The Booming 3D Market
Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, has been around since the 1980s. However, most people had never heard about it until the last few years when advances in the quality of materials, printing speeds, and print resolution helped create a surge in growth. This attracted attention that spread from engineering news to capture the attention of the mass media with 3D printers even shown on NBC's Today Show, among others.
Countless articles have been written about the potential for 3D printing to transform everything from the way products are designed to how they are produced on demand. Visions of printing spare parts on a ship at sea, designer shoes to wear that night printed at home and colonies on the moon printed out of materials from the lunar landscape were just a few of the ideas that seemed like they were just around the corner. All of these things may one day come to pass, as 3D printing is definitely here to stay. Engineers now have the ability to print prototypes at their desks, designers can rapidly try out different ideas, architects are able to show realistic models of their designs and dentists can quickly create custom crowns and bridges to name just a few of the already transformational applications.
The Booming Consumer Market
Companies such as Stratasys (NASDAQ:SSYS) and 3D Systems (NYSE:DDD) have developed or acquired a number of 3D printing technologies and systems for the professional market. In addition, they and a number of other companies have introduced "consumer" 3D printers ranging in price from several hundred to several thousand dollars. The appeal is obvious - how cool would it be to print out anything you want right on your desktop at home? Fittingly, several of the competitors tapped into crowdfunding to finance their projects, using the enthusiasm of tech-savvy consumers to raise startup capital.
Yet the reality is that these expectations come up a short in practice. As it stands, after shelling out a couple of thousand dollars for your home 3D printer, many users are relegated to go online to download curated files and print out a phone case or a Minecraft figure. It then dawns on them that this is a pretty expensive alternative to buying that same plastic toy at a dollar store. Some apps exist to customize specific products, but this isn't the same as the promise of printing out anything the user can imagine.
Witness a recent blog post from MakerBot, a subsidiary of Stratasys, announcing that consumers can purchase and download their favorite Sesame Street characters or Hello Kitty accessories.
This is not to say that low-end consumer 3D printers aren't experiencing impressive growth. In its 3Q'14 results, Stratasys indicated growth was largely a result of the MakerBot acquisition, though it should be noted that the company doesn't break out sales by line and the upper end of MakerBot's product line reaches into the professional market.
User Friendly Software Is The Missing Ingredient
To increase uptake of home 3D printing, the answer is the same as what propelled the personal computer market to mass adoption - software applications that allow the average home user to intuitively create their own designs to download. Early desktop computers, in addition to being far less powerful and far more expensive than today's consumer models, required users to have a certain level of familiarity with programming languages and operating systems. In fact, early microcomputers came in kit form for assembly, similar to some of today's consumer 3D printers. It wasn't until graphical user interfaces replaced typed commands that PCs were truly useful to the average home user.
My own experience with 3D printing leads me to believe that the consumer market for 3D printers is at roughly the same stage as when the Macintosh was launched in 1984. I recently started a new manufacturing business and was developing prototypes. Not being an engineer, I drew rough drafts of what I wanted, then went into my basement workshop where, as an amateur woodworker, I was able to painstakingly fabricate my prototypes using the "subtractive" manufacturing techniques of starting with a block of wood and removing material to reveal the parts I was developing.
I had heard about 3D printing and was about to buy a consumer version to help me streamline the prototyping process. Then I started researching and found that I wasn't going to be able to design my parts until I learned how to use CAD/CAM software. I played with SketchUp and a couple of other packages, but soon realized that it would require a much greater commitment of time and energy to learn how to design even relatively simple parts. In fact, the website 3ders.org estimates it would take weeks to months for most people to learn these skills. In the midst of building a start-up business, I didn't have the time to do this and ended up outsourcing the work rather than buying a 3D printer of my own.
The 3D printing revolution is real and improvements over time will allow for even greater penetration of R&D and eventually more widespread manufacturing processes. I also believe that, eventually, there will be a mass market for 3D printers in the home. However, for their appeal to move beyond the technically minded hobbyist to practical application in every home appliance, the software has to evolve to where a non-technical user can design their own unique printed products quickly and intuitively. Imagine if word processing software didn't allow you to write your own thoughts, but only permitted you to download other people's works!
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The author wrote this article themselves, and it expresses their own opinions. The author is not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). The author has no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.