Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Are 2D Product Comparison Grids Useful for 3D Printers?

This week’s guest blog is by Julie Reece, Z Corp’s Director of Marketing Communications.
I am not a fan of product comparison grids. I understand that in theory they are meant to make it easy for purchase decision makers to compare competitive products and services in what their authors proclaim to be fair comparisons. You know the kind I’m talking about…they provide a short list of capabilities or criteria down the left column of the grid and various competitive products/services across the top row, and use check marks or some other type of indicator within each box to indicate whether or not that product or vendor offers each listed capability. They’re everywhere – across industries and markets. I remember first seeing such a grid early in my career at a very large software development company, and even used them myself at the time in my marketing role at that company. I haven’t used one since. Recently I've seen product comparison grids crop up from reputable, third-party industry organizations and manufacturers in the 3D printing space.

So, why am I so anti-grid? Yes, I’ll admit they bring back vivid memories of my less-than-stellar performance studying charts in high school math class. But more importantly, the validity of the picture grids intend to paint is guided solely by their authors and therefore they inherently come with the author’s bias or, at the very least, assumptions about which criteria is important to include and exclude. And, grids don’t enable product evaluators to assign an importance weight or score to different purchase criteria given differing sets of needs.

For example, if the author comes from one of the competing companies included in the grid, he/she is going to list the criteria where they feel they ‘win’ and conveniently omit criteria where competitors win. Even worse, a chart I saw recently from another 3D printing company contained false information. But if it’s on a chart, it’s true, right? Not necessarily.

You might say, sometimes highly knowledgeable, objective and well-meaning third parties develop product comparison grids. But do they always know all of the important criteria and capabilities to include? One of the industry grids I saw did not include all of our relevant products for the topic, resulting in a slanted picture of the available product offerings. Another grid omitted a few key criteria that purchase decision makers in our industry consider.

Even if the industry-savvy authors include a complete list of evaluation criteria in their grids, how can purchase decision makers prioritize, or assign an importance score to, the criteria within those grids? They can’t. Take 3D printing for example. Every company and department application for 3D printing is unique. Criteria that might be critical to one company or department (things like build size, speed, color, surface finish, materials, printer cost, material cost, method of post-processing, type of material used, office-friendliness, and so on) might be completely insignificant to another. If you’re an educator, low cost of operation, build speed, throughput and safety might be your top priorities and you might be willing to do without color or a specific material property. If you’re a manufacturer of consumer goods, color, speed and low material cost might be your top priorities and you might not be concerned about material properties. If you need flexible, functional parts, then material properties will likely be your primary concern, and you might be willing to sacrifice low cost, color, build size, and so on. The point is there isn’t a nice, neat grid that can address your individual company and application needs.

Careful product evaluation isn’t always easy, but it is critical. So, when you see a 3D printer product comparison grid, be wary. Instead, I encourage you to schedule a personal appointment with representatives from the 3D printing companies. Describe your application needs to their representatives and listen to how their solutions can solve your application challenges and open new doors to success. Ask each representative to focus on how their solution can satisfy your application needs. See a demonstration. Talk to their customers. Do your homework. Perhaps create your own customized grid based on your needs. Then, and only then, can you begin to narrow your list of possible solutions and make an informed decision.  

Related Resources:

Following are a few Z Corp-focused product and technology selector resources:

Interactive Product Selector (enables you to identify your application needs and prioritize different criteria)
Webcast: How to Choose the Right Rapid Prototyping System (free, online)