The Myth Of A 3D Printer In Every Home

The 3D printing industry is expected to be a $21 billion industry by 2020. If media reports are to be believed, machines sold to average consumers will account for a large share of this market.

Terry Wohlers, author of Wohlers' Report, does not share the media's enthusiasm, however.

"The idea that there will be a 3D printer in every home is a myth," he announced at the Inside 3D Printing conference recently. Benzinga was able to attend the conference and report on what Wohlers discussed.

Related Link: Five 3D Printed Body Parts

Ideal: Consumer And Manufacturer

The myth of a 3D printer is closely tied to the idea of the consumer as manufacturer. In this version of events, consumers will be able to download designs and make objects at will. Need a shoe? Download and customize a shoe design and print it. A consumer would also be able to 3D print food and replacement organs in the privacy of your home.

There are two reasons why this may be a premature judgment.

Reality: Technology And Attitudes

The first one is related to technology. Consumer 3D printers are limited in materials and speed. For example, it takes at least an hour to make a rudimentary plastic trinket. Given limitations of 3D printing technology, it may be unlikely that consumers will be willing to invest the time and effort required to make objects, as opposed to buying them (which is quick and efficient).

The second reason is related to consumer attitudes.

"They (consumers) don't care how something is manufactured," Wohlers said at the conference, adding that consumers have certain expectations of quality for the final product. Consumer 3D printing technology is limited in the quality of final products and materials.

Sales Increase Anyway

Sales of 3D printers, however, are still ratcheting up. According to the latest edition of the Wohlers' Report, the number of machines priced between $200 and $5,000 doubled between 2012 and 2013. Wohlers estimates that there are approximately 400 to 600 brands available in this price range currently on the market, with Asia accounting for almost 50 percent to 60 percent of this market.

So, what accounts for the flood of printers at price points that is attractive to consumers?

If Attitudes Are Wary, Why Do Sales Increase?

Part of the surge is due to low barriers to entry, said Wohlers. This is due to a combination of open-source movement, which has produced a number of makers, and expiration of patents that are key to 3D printer technology. "Their motivation is to cash in (on the hype)," he explained.

Then, there is the change in consumer attitudes. The media hype has created awareness about the possibilities of 3D printing technology. The value chain of 3D print ecosystem has evolved and expanded. 3D print software and hardware have become accessible to the general public.

Related Link: 3 Companies That Could Become The Kinkos Of 3D Printing

For example, 3D printer maker Stratasys, Ltd.'s SSYS software enables multiple customizations in design and material during the manufacturing process. At the same time, complex CAD software has become easy to use for hobbyists. This combination of consumer-focused CAD software and added capabilities for industrial systems has resulted in an expansion of the 3D printing market.

3D Printers Marketing To Hobbyists And Educators

According to Wohlers, the primary consumers for new machines are hobbyists and educational institutions. Large corporations are also picking up these printers to do quick jobs or prototypes.

Overall, however, Wohlers is still bearish on the prospect of radical reinvention of society and the idea of consumer as manufacturers.

Instead, he foresees 3D printers as facilitators for consumer desires and activities. As an example, he illustrated the list of activities that humans performed before the advent of computers: reading, writing, research, playing music, filing and storage.

"And, what do we do now: we research, read, write, file, play music and store documents. But, we do it with the help of computers," he said.

Posted In: 3D PrintingcommentsTerry WohlersWohlers ReportEducationTop StoriesTechGeneral

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