3D Hubs: The 3D printer next door

By James Robinson , written on April 14, 2014

From The News Desk

The idea behind 3D Hubs is simple. Give consumers access to a global network of individually run 3D printers to which they can easily send designs. The printers set their own price, listing themselves by resolution and material. 3D Hubs takes 15 percent of each transaction.

Bram de Zwart and Brian Garret worked for industry giant 3D Systems for four years before they left to set up 3D Hubs in Amsterdam last year.  In the 14 months that have passed since, 3D Hubs have developed a network of 3,800 printers spread across 80 countries. They’re not trifling numbers given, as de Zwart says, there are only 200,000 3D printers in the world today.

The traction 3D Hubs has comes from it being able to align the benefits of 3D printing while negating some of the drag in the market.

“We believe the power of 3D printing is in localizing manufacturing. But that wasn’t happening. All the major service providers were shipping from one location,” de Zwart says.

For instance: I don’t have access to a 3D printer, but through 3D Hubs I can send a design out to a printer within a minute or two. I’m at my desk on Market Street in San Francisco. I enter my address into 3D Hubs and it points me in the direction of a 3D Printer a short walk from me on the corner of 6th and Folsom.

de Zwart says that most of the transactions that go through 3D Hubs are done so locally that the customer picks them up in person. It brings the customer into close contact with the 3D printer, driving awareness and developing the market. “The people see the printer brands and they’re satisfied and maybe they go buy the printer. Also, they talk to the printer owners, many of who have already earned back their printer purchase,” de Zwart says.

By networking 3D printers and closing the geographical gap between the point of design and the point of production, 3D Hubs can get the finished product to consumers in two days, which is unprecedented with consumer 3D printing services. The speed of turnaround is a longtime bugbear in 3D printing, but here, not so much.

If the idea continues to gather momentum, it will provide an alternative to the exciting world imagined by some advocates where there's a 3D printer in every home.

“With 3D printing, there’s a wide range of material and a lot of technology. The chance that there will be one machine that will do everything is very slim,” de Zwart says.

“The bigger picture is that access is more important than ownership. When I look at my generation, they don’t want the ownership.”

Last week, 3D Hubs announced a new partnership with Autodesk, who integrated its API (which allows customers to send their designs to printers) into its free 3D design software apps. It’s a fitting partnership, given that de Zwart’s ideas about the sharing economy fit closely with Autodesk CEO Carl Bass’ own thoughts when I spoke to him recently.

3D Hubs continues to add printers at a solid clip too. Twenty printer manufacturers let 3D Hubs put flyers in their boxes to recruit printers directly. de Zwart says that given how fast 3D printing technology is changing, the best incentive in getting printers to sign up outside of financial gain is encouraging them to make the most of their printer before it becomes obsolete.

Garret thinks that 3D printing is where the Internet was 10 or 15 years ago. “No one could create a page. Now you have microblogs, Twitter, Facebook,” he says. de Zwart concurs. “There’s still a lack of knowledge about how to use a 3D printer,” he adds. 3D Hubs brings the sharing economy to the 3D printing market, but the end result is that it drives adoption.

For a company like 3D Hubs the rate of change is an enthralling if terrifying proposition. The company has made a smart (if niche) beginning in making the best of the opportunity and problems facing 3D printing. But powerful forces are going to hit the market in the coming years. This has been the easy part. 3D Hubs are in for a wild ride.

[image via 3dhubs]