For most people, 3-D printing probably seems like little more than hype. We're constantly hearing about the prospect of 3-D printed food, 3-D printed widgets, and even 3-D printed organs. But where is all this stuff in daily life? It's coming—according to McKinsey, 3-D printing could have a giant economic impact in the near future—$230 billion to $550 billion per year by 2025 in consumer use, direct manufacturing, and tool creation.
3-D printing networks, where people create models of what they want on their computers and then use 3-D printers elsewhere, may be one of the catalysts in the rapid growth of this industry. This week, for example, 3D Hubs, a 3-D printing network platform, launched (with an undisclosed seed round from Balderton Capital). The Amsterdam-based startup, created by two industry veterans, helps people make money during the 95% of the time that their 3-D printers sit unused—and while giving others access to a local printing network.
Every major city on the 3D Hubs network is considered a community. Some communities—like Amsterdam, London, and Copenhagen—already have lots of printers and active users. To find a printer, just search in your city. Click on Amsterdam, for example, and you'll see that there are 29 print hubs listed with their printer type (Ultimaker, RepRap, Leapfrog Creatr, etc.), the colors they have available, delivery time, print quality, and price per cubic centimeter of material printed. 3D Hubs takes a 15% commission on each order; in exchange, the company makes sure each file is printable, does a price calculation, and offers secure payment.
At the moment, the printers are mainly listed by "regular people with a bit of a technical background," explains co-founder Bram De Zwart. "It's comparable to the first people who built their own computer. Some are tinkerers, hackers, people with a technical degree." 3D Hubs has also noticed that some companies are using the platform as a sales tool—they draw people in with 3-D printing services, and then get to know customers when they pick up their creations.
"We see everything that's been printed. We see a lot of gadgets, like add-ons for GoPro, iPhone cases, toys, and gifts. We see people [like architects and design offices] doing prototypes," says Brian Garret, the other 3D Hubs cofounder.
While most printers listed on the platform come from individuals, Garret and De Zwart expect more professional 3-D printing hubs to come online in the future. "In the end, our vision is to offer an alternative to mass production. I wouldn't be surprised if within one or two years, small or big consumer brands are offering the platform as a way to distribute or manufacture their designs," says Garret.
That's not entirely a pipe dream—Nokia, Nike, and Adidas have all begun doing more 3-D prototyping and part printing in the last year. Now imagine if companies like Ikea got in on the trend—next time your Billy bookcase arrives with a few small parts missing, you could just print out the parts at a nearby hub.
3D Hubs isn't ready to reveal any brand partnership yet, but Garret claims that the company "has some things in the pipeline."