3D printing has shown its potential to transform the manufacturing industry, but will this technology ever really be embraced by the individual consumer?
When 3D printers first hit the market, geeks across the globe celebrated the new opportunity to print all kinds of commodities in their own homes. This disruptive and highly personalized way of manufacturing meant never again having to buy an overpriced store item that only kinda of met your needs and specifications.
But that vision has yet to be realized. So why aren’t consumers printing more of their own stuff?
While 3D printing is taking off in large-scale manufacturing and President Obama pushes to open more advanced manufacturing facilities in the United States, individual consumers are just not buying in. At least not yet.
Some argue that the demand for consumer 3D printers is low due to a lack of strong consumer offerings, but the fact is, despite all the hype around its benefits and innovative qualities, 3D printing technology is truly targeted toward passionate, highly motivated makers and hobbyists and not the average person.
“To date, the consumer 3D printing market has been held back in part because there is no compelling use—something that the consumer can only acquire by producing it on a 3D printer at home,” says Peter Basiliere, research vice president for imaging and print services at Gartner.
A recent Gartner report predicts that we might see a compelling consumer application within the next two years, but for now the broadest use-case of at-home 3D printing has been in the creation of figurines and other small nick-knacks, not items that have an impact on everyday lives. This doesn’t do anything to convince average consumers the machines are a good investment.
Until industry leaders figure out how to make people want it, 3D printing won’t take off as a consumer technology. And there are other reasons for the lack of interest.
Printers aren’t priced for consumer adoption. It’s true that 3D printers are not as expensive as they once were and prices are still dropping, but that doesn’t mean they’re affordable for everyday consumers. Most printers that create high-quality products cost well over $2,000, and the printers that are more consumer-friendly in price (less than $1,000) typically don’t replicate CAD designs correctly and cannot print high-quality products. Not to mention they usually have to be assembled DIY-style (which is daunting for those of us who panic at the thought of putting together simpler objects, like IKEA furniture).
Printing materials are expensive and structurally weak. Current consumer printers use either ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) or PLA (polylactic acid) plastic filaments to 3D print. These plastics are not sturdy and household items with moving parts can’t be printed. In order to print useful models, future printers will have to use metals or carbon composites. Unfortunately, these materials only add to the cost of owning a 3D printer, and currently run from $40 to $122 per kilogram of material.
It takes hours for parts to print. The current build speed on a consumer printer is too slow to truly be practical. Depending on the size of the model and quality of the printer, it take from several hours to several days to print a model. Imagine setting up a print to be done overnight, only to wake up and find that the print failed and you have to start all over again.
3D printers aren’t exactly ‘user-friendly’. This is partly due to a difficult set-up process, and partly due to the skills needed to be able to utilize the technology. 3D printer set-up, in the current iteration, requires the use of high-voltage supplies and specialized parts and equipment. Cheaper printers will also usually not connect to WiFi. Not only is set-up complicated, but consumers lack the skills and experience needed to use 3D printer software tools to create their own models. Designing your own file requires working knowledge of CAD software, and downloadable files that consumers can use are not moderated and may not work on every type of printer.
There are safety concerns. Printers that utilize powder-based materials are messy and potentially explosive depending on what you’re making with them. These printers work at high temperatures and produce resins as part of the process. There are also concerns about indoor air quality and emissions from these 3D printers.
Intellectual property issues can arise. Right now it’s fairly easy for people to share and download digital designs for 3D printers online. A website called Thingiverse has many items that people are designing, copying, and printing. But many items people are creating, like Star Wars figurines, are protected by copyright. Remember the controversy surrounding Napster, the peer-to-peer music file sharing service? Soon, there could be similar lawsuits over copyright infringement of 3D printed products.
Despite issues, companies still push ahead
Some companies are using creative ways to get around these issues to fill in the gap in the consumer market. In Boston, for example, 3D printing company Makerbot (well-known for its desktop 3D printers and scanners) is drawing in consumers through an in-store location on 144 Newbury Street.
The shop is not only meant to be a place for customers to purchase printers and printing material, but it also serves as an interactive space where you can see demonstrations and join workshops to learn how to use the devices. Customers can also scan, print, and purchase objects created on site, while also accessing some fun takeaways like $5 novelty gifts from a “gumball machine,” and a 3D photo booth, which takes one minute to scan a subject’s head and shoulders and then ships the end-result to your doorstep.
Other companies attempting to capitalize on 3D printing for ordinary consumers are offering this type of printing as a service, while also selling 3D printed creations. Sculpteo, i.materialise, and even UPS operate quick 3D printing services and have communities that connect makers, buyers, and sellers of 3D printed objects. This marketplace is getting even bigger now that e-commerce giant Amazon launching its own online storefront for 3D printed objects and downloadable design files.
Will individual consumers ever embrace 3D printing?
Certain social trends, like the recent Maker movement, could be a factor in bringing 3D printers into the home, but it may always remain a niche market. Leaders in the 3D printing industry will have to figure out a way to overcome limiting factors in order to bring the technology into mainstream use.
What do you think? Will there eventually be a 3D printer in every home, or is there simply no need for this technology on the consumer market?
Photo by Wendy Maeda/The Boston Globe via Getty Images