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Thinking about new market opportunities case study: 3D printed figurines

Regular readers will know that I’m excited about the emerging opportunities that 3D printing technologies are enabling. In fact I’ve been looking for an investment in this area for nearly two years now. My first thought was that falling costs and rising quality would unlock opportunities in the consumer space, but none of the opportunities we have looked at worked out, mostly because the use cases weren’t compelling enough or were too niche.

Now that you have that background you will understand that when I saw the headline 3D printing ‘photo booths’ popping up across the world I clicked straight through. The article, which is on the excellent Singularity Hub, rightly notes that there has been a lot of talk about 3D printing this year, and that ‘tech experts are still looking for something that will signal the technology’s best bet to transition from hype to mainstream application’. I’m with them up to that point, but then they say ‘Today, one application seems poised to accomplish this. Call it 3D printed figurines, personal miniatures, or photo sculptures’.

That is where I think they got it wrong. Here’s why.

When I’m assessing the market opportunity for new products I like to ask two questions:

  1. What do people do at the moment which suggests they will want the new product?
  2. What spend or activity will the new product displace?

Strong answers to these questions suggests that there will be demand for the product. There are a host of other questions that follow, not least ‘can it be profitably sold at a sensible price point?’ but with good answers here you have got something to work with.

Some examples:

  • Streaming music services:
    1. people already listened to music so they should like a new more convenient service better
    2. the activity and spend to be displaced was spending money on downloads and CDs and listening to MP3 players and traditional stereos
  • Twitter:
    1. people have always devoted significant time and money on showing their friends how cool/connected/intelligent they are and staying up to date with news and what their friends are doing
    2. the activity to be displaced was inefficient surfing of the web, writing of personal blogs, and sending of emails
  • Enterprise software products (generic)
    1. in most new product categories demand is evident because companies have hacked together custom solutions
    2. the spend to be displaced is money given to custom developers and systems integrators

I think 3D figurines are very cool, and I can see myself giving them as presents and maybe even buying one for myself, but when I apply these questions I come up blank. I can’t think of anything people do that suggest they really need 3D printed figurines and I can’t think of any spend that could be displaced. I would bet that when people are buying figurines the money is coming from their discretionary pot. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t indicate to me that there is a sustainable market here. My guess is that at best we might see a fad where lots of us give these figurines as presents for a short while, but then the novelty will where off and we will be onto the next thing. I also don’t think the quality is great and hence the novelty value will be short lived.

  • http://twitter.com/credizian Keshav Malani

    Your article puts more focus on one application of 3D printing but as 3D printing become a bit more prolific (e.g. Staples plans to have 3D printers available in stores) but a big positive for 3D printing is from the entrepreneurial side where prototypes can be made more easily.

    I realize it may not align with your questions perfectly but couldn’t a response be:
    1) People have a lot of ideas for products that can’t be brought to fruition due to capital limitations of having a prototype made at manufactures (casting costs, etc.)
    2) Prototyping costs associated with sending designs to manufacturers who need to set-up a new process for individual designs

  • http://twitter.com/credizian Keshav Malani

    BTW really enjoy your blog! :)

  • http://www.theequitykicker.com brisbourne

    Prototyping is a use case for 3D printing that does work, and in fact has been working for 20-30 years at increasing scale. I should have said that.

  • Keshav Malani

    I didn’t realize they have been using it for that long. Thanks!