Printrbot Post Mortem

For many people, Printrbot was their first 3D printer. What started out as [Brook Drumm’s] Kickstarter idea to make 50 printers turned into over a thousand orders backlogged. To quote [Brook], they went from zero sales to about two million in the first year and then twelve million a few years later. As is often the case, though, the rapid scale-up didn’t survive a drop in sales. [Thomas Sanladerer] has a great interview video with [Brook] and you can see it below.

It is both nostalgic and sad to see the Printrbot headquarters all empty with quiet machines. [Brook] was always one of us and often gave back to the community and it is interesting to hear his perspective about what brought his company to an end.

Predictably, one of the villains in the story was cheap imports. Of course, other companies have found ways — at least so far — to survive that, so that can’t be the whole story. Can’t help, either, though. [Brook] tried to make as much as he could locally and while that’s great for quality control it isn’t always great for costs. The truth is, this isn’t a new story. It is often difficult for young companies to survive a big surge that doesn’t sustain itself.

At the end [Brook] says he’s down but not out and hopes to start another 3D printing company in the future. If you ever owned a Printrbot, or you want a glimpse into what life is like after your Kickstarter catches on fire and then burns itself out, you’ll want to watch the video.

We covered the Printrbot closing, of course, but this interview is a fitting eulogy from [Brook] himself. If you want to rewind back to the heady days in 2011 when Printrbot was born, we covered that, too.

47 thoughts on “Printrbot Post Mortem

  1. It seems to be a common story that an explosive growth ends In disaster. Lots of good products, ideas and people get kicked to the curb.

    I wish all the best to those involved for future ventures.

    1. It’s kind of the nature that anything that booms will slow down at some point and companies should really be as prepared to downsize as quickly as they are to upsize.Or to pivot to other products. It is wrong thinking to expect only growth or describe the normal tailing off of demand as a failure. The only issue is how you handle that, and a company going out of business for the people to go on to do other things is often a reasonable path.

      1. “It’s kind of the nature that anything that booms will slow down at some point and companies should really be as prepared to downsize as quickly as they are to upsize. Or to pivot to other products. ”

        Yup. When the funeral business falls off, and people stop dying, a business has to be prepared. Maybe go into the recycling business?

          1. [Discussion of the mysterious Slurm Cola]
            Leela: This all must have something to do with the secret ingredient.
            Fry: My God, what if the secret ingredient is people?
            Leela: No, there’s already a soda like that – Soylent Cola.
            Fry: Oh. How is it?
            Leela: It varies from person to person.

      2. Picking a comfortable size goal and resisting the temptation to find the asymptote has been Yvon Chouinard’s secret sauce that keeps Patagonia (outdoor wear) alive and profitable. I wonder if/how many tech-based startups have tried that?

        1. Choinard had the enormous advantage of starting Patagonia in the 60’s, where he had the ability to start it off slow in a smallish community of customers who heard about him by word of mouth. I’m not entirely sure you can even try that model today, in an environment where just about any technological advance can be replicated at an industrial scale within days…

    2. Except that wasn’t the issue at all. Brook wanted to high-end printers to his low-end market. His first printers $350-$800, the metal run $500-$1000. That was his market. Then he has the bright idea to go high-end parts, new boards, and cloud services, WTF? Why? Instead of off the shelf, cheap, Octopi, he builds the same thing from the ground up. Sending the prices soaring! From $500-$1000+ for the simple and from $1000-$3200+ for the Plus! He flat out priced himself out of the market. His customers tried to warn him. Why get a $3200 Plus, over a $380 CR-10?

        1. I wanted a delta printer kit with a decent build volume, and linear slides. I could get an Artemis from SeeMeCNC for about $2000, or I could get the Anycubic Kossel Plus Linear for ~$250.

          There is no question that the Artemis is the superior product, with a better out-of-the-box experience. The problem is that for me at least, the difference was not worth spending nearly an order of magnitude more.

  2. ” [Brook] tried to make as much as he could locally and while that’s great for quality control it isn’t always great for costs.”

    Should have knocked on pres. Trump’s door, I guess?

    1. Bullshit. Brook went to high-end on his “Pro” run. You can’t double or triple the price and wonder why the market vanished! Trump wants stuff made in America and is trying to help companies like Printrbot. Do you think before you type or has TDS drove you insane?

  3. I initially backed printrbot on kickstarter but I was able to get a refund on my credit card because it was like a year late (I ended up building my own from parts for the same price) … note: I don’t think it is possible to do charge backs for kickstarters anymore

    1. Isn’t that kind of the point of Kickstarter, that the project might fail? People bitching about something not coming to fruition and getting their money back sours me to the whole crowdfunding thing.

      1. Well, yes. Kinda.

        Where it gets hairy is when they promise the product they’re developing as a backer reward, since they in _theory_ are required to deliver rewards regardless of the projects success past funding.

  4. Yes, as Brook scaled up to meet demand just as his sales fell off due to price. Personally I think his innovating got in the way of seeing that trend coming. He kept himself busy with new products ( I would have done the same ), many of which were experiments or did not fit consumer expectations. It still will be a loooooong time before click to print will really be consumer ready. I think Dremel and the other printer makers will soon find this out.

    1. As much as I enjoyed all the experiments and short-run products PrintrBot came out with, in the end it definitely didn’t help matters. PB had two excellent printers in the Simple Metal and Play. If they had simply stuck with those and increased reliability while dropping cost from volume and improved manufacturing techniques, they could have been very competitive.

      1. There’s a lot of work in process (WIP) on those shelves. That doesn’t make sense to me because if they are building everything there, they could do a more just-in-time production, and they wouldn’t have so much money tied up in WIP. There also seemed to be a fair number of things that I doubt they needed to buy. For example, why do they need a waterjet? Shouldn’t that function have been outsourced?

