Thousands of users tapped for first 3D printer buyer's guide

The world's largest online community of 3D printer owners has rated what looks to be the majority of machines for sale today, offering consumers a detailed buyer's guide that uses a simple "1-10" rating system.

Some 2,279 "verified" user reviews were collected for the buyer's guide, as some owners had more than one 3D printer model. In all, the guide rated 76 machines, with "10" the highest ranking and "1" the lowest.

"What I think was interesting is some of the bigger players in the industry were not represented, like Makerbot or 3D Systems, which seems to be the sentiment in the market today," said Brian Garret, chief technology officer at 3D Hubs, which created the online buyer's guide. Garret said users were often unimpressed with the print quality that came from larger vendors.

3D Hubs is a 2013 startup that created an online distributed network as a marketplace for printing 3D objects. The network quickly grew to include 10,000 3D printer owners throughout the world. The distributed network allows consumers or businesses to upload CAD files and have a local 3D printer owner create the part. The 3D printed object can then be picked up locally or shipped for a fee. 3D printer owners charge a standard fee for their materials and labor.

The printers that were reviewed are arranged in five different categories: Enthusiast Printers, Plug-n-Play Printers, Kit/DIY Printers, Budget Printers and Resin Printers.

The desktop printers in the guide use two technologies. One was extrusion deposition or fused deposition modeling (FDM) technology, where layer upon layer of stringy filament is melted and pushed through a nozzle layer upon layer. The second was resin printing, also known as photopolymerization and stereolithography (STL), which uses a light source, such as a laser, to harden layer upon layer of photosensitive resin.

In all, 18 models made it to the top of the user communities' list, and only printers with more than 10 reviews were included in the buyer's guide.

3D Hubs also added a secondary "Printer Index" that includes 58 3D Printers that didn't make it to the top of their categories. Printers with more than five reviews are displayed in the index.

3D Hubs, based in Amsterdam, was founded by Garret and CEO Bram de Zwart. Both said they are former employees of 3D Systems, the first company to make 3D printers.

After creating an online printer user community, one repetitive question the founders  received from those on the network was, "which printer should I buy"

"So, instead of just reviewing printers ourselves, we decided to ask our community. We got a huge response. More than 7,500 people," Garret said.

3D Hubs plans to periodically update the buyer's guide, though the timeframe for that has as yet to be determined, he said.

More than 2,000 of the reviews contained "in-depth" information based on months of printer use that included information on the machines, the printer filament or liquid they used, as well as any upgrades to the machines.

The 3D printer owners on 3D Hubs' network were sent a questionnaire through online survey service Typform. Each owner had 10 days to complete the survey and also had to undergo "verification" by demonstrating their machine's ability to make a basic object. 3D Hubs selected "Marvin," a small robot-like figurine, for that task.

"What's surprising is there's a number of printers in the guide that are relatively unknown to the public. For example, there's a Polish company that makes a printer called Zortax that many mainstream users don't know about," Garret said.

The Zortax M200 3D printer began as a Kickstarter crowdsourcing project last year. The printer received an 8.9 rating from users.

One of the top-rated 3D printers in the guide was made by Makergear, a small company started in 2009 in Beachwood, Ohio. The printer, the Makergear M2, is best suited for experienced users, engineers and designers. It received a 9.0 rating on the user's guide.

Rick Pollack, CEO of Makergear, said he started out in his garage with a small machine tool lathe making aftermarket filament extruder heads for Makerbot 3D printers.

Pollack, whose career background is in software, said he became aware through online user forums of problems with extruder heads from Makerbot, a leading manufacturer now owned by 3D printer giant Stratasys. Stratasys claims 24% of the 3D printer market, according to Market research firm Canalys.

"People replaced Makerbot extruders with Makergear extruders," Pollack said. "After about a year and a half, we started making our own machines."

Makergear has only about a dozen employees, and several local businesses manufacture parts for the Makergear M2. All testing on the machines is performed in house. The printers are so popular that Makergear already has a monthslong backlog of orders.

The sub-$10,000 3D printer market explodes

The market for desktop 3D printers in all categories is hot.

Canalys estimates that some 33,000 3D printers were shipped worldwide in the third quarter of 2014, representing quarter-on-quarter growth of 4%. Revenue from printers, materials and services grew 9% on the back of strengthening global demand.

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is particularly popular in the Western hemisphere, where businesses use the process for rapid prototyping of products.

Revenue for 3D printing in the Americas revenue grew 16% to account for 44% of the global total, Canalys said. Increased interest in the technology from other key markets, such as Germany and the UK, helped revenue grow by 8% over the second quarter in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

Canalys estimates that 73% of 3D printers shipped in the third quarter of this year were priced at under $10,000 (pre-tax).

"The rise in cheaper, consumer-oriented products is further proof that the consumer side of the industry has serious potential, and we expect similar growth rates in the future," said Canalys research analyst Joe Kempton.


Lucas Mearian

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