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August 9, 2016

Surviving the 3D Printapocalypse

A recent article in Inc. heralded the death of the 3D printer. So should we grab shovels and bury our $2,500 3D printers next to our Segways and VR headset? Probably. But does this mean the 3D printer industry is dead? Surprisingly, no. Techcrunch reports the industry is simply, “rethinking 3D printing” and diving into specific applications and markets. Wohlers and Associates, the authority on additive manufacturing, backs this prediction, forecasting 3D printing will be a $21.2 billion industry by 2020.

What might have looked like the bottom falling out of the industry was actually the bubble bursting — a bubble filled with over-promising and deflated by under-delivering. While consumers were grabbing pitchforks and filing class action lawsuits, industry quietly kept doing what industry does so well: innovate. High-end B2B 3D printer brands and consumer brands alike continue to thrive by serving hyper-specialized niche markets and hyper-targeted audiences.

So which brands will survive?

The promise of 3D printers as all things to all people fell far short of the mark, but the revolution quietly continues — led by brands who know their audiences, know their strengths and tell a clear, compelling brand story. Here are a couple 3D printer companies that have risen from the ashes:

Solidscape — a jeweler’s secret weapon

Solidscape manufactures high-end B2B 3D printers that produce wax patterns ideal for lost wax investment casting and mold making applications. With the industry’s highest standard in surface finish, accuracy and material castability, Solidscape is revolutionizing the production of custom jewelry, a process that had remained essentially unchanged for hundreds of years.

With 5,000 printers operating in more than 80 countries, Solidscape, founded in 1994, is riding out the storm comfortably. Bill Dahl, VP Marketing & Communications does not see the 3D printing hype as bad for business. “I think the heightened awareness of 3D printing in general was good. I don’t think the bubble bursting in the consumer industry will negatively impact the B2B side.”

Bill Dahl is confident jewelers will continue to adopt 3D printing as the industry migrates from traditional hand creation techniques to more modern, hybrid blends of 3D CAD/CAM and hand techniques. “Ali Matossian at Bostonian Jewelers uses 3D CAD and 3D Printing to create the piece, yet in some cases she relies on bench jewelers to add hand finishing touches to give it a real ‘hand-made’ feel.”

Solidscape’s jeweler customers see their 3D printers as invaluable business tools, worth their weight in gold. Dahl elaborates, “They think longer term, they think in terms of supply chain and business process disruptions, they think in terms of the technology as an enabler. In short, B2B 3D printing is a tool, not a toy.”

To make a splash in new markets and expand presence in existing ones, Solidscape fortified its brand with an aggressive, targeted PR effort. The company landed more than 40 media hits, including major 3D printing outlets, as well as trade outlets in the engineering and jewelry spaces.

LulzBot — a hacker’s delight

The LulzBot line of consumer desktop 3D printers has survived the downturn by building on a solid brand foundation focused on their core audience.

Like most affordable desktop 3D printer brands, LulzBot was born of the RepRap movement, a community of hackers dedicated to creating and sharing the world’s first affordable, open source 3D printers — printers that can be used to then print more printers. While early LulzBots were indeed printed on other LulzBots, the core philosophy of the RepRap movement is an unyielding dedication to keeping all hardware and software completely open source. This means anyone can download plans, make their own clones and modify the software and printers any way they like — a hacker’s dream.

This also presented a branding challenge. When a company has no intellectual property to protect, its brand is one of its most valuable business assets. LulzBot needed a brand strong enough to gain market share in a crowded space and foster support from a fickle audience equally capable of extreme loyalty and furious ire. Articulating an authentic brand story to the media and consumers was critical.

LulzBot hit the market just as other brands were becoming less open source. The dedication to always remaining open formed the foundation of the LulzBot brand identity, and messaging extolled the advantages of an open platform — as technology advances, you can modify and not replace your printer. The result: Through strategic marketing and public relations outreach, the big guys took notice, the press paid attention and the product outsold expectations.

Only the strong survive

The 3D Printapocalypse is a great example of how branding can harm an industry. When a brand promise is founded on a fundamentally false value proposition it’s destined for collapse.

The innovative technology behind 3D printing is certainly compelling, but it’s not a differentiator. The sooner companies define themselves as not only innovative technologies, but as brands, the more effectively they’ll tell their stories and the sooner they’ll be able to start winning the hearts and minds of their potential customers. Technology is cold. Brands are warm. People use technology. People love brands. Building a strong brand fosters strong love connections between companies and customers.

Helpful tips:

• Brand Assessment. You can’t get where you’re going until you know where you stand. Honestly and objectively assess where your brand is right now. Conducting staff interviews can uncover valuable insights and build internal consensus. Conduct audience interviews to dig deep and learn more about your potential customers. Develop audience persona documents to profile your distinct audiences, identify their emotional triggers and prescribe how to effectively engage them.

• Brand Strategy. Inspire your audience to take action. Articulate your unique place in your sector, how you’re different and why people should care. Establish consistent brand messaging to amplify the voice of your brand and form the foundation for all brand messaging to come.

Brand Implementation. This is where your brand starts to interact with your audience and pay dividends. With a solid brand strategy based on an honest brand assessment, your marketing touchpoints will feel less experimental and will prove more effective. Resist the urge to changeyour message or dabble, running one ad once or sending one postcard a year. Your brand strategy will prescribe marketing efforts to meet your goals and can include web identity, videos, direct marketing, advertising, infographics and print materials. Public relations gets the message out to your key audiences through social media, media relations and influencer outreach.

$21.2 billion bakes a big pie — carve out a piece

The 3D printing market is trending hard toward hyper-specialized B2B solutions. For innovative 3D printer brands, doing one job better than anyone will be more important than being many things to many people. Demonstrating real ROI will be more important than producing the lowest priced printer.

Being right will be more important than being first.

Brands that survive the 3D Printapocalypse will have a deep-rooted culture of innovation and best-inclass solutions. They’ll embrace and nurture their corporate brands on a holistic level, understand the ethos and emotional triggers of their audience and consistently articulate their value, supported by real data and realistic brand promises.

Sources: Inc., Techcrunch, Newsweek, TheStreet,, Vox, CNET, Fortune


Dawn Putney is CEO of Toolbox Creative, a B2B technology branding firm. She has 25+ years of results-driven marketing experience and speaks fluent Engineer. Kristin Golliher is founder and CEO of WildRock Public Relations & Marketing. Her big-picture thinking and stuffed-to-bursting Rolodex are nationally renowned.