How I Built a 3D Printing Business in a Bubble and Survived
Originally published on 3dprint.com on September 19, 2019. Written by Mike Moceri.
Let’s rewind to 2013.
Magazine covers, Netflix documentaries, and daily news segments talking about how 3D printing took over the world of tech and gave everyone an impassioned vision of the future.
The ways 3D printing could be applied to modern problems seemed limitless.
This was everywhere in 2013.
3D printing was going to revolutionize everything and companies from every corner of the internet were coming out of the woodwork to get a piece of the action.
Communities like RepRap were forming, projects were being brought to life through crowdfunding, and even surprise venture capital backed startups were all adding to the hype. Then there were also the “big guys” like Stratasys and 3D Systems cashing in by acquiring more companies than they could handle and promising their shareholders the moon.
As all of this was bubbling up, people were sent into a frenzy as the media told them not to miss out on the next “industrial revolution.” Dumb money and bad ideas were everywhere.
What could go wrong?
“TOUR DE RUST BELT”
In 2013, I co-founded 3DPX in Chicago with an eclectic group of passionate dreamers that were hellbent on bringing this technology to the masses. Then in 2014, I founded Manulith in Detroit to service the automotive, aerospace and medical industries and help them rapidly prototype new technologies. Throughout both of those businesses, I was taking the lessons learned and bootstrapping what would ultimately become MakerOS.
The 3DPX Showroom in Chicago
I was every bit a part of the 3D printing hype machine of 2013-2015. However, while the industry has changed since those early days I’ve seen a few things stand the test of time:
People don’t care how their thing is made.
All they care about is if it’s made on time, within budget, and meets their quality expectations.
This is extremely relevant to the term “3D Printing” as it has been characterized as the apex of manufacturing that will make things faster, cheaper, and easier. It’s better to consider it as part of an ecosystem where it’s applied in the appropriate context.
Most clients will have a hard time conceptualizing how their products are made which makes it difficult to share progress throughout development.
Before starting a project ask yourself: what is your client expecting to see along the way?
Trying to sell complicated tools to consumers is a bad idea. Focus on B2B.
Everyone can own a hammer, but not everyone is capable of building a birdhouse. This applies equally well to computers and software too.
Both hardware and software startups have a knack for thinking that they can take a generally complex process and distill it down to a consumer-facing product.
We saw this as MakerBot shifted from “everyone should own one” to “this is for professionals and educators”.
The same is true of 3D printing marketplaces that originally catered to the consumer/hobbyist crowd who then later reposition their platforms to professionals.
Before launching a product or service, do a clear audit of the different use cases of how it can be used.
Ask yourself: who will this benefit most?
The media is irresponsible when it comes to new technology.
All new technology goes through a hype cycle.
When computers were first hooked up to the internet there was mass hysteria that everything would be hacked. Drones were hot then the media told us to fear them. 3D printing was the darling technology meant to help kids with their physical handicaps, then the media turned their attention to a megalomaniac wielding a 3D printed weapon.
Then last year they were saying Bitcoin was going to replace money, and all of a sudden it was for criminals.
Control the narrative of your technology/product/industry before someone tells it for you.
Large OEM’s have their hands tied when it comes to innovation.
In 2014 GM’s 3D printing facility in Southfield, Michigan, flooded and destroyed $30M of equipment. Their engineering team approached me at Manulith asking if I could help with their backlog of prototypes they still needed to produce.
Exactly the work we were set up for, however, we didn’t get the job.
It all came down to the purchasing department requiring a Dun and Bradstreet score and other qualifications to allow us into their system.
Be prepared to run into politics and policies where you have no control.
It’s never been easier to start, but it’s never been harder to scale.
It’s incredibly expensive and burdensome to run a product development and fabrication service. When starting our fabrication businesses, we easily acquired everything we needed to get started. But, little did we know about the storm we would have to go through to scale our operations.
It’s going to be your job to find efficiencies in everything you do.
This was our process and from our research, this is how most product based services operate.
Marketplaces don’t work for you. You work for the marketplace.
Sites like Upwork or Fiverr have made it easier to begin or sustain a career as an independent contractor. The trouble, however, is that these marketplaces put you up against thousands of other people with similar skills and those early adopters or “highly” rated get all the business. The platforms don’t care who gets the work, so long as work is getting done so they can make their cut on each transaction.
A sense of professionalism is needed for people to move beyond the marketplaces. To grow, you’ll need to expand your capabilities and be a part of a supplier network that allows you to leverage the skillsets of others.
The key to survival is to do things that scale your business automatically.
Network like hell.
The last and more important thing is to network like hell.
It’s dangerous to try any of this alone. Communities, incubators, meetups, anything you can do to expand your network will benefit you in the long run. Be someone that helps other people tell their story. Become their go-to person as someone who helped them become successful. Learn how to play the game. Politics are everywhere and the sooner you’re able to learn how to navigate them the better off you’ll be.
### About the Author, Mike Moceri Mike Moceri has deep experience in manufacturing, design, and software. In 2013, he co-founded the world’s first 3D printing retail service bureau in Chicago. In 2014 he founded Manulith, a 3D printing and product design agency, where his clientele included Fortune 500 companies within the aerospace, automotive, and medical industries. Mike is also a mentor at Stanley+Techstars Additive Manufacturing Accelerator, a mentor at WeWork Labs in NYC, and formerly a mentor at TechTown Detroit. He’s previously been featured on MSN, Make Magazine, NBC, and the Encyclopedia Britannica. D-Business Magazine called him the “Face of 3D printing,” and 3Dnatives named Mike one of “The Most Influential Personalities of Additive Manufacturing in 2020.” Mike was the founder and CEO of MakerOS, an all-in-one business operating software for manufacturers, engineers, designers, and fabricators to facilitate modern product development. Shapeways acquired MakerOS in April 2022.