Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Is 2012 the Year of Consumer 3D Printing?

I just returned from the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, and what a show it is - thousands of exhibitors, tens of thousands of visitors, and at least that a million TV’s on display. I think the Samsung booth alone had 5,000 TV’s in it.

In case you missed the news, 3D Systems new Cube™ 3D printer was named a Finalist for the CES Best in Show award. This culminates the heaviest concentration of main stream press articles about 3D printing since I have been in the industry. Mainstream press like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Economist, Christian Science Monitor, ABC News, have all covered a variety of 3D printing angles in the past year. The mainstream technology press has dug in as well with CNET, Engadget, and PCPro all carrying articles about 3D printing. We even had our first viral video on YouTube. It would certainly seem that 3D Printing has arrived, so will this be The Year?

Who knows? To be honest, I don’t know if we will know. 3D printing is a technology that already touches millions and millions of people. From athletic shoes to hearing aids to jewelry to dentistry to aerospace and automotive, 3D printing has changed new product design and affected the lives of what must be hundreds of millions of people. How will we know when consumer 3D printing has really arrived?

Clearly media articles mean little. Plenty of ink has been wasted on novel ideas that disappeared onto the scrap heap of history. The home 3D printers are very cool, but do thousands or even tens of thousands of those really mean anything? It still feels like 3D printers are extremely cool tools in the hands of a small group of pros. Barry Collins at PCPro opined that 3D printing needs a killer app. I think the pros will find their own killer apps, but I suspect the regular consumer is going to need some help. Hopefully the application layer on creates space for the pros to share their killer apps with regular consumers. Other sites out there like Shapeways and MyRobotNation are also showing what regular consumers can do with a little help.

Will all the media attention and some new killer apps lead millions of regular consumers to buy 3D prints and 3D printers in 2012? There’s never been a better time.


  1. The short answer is No!

    That's not to say that it is not moving in the right direction though.

    You are right to say that small groups of industrial professionals are doing great things with the technology - indeed they are — and their numbers are swelling at pace, as are the applications.

    Back to 'regular consumers' though — they will need some help for a while yet — with 3rd parties doing the printing in the short to mid term. You may well see customised 3d printed part volumes heading towards the "millions" this year but not the printers themselves. I think the key to getting 3d printers into peoples homes is to make them comfortable (and knowledgeable) about using the technology and designing/customising 3d models in accessible software. The place to start this is in schools - getting kids designing + making in 3D. A couple of generations down the line, and the consumer market for 3d printers will be all set to explode, which will probably coincide with better materials and rationalised pricing.

  2. Rachel - i don't this we are talking about a couple of generations. A generation in today's money is actually 25-years, due to the increasing age of parents having first born children, so a couple of generations would be 50-years. 50-years ago, we (they i wasn't around), were booking time to use transatlantic phone lines and time on early IBM main frames.

    I agree education is the start, but not based on the technology. 3DP and how it works is frankly dull to children born into the IPad / Kinect / Web 2.0 / social network generation. It is more about the creativity 3DP releases by 3DP and the products that it enables that are of interest to both the younger and older generations.

    I think the explosion with actually be in a couple of school years groups time, not generations, but only when there is a convergence of appropriate technology with desirable content.

    However, first we have to get away from the god-awful toothpaste tube technology we have had for the last 25-years and onto a platform that enables the limitless geometry of powder bed SLS, with the color of Z-Corp, the surface finish and resolution of Objet, the ease of use of a MakerBot, the price point of a BotMill and the material properties of a DMLS machine.

    I rather suspect, given the speed of innovation in this industry, that will take the 2 generations, by which time we will all be living our lives lying in a bath of nutrient enriched algae, being fed sustainable crops through a drip, whilst watching reruns of Big-Brother, via thought transfer prototcols.

  3. I'm still chuckling away as I write - in response to Phil's comment.

    The word generation could certainly be misconstrued in my previous comment, therefore to clarify that point, I used "generation" within the context of schools & education, intending "a couple of generations" to convey your "couple of school years groups time." Probably about 15-20 years.

    Totally agree about releasing creativity - but for a few the tech itself will be compelling. For the majority we are back to finding the "killer app" — again! Which, and again we are in agreement, needs more compelling 3D design / customisation software and content.

    I love your vision for the hybrid machine, Phil, hope I'm still around to see it, and compos mentis enough to appreciate it!!

  4. 1 Million TV's on display at CES show may be a great exaggeration but it does indicate where the marketing focus is with the electronics industry.
    Passive non-technical individuals want to be entertained! Using a 3D printer is not entertainment. It's a tool to produce someones conceptual idea. And so I ask, do schools prepare all students to generate ideas and be able to conceptualize them on a computer or on paper? Not usually.
    Do schools prepare most students to use/investigate/repair tools (electro-mechanical-thermal three dimensional printers)? No
    These skills are taught in early childhood by parents and preschool activities to stimulate curiosity, creativity, imagination and confidence to investigate, research, conceptualize problems and solve everyday problems. Formal education should expand on these fundamental skills and support them with knowledge, mathematics, researching tools and scientific principles.
    Now I meet clever students and find they are partly who they have become because of a grandfathers confidence, a mother's guidance and knowledge of keeping a household running smoothly and a fathers curiosity and motivation. They also have developed there skills by a number of teachers with patience, love and technical/content specific knowledge that has been transferred to them in the classroom or after school activity.
    One other important point is these children were left to find out answers on their own or to investigate/play with toys without parental pressure. Solving problems requires digging, taking things apart and putting them back together to see how things work.
    Killer app's can capture the imagination. Killer app's can make a transition of a 'replica image' to become a 3D model. But that is all it can do.
    It won't identify a design or machine problem and certainly won't tell you how to fix it. We need specialists for this. Look at your life. You need in our lives plumbers, electricians, carpenters, mechanics, computer shops and doctors to tell us what's wrong and how can it be fixed. 3D Design and printing is not different.
    As Scott says and I agree: "It still feels like 3D printers are extremely cool tools in the hands of a small group of pros"

  5. Lots of great points.

    First, yes I was exaggerating (slightly) about the number of TV's at CES ;-) Jim's point that passive entertainment dominates today is an excellent one, and a challenge for the broad adoption of printers.

    Second, I agree wholeheartedly with Rachel that schools have an important role in determining how broadly this technology will be adopted. Teaching kids to solve multiple choice problems is not the same as teaching them to create things or to solve complex problems. I think 3D printers can help teachers expose kids to that kind of thinking in an exciting way.

    Finally, sign me up for Phil's printer!! Although, I might quibble with a few of the printers used to exemplify best in class ;-)

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