When Ultimaker, a manufacturer of open-source 3D printers headquartered in Amsterdam with an office in Boston, announced recently the global availability of the next generation of its 3D-printing product line, it promised professionals unprecedented freedom of design. Open-source 3D printing has become popular, particularly in the desktop printing market, according to John Kawola, U.S. President of Ultimaker.
In an interview with PlasticsToday, Kawola reviewed his more than 10-year career in the 3D-printing industry, starting at a time when prototyping with polymer materials represented 90% of the market. “What’s happened in the last five years is that the market has changed drastically,” said Kawola. “It has consolidated, and I was part of that consolidation. Also, we saw the introduction of desktop 3D printers as well as the rise of metal 3D-printing machines. Today, there’s more public awareness, and part of that is due to the [advent of] desktop printers selling at $5,000 and less. That’s where Ultimaker fits in.”
“What has happened in the desktop space in just the last couple of years is that a large portion of the growth of 3D printing is now in the desktop segment, from 275,000 units to over 400,000,” Kawola said. “The percentage being sold in the enterprise space was close to zero five years ago. Today it’s close to 50%. Parts are better, more materials are available, the machines are more reliable and the desktop printers are bumping up against the larger, more-expensive machines. For the price difference, more companies are looking at desktop 3D printers [rather than] the $50,000 stand-alone printers.”
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“Open source or open materials 3D printing is the idea that somebody has developed hardware and software but they don’t try to keep it secret or patent it; they open it up so that even the software codes are open,” explained Kawola. “The idea behind open source is that the greater community will make the products better and everyone can share in this.”
Ultimaker has embraced the concept of open source and offers software that is open to the greater community for anyone to use. “As a company, Ultimaker has had a net benefit from our open source product,” Kawola noted. “The product is better—we can improve the software at a much faster pace. We have been able to do many things much faster. But in reality, people copy you and compete with you. Is it a net benefit or net detriment? We still feel it’s a net benefit,” he added.
Materials is one area that has benefitted. Because it’s an open environment, the range of materials that have been developed and put on the market has grown very quickly, Kawola stated. “The big guys had closed systems and you had to buy their film or powder. By 2007 or 2008, 90% was Stratasys materials for Stratasys machines, which had attractive margins