Uber connects drivers and riders. Airbnb does so for people with rooms and those who need a place to stay. Peer Munck wants to link 3-D printing outfits to the industrial economy.
Munck is CEO of Chicago-based 3Discovered, which aims to put firms with 3-D-printing capacity together with manufacturers that need components created, a line of plastic or metal at a time. The premise of the two-year-old company is the notion that a growing number of industrial concerns will turn to 3-D printing, or additive manufacturing, to meet demand for parts of all shapes, sizes and scales of complexity.
Via its 3-month-old website, printers bid on designs that manufacturers post, with 3Discovered taking a commission on each transaction. While there are other printing exchanges, 3Discovered thinks it has a first-mover advantage by specializing in industry. Printers, for example, sign an agreement limiting how they'll handle the designs they print, since manufacturers don't want that intellectual property to become public.
While this year's numbers are likely to be modest, Munck believes that within four or five years the firm could rake in “hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.” It's a tall order for a startup with just seven full-time employees. Shifting the patterns of industrial production is no easy task, even as 3-D printing quintuples from a $4.1 billion industry in 2014 to a more than $21 billion one by 2020, predicts consultancy Wohlers Associates. (That still would be a tiny percentage of the value for all manufactured goods in the U.S., which totaled $2 trillion in 2013, according to a March report from the Congressional Research Service.)
Many manufacturers “don't really want to work through a third party,” says Terry Wohlers, president of Fort Collins, Colo.-based Wohlers Associates. Automotive and aerospace manufacturers tend to have preferred suppliers, he notes. “Just getting enough traction from a customer standpoint is a challenge—getting enough business through the door.”
“A marketplace needs liquidity,” adds Mohanbir Sawhney, a clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management and director of its Center for Research in Technology and Innovation. 3Discovered “needs enough participants on both sides to make it viable.”
On the capacity side, the company has signed up 20 3-D printing firms and expects to have about 100 by year-end. One of them is Futurescape 3D of Sioux Falls, S.D. The company likes the ability to download a design and focus on the print, says Rob Hodgdon, operations manager. “It's nice to be able to receive something,” he says.
Julie Friedman Steele, who runs Chicago-based 3D Printer Experience, is wary about using middlemen. “We have found that people want that high-touch service with us,” she says.
Manufacturers using the service include Elk Grove Village, Ill.-based Revell Monogram, which wants additive specialists to print hard-to-get components for the model toys it sells. 3Discovered also has a letter of intent to bring a unit of Norwegian conglomerate 3D Scanning on board; the firm needs to source custom-made scrubbers that fit onto cruise-ship engines to reduce pollution.
It also has signed up Advanced Technology Services, a Peoria company that maintains factories for Caterpillar and Siemens, among others. The account is an early win for 3Discovered, since ATS has to keep about 125 industrial plants around the world functioning.
Mike Waltrip, vice president for industrial parts, service and supply chain at ATS, is responsible for making sure his firm can get 150,000 different parts to keep the company's client factories operational. So far, ATS has uploaded designs for about 50 parts, but that could increase to several hundred by next year.
The system, Waltrip says, lets the company quickly source components no longer sold on the open market, order small batches—most machine shops prefer bigger orders—and get improved parts in hand. “You're able to use the technology to work your way through the prototypes,” he says. “Before, you didn't have that flexibility.”
Still, to really make money, 3Discovered requires a lot of manufacturers ordering a lot of parts, not just a one-off replacement component here and there. The company needs, in effect, for the additive manufacturing revolution to take hold. Conventional manufacturing is still cheaper and more efficient, Northwestern's Sawhney says.
Munck, 59, is willing to wait. He compares 3Discovered's position to a surfer on a board, waiting for the wave. “If that biggest wave comes seven waves from now or three waves from now, that's fine,” he says. “We're pointed in the right direction.” Presumably, the surfboard was made by a 3-D printer.