Last year, I pondered whether 3D printers were approaching their inkjet moment.
The technology made a splash at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, where 3D printers won a “Hottest Emerging Technology” award. Amazon (AMZN) even has a dedicated 3D printer store now. But after spending a few weeks playing with one, I’m not convinced 3D printers are ready to break out.
I recently spent a few weeks testing a Cube 3D printer from 3D Systems (DDD). Don’t get me wrong, it was a very cool experience … but I got bored with it. I’m a guy who loves to play with technology (I have a bench covered with review gadgets), I like nothing better than MacGyvering stuff and I have kids to ooh and ahh over plastic doodads. I should be smack-dab in the middle of the target demographic.
But I ran out of interesting things to print.
Part of the problem was how incredibly slow the printer was. I’d invite someone over to show them the printer in action, then we’d have to watch a movie, have a few beers and generally kill a few hours to actually see any progress. That delay totally kills the “wow” factor.
I printed an awesomely detailed 3D rook that would make a great foundation for a customized chess set. But doing the math, said chess set would cost me somewhere around $100 in materials and take roughly 64 hours. In other words, having a 3D printer in the house was interesting, but not $1,300 interesting. I suspect it would have quickly been relegated to my workbench and maybe used once or twice a month.
Speed isn’t the only issue, though. There are a number of barriers remaining before 3D printers can take off in a big way.
Cost remains an issue. There was a massive drop several years ago as startups like MakerBot began introducing the former commercial technology to a do-it-yourself crowd. A 3D printer went from costing tens of thousands of dollars to just a few thousand dollars.
But in the past few years, price hasn’t gone down much, if at all. MakerBot’s Thing-O-Matic (which buyers had to order as a kit that needed assembly) went for $1,225 two years ago; its current entry-level printer, the Replicator 2, goes for $2,199. 3D Systems is currently selling the Cube 3D printer at a starting price of $1,299.
If personal 3D printing has been moving closer to mass adoption, why haven’t manufacturers been able to bring the price of 3D printers down? One problem is that so many of the companies are startups or began as Kickstarter campaigns — they simply don’t have the manufacturing process or facilities to begin taking advantage of economies of scale. MakerBot opened a new factory in June with a staff of 100, but still builds each 3D printer by hand. That means a significant assembly cost and little economy of scale. As orders go up, the company has to hire more assemblers.
3D Systems is an established, high-volume manufacturer, and that’s undoubtedly one reason why its consumer level printer costs a grand less than MakerBot’s. That price — combined with the ability to crank out 3D printers to meet any demand — is why you’ll find 3D Systems printers on retail shelves at stores like Staples (SPLS).
Manufacturers are scrambling to address the limitations of 3D printers, and that’s making the products more expensive. The latest batch of consumer 3D printers might not cost less than the ones available two years ago, but they’re capable of printing more detailed models, they can print bigger objects, they’re more user-friendly and they’ve begun to adopt advanced capabilities like printing with multiple colors.
Print time is another barrier — some models I printed took eight hours. Would laser printers have taken off the way they did if it took hours to print a few pages? And the cost and availability of raw materials remains expensive; the printer I used could turn out maybe a half-dozen fist-sized 3D models from a $49 cartridge. That’s still on the high side and makes printing your own objects a price premium compared to simply buying them pre-made.
There’s also the issue of finishing the pieces — many people don’t realize the objects a 3D printer spits out are not the smooth, polished plastic they’re used to seeing. There are supporting structures that need to be snapped off and rough spots to be sanded. And this should be obvious (yet continues to baffle many people), but any complex object needs to be printed in pieces before being assembled. Home 3D printing isn’t at the stage where the finished object magically appears at the push of a button, looking like it came out of a factory.
Then there’s the “instructables,” or digital plans for the 3D objects. You can find more and more of these online, enthusiasts share them and printer manufacturers make some available … but there are copyright issues involved that limit what’s out there and could shut sources down in the future.
But what 3D printing lacks above all (at least at the consumer level) is a killer application (as in “practical use”). The killer application for home inkjet printers was the growing popularity of digital cameras — suddenly people could print their own photos. With tablets it was … well, apps, that could turn a tablet into an e-reader, video player or game system. But there’s no killer application for home 3D printers — at least not yet.
The factors above help explain why the big traditional printer companies — like Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), Epson, Brother or Canon (CAJ) — have yet to either release their own 3D printers or to buy one of the many startups in the industry. Get the prices down, figure out a way to speed up the printing and, above all, find that killer application, and consumer-level 3D printing has the potential to take off.
Until then, we’re still waiting for that inkjet moment.
As of this writing, Brad Moon did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.