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FLUX and the Incubation of the Consumer 3D Printer Industry

By Phil Sweeney
Published: Feb 12,2015

FLUX is the brainchild of four National Taiwan University students who recently made headlines by raising more than US$1million through a Kickstarter campaign to find backers to fund an innovative 3D printer.

Now Simon Ko, Jim Yu, Shawn Lin and Yen Feng are pouring their efforts into delivering their 3D printer product to the 2,707 backers who are helping to make their dream into a reality.

The 3D printing industry offers substantial opportunities for startups in Taiwan to attain success through the development of hardware, software, and innovative business models. The challenge is to find ways to make 3D printing technology and services accessible and user friendly and then create revenue-generating platforms for providing these products to consumers.

Figure 1 :   FLUX, a Taiwanese 3D printing firm, who recently made headlines by raising more than US$1million through a Kickstarter campaign
Figure 1 : FLUX, a Taiwanese 3D printing firm, who recently made headlines by raising more than US$1million through a Kickstarter campaign

FLUX represents the cutting edge of an industry trend to develop and market 3D printing-related products. This technological wave is still in its infancy; however, most industry analysts are in agreement that 3D printing shows great promise for future development.

Even though in recent years 3D printers have only have only made limited gains towards the eventual vision of becoming a standard form of technology in widespread use, the growth of the industry is impressive.

For instance, according to Credit Suisse, between 2012 and 2013, the 3D printing industry grew by 100%. Similarly, recent Canalys reports point out that consumer 3D printer shipments increased by 16% in the third quarter of 2014, and the overall 3D printing market is expected to grow from US$2.5 billion in 2013 to over US$16 billion in 2018.

While these sales projections paint of bright picture of the industry’s future, analysts at American technological research firm, Gartner Inc., also note that in the next few years, the majority of profits will not be generated by sales of consumer 3D printing products. Instead 75% of earnings will come from sales for industrial uses, especially for creating prototype models for manufacturing and design.

Eventually, the market for consumer 3D printers will undoubtedly develop and mature, but before this can happen, there are a number of obstacles that must be overcome. To begin with, most consumers are not proficient in Computer-Aided Design (CAD); therefore, more user friendly software packages must be developed, and they must be compatible with the hardware found in consumer-grade 3D printing devices.

Figure 2
Figure 2

One example of an attempt to address this problem is a software package called “Smoothie-3D” which was created by a small French startup and enables users to create 3D models based on images from 2D photographs. While this freeware package is helpful as an entry-level tool to help eliminate CAD-proficiency barriers for consumers hoping to use 3D printers, there is still a strong need to develop more elaborate, yet easy to learn software interfaces.

Few weeks ago, Microsoft announced the launch of its HoloLens Augmented Reality (AR) headset computer device, which shows very encouraging signs that the development of software and hardware products for use with consumer 3D printers is just around the corner.

During the product demo, the audience was treated to a demonstration of how AR technology can be used together with CAD software in order to easily create blueprints for 3D objects using an interface that is as intuitive and user friendly as Adobe InDesign or Photoshop. For Microsoft, the development of consumer 3D printing will be key to the successful sales of its HoloLens product by making it a relevant tool for use in the everyday practice of designing and creating 3D objects.

In order to increase the appeal of purchasing 3D printers, an ecosystem will have to be created in which consumers feel that they are clearly useful in everyday life and are not just products to be occasionally used by niche users. In order for this to develop, practical 3D printable designs of objects will have to be readily available for the average user.

Online 3D printing marketplaces for buying, selling, and trading designs will be a crucial component of this ecosystem. However, concerns have been raised that due to intellectual property issues it will be difficult for retailers to generate profits through online sales of 3D designs. If it is already easy to download movies and music, then what is to prevent consumers from downloading pirated copies of 3D design files instead of paying for them?

One strategy would be to sell printers and other hardware together with copy written file packages of useful objects. Due to the complexity of 3D printing workflows, the importance of software and hardware integration cannot be underestimated. For the average user, reasonably priced hardware and software packages will be more convenient than searching for freeware and figuring out how to make the different components work together consistently.

In addition, higher learning curves for assembling and manipulating physical objects will most likely make paying more appealing to people who want to produce objects with reliable quality and aesthetically pleasing designs.

So far, FLUX is on the right track in including a built-in 3D scanner and a modular design that allows users to substitute different attachments in order to create a variety of objects with different materials.

More importantly, the company is also developing complementary design software that can be integrated with mobile devices. One possible method of generating further profits from a 3D printing marketplace is to take a cue from Sony’s PlayStation business model and sell subscription services together with 3D printing hardware. Packages could include subscription updates to design libraries together with technical support, instructional videos, and software.

For entrepreneurs in the 3D printing industry, well-designed integrated packages could serve as a powerful means of creating brand loyalty among users. Startups in Taiwan can attract consumers with innovative business models that champion high-quality design aesthetics and brand identity that distinguish them from competitors.

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