When will 3D Printing Reach a Mass Consumer Audience?
John Hayes posted on February 04, 2014 | 11386 views

There were approximately 285,000 2D printers sold every day in 2012, according to ZDNet

The number of 3D printers sold is smaller.  Much smaller.  In October 2013 Gartner predicted there would be about 160 3D printers sold per day, representing sales of only $87 million.

While there has been a lot of press coverage about the rise in 3D printing by consumers, these devices are really targeted towards highly motivated makers.  They require a lot of skill, patience and determination to use.  And in the end, the user only gets a small print in ABS or PLA plastic.  And it’s usually black or beige at that.

Conor MacCormack, CEO of 3D printing company MCOR, talked about what it will take to make 3D printing truly available to consumers.  Here are a few of the hurdles the industry has to cross to get to broad adoption:

1.       Speed.  Parts need to be printed in minutes, not hours.  Right now the build speed on a consumer printer is slow enough that you might have to wait overnight to get a complex print the size of a short wine glass.  Or you might find that the print failed overnight and you have to start again.

2.       Materials.  For now, consumer printers use primarily ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) or PLA (polylactic acid) plastic filaments.  To get models you can actually use, printers will have to print with metals or carbon composites to get greater durability.   

3.       Price.  There are lots of machines available at less than $2,000, but widespread adoption of consumer technologies (think smartphones, gaming consoles and TVs) tend to happen at prices below $1,000.  Note that the cost of materials will also have to come down dramatically, so the current model of the printer companies controlling the materials supplies will have to change as well. 

4.       Color.  Consumers don’t want to have to paint their models.  The broad adopting community will want a true color representation, and that’s only just happening with commercial printers.

5.       Safe and clean.  Consumers don’t have hazmat areas or clean rooms in their homes.  So they can’t have powders or resins as part of the process unless they are enclosed in cartridges and safely disposable.

6.       The entire ecosystem has to be easy to use.   The industry has made great strides – only a few years ago end-users had to self-assemble their own maker-bots in a process than took at least a day.  To gain wide adoption, they will have to be as easy to set up as a computer or a television.

7.       The entire process has to be accessible and reliable, including i) easier set up, ii) easier 3D image creation and import of files, iii) visibility on mobile devices and iv) easier scanning and file storage. 

All of this development is likely to take many years to unfold.  In the meantime, the 3D printing industry is looking for creative ways to meet the demands of consumers without forcing them through the frustration of the current consumer 3D printer technology.  For example, consumers who want to experience some of the freedom of 3D printing can go online to service bureaus to select their prints.  Similarly, MCOR has a pilot project running with Staples in Europe that allows users to get prints much like photo film developers did before the advent of digital cameras.  Conor predicts that we will see more service bureau announcements from major retailers in the coming months.

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