Many manufacturers and investors are starting to give serious attention to 3D printers, but are they set to become mass market products?
This is a guest post by Richard Jascemskas, technology writer and industry analyst focusing on 3D printing market for online 3D model marketplace CGTrader.com.
The idea of easily making anything for yourself, out of some raw materials, has almost silently evolved from sci-fi concept to reality. This year we are already celebrating the 30th anniversary of the first 3D printer, the popular name for an additive manufacturing machine. However, such technologies have only started to become available commercially this decade.
Right now, especially after this year’s CES show, there is huge optimism for 3D printing to reach new heights and become suitable for wider purposes. But can it really become a commodity and eventually change our everyday habits and lives? The answer to that question isn't clear-cut, but hopefully this year will become a stepping stone on the long road to bringing 3D printers and their massive potential to everyone’s homes.
Double digit growth
First the good news. There’s no doubt or debate about the fact that 3D printing is a viable technology, with huge possibilities to help businesses and individuals. From a financial standpoint, it looks to become very lucrative to potential investors. According to Gartner Research market estimates, this year’s worldwide spending for 3D printers priced up to $100,000 will increase by 62 percent. Businesses will spend approximately $536 million and even the general public will buy 3D printers and materials in the region of $133 million.
By 2015, more than 10 percent of the largest global retailers will offer 3D printers in their high street outlets and online stores. This year might also be a starting point for big players in the market, such as HP and Konica Minolta, to offer their first models and hopefully reach better price/quality ratios.
3D printing development and adoption areas are expanding too, especially among smaller businesses working with premium customized products. At this year's CES, around 30 companies were showing 3D printing related products and services (up from 8 last year), including Intel, which handed out 3D printed chocolate bunny people. Food production, jewellery, medical appliances, household design, architecture and other areas are starting to benefit from 3D printing and will act as platforms for engaging consumers.
The consumer vote
Consumer interest will be crucial for 3D printing to reach new heights in upcoming years. Gartner analyst Pete Basiliere believes consumers will move from being just curious about 3D printing to finding reasons to justify the purchase. Industry players will need to create the exposure for end users who haven’t even seen the technology yet, positioning 3D printers in retail stores and promoting use cases where they'll benefit from it. There's already some headway being made with select UPS and Staple office supply stores testing out 3D printers that consumers can use for their own 3D creations.
Another big question for 3D printing to reach mass market status is, what can people actually print themselves? Development and standardization of 3D printable files must come fast and should be as simple as possible. Thankfully companies seem to understand this. For example, Adobe has already announced that its Creative Cloud products will support 3D printing and thus expose these possibilities to millions of designers and users. Another solution is slowly but steadily appearing from the other end – 3D object scanners could become one of the reasons to justify personal 3D printing.
Threat of an empty hype
Even as the major outlook for 3D printing is optimistic, analysts are cautious about the mass market potential. There are several issues surrounding the use of 3D printers at home, such as copyrights or the the ability for anyone to illegally make dangerous items like fire arms.
Prices for 3D printers are dropping, but the level of quality obtained with cheaper models is often questionable. Luckily many key patents which keep prices up will expire in 2014, so it isn't far fetched to expect companies from China and other regions to enter the market at lower price points.
For now analysts agree that 3D printing development has a lot of potential in prototyping and mass manufacturing, but remain cautious of the empty hype possibility in the consumer market. It’s up to creative businesses and individuals, now and in the near future, to prove to the rest of the world that 3D printers can and will eventually change our lives.