Venture capital-funded Carbon3D introduced the hotly anticipated M1 3D printer on Friday. It's a revolutionary professional 3D printer that's anywhere from 25 to 100 times faster than anything before it. The plastic parts from the M1 have an injection molding-like quality and smoothness that's ideal for testing prototypes and low-volume manufacturing. The M1 can produce parts as large as 144 x 81 x 330 millimeters.
This is the type of 3D printer that can reshape the industry and drive greater adoption in professional and industrial markets. It's the exact reason why Carbon3D is considered a threat to 3D Systems (NYSE:DDD) and Stratasys (NASDAQ:SSYS).
Crossing the chasm
Carbon3D's M1 addresses two major shortcomings associated with 3D printing today: speed and surface finish. They're considered some of the biggest reasons why 3D printing hasn't yet "crossed the chasm" as a prototyping technology to a game-changing manufacturing solution.
What sets the M1 apart from the competition is its proprietary technology called CLIP -- continuous liquid interface production. The continuous part means that the M1 doesn't pause to reorient itself between printing layers like every other mainstream technology on the market does. This gives CLIP a structural advantage over other 3D printing technologies that are physically limited by having to pause between layers.
CLIP's superior speed means that designers can iterate prototypes more quickly and bring products to market faster. Shorter product development cycles save on costs and can improve a company's competitiveness by potentially gaining a first-mover advantage in the marketplace. Faster printing times also make lower-volume manufacturing more economical because fewer printers are required to reach production targets and timelines.
A variety of materials
The M1 is currently compatible with seven resins that harden when exposed to UV rays during the printing process. M1 parts can be printed with a wide range of properties, including flexibility, elasticity, stiffness, heat resistance, and toughness. This is not to be confused with a multimaterial printer that can print parts with varying properties during the same print. The M1 can only print with one material during a print job.
3D Systems and Stratasys both offer multimaterial 3D printers, but they're considered more specialized for late-stage prototyping, often used right before a design is sent off to manufacturing. The M1 likely appeals to a wider audience because it's well suited for varying stages of prototyping and even some low-volume manufacturing.
A potential drawback
CLIP has only existed since 2013. Other leading 3D printing technologies and the parts they produce have been around for over a decade and sometimes longer. Terry Wohlers of the 3D printing insights firm Wohlers Associates told Bloomberg that the plastic parts the M1 produces "tend to degrade over time, which is why they're not used for the manufacturing of most products that use plastics." This suggests that the M1 may still be far from crossing the chasm into manufacturing, which happens to be a key selling point of the platform.
An industry-first business model
Carbon3D will not be selling M1's in the conventional sense. Users who want access to the M1 will have to purchase a three-year minimum subscription for $40,000 per year. This covers onsite servicing and allows users to upgrade when successors are released. It doesn't include the $10,000 installation fee or the $12,000 "required unless comparable items are owned" accessories pack. Extra build platforms and "window cassettes" that regulate the printing process cost a respective $750 and $5,000 each per year. The total cost of ownership could easily surpass six figures a year per printer after printing materials are factored in.
3D Systems' and Stratasys' professional 3D printers often cost well over six figures. Carbon3D claims that its subscription-only business model reduces overhead associated with the traditional high upfront costs of purchasing professional-grade 3D printers and complexity of warranty service agreements.
The other major reason for the subscription model is to support the continued development of the M1's hardware and software ecosystem. The M1 is Internet-connected and each printer can produce over one million data points per day. These data points allow Carbon3D to remotely monitor M1s in the field for issues, and also help improve the user experience through future software updates that expand capabilities and enhance print quality.
A promising start
Carbon3D has raised $141 million since its founding from highly respected venture capital firms as well as tech heavyweights Google and Autodesk. This large cash hoard and serious intellectual backing makes it safe to assume that Carbon3D did its homework when it decided to adopt a subscription business model. Carbon3D is essentially betting that the high cost of professional 3D printer ownership is limiting adoption in the marketplace today.
It's too early to say if Carbon3D's subscription model is brilliant or completely misses the mark. On one hand, the M1's long-term operating costs are likely to exceed even the costliest of 3D printers, which could limit adoption among larger 3D printing users. On the other, the M1 is technologically superior to all other technologies for a significantly lower upfront investment, which could be exactly what the market and prospective 3D printing users has been waiting for.
Ultimately, if the M1 and its subscription plan proves to be successful, 3D Systems and Stratasys may be left catching up to the new industry pacesetter.
Editor's note: Carbon3D co-founder and CEO Joseph DeSimone has refuted Terry Wohlers' statement to Bloomberg, quoted above, that CLIP parts tend to degrade over time. The Fool hopes to discuss the matter with Carbon3D to clarify the discrepancy, and to address it in a follow-up article. The link will be posted here when it becomes available.