Last week was CES, the Consumer and Electronics Show held annually in Las Vegas. Amid the usual breathless fawning over TV’s that were a bit bigger (and everything else that was a bit smaller) than the same time last year, newspapers and tech blogs were falling over themselves to show the Cube, “the first 3D printer designed for your home”. Sorry, that should be the Cube™, because 3D Systems have evidently come up with such a great name, they want to make sure everyone else knows they’ve trademarked it.
The Cubify™ Cube™ © 3D Systems®
Journalists and bloggers who are more used to writing about the latest cellphone have at least some excuse for merely repeating the claims of the Cubify press release without really understanding what they’re writing. Journalists and bloggers who write about 3D printing have no excuses. But what amazed me, when reading about the launch of the Cube (and Cubify, the ecosystem which surrounds it), was how accepting and uncritical the reports were (Fabaloo was a notable exception, and at least asked some questions, even if the answers weren’t available). It’s like no-one ever heard of Shapeways, or Makerbot, or iMaterialise or Fab@Home, or any of the other machines and systems which have preceded the Cube. So, here’s a rather more critical report on 3D Systems jump into the consumer market.
The Cubify website and service is still in beta, so it’s difficult to judge some of the elements. Still, most of last week’s press concentrated on three areas: the printer, the prints it produces, and the community who will start using the service, so I’ll do the same.
One of the things that really surprised me about the Cube launch was how no-one picked up on its ‘similarity’ to the Up! printer.
The Cube © 3D Systems
The totally unrelated Up! © Delta Micro Factory Corporation
No-one except Up! printer users that is, who were wondering at 3D Systems’ “blatant copying.” I appreciate irony, and the fact that a Chinese company is being ripped off by an American one does strike me as kind of funny. But what’s sad is that a machine which is supposedly the first 3D printer for your home is so boring, and so poorly considered. I don’t think anyone would claim the Up! printer is a thing of beauty – it’s brazenly utilitarian and clearly looks more suited to a garage or workshop than a home. But at least it’s honest. Whereas the Cube is basically an Up! printer, shrink wrapped in plastic with a few fillets applied, masquerading as a consumer product. It doesn’t try to reconsider what a 3D printer could look like, how it might relate to and be perceived by its users (unlike the Origo, for example); and it certainly doesn’t consider the environment it’s supposedly designed for. Is the Cube meant to go in the bedroom, the kitchen, the study, the bathroom? From it’s design, I’ve no idea.
In other words, the Cube doesn’t push the boundaries in any sense. Except one, which is that the Cube is the only low cost 3D printer which uses cartridges instead of a spool of material. Admittedly it makes the product look less like a kit of parts, though the claim that this makes the material easy to load might be questionable – as far as I can tell the material still needs to be threaded to the print head nozzle. What it does offer, of course, is the possibility to restrict the use of third party material suppliers, in much the same way that manufacturers of consumer ink-jet printers do. This is standard practice in the world of expensive machines that 3D Systems comes from, and it may explain how they’re able to sell the Cube at $1299, a relatively low price compared to rival machines. At the moment Cubify is offering a single cartridge at $49.99; there’s no indication of how much material a cartridge holds, but it looks much thinner than a standard 1kg spool, which typically retails for about the same price. If that is Cubify’s business model, it will be interesting to see the extent to which it’s accepted, especially by the potential market who are yet to purchase a 3D printer.
It’s that potential market which also makes the final point about the design of the printer interesting. Without exception, I’d suggest, all machines currently on the market that might be considered rivals to the Cube are what can be described as ‘hobbyist’. Some, such as the Rep Rap incarnations, are open source, others are not, but they all assume that the person using the machine will have the interest (and skill) to tweak and modify the machine’s performance, either through software or hardware (and typically both). Even the Up! printer, which most people claim is the closest anyone’s got to an ‘it just works’ device, has discussions on its message boards about calibration, nozzle temperature and hacking the speed of the onboard fan. Amongst the general population who actually know what 3D printing is, I’m sure there are some who would like to get involved, but are put off by the expertise needed to get a machine up and running. A true ‘plug-and-play’ 3D printer would likely attract a lot of customers, but the question is whether the machine will live up to that reality. If it doesn’t, I suspect that 3D Systems’ will have a lot of disgruntled users.
