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MakerBot Is Trapped in the Nastiest Part of the Tech Hype Cycle

It’s time for the company to get real — even if that’s not as much fun

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

MakerBot had a rough 2016, and 2017 isn’t starting off much better. The once-vaunted 3-D printing startup that was going to revolutionize manufacturing announced yet another round of layoffs last week, with plans to cut 30 percent of its staff. The move follows downsizing in both 2016 and 2015, the closing of its retail stores, and the outsourcing of its device manufacturing to China. The stark reversal of fortune begs the question: Is 3-D printing officially dead?

Definitely not — research firm Canalys estimated that the market for 3-D printers was worth $5 billion in 2016 and will grow to more than $22 billion by 2020. The technology is certainly more widespread today than it was when MakerBot founder Bre Pettis landed on the cover of Wired with a device that would “change the world.” But the failure of MakerBot’s machines to achieve true mainstream adoption is illustrative of the folly of tech hype cycles rather than the devices themselves.

Over the past decade, a variety of technologies have vied to achieve what Wired, in its MakerBot cover story, deemed “the Macintosh moment.” That’s the tipping point when a gadget goes from a hobbyist oddity to a mainstream, widely understood piece of tech. (The last Mac moment? Apple’s own iPhone.) Innovations that were supposed to be game-changers have been met with a shrug — think the Apple Watch and Google Glass — while the jury’s still out on slow-evolving bets like virtual reality and delivery drones. Changing the world is, in fact, tougher than Steve Jobs made it look.

MakerBot discovered this the hard way. Though industrial 3-D printing technology is actually decades old, the company became the face of a new wave of cheaper, consumer-focused 3-D printing devices around the turn of the decade. With machines that cost less than $2,000 and relatively straightforward design software, we were all destined to become “makers” who used a DIY ethos to build toys for our kids, replacement parts for our dishwashers, and tchotchkes for our coffee tables. “It was overhyped,” says Pete Basiliere, a research vice president at Gartner. “There was way too much interest in the general media. You had people making statements like … ‘Everyone’s going to have one in their home and they’re going to be printing broken parts, maybe even food.’ The technology is just not there.”

Gartner has mapped this common rise and precipitous fall in consumer excitement about an emerging technology via its hype cycle graph. The period between 2011 and 2013, when Pettis was appearing on magazine covers and The Colbert Report, would have been the peak of 3-D printing hype. Today, with MakerBot severely diminished, we’re approaching the trough of disillusionment, Basiliere says.

Sales reflect the dwindling hype. MakerBot sold its 100,000th printer last year, but its revenue also declined 29 percent year over year in the most recent quarter, according to its parent company, Stratasys. MakerBot itself now acknowledges that its lofty goal of putting a 3-D printer in every home wasn’t realistic. “That was a lingering sentiment from the company’s origins as an open-source hardware company,” said spokesman Josh Snider. “That sort of hobbyist, Sci-Fi-nerd ethos, where the paradigm shift would happen hard and fast and see immediate adoption, was misguided and unrealistic. If you look at widespread industrial and consumer technology, they all have an adoption curve, they’re all different, but none of them are fast.”

In retrospect, mass-market 3-D printing was a curious bet for a society that can’t be bothered to drive to pick up takeout. Increasingly, the software we use is purposely stripped of friction points in an effort to streamline the interactions between man and machine. Even if today’s 3-D printers are more user-friendly than the hobbyist devices that MakerBot first sold, they still require a level of design savvy that the average person doesn’t innately have — and may not want to learn (though users can load some readymade designs from MakerBot’s marketplace onto their printers). “When you look at the consumer market, it really is a technology that’s been looking for a use case,” said Alex West, principal analyst of smart manufacturing at IHS. “Once people have gone beyond printing figurines and toys and mini-Yodas, I think the applications become far smaller.”

After a piece of overhyped tech bottoms out, it sometimes finds a new plateau that can still be prosperous, if not world-beating. This is where MakerBot finds itself now. The company has refocused on an audience that is constantly encouraged to learn new things: students. MakerBot says its devices are in more than 5,000 schools nationwide, used in courses related to mathematics, engineering, and the arts, among others. Why teach kids to use 3-D printers if they’re still nowhere close to becoming household items? Because the machines are growing increasingly important in the world of manufacturing as well. Originally mostly used for prototyping designs, 3-D printed parts are becoming a normal part of large-scale manufacturing processes. General Electric, for example, has begun using 3-D printed fuel nozzles in some of its jet engines and purchased two 3-D printer companies for $1.4 billion last year. In the auto industry, carmakers are beginning to use 3-D printed parts in their actual vehicles rather than merely in test designs. The students of today will be the people who use and maintain these printers in the future.

MakerBot believes it can capture some of this business market with desktop machines that engineers and designers can use as “sketchbooks” throughout the design process, according to Snider. “We are today where industrial 3-D printing was 10 years ago in that more and more businesses are realizing the value of the technology,” he said in an email.

That could be a viable path forward to build a sustainable business, but it’s a long way off from a revolution as groundbreaking as the PC takeover. MakerBot hasn’t completely given up on the dream of ubiquitous 3-D printers, but it’s no longer making bold statements about its devices being comparable to the iPhone unveiling. “We don’t like to speculate on the arrival or widespread adoption of the technology,” Snider says. “Right now it’s for education, rapid prototyping, concept modeling … but it doesn’t really meet an immediate need for a home user.” A tech company that’s been humbled into real talk just might be on the path to long-term success.