July 7, 2012
Many have speculated on whether everyday consumers will purchase and use a 3D printer. With prices dipping to $350 for a kit and $550 for an assembled system, they are certainly affordable. Some believe that a 3D printer will someday be in every home and used to produce replacement parts as household products break or wear out.
As shown by Shapeways, Materialise, FutureFactories, Ponoko, and others, consumers are definitely interested in products made by additive manufacturing and 3D printing. Shapeways claims to be producing more than 90,000 parts (about 25,000 products) per month by AM, with a high percentage going to consumers. For years, Materialise’s .MGX division has offered striking lighting designs, sculptures, and other products, with consumers paying hundreds of euros for one of them.
Indeed, consumers have an appetite for products made by additive manufacturing. However, most consumers will never own or operate a machine to produce these products. Instead, they will go to Shapeways, Amazon, or to another service or storefront to purchase these products. Most will not know, or even care, how the products were made—no different from the way they now purchase products. Consumers only care about receiving good value.
Someday, a company will offer a very low-cost, easy-to-use, and safe 3D printer targeted at children. This market opportunity, I believe, is very big because children like to imagine, create, touch things, play, and entertain themselves. These kids will be producing vehicles, action figures, puzzles, and just about everything imaginable. They are our future designers, engineers, and manufacturing professionals.
Most parents and adults are not candidates for a 3D printer. They do not want to mess with the data, manufacturing process, clean-up, and finishing of parts and products. Even if they owned or had access to a machine, it would probably not be capable of producing parts in the right material with the mechanical properties, color, surface finish, and texture needed for the part(s) they are trying to create or replace. These types of parts will continue to be produced by industry professionals and that’s why most adults will never use a 3D printer.