Onno Ponfoort on New Business Models for 3D Printing at TCT Show
Until recently additive manufacturing was a production method for ‘makers’: technicians and designers, or those aspiring to be. Nowadays an increasing number of consumers explore the market of additive manufacturing or – as it is better known among this group – 3D printing. Many online 3D printing platforms offer solutions to upload own designs, or order designs from a catalogue. But can untrained consumers really use these platforms? And does the quality delivered meet the customer demand? We took the test.
Ordering 3D printed clips online
For a decade, Berenschot consultants have been involved in projects in the 3D printing arena. Recently our colleagues asked us to help them out with some small clips they needed for a presentation panel. The original clips were all broken and new ones could not be ordered anymore. We decided to design and 3D print these clips ourselves. The low-quality clips we were able to print in-house (PLA for €0.07 per clip) fitted, but were not firm enough. Why not order ABS-clips online?
This triggered our curiosity about the process of searching, visiting and ordering from 3D platforms. Our curiosity transformed into a test with three main goals. First, we wanted to get some 30 good quality clips for our presentation panels, against a reasonable price. Secondly we wanted to find out about the process and requirements consumers get confronted with when they want to order 3D printed parts online. What are the differences between platforms? And which work best? Finally, we wanted to know about terms and conditions, and guarantees these 3D printing platforms offer.
We evaluated the 15 most well-known 3D platforms on eight aspects that consumers find important when shopping online (see matrix further on).
As 3D printing is new to many consumers, they first need to feel confident that the platform at hand can respond to their request. Elements we analysed in this area were:
- the overall experience
- the way the platform demonstrates credibility
- information on materials offered and printing method used
- the terms & conditions
- the ease of the ordering process.
Based on these aspects a consumer will decide to go to the next step, the quotation process. In our test we went through the motions and entered the quotation process on all 15 platforms.
It is fair to say that in real life we would have abandoned the process in eight of the fifteen cases. The aspects of overall experience and ease of ordering are especially important to focus on, if you want to keep your customers on your platform. For instance: when uploading or selecting a design, selecting materials or colours some platforms do not keep these choices or your customer information at hand.
Trying another material requires reentry all data. Customers do not want to do this again and again. When leaving a message or asking for information, customers expect direct response (within 8 hours maximum). We encountered upon sites that took 8 days before they answered our call. Another aspect that many sites can improve on is underlining their credibility. Working with 'likes', customer reviews and easy-to-find contact info, enhances the idea that the customer will indeed be serviced with a good quality product. Also, asking visitors to send in their design and ask for a quotation by email, as one platform does, might work with technicians, but it leaves most consumers puzzled since they do not know what to ask for. Although these aspects might seem rather obvious, many platforms do not meet the basics.
Shopping around pays off
A second step is getting a quote. Some platforms offer instant quotation, others don’t. Especially when focussing on regular consumers instant quotation is a must. When quotes are not given on line, but via an email, a time lag of over an hour is devastating. Your customers will have gone for another platform. Also, when giving quotes via email, make sure the customer gets some confirmation after hitting the ‘get quote’ button. We even found one platform that gave no reaction at all, which made us hit the button eight times, and get a similar number of quotes.
Based on the price quoted, the customer will or won’t order. In our test the price range was quite large. The five €0.07 PLA clips we ordered, were offered in ABS for €8.47 up to €165. Although we asked for a quote in September 2014, three platforms are still working on their quote!
No linear relationship between quality and price
Finally we ordered clips at five platforms. The most expensive clips we ordered were €47.32 including shipping costs. On 3D Hubs and Make XYZ we ordered at 2 of their hubs. In total we got 37 clips to test. One platform delivered 1 clip, noticed the mistake and send a second batch with 5 clips. One platform just send 6 clips for our convenience.
The functional quality of the clips differed dramatically. In one case two clips were already dead upon arrival. In three cases the clip quality was poor and could not withstand our rigorous test: putting the clip in the panel and taking it out again. Only three suppliers actually delivered good clips of high quality, in a professional packaging. The most expensive clips we ordered were not amongst them.
3D Hubs: ensuring quality in a distributed production network
To make sure we focused on the right aspects we discussed the results of our test with Filemon Schoffer, Head of Community at 3D Hubs. Even though the two 3D Hubs–hubs tested were amongst the cheaper options, the quality they provided was amongst the highest in this test. We wanted to know how 3D Hubs secures the quality of their hubs, as it is paramount to the success of the network. Filemon indicated that “basically the concept of reviews does the trick. The community ensures that good quality hubs come to the surface. When a hub gest a bad review it will not be chosen by the next customer. Our hubs understand the internet works like this.“ As more professional printers can now also be found on 3D Hubs we wondered if the “C-to-B” phenomenon already takes place: larger corporations using relatively unknown 3D Hubs members for the production of prototypes. Filemon indicated that this is the case. 3D Hubs is working with, and further developing, a badge system “to indicated that some hubs have proven to deliver constant high quality and are capable of meeting industrial customer demands.”
In the matrix above we limit ourselves to indicate a maximum of three best practices per aspect analysed. As differences are sometimes small this does not mean that all the other platforms perform badly. But we can conclude that a large number of platforms do not understand that, with the growing attention, a new breed of consumers without 3D printing knowledge is visiting their online portal.
A question 3D printing platform owners should ask themselves is which customer segment they target and how to indicate this on their website. Targeting various segments through one platform won’t always work, due to the major differences in experience and demands between customers groups. As the internet basically promotes the market leader (unless the market leader starts to produce bad quality) newcomers and followers need to do something special. Daring to focus on a specific customer group might be just the trick you need to stand out from the crowd.
An important insight from our study is that platforms qualify based on the first impressions and are selected based on price. In our test the platform with the best experience did not get our business as the price they quoted was too high. But for larger orders and more complex parts, they might also qualify on price. Our test-order was of course very small, but this is a realistic situation. Also larger companies will not start out with a mega-order, but will first test the experience and quality.
To make sure your platform passes the test, four aspects are essential.
- Clarity in what is offered is the first one. Make sure that customers know what they can expect by providing them with a site map, options, clear description of the ordering process, terms and conditions.
- Secondly, guidance and advice on the different kinds of techniques, file formats and materials that are offered will help consumers to choose which of these fit their design best. Letting customers have a closer look at the printing process increase credibility.
- A third aspects is personal attention. Specific tips and quick response to questions will help make customers feel included and involved.
- The last element is professionalism. It seems so simple: paying attention to accuracy in grammar, having a proper web lay out and positive reviews and references on your site. But many platforms do not pass the test and this prevents them from becoming the number one platform for consumers.
* Onno Ponfoort, Geneviève Wolbert and Irma van Roest, work as management consultants at Berenschot, The Netherlands, and actively support clients with the strategic and operational implementation of 3D printing in their activities.