With consumer demand soft, 3-D printing goes back to school

To reach consumers, MakerBot had opened retail outlets, including this one in Boston.
To reach consumers, MakerBot had opened retail outlets, including this one in Boston.

A few years ago, 3-D printers were touted as the hottest new gadget by the technology world’s early adopters.

Regular people, it turns out, were less excited by the idea of a device that could turn gobs of melted plastic into toys, art, and spare parts for their broken appliances.

The gap between startup hype and market reality has been best reflected by New York-based MakerBot. Founded in 2009, the company offered one of the first mass-market desktop 3-D printers and raised $10 million from venture investors including Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

In 2013, MakerBot was acquired by industrial prototyping company Stratasys Ltd. for about $400 million. But earlier this year, after reporting that sales of the consumer-friendly devices were slower than expected, Stratasys wrote down the value of MakerBot by $194 million.

Stratasys also shut down its MakerBot retail storefronts, including one on Boston’s tony Newbury Street, and appointed a new chief executive of the subsidiary, Jonathan Jaglom, to help turn it around.

Jaglom was in Boston this week as part of a 22-state “listening tour” of large MakerBot customers, meant to help him refocus the company on more lucrative markets, particularly education.

MakerBot is hoping to follow a pattern established in the PC era, when schools and libraries installed desktop computers several years before most consumers brought one home. “We see that analogy taking place also in the 3-D printing space,” Jaglom said.

MakerBot’s products are typical of the 3-D printers that have emerged over the past several years. Starting with a software mockup, the printer head traces the form of a physical object while laying down tiny layers of melted plastic, which harden at room temperature.

Industrial designers and engineers in fields like auto manufacturing have used heavy-duty versions of these machines for years to create prototypes and models. These printers can cost more than $300,000.

Makerbot offers several sizes, selling from less than $1,500 to more than $6,000 — prices that were thought to be appealing to consumers who regularly spend thousands of dollars on laptops and high-definition TVs.

In 2014, Stratasys reported that MakerBot accounted for $66.5 million of the company’s revenue of about $750 million. But sales have fallen, likely because an early community of enthusiasts became saturated before a general consumer market could develop, said Sophia Vargas, an industry analyst with Forrester Research.

“I think their focus on education makes a lot of sense,” she said.

MakerBot’s renewed focus on professional and research markets is similar to the approach taken by some of its competitors, including Somerville-based Formlabs, which has generally shunned a broad consumer market in favor of selling to professionals in art and design fields.

One of MakerBot’s biggest bets in the education market is a mass-installation model that ties together 30 or more printers in a network.

One of the first customers is the University of Massachusetts Amherst, which paid less than $300,000 for about 50 printers of various sizes, along with the software and networking gear to connect the devices to computers across campus.

The MakerBot center is set up at the school’s library, and officials with UMass and MakerBot are testing the connections and working out the kinks before a broad opening in the fall. Eventually, everyone on campus and perhaps people from the community will be able to access the machines, university spokeswoman Carol Connare said.

Some can’t wait that long. Alex Schreyer, a construction technology professor, said he’s been called on to help colleagues from across campus try out the printers — art historians wanting to replicate a sculpture, or biologists who needed a large-scale model of mole paws for their class.

“It’s great to have them here,” Schreyer said. “We can go there and, within a few hours, actually get something printed. And students are always last-minute, as you know.”