3D Hubs (now Hubs, and part of Protolabs) is an online additive manufacturing platform that connects engineers to a worldwide network of additive manufacturing services on demand.
Bram de Zwart and Brian Garret, the first two founders of 3D Hubs had both worked in industrial design and quit promising jobs early in their careers because they truly believed in a future of personalized and decentralized manufacturing and wanted not just to be part of that change, but pioneer this future.
The two envisioned empowering engineers to create revolutionary products.
3D Hubs started as a peer-to-peer platform in April 2013 out of Amsterdam, Netherlands. It was a marketplace (kind of an Airbnb of 3D printing) connecting two niche groups, designers and hobbyists with 3D-printer ‘hub’ owners. The barebones platform used a simple landing page and Google Sheets so that they could monitor the interactions between clients and 3D printer owners. This simplified roll-out strategy allowed them to connect intimately to the parties involved and their issues.
Within six months of starting, the company grew to 1,000 hub locations in September 2013 and more than 5,000 hubs by June 2014 and 22,000+ by 2015, processing thousands of 3D printing jobs daily.
This early success drew attention and in 2014, Wired UK named 3D Hubs Startup of the Week in one of its weekly issues. It also caught the attention of Salim Ismail and the team of global experts researching many start-ups, scale-ups, and incumbent firms globally through the lens of the 11 exponential attributes of MTP + SCALE + IDEAS as part of their writing of the seminal book, Exponential Organizations. And, 3D Hubs got featured in the inaugural list of Top100 Exponential Organizations published later in 2015.
Not surprisingly, 3D Hubs' rapid growth and recognition within the first year itself quickly invited competition. But, instead of investing in advertising (a strategy followed by the peers and a typical response one would argue that 3D Hubs could have used), it focused instead on building the community around new users and producers from the bottom-up through campaigns such as “Unlock Your City,” “Ambassador program,” “The Community Mayor” etc.
They used the platform to gather users’ views and performance data on the different machines and materials. Later on, the company started publishing a monthly 3D Printers guide on which printers performed best for different applications. Hubs, which ranged from garden sheds to large factories were given reviews but also personalized guidance on how to improve operations resulting in much better NPS and engagement, radically lower new user acquisition costs, and greater loyalty from suppliers too.
From the early days, the company started publishing regular reports on leading trends and developments within the manufacturing industry, including the 3D Printing Trends and the Supply Chain Resilience Report, which are, to date, eagerly awaited by the industry participants.
At the same time, being conscious that having a strong community alone wasn't enough, 3D Hubs focused on building depth by leveraging millions of data points collected over years and artificial intelligence capabilities to automatically price, qualify and route manufacturing jobs to its network of manufacturing partners. This allowed for maximizing machine utilization and minimizing inventory and transportation. Traditional manufacturers usually did all this work manually, which typically took around two weeks, with lots of back and forth on the customer’s specifications.
This allowed the users to make faster design iterations in the early product development stages and thereby get them to market and revenue much sooner. The users came back to the platform not just because of the need for a product but because of the depth and quality of the services on top of that, giving 3D Hubs an increasingly deep technical and data moat, strengthening the company's economics and further improving customer's feedback in the process.
3D Hubs also took the strategic partnerships route with established but boutique 3D Printers such as Ultimaker, Thingiverse, Instructables, Sketchfab, amongst other to drive the global growth of its network. Further, with the introduction of 'Teleport’, 3D Hubs allowed any website operator or app developer to access 3D Hubs' public API catapulting the growth in its network. It has also been running a yearly student grant to encourage and support engineering students in developing innovative projects.
On the internal organizational front, 3D Hubs has focused on nurturing and embedding values including “ownership of projects” and “everyone being student and teachers” through a unique ‘Culture Ambassadors’ program across this small but highly purpose-driven organization.
By leveraging such external network and internal organizational capabilities, despite much of the traditional manufacturing industry struggling during the COVID outbreak, 3D Hubs has thrived amid a highly competitive landscape, growing to 140+ employees, producing over 1.5 million custom parts, and practically doubling its revenues during both 2020 and 2021.
In 2019 and 2020, Hubs was named amongst the Deloitte Fast 50 list of fastest-growing technology companies in the Netherlands. The co-founder and CEO Bram de Zwart was named in Business Insider's list of 100 leaders transforming business in business Europe in the year 2020.
These successes for 3D Hubs, however, haven’t come without learning. In 2017, the company decided to pivot towards and double down on the enterprise (B2B) segment instead of consumers (C2C). Later, it added CNC machining, injection molding, and sheet metal fabrication manufacturing capabilities to become a “turnkey manufacturing platform” in 2018. While these moves aligned well with 3D Hubs' original purpose, these decisions and execution came after almost 1-2 years of hesitation and contemplation. Bram de Zwart, the co-founder once stated that their biggest failure was not to have acted faster.
But, this pivoting was a successful business decision and enabled the desired growth, with over 35,000 businesses worldwide – from Amazon to Robotics, Audi, HP, NASA, and Merck now relying on its services.
In January 2021, Minnesota, United States-based Protolabs, a publicly-traded custom manufacturer (revenues $488 million in 2021 and valuation of $1 billion), announced an agreement to acquire 3D Hubs for $280 million in cash and stock, plus incentives. Later, in May 2021, it was renamed from 3D Hubs to Hubs.
This passion and purpose, coupled with 3D Hubs embracing the different exponential attributes, led to its growth over the years.
With the 3D printing industry continuing to see democratization in both enterprise and retail, and estimated to grow from the current $ 15 billion to $ 100 billion over the next decade, it certainly offers an abundance of opportunities for an exponential organization like 3D Hubs.
Will 3D Hubs in its new avatar and as part of a larger company continue to prosper and stay ahead of the curve? We will be watching closely.
This article on 3D Hubs is part of a SPOTLIGHT series on the TOP100 Exponential Organizations published in 2015, and have continuously embraced and embedded the exponential attributes to thrive over the years.
Read about another success story, DUOLINGO published last week https://insight.openexo.com/startup-success-the-duolingo-way/
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