Cube sample prints © 3D Systems
Cubify claims a Z-axis layer thickness of 125 microns (0.125mm), which if achievable is very good. Most printers in the same market space achieve somewhere between 0.2 and 0.3mm. But is it realistic? The press release image above is one that I’ve seen on a lot of different websites, and the printed objects don’t look bad, even if (or maybe because) they are out of focus. But here’s one that got much less publicity:
Cube sample print © 3D Systems
I think it was also a press release image, though I can’t find it on the Cubify site now. And to be honest that’s not surprising, because if that’s the quality that the Cube can achieve, it’s very disappointing. It’s certainly not up to the standard that can be achieved with other machines, and what’s more, because the Cube is a closed system, no-one will have the options to improve the print that they might have with a rival printer. Here’s another image, showing the Cube in action at CES, and it’s even less impressive.
Cube sample being printed at CES © The Verge. Click for larger image
I’m not sure why these prints are so bad, given the claim of a Z-axis resolution of around double what the Cube’s rivals can achieve. Maybe the XY-axis resolution is much poorer (it’s not given in the specification). Maybe the printers themselves should still be considered as beta releases, and when they’re launched we’ll see much better results. What’s clear is that the specs won’t count for much if the machines can’t deliver.
There were a number of samples on show at CES which were much better quality though. Here’s one, a shoe from Freedom of Creation:
Not a Cube sample © The Verge. Click for larger image
The reason it’s much better quality, of course, is that it wasn’t made on a Cube printer. Not being at CES, I have no idea how these products were being talked about. But I’ve seen them on a number of websites where there’s no indication that they were made by an entirely different machine and process. This image is from The Verge, which shows it alongside prints which did come from the Cube, under the headline “Cubify 3D printers and product sample images.” And here’s a CNET interview with Rajeev Kulkarni of 3D Systems, who does a very poor job of explaining the difference between the product samples he’s showing.
To be clear, I’m not trying to suggest that this was a deliberate ploy by 3D Systems. I’m certain it was much more to do with a poorly conceived and naively executed communications strategy. But this is one of the big hurdles that 3D Systems is going to have to overcome. The company is used to dealing business-to-business, with one-to-one interactions between sales staff and purchasers, many of whom have ongoing relationships. Generally the people buying the machines won’t be spending their own money, and may not even be the ones who actually use the machines. Dealing business-to-consumer is altogether different. Right now I don’t see much indication that 3D Systems fully grasp that.
I’ve been involved with a number of companies who’ve moved from a focus on technology to a focus on consumers; some of them have done it well, and some have done it shockingly badly. The very worst have seemingly no perspective about how they are perceived, and come across embarrassingly like your dad trying to talk like a teenager to impress your sister’s girlfriends. Does anyone other than 3D Systems think that LL Cool J is cool any more?
It’s hard enough when all you’re trying to do is make your product appeal to an audience you’ve never engaged with before. It’s even harder when you feel the need to build a ‘community’ around a name that no-one’s ever heard of. 3D Systems have jumped right in, with not entirely convincing results.
“Absolutely loved sharing my ideas with the Cubify™ community and making my dream of creating my own toy come true! Cubify™ rocks!”
says Max Freeman, who apparently uses TM symbols in every day speech. Over on the ‘Community’ page, a wall of mostly blank faces is punctuated by Deelip Menezes, who tells us
“I love my woman, my wine and my work, not necessarily in that order.”
Wow, you’re so, like, awesome Deelip. What you don’t tell us though, is that you’re actually a Cubify employee. Oh, and you’ve trademarked your name.
The Cubify Wall © 3D Systems. Click for larger image
My point here isn’t just to take the piss. It’s to show how easy it is to ridicule attempts to engineer ‘community’, especially when they’re bogus. And I’m not the only one to spot it, in fact my attention was drawn by this post on Core77, where the author, talking about the Cubify community wall wonders about being
“met with a pointless wall of headshots of different users, and many of them stock silhouettes to boot. Am I meant to click on people’s faces that I like in order to see what they’ve made?”
It just feels so false, so like a big company trying to get in on something that’s still relatively unknown, but without any real understanding of what that ‘something’ is.
The Core77 post also picks up on the Cubify Store, and it’s here that the ‘community’ idea really starts to be stretched thin. On Core77 the author compares the store to Thingiverse, where members upload designs and share them for free. That’s not to say that an open source approach is the only valid one, Shapeways and Ponoko have vibrant communities of users, some of whom sell their designs and some who make them freely available. But on Cubify, the only option is to sell your work, either that, or don’t share it at all. And it’s not only model files for 3D prints, there’s even a section where you can buy pictures of models of 3D prints. It all seems so desperate, so money-grabbing, and so predictable. I can even picture the meeting in some bland, reservable-on-Outlook meeting room where people got ‘energised’ as they ‘thought outside the box’ on ways to ‘monetize the offering’.
