Is there a Consumer Market for 3D Printers?

3D printers were well represented at this years’ CES show, and cars were literally built on stage at the recent NAIAS in Detroit. But the 3D printing industry is diverging into two discrete areas: commercial and industrial applications and consumer applications.

In commercial and industrial sector, 3D printing, or “additive manufacturing” is already revolutionizing how products are manufactured and serviced. Production and competition are being accelerated by cheaper, better-quality printers.

In contrast, the evolution of 3D printing consumer applications is less mature, and harder to predict. The competition between open source and premium designs will steer what users will want to print. Advancing capabilities (e.g. integrated fabrication and assembly) will revise what consumers can expect. Even the range of printer consumables (edible 3D printing has been available since 2007) will greatly affect who will use this technology and how.

Consumer 3D printer production has been focused on driving the price down to something more affordable. What should buyers expect to get for their investment today? Rather than rate individual models, here’s some guidance around 3D printers, and what features to consider before diving in.

Cost. Expect future prices to drop, but for now, a “budget” 3D printer is anything under $1,000. Out of the dozen or so leading products that fit in this category, several push right up against this cost ceiling. Most are in the $500-700 range, with the lowest cost models coming in at around $300. It’s important to research models, as price does not always guarantee better features and quality.

Consumables. The additive “ink” that goes in your printer varies. Of the leading thermoplastics for consumer-3D use, ABS and PLA are the most common. ABS is more rigid than PLA, but requires a heated print bed. PLA has an appealing gloss and can be printed in different colors.

Size and resolution. As with displays, size and resolution can make a big difference for printers. For most budget 3D printers, the average printable size is a 6 to 8-inch cube; don’t expect to create large objects. Resolution is particularly important, as it enables both fine details (think the threads on a plastic screw), and ensures the surface is smooth. Speed is less crucial, but can affect how long you’ll wind up waiting around for an object. Some printers will have variable speeds and resolutions.

Support. There are a number of budget DIY, open-source 3D printers. Users need to ask themselves if they want to undertake a build-project, or if they want a printer from a manufacturer with dedicated support. Obviously the market will need to move towards the latter over time, but DIY printer projects offer a low-cost solution for the adventurous.

Software, models and scanners. Quality and availability of software is key—a printer will only be as good as the software it runs on and its user interface. Buyers should also take a look at the library of available 3D models for use with their printer. Most printers support industry standard 3D model files (e.g. CAD), but not always, so it’s important to check. Wireless connectivity also simplifies usage, but is not always a given. Finally, 3D printing enthusiasts can benefit greatly by investing in a 3D scanner. Scanning objects to create models will allow even relative newcomers to build their own custom objects, without needing to master engineering and modelling applications.

Rapidly improving technology is creating more affordable, higher-quality products for 2015. Expect the future to hold greater consensus on how to prioritize features and meet customer need. As marketers begin to uncover what makers are already doing with their 3D printers, this information will be leveraged to create broader market demand. After all, a 3D printer is pretty spiffy, but it will take a “killer app” to really put consumer adoption into the mainstream.

Photo: Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images