Expectations vs. Reality: The Future of Consumer 3D Printing

Expectations vs. Reality: The Future of Consumer 3D Printing

Five years ago, the media heralded 3D printing as the next industrial revolution: consumers would soon have the ability to make anything they wanted in their living rooms (supposedly). 3D printers were supposed to show up in supermarkets. The United States Postal Service was going to use them to begin delivering products (and maybe finally make money).

What ever happened to Martha + MakerBot?

MakerBot had a mission to bring the 3D printer into every home. Their team grew from 50 to over 500 in two years' time. Stratasys’s stock price went from <$10 to nearly $140/share. 3D Systems acquired over 50 companies, and 3D printing was set to take the world by storm.

This graph is awfully similar to that of the '90s dot-com bubble.
It actually depicts Stratasys's stock price.

But this reality never materialized.

Why did this shift never come to be, and what will consumer 3D printing look like when it really begins to impact our lives?

We seek to answer these questions every day, and we discuss them in the remainder of this post.

Fall from grace

We posit that consumer 3D printing’s fall from grace accelerated as people came to realize that the industry's current printers' actual capabilities were not as miraculous as everyone thought. When people started to understand that they were limited to printing plastic Yoda heads and knobs for their dishwashers—not food, clothing, and carsthe bubble burst.

We're bullish on the future of consumer 3D printing, but we believe there still exist misconceptions about how consumers will interact with 3D printing technologies that should be discussed.

Chiefly, the misconception is around the phrase “consumer 3D printing.” Typically, the connotation here that the consumer is the one who owns and operates the 3D printer. For this to happen, the printer must be easy to use, affordable, accessible, and safe—all things that describe today’s “consumer 3D printers”: your MakerBots, your Dremels, and your Ultimakers.

But, like we saw over the past 5 years, these machines in their current forms do not provide sufficient value to the majority of everyday consumers to warrant their ~$1,500+ purchase prices.

We believe a shift will occur in how people think everyday consumers will interact with 3D printing. The important part about consumer 3D printing isn’t who owns or operates the machine—it’s about who gains value from it.

3D printing has the potential to offer substantial value through its ability to offer personalized products to consumers, and to make several parts of today’s manufacturing processes more efficient.

When consumer 3D printing is not constrained by the idea of fitting in someone's home, its potential increases by orders of magnitude. The cost of a printer can increase, its complexity can increase, and it can be implemented next to a more traditional manufacturing line, allowing a wider variety of products to be produced. These aspects could never happen if the consumer was responsible for operating the machine, but if you take that constraint away, you remove a significant number of limitations around the potential of 3D printing technologies, while still keeping its benefits.

Consider what would be required to bring a 3D printer that can produce shoes, clothes, and cars to everyone's homes (or to penetration rates that rival those of microwaves and fridges). It seems eons away. Now, imagine the Amazons and Alibabas of the world that seek to deliver products to the developed world. These behemoths could house consumer-centric 3D printers in localized facilities that could provide personalized, on-demand production.

This hub-based, distributed manufacturing system will be the mid-point between where we are today, and “3D printers” one day being in people’s homes.

Tying it all together

Not only was consumer 3D printing overhyped when its biggest players reached local peaks 3-5 years ago, its decline was further exacerbated by peoples' expectations of its growth (i.e., one in every home).

In spite of all this, consumer 3D printing continues to grow—and they may very well end up in everyone’s homes one day. But, before that happens, consumers all over the world will gain value from 3D printing through the use of 3D printers located in different types of production centers. These printers will serve as tools to augment current manufacturing workflows alongside other traditional manufacturing technologies and offer the best of both worlds: personalized products from 3D printing, and the wide range of objects offered from other traditional manufacturing methods.

So—what does this world look like, and what exactly are these products?

We’re always keeping our eyes on emerging companies using 3D printing and digital manufacturing to create new types of personalized products. Over the next few weeks, we’ll highlighting some of the spaces we’re most excited about that you should keep your eyes on.

- Mosaic