But maybe none of this matters, maybe the experience of using Cubify to upload and buy a model is so great that it blows all the already existing systems away. Surely that was a possibility? And so I signed up to try things out: here’s the page I was presented with when trying to upload a part:
Cubify model upload © 3D Systems. Click for larger image
There’s a few mandatory sections to fill: the name, the category of product, the units of measurement etc. Another compulsory section is the price, but since I didn’t want to offer my model for sale I put in $0.00. But this isn’t allowed, the minimum price I can sell my model which I don’t want to sell is $4.99. Even deselecting the ‘Sellable’ checkbox and choosing ‘Private’ as the model’s status doesn’t change this. There’s more compulsory sections: a short description, a long description (my long description of a product I don’t want anyone else to see or buy was shorter than the short description, but apparently that’s okay), and tags. Finally, I got to choose the model file I wanted to submit, and hit send. But there’s a problem – it’s also compulsory that I provide an image (of a model I don’t want anyone else to see or buy). No automated image generation, let alone an automated interactive model, like you’d see on Shapeways or Google 3D Warehouse. And so at that point I gave up. In any case, from the models on show in the gallery at the moment it seems the only material options are ‘strong white plastic’ and ‘glossy smooth plastic’. No, I don’t know whether that’s ABS or nylon or PMMA, it’s all the same isn’t it?
3D Systems aren’t Apple, that’s obvious. In truth, they’re not even LG. To the vast majority of people outside the additive manufacturing industry, 3D Systems are totally unknown. On the one hand that’s a bad thing, but on the other it’s an incredible opportunity. It means that 3D Systems had the chance to create a brand that could be absolutely anything they wanted, in tone, in appearance, in its offering and promise. Judging by the Cubify website, what they wanted was David Brent.
Cubify pre-launch teaser © 3D Systems. Click for larger image
The way to launch a product successfully isn’t difficult to understand, though obviously it can be difficult to achieve. There’s three stages: build-up, launch and sale, and three tasks: build the hype, over-deliver on the hype, sell. Apple are masters at this cycle by building excitement without revealing what the excitement is about, then showing something that surprises everyone, and then by making it available to buy the next day. If you look at some of the pre-launch PR that 3D Systems were putting about before CES you’ll see that’s what they were trying to do. But it failed, for easy to understand reasons. Everyone knew what 3D Systems were going to be showing at CES – they’d already shown pictures of the Cube and told people what it was. There was no spectacular wow that nobody was expecting. There wasn’t even an award, despite concerted efforts to get people to vote for a product they’d never used, as if winning somehow proved something. Although actually a 3D Printer did win an award – the Makerbot Replicator took ‘Best Emerging Tech’, though you wouldn’t know it from the Cubify blog, which seems to be claiming it won four awards including ‘Best of Show’. [Edit: the blog entry has changed to read "4 Awards and/or “Best of the Show”] And what if you actually want to buy a Cube printer? Cubify will be “taking orders soon”. I sense a deadline that was decided a long time ago, and a project that failed to deliver.
Makerbot Replicator two-colour printer, which did win an award at CES © Makerbot.
Click for larger image
If you’ve looked at the Cubify website you might have noticed one area that I haven’t touched on, which is the Cubify API. This is the part of the 3D Systems launch strategy which really confuses me, because in there are the ideas that might really be different, that might really change things. As far as I can tell, the concept is to offer a platform where developers can create apps which allow consumers to modify or create 3D models. A bit like the i.materialise Creation Corner, but on a much bigger and more open scale. Instead of just being able to upload models, there would be the option to upload modelling tools, and to earn revenue every time someone used one. For the consumer, rather than just choosing a model, you’d choose a model and then choose from a menu of apps giving you different ways to customise it. But where is the fanfare around this idea? Most of the API page isn’t even ready, there are no apps available in the store, and the only example isn’t on the API page, but the ‘Creative Partners’ page. It’s hardly surprising that almost no-one is talking about this aspect of Cubify.
And so, finally, what about all those TM signs? You might have noticed in this post that they annoy me, and I’ll admit it. If you go to the Cubify home page you’ll see 10 of them, including one claim, apparently, to have trademarked ’3D’ (though the USPTO have no record of it). I’ve no idea how many there are across the whole site. What annoys me is it’s so corporate, so desperate to grab IPR, whilst at the same time trying to appear cutting edge, as if ‘Cube’ is a word that the rest of us will all be wanting to copy. On the one hand trying to build a ‘community’ and on the other saying “don’t touch our property”. The result is it comes across as not having a clue. There’s no requirement to display a TM sign for the mark to be protected, so why are they there? I really pity the industrial designer who has to design the next model of printer. Because I know, without a doubt, somewhere in the brief there’ll be a line that says something like “our community love the Cube™”, and no hope of doing anything that isn’t.