3D Hubs is an online service that connects customers with local 3D fabrication providers such as service bureaus or makerspaces – with a focus on 3D printing. It’s likely that platforms such as 3D Hubs (and many similar services) will be a key part of the infrastructure required for redistribution of manufacturing, especially to ad hoc networks of small-scale digital manufacturers, such as community makerspaces or studios with spare capacity. And with the dropping prices, and increasing quality of 3D printers, we might also expect to see a growth in the kind of ad hoc network of providers that 3D Hubs enables.
How is it redistributive?
Service design for a digital fabrication marketplace
While 3D printing itself is still only viable in niche markets, 3D Hubs are working on some of the key problems that need to be solved if distributed 3D printing is going to become a viable service in broader markets, for example:
- A self-serve on-boarding process for providers, to allow the network to scale with minimal human intervention
- A quality assurance process that checks files for problems before they’re printed, and offers ‘Buyer Protection’ to give customers confidence to buy.
What are the barriers to mainstream success?
Ease of use
While the process is adequate for the professional markets the platform currently serves, this is a long way from being consumer-friendly. For example, the first step in the simplified process they outline on their How To page is: “Upload your 3D design in .STL or .OBJ format” 1. It’s likely that for mass adoption, consumers will not be willing to ‘upload’ anything, let alone be concerned with file formats. (Compare this with the user experience of sharing a photo to Facebook, which is still technically a file upload that expects a specific format.)
The platform’s success is tied to the development of 3D printing technology. While making inroads into many specialist areas of fabrication, it’s still early in its development cycle. And high-profile experiments by supermarket chains notwithstanding, we’re yet to see many compelling consumer needs for one-off, 3D printed products.
If demand increases in some markets, we could expect to see larger scale providers – maybe including supermarkets – with distributed infrastructure, offer a bureau service co-ordinated through a web-based platform, along these lines.
- OpenDesk: Building a network of local fabricators so that designs can be distributed digitally. Designing and managing a distributed manufacturing service so that customers have confidence in the quality of the product they can expect from an ad hoc network
- FabHub: Another network of digital fabricators
- Fictiv: A fabrication platform that distributes jobs through a network to maximise speed and efficiency