Opinion

A Recap of An Unhappy October in the 3D Printing Industry

Rachel Park

Guest post from Rachel Park, an influential voice in the 3D printing industry, about a series of unfortunate events last October.

Note: This opinion piece originally appeared on the RPES Blog. Text has been reprinted with the author’s permission.

The month of October saw some ugly and unhappy headlines across the world of 3D printing and that’s just the ones that were in the public domain. There’s plenty of private discord too according to some of the communications I’ve received off the record.

The most recent bout of bad news started when, for the second time this year, Stratasys-owned MakerBot announced lay-offs in the US. The company’s CEO, Jonathan Jaglom, took to the MakerBot blog to inform the world of this unfortunate development. Even the hardest hearts can’t find this type of action easy, despite the marketing speak that it is wrapped up in. These are people’s lives! Thus it was either incredibly bad timing, a notable lapse in judgement, or both, that saw the Stratasys board voting on a half million dollar bonus for its CEO just a day after the redundancies. Whether he deserves it or not, and I’ve seen arguments on both sides that have merit, the timing of it was horrible.

Following that debacle another emerged surrounding the Singapore based desktop 3D printer manufacturer Pirate3D. This young company originally sailed to early success and secured phenomenal funding, initially via Kickstarter and later from other more traditional sources. However, it emerged last month that the company has faltered rather alarmingly, and seems to be on a trajectory similar to its contemporary Makible. Again, via blog post, the company’s CEO, informed the world that operations were frozen for at least the next three months. Citing financial issues and an inability to meet its promises, it’s not looking good for the self-styled young entrepreneurs who claim that they have all lost their life savings too. A very sad case of a group of youngsters that tried to run before they could walk and have suffered from a lack of experience. Hard not to feel some sympathy, but then, I didn’t invest in a machine, unlike the many Kickstarter backers who are justifiably feeling aggrieved.

3D Systems didn’t have an easy month either, with rumours of lay-offs and the closure of its Massachussetts facility as well as a law suit decision that will see the company paying out in excess of $11 million to a previous employee that had worked for 3D Systems following the acquisition of his company four years ago. The acquisition of software company Print3D was a strategic one, which obviously did not go according to plan, and considering the number of acquisitions 3D Systems made, you have to wonder how many others are smarting now. Then to top it off, last week, in the closing days of October, Avi Reichental stepped down after serving 12 years as 3D Systems’ CEO. There have been many comments across social media since the news broke, some of them personal and unpleasant, others more considered. Speaking personally, I have always found Avi to be charming on the numerous occasions I met with him, sometimes speaking with him at great length. And I have never, for a second, doubted his passionate belief that 3D printing can make things better. I do intend the dual meaning there — that statement can be taken literally and figuratively. Whether you agree with Reichental’s business methods for managing growth or not or what drives him, what cannot be denied is that he took 3D Systems from relative obscurity and the brink of financial disaster 12 years ago and transitioned it into a multi-national, well-known public company. And, I gather, we may still see him around….

As I see it, for both Stratasys and 3D Systems, navigating growth has been far from straight-forward, and I would venture that corporate greed and power plays have been central to some of the decision-making in the board room. Balance sheets and responsibility to shareholders will have played a part, but so will personal bank balances — it’s the ugly side of “business” run by human beings. There is not much I loathe more than writing bad behaviour off as “just business” (or “politics”) but it’s common place today, and becoming more and more common in the 3D printing industry too, a consequence of the industry’s growth. What is equally sad is how many people accept and/or dismiss such behaviour without comment or kick-back, rather it just generates a sigh or a shrug and it’s quickly over-looked or forgotten. I’m not judging here, I’m absolutely guilty of this myself — noticing it, not liking it but at a loss as to how to change it or make any sort of difference!

Overall though, I am not too surprised at the big picture, namely the recent consolidation by both 3D Systems and Stratasys. Easy enough to put it down to the age and state of the industry, but I have my suspicions that there may be more to it. With both companies building significant relationships with massive traditional 2D printing and imaging companies, I find myself speculating as to whether the recent moves are preparatory ….

And finally, I saw the news, well-covered by Mike, yesterday that the 3D Printing Fund is heading into liquidation. That’s rather sad!