Wednesday, March 16, 2011

What Needs to Happen Before There’s a 3D Printer in Every Home?

Today's guest blog is by Scott Harmon, Z Corporation VP of Business Development.

It seems like the 3D printing industry has more buzz now than it ever has. Recent articles in the New York Times, the Economist etc., have all touted a brilliant future for 3D printing. Respected technology thinktank, The Gartner Group, publishes an annual Hype Cycle chart.

The chart describes expectations of different technologies over time. In the Gartner 2010 Hype Cycle chart, 3D printing appears to moving into the area known as ‘Peak of Inflated Expectations.’ Gartner notes that a relatively small group of users are already getting great value from 3D printing.

For participants in the industry, manufacturers, service bureaus and users alike, it’s worth taking a moment to consider what the future really looks like. Will 3D printers exist in every home? Will manufacturing plants ultimately move from large centralized facilities to your basement? Perhaps more importantly, what will it take to get to that future?

Many people compare the early days of personal computers to the current state of 3D printing. The price points are similar, self assembly is in many cases required, and the early adopters certainly share a creative spirit and a techy bent. It seems almost a foregone conclusion that like personal computers, 3D printers will follow a similar path to mass adoption.

I’m an optimist, and I wouldn’t work in this industry if I didn’t think ‘everyone’ would use 3D printers at some point. So the question is not whether 3D printing will ever reach broad adoption, but rather ‘when, why, and how?’

In general, I think there are a few key factors that are likely to determine how quickly 3D printing achieves broad adoption. They include price, part quality, 3D CAD adoption, and the emergence of new applications. Unlike many in the industry, I’m 100% convinced that price is not the key driver. Price will have to come down, but low price alone will not be close to sufficient. Is a low cost 3D printer the path to broad adoption, or a highly capable system that makes great parts and is operated as a service?

What’s on your list? What are the key events, applications, enabling technologies likely to drive broad adoption of 3D printing?

We’ll go into some more detail on these ideas and others based on your feedback over the next few weeks.


  1. Scott,

    I think that 3D printers are perfectly capable now of making a lot of things people want. Materials and the printers need to be better and cheaper. But, for me the one thing that needs to happen is easier design tools.

    We're basically all selling printing presses or printing press as a service (in the case of i.materialise) but literacy is not widespread. By letting more people design in 3D easily we can dramatically increase the number of people that can use 3D printers to make what they want. This to me is the surest way of increasing the demand for 3D printers and letting anyone make anything they want to.


  2. Hi Joris,

    I agree with you 100%. There’s a clear chicken and egg phenomenon going on here. The limited level of 3d ‘literacy’ restricts the market substantially. Because the market is generally restricted, manufacturers cannot just lower price and expect millions of new users to flock to the technology. Of course, higher prices then mean there are fewer people willing to learn to use the technology in meaningful ways.

    To me, expecting a broad group of users to suddenly learn CAD (even with some substantial improvements in ease of use) and learn how to make cool things from scratch seems pretty unlikely in the short term. However, I do think that we are entering a world where people will soon be able to customize or personalize basic 3d pieces to create uniquely interesting 3d printable content. Obviously i.materialise is one of the very cool places where this is happening. I for one can’t wait to see what emerges.



  3. For me, as well as where I work, it's going to come down to material and accessibility. Sure, it's easy to get a printer or send it out, but having it onsite changes the dynamic of how it's used.

    I hate using a baking analogy, but getting the right blender at home has opened up a world of possibilities. Likewise, getting a CNC at work has opened up a world of automation.

    by the way, 2010 is the first year the company I work for had production parts printed - vent takeoffs used on an aircraft ventilation system. It came down to the material.

  4. There seems to be a general assumption that any 3D printer in the home will be printing off CAD designed parts to replace industry made parts that have worn out, broken, etc. That will eventually come. Looking at the objects that are being printed by Shapeways and Sculpteo, the majority are models by hobbyists, 'collectibles' and wearable accessories. The stumbling block for the majority of people wanting to engage with 3D printing is the 3D software available for modelling which is still CAD and CAD-like. As most of the people involved in the development of this technology, the service providers, the gatekeepers (i.e digital design/technology teachers/technicians) have an engineering/CAD background (and therefore au fait with CAD) the main issue of usability seems to fall into a blind spot. CAD has a steep learning curve especially if you come more from the arts and applied arts. It is software that is easy, quick and straightforward to learn, use and get quickly into creative modelling that will enable more people to get 3D printing, whether at home or through the excellent services provided by i.materialise, Shapeways and Sculpteo.

  5. I've followed 3d printing since the beginning, during that time i've had a 15 year career as a 3d artist. I've always day dreamed of being able to print anything I could create. I still haven't been able to take advantage of this technology and that's coming from someone who really wants to take part.

    I've used services like shapeways, but 3 week turn around times to see if a part fits, takes a huge bit out of insertion and creativity. I find it useful for 1 off single part designs, but a drainingly slow process for anything more complex.

    The idea of having a 3D printer at home is perfect,, but the cost has been very prohibitive. I was excited for the release of the v-flash printer, but after much research I don't think it will be welcome in my apartment on a noise basis alone.

    I am currently researching the new z150, but the 15,000 price tag is pretty hefty for an enthusiast. Also, I have some doubts about the reolution for small detailed parts.

    Anyway, from my point of view, I am the exact type of person that should have a 3d printer, but I don't. If it doesn't work for someone like me, how can we expect it to for the average Joe.