No 3D Printer For You :)

MOST MEDIA ATTENTION in 3D printing currently goes to home 3D printers. MakerBot just released their new Replicator 2 3D printer and opened a MakerBot retail store in New York. A year ago, they received $10M funding mostly from the Foundry Group.

3D Systems have introduced their Cube 3D printer aimed at consumers. And a new 3D printer called Form-1 is getting a lot of attention on Kickstarter because it overshot it’s funding goal by 2000%.

Often I read the expectations that there will be a 3D printer in every home in 5 years or a decade. I do not believe that. The applicability of the technology today is very low for consumers. I have a few reasons why I think that. In the next paragraphs, I will elaborate why I think 3D printing for consumers will not happen soon – if it happens at all.

The first reason is that the material quality of the current generation of printers is not that good. Even professional 3D printed parts need post-finishing to resemble a material which looks and feels good. And even when the part is post-finished, it is still a part and not a product.

Most printers just print in a single material. Please look around and see how many products are made of a single material? There are not many. Jewelry comes to mind and kitchen ware. And of course trinkets and gadgets. This pretty much sums up the inventory of 3D printed products available today.

There are definitive reasons to buy a home 3D printer. Many hobbyists use them to print parts for their hobbies ranging from remote controlled airplanes to Warhammer pieces. For these hobbyists to own a printer makes sense. The instant satisfaction and seeing your part build in front of your eyes right in your home is irresistible. Another reason is as a kids’ toy. 3D printers could definitely be the clay of the 21st century for kids. The ability to create and design on a computer and make those designs real on a home 3D printer is a very powerful concept.

So some people will own and buy a home 3D printer. I expect that those printers are also used to print parts for others – neighbors, family and friends. Another reason why I think home 3D printers will not be a huge market. The need to 3D print a part is not very high. It will become a machine like advanced power tools which most people do not own but lend from the neighbors or a friend.

As an educational tool home 3D printers are very powerful. I think the manipulation of physical form will become more prevalent in our society. It is good that our kids get the opportunity to start exploring and working with these concepts.

To me home 3D printers will not come into every home until they reach the status of a replicator – I mean the Star Trek one and not Makerbot’s new product. Until then, it will remain a niche tool owned by a small community of users.

  • http://profiles.google.com/eric.haines Eric Haines

    Nice article, and I mostly agree – the hype is dialed way past 11 these past months. You didn’t mention the spare parts market, but that’s frankly something that most of us would use a 3D printer for maybe once a year. I can imagine in 5 years Kinko’s has a 3D printer for this sort of thing, to speed delivery time.

    Me, I’m looking forward to a 3D printer that prints in a wide range of colored plastic in the same model – doesn’t exist yet. I’d also love to see more done with “parallel printing”, as the process is pretty slow right now.

    Eric

    p.s. it’s “warhammer”, one word. Geek on!

    • http://robert.schouwenburg.com/ Robert Schouwenburg

      Thanks Eric!

      Yes, spare parts are interesting but I agree it is more an once a year thing.

      Changed “war hammer” to “Warhammer” :)

      • Bakh Malak

        spare parts would be commercially viable in a market such as Egypt where they have older car models and the custom/import duty/tax is very high. so locally produced for scarce or even available will be less expensive. It takes more than a month to order and arrive. The question is how to get software for such parts? any ideas?

        • http://robert.schouwenburg.com/ Robert Schouwenburg

          You have basically three options. You can get a 3D scanner and scan the part, you can model it yourself or get it from the manufacturer (of course if they are willing to share).

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  • Mark Burhop

    Photo printer, anyone? Sending images to the local drug store is a tiny bit inconvenient but it is cheaper, they can do larger sizes, different papers, and I don’t have to shop for supplies or fix a paper jam.

    • http://robert.schouwenburg.com/ Robert Schouwenburg

      Yes that is exactly one of the use cases I am thinking about.

      • Mark Burhop

        Having said that, my son and I did just set up a 3D printer at home. So, there is a market. I just think it may be more like you said…”It will become a machine like advanced power tools which most people do not own but lend from the neighbors or a friend.”

        • http://robert.schouwenburg.com/ Robert Schouwenburg

          That is awesome! Which one did you get?

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  • Val333

    Hey Robert, great post, but it reminds me a bit of Thomas Watson’s alleged statement in 1943: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” Don’t you think if 3D printers (for example) were suddenly able to print multiple materials for a single item, it would change everything?

    • http://robert.schouwenburg.com/ Robert Schouwenburg

      Thanks! I look at it like this: when the relevancy increases of the products which can be 3D printed at home, the spread of home 3D printers will rise. In my opinion the current technology is not capable of producing relevant products for mass-market consumption yet and will not for a while. A significant breakthrough is necessary to make this happen and I have not seen anything on the near horizon which points into this direction.

      I am sure when the capabilities improve and it becomes to near Star Trek replicator status, everyone will have a 3D printer at home. I do feel we are at least a couple of decades away from that. But I am happy to be proven wrong!

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