        1. When orders start to decline it’s pretty common to build extra product just to keep everyone employed.

          I’ve always tried to keep an eye on things like that and start heading for the door out early. Take any unused vacation time and use it to find a new gig. It’s easier to stay amicable with the boss when you are the on to come and say, “the greatest thing happened…. I have an exciting new opportunity to…”

      2. This is a classic entrepreneurship trap – the transition from startup to scale, which is the transition from small-volume, low profit products that are very market-responsive to a few profitable ones that take advantages of the economies of scale but change direction slowly. A lot of companies with otherwise good products die in that canyon.

        That said, I have an un-touched Simple Metal sitting on a bench (haven’t had time to properly fire it up), so fingers crossed that the “excellent” part works out.

  5. Seems like a nice guy with a bad business model. You can’t make expensive machines without more bells and whistles than the cheaper companies. There are other American companies that also produce 3d printers that are doing fine so blaming it all on just cheap imports or aesthetics is fairly silly. And while it really sucks that they are going out of business, we consumers should feel fairly lucky that the competition is so great that the cost is so low and the accessibility so high for such amazing machines.

    1. I don’t think that he ever intended to be a big company. I don’t think that he wanted to go back to building them in his garage. or even if he could, he might owe too much to the bank to be able to make it.

  6. “Predictably, one of the villains in the story was cheap imports. Of course, other companies have found ways — at least so far — to survive that, so that can’t be the whole story. ”

    Being first is like playing Vegas. You invest big starting out, and you’re there to collect your winnings when it comes through. Otherwise your big bet, ends up a big bomb, and you go home. So you bet smaller, and have less to lose, and miss any big winnings.

    1. Or, you don’t put all your money on the wheel of fortune, and instead play blackjack or poker instead.

      Trying to keep up with the hype curve leads to boom and bust. First you scramble to keep up with the demand, then you crash down when people realize it was a fad and all they got was overpriced junk. It’s not a winning bet.

      Instead, you make a product, sell it, and when demand goes up you up the price first instead of trying to cater to the demand. If the demand stays up, then you start making more before your rivals do.

  7. RigidBot is another 3d printer Kickstarter (https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1650950769/rigidbot-3d-printer) with a sad ending. Most printers ended up getting deliveredm but there were various issues with quality control and then shipping/export/import issues. Michael ended up putting a lot of his personal assets on the line, and ended up losing everything.

    It was my first 3d printer and was/is finicky, but I don’t regret backing it. I learned a lot from it. I feel really bad for the creator and the way things turned out for him.

    1. I have a ridgidbot that I purchased as a kit as well. Very steep learning curve, doubly so because I bought it minus the electronics. But it was a great platform to learn from and add on to. I have a dual head kit that I need to put on, and I keep meaning to build it into an acrylic enclosure…

      I never found it as useful as I thought that it would be, unfortunately.

  8. I feel a bit guilty as I bought a Printrbot Simple Metal kit as my first printer, worked fairly well. The bed wasn’t all that flat, didn’t have the heated bed either. Kept intending to purchase the upgrades to solve my woes but the price always felt higher than I was willing to spend. As time marched on the prices of other printers that had what I wanted got lower than the upgrades would cost (at the time). Purchased other printers and let my Printrbot sit idle and retired.

    1. I added a bunch of aftermarket extras to mine, heated bed, z-axis extension, etc…

      My Tevo Tornado worked better out of the box after leveling the bed on my first print and cost half as much with a print area of 12″x12″x15″.

      Still, did lots of great projects on my printrbot simple metal.

  9. I appreciate his honesty. Mistakes are the only lessons that can be taught.
    “Buy OSHW” is the new “Buy Locally”.
    3D printers will not be commercial devices until the entire experience is refined to a “Print in 3D” button. Consumers purchase power-strips, vacuum cleaners, 3-ring binders, etc. All manner of devices that aren’t sexy, but useful. Even the most useful 3D printers today are only slightly more useful than a man-bun.

  10. I backed Printerbot in the beginning (#25). After long delays, it finally arrived but suffered with Q.C. problems, parts didn’t fit or separation in part layers, poor initial instructions. I guess I expected too much from a low cost unit. Collecting dust on an old project desk.

  11. This was Brook’s first manufacturing company I guess. He learned a lot I am sure and his next endeavor will be exciting. He was successful in moving 3D printer into mainstream. 3D printing is just a standard tool for me now and I tremendously enjoy designing things for 3D printing. Thanks for that Brook.

  12. I preordered a metal plus on black Friday 2014. Received it a few months later. I was watching as the UPS guy brought it in and then dropped it to the ground. The box had inadequate support under the machine and the Y axis hardware was damaged. After weeks of work and limited support from Printrbot, I got it working. I guess I blame both UPS and Printrbot for the trouble. The good news is that it is still working today, and I still enjoy watching objects appear as if by magic.

  13. Hmmm….I don’t know the numbers, but when you say anything from ‘cheap imports’, maybee you should mention too, how many printrbots are beeing exportet to other countries.

    I think it’s really good that he brings a manual how to use the printer without cloud and want to open all documentation. So it’s not a product that dies after the company died like so many things with ‘cloud’.

  14. Oh no!! My printrbot play is still my workhorse. But I can forget about spare parts now :( I would have ordered another head if I’d known :'(

    But at least I did order the hear bed upgrade in time. I thought it was weird there were almost no printers for sale anymore then.

    I’ll better download all the user documents while it’s still up!!

    1. Too late :( The website is gone.

      Would anyone know if docs can still be found? I know about archive.org (waybackmachine) but I doubt it’ll have all the PDFs.

      Well, I’ll see anyway.

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