal 2014 edition, which has been perfect ever since.
Makerbot, a common desktop 3D printer company, has had a history similar to that of the 3D printer market as a whole. In 2012, like 3D printing, Makerbot Replicator 2’s flew off the shelf. I believe this was their best machine ever made, since it greatly refined the numerous flaws with the Thing-O-Matic and was really the first fully consumer 3D printer.
The Replicator 2 was the face of home desktop 3D printing for a long time, and amazing stories came out of their usage. Bre Pettis, then the CEO, was extremely successful, and 3D printing was one of the top stories of 2012 and 2013. In 2013, Makerbot released the Digitizer, a consumer 3D scanner, and in November, Makerbot’s second store was opened in Boston, Massachusetts.
However, sales started going down as interest slowly faded. Even Makerbot’s newer 3D printers, the Replicator, Replicator Mini, and Replicator Z18 couldn’t save the company, and with a class action lawsuit against their closed-source “Smart Extruder,” Makerbot struggled. Like other 3D printer companies, Makerbot’s designs were slowly becoming more consumer-focused and less hacker oriented, which can make experienced and inexperienced users frustrated.
Personally, I prefer 3D printers that have the capability to decide settings for themselves as well as the ability to have full control (and I mean full control, like, Repetier Host full control). These printers often prove to be easy for new users to learn as well as fun for experienced users to mess with and dial in settings for.
When Makerbot debuted their Smart Extruder, many consumers were angry. Sensors may think they are right, but as an experienced user, I know they often aren’t, which can be extremely frustrating. Many printers have “features” that don’t let the operator proceed when a supposed problem has occurred, but often times, that becomes the problem. For example, at my school, we have two Cubify Ekocycles that we have stopped using entirely for this reason.
Back to Makerbot, though. After their numerous unsuccessful product launches and a diminished hubbub around 3D printing, Makerbot had to let employees go, and for the first time in 2015, Makerbot laid off 20 percent of its staff after being sold to Stratasys. As a result of Makerbot’s less-than-average results, their Boston store closed. Since then, layoffs have happened multiple times, and frankly, the layoff Makerbot announced yesterday is no surprise.
Makerbot just hasn’t been cutting it. Since their founding, new companies with innovative ideas have sprung up, and Makerbot hasn’t been able to follow the trend. Their machines are too focused on consumers instead of tinkerers, and I think this has hurt them (3D Systems also went this way with their Cube 3 which is no longer in production).
Overall, while it is certainly sad that Makerbot is laying off more employees, it was an expected move. Since closing stores, being bought, and outsourcing to China, Makerbot has lost their original intent to be open source and made in the US. Makerbot likely hoped these lofty goals would be possible, but unfortunately, they were not.
The hype around 3D printing a few years ago that made it the one of the fastest growing markets in the world is now mostly gone, and to many 3D printer companies, Makerbot included, 3D printing feels like a ghost town. While it was so popular just a few years ago, consumers really do dictate the market, and the focus has moved on. Under-delivered promises have ruined 3D printing for the mainstream, and for most people, I think there is little hope of making 3D printing exciting again.