Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Is a Desktop, Sub-$5K 3D Printer Necessarily a Consumer 3D Printer?

What’s the difference between a consumer 3D printer and a commercial desktop printer? And furthermore, what’s the difference between a desktop printer and a low-cost 3D printer? One more question might be what does a 3D printer have to cost to be considered low cost?

A few blogs ago I raised the question: How far-fetched is consumer 3D printing? The majority of response was that consumer 3D printing is probably a ways off. Some, however, took my blog to mean that desktop and low-cost printers are far out in the future as well. Since there are currently sub-$5,000 printers on the market (low cost) and several that fit quite nicely on a desktop, I believe that my previous blog posting on the subject was misunderstood.

So I ask the question: Is a desktop 3D printer a consumer printer? Is a sub-$5,000 3D printer a consumer printer? My option is that while both criteria might be necessary for a consumer product, neither makes it so. A consumer 3D printer is one purchased and used for, well, consumer use. The assumption is that a homeowner, for instance, would purchase the 3D printer and use it for printing whatever they might have a need for. On the other hand, a commercial 3D printer could be low cost, desktop, or both. So, if low-cost desktop printers are not slated for the average consumer in the next few years, at least not in 2011, who are they for?

One of the debates today is about the part quality and resolution produced by the very low cost offerings on the market. Is this quality good enough for commercial use? I would argue that in some industries and for some applications it might be. But higher resolution, surface finish, accuracy, etc… are more useful to more designers in far more applications. While the current low-cost devices might be suitable for limited applications, a high-quality low-cost printer would make the technology more accessible to a much greater number of designers, engineers, architects, and other professionals.

That leaves the last question. What price does a fully featured 3D printer have to be in order to be called low cost?


  1. I don't necessarily think of low cost as an absolute term. Once you get below $5K, the question then becomes what it can deliver for the money, and will I be able to operate it. To that end, the consumer barrier is not (exclusively) cost. Instead, it is utility. In order to become a consumer grade machine it must be relatively easy to design parts, and use a material (or small group of materials) that will suffice for a majority of uses. In my mind, one of the major barriers to consumer adoption today is the lack of design software that is easy for non-technical users to use.

  2. Buyers are smart enough to know that a low cost machine is one with a low cost to make a part. Solido appears to demonstrate that just being the lowest cost to acquire does not mean you have a market.

    Part cost is affected by: amortization of the machine purchase cost, throughput, utilization, maintenance, first year depreciation (risk), probable resale value, materials in the part, materials inventory carrying cost, labor in the part, shipping, ordering, down time, part scrap due to machine reliability, materials consumed in maintenance service and processing, rework due to user error, environmental(dust containing or dust free, noise etc), machine reset time, physical space , cleaning up after, training, file prep, other software costs, infiltrant/post process, power, space for ancillary equipment etc..

    An universal approach to building a low cost printer looks at all of these things from a business perspective as well as engineering perspective. We think Z Corp fares pretty well against the competition in total part cost. We own 3. However, we run them in an industrial setting which helps to minimize some of the above costs. Certainly we could not produce cost effective parts if our machines were in Class A office space with licensed architects doing depowdering!

    Part cost has come down but, according to most measures is still almost 10x higher than where there will be broad "consumer" adoption

  3. I think there needs to be a different business model compared to what is done now. 5 grand is still alot fora consumer product that has maybe a 5" cube build space. If people are building things (jewelry, small tools, gifts) I think the temptation for wanting to build for others would be pretty strong and then the question becomes: Is this person still a "consumer user" per se?

    Personally, I think the way to get at this is to do some in home research to understand what the opportunities are for 3D printing in the typical "consumer" environment. What sizes are typically needed? Are 3D parts really needed? What applications would be required? 3D layer cake decorating (2" high but 14"x14" platform)? Does 3D technology lend itself to sculpting fingernails? (THAT idea I really like.)

    In home research will reveal the niches and the business models flow from there.