Home 3D printing was supposed to be the next big thing.
"You’ve heard of 3D printers, but you probably don’t own one yet," wrote Wired editor Chris Anderson in 2012. Anderson was profiling MakerBot, a company looking to bring a 3D printer into everyone's home. He compared MakerBot's new $2,200 gadget to the PCs of the 1970s.
A 3D printer lets you transform a 3D model of a digital object — say, a model of the Colosseum, a whistle, or an elaborate marble machine — into a physical object. A few years ago, enthusiasts imagined a future where ubiquitous 3D printing rendered a lot of conventional manufacturing obsolete, as people printed everything from dishes to automobile parts at home instead of buying them in a store or online.
But four years later, the home 3D printing revolution hasn't panned out, as even MakerBot spokesman Johan Broer conceded when I talked to him last month.
"We were very focused on the consumer market around 2014," he said. "Back then the expectations for the consumer market were very high."
But it turned out that the average household doesn't have a lot of need for 3D-printed goods. And when they do have use for them, it's simpler to order from an online 3D printing service than to buy a 3D printer.
"We've never felt there was a market for consumer printers"
"A lot of people within the industry thought the consumer market would grow faster," Broer told me in a phone interview. But the expected demand for cheap home 3D printers never materialized. So in 2015, "we changed our strategy to focus on the education and professional space."
It wasn't an easy transition. The company went through two rounds of layoffs in 2015 and had to shutter its retail stores aimed at drumming up interest among consumers. Then in April 2016, the company announced it was shuttering its domestic manufacturing operations. Instead, its products will be manufactured in China.
MakerBot's struggles in the home 3D printing business have not surprised industry analyst Terry Wohlers. "We've never felt there was a market for consumer printers," he told me in a May interview.
"This notion of consumers buying their own machine and printing for themselves just is not working out, because it's not easy," he said. "You need to have some design talent, and most people aren't designers. You need to learn design software, and most people don't want to mess with it."
And 3D printers cheap enough for the consumer market tend to be less sophisticated than the industrial-strength models, Wohlers added.
"3D printers that are affordable are limited in size, material color, surface finish, a lot of things," he said. "You're really limited as to what you're going to print with them, even if you have some design experience."
The result: Home 3D printers are too expensive for amateur tinkering but not sophisticated enough for professional use. Ultimately, they're not that compelling to anyone.
The prospects for commercial 3D printers look more promising
To be clear, this doesn't mean that the 3D printer market is a failure across the board. Quite the contrary. Wohlers has collected data showing robust growth in 3D printing overall even as home 3D printing companies have struggled:
Most of these sales have been to commercial and academic customers rather than home users. Engineering and design firms use the printers to help with rapid prototyping. Industrial-grade 3D printers can work with more types of materials, they can print with multiple materials at the same time, and they can print larger objects.
And while few homes are choosing to buy 3D printers, there's robust demand for 3D printing as a consumer service. Websites like Shapeways let you order 3D-printed items online. These services let you avoid all the hassle of running the 3D printer and just send you the printed result.
Unless you're in a big hurry — and people rarely have an urgent need for a plastic model of the Colosseum — ordering 3D printed items is likely to make more sense for most people. Shapeways offers a wide variety of materials — plastic, metal, ceramics, and more — more options than a consumer-grade 3D printer is ever likely to offer.
Don't expect 3D printing to replace conventional manufacturing
A 3D printer is extremely useful for certain tasks, like rapid product prototyping or personalization. But don't expect 3D printing to replace conventional manufacturing any time soon.
On the one hand, 3D printers are nowhere close to being able to reproduce complex gadgets. Most 3D printers can only deposit one or two materials at a time, so it's not easy to manufacture a product like a smartphone that has metal, glass, plastic, and other materials inside of it. That's to say nothing of the complex computer chips whose microscopic features are far too tiny for any 3D printer to reproduce.
On the other hand, 3D printing isn't a very efficient way to produce simple objects. Injection-molding techniques, for example, allow people to produce thousands of identical copies of plastic objects in a matter of minutes with minimal human involvement. For simple products being manufactured in bulk, conventional manufacturing techniques will just be more economical than printing them one at a time on a 3D printer.
This shouldn't be too surprising. After all, most of us have printers that — in theory — could be used to print out entire books. But in practice, it makes more sense to buy printed books produced using conventional techniques. Printing out a book on your home printer is tedious and produces an inferior result. And thanks to economies of scale, printing a book the old-fashioned way is often cheaper than home printing.