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Independent 3D Print Services Bolster Supply Chains

Ilene Wolff
By Ilene Wolff Contributing Editor, SME Media

With supply chains tied in knots by the pandemic, port glitches and shipping snafus, independent 3D printing services have had a chance to show their value and grow.

Ilene Wolff

They made the opportunity pay off.

Independent service providers for 3D printing, known by their automated, AI-enabled online platforms, recorded $5.27 billion in sales in 2020, a 7.1 percent increase from the year before, according to the Wohlers Report 2021.

At least two of the services also underwent major changes this year. One of them is Xometry Inc., Rockville, Md., which was established eight years ago and went public in 2021. Xometry’s founders, Randy Altschuler, who is also CEO, and Laurence Zuriff, found inspiration in Amazon.

“The global demand for efficiency and speed has somehow eluded one of the largest and most important industries in the world, on-demand manufacturing,” according to a letter they filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission before Xometry’s initial public offering. “When we founded Xometry in 2013, the industry was localized and barely digitized. ... Our vision was simple. If there was a convenient web-based marketplace for books people write and read, why shouldn’t there be a similar marketplace for products people make and use?”

In the same filing, the co-founders credited the COVID-19 pandemic for an increase in revenue, particularly in 2020’s third quarter. “It’s a little surprising because last year was not a great year for a lot of companies,” with revenue down as much as 50 percent at some, said Wohlers Report publisher Terry Wohlers in an interview.

Print Services Market Grows

Joining Xometry in undergoing change this year is Hubs, Amsterdam, which was acquired by digital manufacturer Protolabs Inc., Maple Plain, Minn., in a $280 million deal.

Like Xometry, Hubs (formerly 3D Hubs) was established in 2013 and also connects buyers and sellers of CNC machining, injection molding and sheet metal fabrication, in addition to 3D printing.

Unlike Xometry, though, Hubs owes its early years to DIYers. The online platform caused a ruckus in 2015 when it added industrial 3D printing. “What will happen is that the HD service will start to suck up all the work and the smaller operators (which the hubs were built on) will get nothing and eventually fade into the background,” complained a member.

Platform Evolution

That’s pretty much what happened, according to online messages from the co-founders. In 2018, company co-founder Brian Garret wrote, “As the platform evolved from a peer-to-peer 3D printing network into an all-round manufacturing platform, Hubs’ customer base changed. Now, the majority of orders originate from professionals who source parts for larger, high-value engineering projects.” He added that “we are taking the hard decision to move away from our original peer-to-peer model and become fully B2B focused.”

What happened is that “exponential growth” in CNC services demonstrated to Hubs that growth opportunities were larger than with 3D printing alone, according to a 2018 post from the founders. They added injection molding (and later sheet metal work) in order to give customers a platform for services throughout product development, and offered a quality guarantee. “Combining the quality guarantee of a centralized supplier with the cost and lead-time benefits of our distributed manufacturing network, we’re in a unique position to change the manufacturing industry. We look forward to working with everyone who will join us on that journey,” wrote Bram de Zwart, CEO and co-founder and Garret.

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