Most media attention in 3D printing currently goes to home 3D printers. MakerBot just released their new Replicator 2 3D printer and opened a MakerBot retail store in New York. A year ago, they received $10M funding mostly from the Foundry Group.
Often I read the expectations that there will be a 3D printer in every home in 5 years or a decade. I do not believe that. The applicability of the technology today is very low for consumers. I have a few reasons why I think that. In the next paragraphs, I will elaborate why I think 3D printing for consumers will not happen soon — if it happens at all.
The first reason is that the material quality of the current generation of printers is not that good. Even professional 3D printed parts need post-finishing to resemble a material which looks and feels good. And even when the part is post-finished, it is still a part and not a product.
Most printers just print in a single material. Please look around and see how many products are made of a single material? There are not many. Jewelry comes to mind and kitchen ware. And of course trinkets and gadgets. This pretty much sums up the inventory of 3D printed products available today.
There are definitive reasons to buy a home 3D printer. Many hobbyists use them to print parts for their hobbies ranging from remote controlled airplanes to Warhammer pieces. For these hobbyists to own a printer makes sense. The instant satisfaction and seeing your part build in front of your eyes right in your home is irresistible. Another reason is as a kids’ toy. 3D printers could definitely be the clay of the 21st century for kids. The ability to create and design on a computer and make those designs real on a home 3D printer is a very powerful concept.
So some people will own and buy a home 3D printer. I expect that those printers are also used to print parts for others — neighbors, family and friends. Another reason why I think home 3D printers will not be a huge market. The need to 3D print a part is not very high. It will become a machine like advanced power tools which most people do not own but lend from the neighbors or a friend.
As an educational tool home 3D printers are very powerful. I think the manipulation of physical form will become more prevalent in our society. It is good that our kids get the opportunity to start exploring and working with these concepts.
To me home 3D printers will not come into every home until they reach the status of a replicator — I mean the Star Trek one and not Makerbot’s new product. Until then, it will remain a niche tool owned by a small community of users.