In a packed conference room at CES 2015, 3D Hubs CEO Bram de Zwart was already thinking about the bigger picture, the promise that 3D printing could “change the way we manufacture and distribute products by creating a future where we make products very close to the end user and on demand.”
Back then, the Amsterdam founded start-up had already amassed the world’s largest network of 3D printers with thousands of machines, many of them desktop, registered on the platform. Today, it goes beyond 3D printing, with four manufacturing technologies now offered via its online network and around 145,000 engineers served.
“The vision remains the same,” de Zwart told TCT, reflecting on those early ambitions. “We believe that an online platform can accelerate the future of decentralised manufacturing, which we believe is a lot more efficient as it removes a lot of waste from transportation, inventory and overproduction and you can increase the utilisation of manufacturing equipment around the globe.”
Since its founding in 2013, the company is said to have facilitated production of over 7 million custom parts and products through its instant quoting platform with industrial manufacturing services in over 20 countries. Last year, the company continued its expansion with the opening of its third location in Europe following the setup of a regional HQ in Chicago and investment from Future Shape led by leading tech inventor Tony Fadell in 2019. Then, in January, the company entered into a new phase, spurred on by an acquisition by digital manufacturing leader Protolabs for a closing consideration of 280 million USD and shedding the ‘3D’ from its brand to become simply, Hubs.
“We collaborate where we see opportunities to learn from each other,” de Zwart said of the acquisition. “As Hubs, we bring a lot of experience with the online marketplace concept working with outside manufacturing partners. Protolabs has a huge amount of manufacturing knowledge that we didn’t have, we never [did] any of the manufacturing ourselves, we were really focused on building the platform and then relied on our partners for manufacturing. We as a team are learning a lot in that area as well and that allows us to make our platform better for our customers and manufacturing partners. […] I truly believe that one plus one can become three here.”
The combination of Protolabs’ established manufacturing capacity and Hubs’ platform experience will, according to Protolabs President and CEO Rob Bodor, allow the two to “fulfil nearly every custom manufacturing need across the product lifecycle.” The ability to offer different manufacturing processes is something Hubs has been building on since it first turned its attention from desktop printer owners and consumers to a more industrial-focused approach, and now sees the network providing not only 3D printing but CNC machining, sheet metal fabrication and injection moulding across its 240 certified manufacturing partners.
“3D printing is often just a component in a larger assembly if you’re moving towards end parts and not just prototyping,” de Zwart explained. “It’s just a much better experience for customers if they can use us as a one stop shop. They can get all of their part needs fulfilled by us instead of having to go to different suppliers or platforms. By doing this, we can also help the customer a little bit and guide them in the right direction because they may not always know what is the right technology or material for their particular application.”
That said, 3D printing is still a big part of Hubs’ offering. According to Hubs’ annual manufacturing report, 54% of engineering businesses said they increased their usage of 3D printing for functional end-use parts in 2020 while 30% maintained their usage that year. This year, however, 73% of those surveyed predict they will produce or source more 3D printed parts compared to 2020. Given this growing trend towards production and recent emphasis on challenges in supply chain, de Zwart’s comments from his 2015 presentation suddenly feel more relevant than ever.
“The vulnerability of supply chains was exposed quite clearly and I think people start realising the benefits of the manufacturing network model that we have, where we have manufacturing partners in 20 different countries on three different continents which allows us to smartly reroute orders if needed due to things like global pandemics but also other things like escalating trade wars, national holidays, natural disasters,” de Zwart said. “There can be many reasons in supply chain why you want to shift some of your production elsewhere, at least temporarily, and that’s something that we enable.”
De Zwart elaborated to say that this flexibility can be particularly valuable to SMEs: “Larger enterprises, they probably have the resources to build these supply chains themselves but small to medium sized businesses, they often don’t. So that’s where we can come in very handy. We have already built that. We have strong relationships with these premium manufacturing partners and so they don’t have to build that, they can get the same supply chain resilience as a large enterprise without the investment.”
But de Zwart believes there’s also another trend that has been brought to the forefront, and that is the shift towards B2B commerce and the digitisation of the manufacturing market, something the co-founder is as enthusiastic about today as he was back in that conference room in 2015.
“The market is moving online,” de Zwart concludes. “Manufacturing is a massive industry but it’s one of the last ones to really go through this transition and I think it’s going to be really exciting.”
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