Sunday, April 22, 2012

Personal manufacturing and consumer 3D printing: moving novelty to utility

The MIT/Stanford Venture Lab’s April event featured a panel discussion of Consumer 3D Printing. Consumer 3D printers have decreased substantially in price in the last several years (from $10,000 to $1,200) and could reach $200-$300 in the next several years.

Novelty to Utility
The main current perception of consumer 3D printers is that they are an interesting novelty where “killer app’ use cases remain to be seen. Printers need to be capable of printing a wide range of useful objects as opposed to plastic novelty items. In addition to a lower price point, some other changes needed to expand the consumer industry include the ability to use more kinds of materials in a cost-reasonable way (e.g.; soft-touch and see-through materials, having multiple materials in one object), easy-to-use 3D software design tools, and a more robust 2.0 version of the file standard (*.STL (stereo lithography) files), similar to how postscript became the standard for laser printing.

Digital Artisanry
Beyond the level of practicalities, consumer 3D printing is more extensively transformative. Not just is a new era of tools and know-how being created through printers and the printing process, a new era of makers, designers, and digital artisans is arising. It will not be accessible, interesting or relevant for everyone to engage in 3D printing initially, but a class of early adopters are already becoming experts in the field, creating objects for purchase and customization, including high end art objects. Reminiscent of eBay merchants, the biggest sellers at 3D printing communities like Shapeways (150,000 community members who made 750,000 products in 2011) are doing $4,000-5,000 of business per month.

Future Economics
While consumer 3D printing is in its early days, commercial 3D printing is much more of an established industry. The largest printer, 3D Systems, has an annual revenue of $300 million, and sells products in 120 vertical markets like aircraft, automotive, and medical equipment (nearly all hearing aids and Invisalign braces are made with digital printers for example). However, commercial 3D printing may be constrained by some of the same factors as consumer 3D printing; 3D Systems stock price (ticker: DDD) is again $25, where it was a year ago. Eventually, as feedstocks get more sophisticated, they could become interesting economic commodities. Some of the current feedstocks include ABS plastic (in filament cartridges), gypsum powder, sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) powder.

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