Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Consumer 3D Printing?

A question I get a lot lately is what do you think about consumer 3D printing ? The premise is that someday 3D printers will be as prevalent in people's homes as color inkjet printers are today. Is this far-fetched? If not, how far off is it? And, most importantly, what needs to happen in order for it to become a reality?

The answer isn’t simple. In fact, if there are a dozen or more issues that need to be resolved, the solution for each issue will depend on the solution for the other variables. The first thing you might consider is to lower the cost of a 3D printer to a point where the average consumer could afford one. It might seem obvious that if millions of units are sold every year the cost would come down and be affordable to the consumer. However, if there was a stack of 3D printers on the street corner free for the taking, how many people would take one home with them? And remember, we are talking average consumer, not average design engineer. If they all found homes, what would people print with them? There is no doubt that 3D printers add tremendous value to a commercial enterprise and that color inkjet printers add significant value to most homeowners. But the applications are quite different. The concept that a homeowner would need a 3D printer is based on the idea that they could print final parts at a reasonable cost.

For comparison I’ll use a single part, a control knob for a residential gas stove top. The stove manufacturer would most likely design the knob, prototype it to make sure it looks, feels, and functions correctly. They might even print a tool and cast a limited number of urethane, or metal parts for further evaluation. Once they are comfortable with the design they would order tooling and injection mold the knob using a high temperature flame rated material. Let’s say the homeowner somehow lost the knob for their gas stove top. The first thought would be to use a 3D printer to make a new one. To do so, the homeowner would either have to find or create the 3D data before they could print the part. They would need some type of design software to design a new one. Or maybe they could scan one of the remaining knobs and import the data. But, let’s say there was a database of parts free to download over the internet.

The next step would be to make sure the material properties were adequate for the knob. We know from the application that the material should be high temperature and have a high flame rating – possibly V0. Even if this material existed, the homeowner would have to have it on hand or locate and purchase some. The next part they want to print might require a completely different material. Keeping a stack of document paper and a stack of glossy photo paper isn’t all that difficult, but having all the different materials that might be needed for “real parts” off a 3D printer would be next to impossible for a homeowner. Ordering the right material as it is needed might be the only option. In the time it takes to locate, purchase, setup, and print the knob, would it be easier, cheaper, and faster to order the actual knob from a local stove repair shop?

So, is the idea far-fetched? How far off is it? Weigh in and let me know what you think!


  1. I think you about nailed this one with this post. It's been talked up for nearly two decades now, but we've not seen it. If you take an analogy with CNC machines you get a very clear picture. Hobbists buy them, but mainstream? No.

    The vast majority of consumers won't and don't care about any of it. it'll remain in the niches. Maybe a bigger niche, but a niche all the same.

    After all, operating a 3D design tool is a complex business, as is operating a Bridgeport, as is operating a MakerBot or a ZPrinter. Yes, the technology is more accessible. The services are more accessible than ever before..

    Al Dean

  2. I always see this broken knob example being used when discussing consumer 3d printers, but usually in a more positive way. I'm glad that the curtain is finally coming down around how ridiculous a proposition it is for people to be printing broken bits and pieces of their consumer products. Cost is not the only factor, I would actually argue that it is the smallest factor.

  3. I agree with your conclusion. As the technology works today (regarding any 3D printer) the process of creating functional parts for the masses is still very complicated.

    Nevertheless I find the idea of 3D printing for the average consumer very exciting. If there was a pile of 3D printers on the street corner free for the taking, I think that many still would grab one. Probably they would not create-off-the-shelve products but instead they would find totally different ways to use a 3D printing - purposes that we still are not aware of.

    Just surfing gives one a fun insight in what people can come up with regarding additive manufacturing and some are quite inventive.

    Historically many new technologies have evolved in a different direction then the first intended. :)

  4. After few year we are wiser.
    My own opinion is that consumer 3d printing will come for most householders "daily" tool.
    Add 3d scanner and 3d cad sofware and some consumer library to 3d printer, no doubt it will be a succes for consumer market.