Why You Won't Have an AM Machine in Your Garage

For many years, additive manufacturing (AM) industry insiders have speculated on the role the general public will play in the adoption of AM.

By Terry Wohlers, President, Wohlers Associates

The "Wohlers" column is authored by Terry Wohlers for Time Compression.
This column was published in the March/April 2011 issue.

For many years, additive manufacturing (AM) industry insiders have speculated on the role the general public will play in the adoption of AM. Years ago, some people maintained that a home market will develop for AM machines, and this line of thinking has been renewed of late. They envision a day when the everyday consumer will manufacture a broken refrigerator handle on their in-home 3D printer. Maybe, but I doubt it very much. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: most households will not purchase and run a 3D printer to produce their own products or replacement parts

Why? First, most people would not want to mess with an AM machine. If something breaks, they’ll go somewhere else to buy a new one. This does not suggest that if someone needs a special part, such as a broken radio bezel for a 1969 Cougar XR7, he or she will not obtain a part that was produced by AM. The buyer may go onto the web and make the purchase, not knowing or caring how the part was manufactured. Increasingly, in the future, specialized parts will be produced by additive manufacturing, just not in the average person’s basement or garage.

Another reason why most people will not be cranking out new products is this: Even if they had a 3D printer in their home, it probably would not offer the types of materials needed to produce what they need. Look around and consider the range of plastics, metals, colors, textures, etc., that you see in the products that are used every day. Consider the surface finish requirements, which would play an important role here. One could argue that Joe school teacher or Jane accountant could hand-sand the product to a smooth finish and apply paint, but this takes more know-how and skill than one might imagine.

Also, how many people in an average household have the design skills needed to produce a quality product? Probably not many—if any. This is a skill that is developed over time and one that requires design software that is not necessarily easy to learn and use. One should not rule out, however, web-based interfaces that will allow a person to alter an existing object that virtually guarantees a reasonably good design. Except for Spore Creator Creature (spore.com), few of these tools currently exist, but they will almost surely develop in the future. And when they do, people will upload their designs to a service that will produce the product for them using the proper material, color, and surface finish.

A Consumer Machine That Will Sell
I do believe there’s a future market for consumer machines, but not for what many people consider when they talk about additive manufacturing in the home. Low-cost machines will become available that are targeted specifically at children. They will be intended  for creation and play, similar to the way kids have played with Tinker Toys, Erector Sets, Lego blocks, and modeling clay for decades. Children of the future will begin with digital models from a game or another source on-line or running locally on their computer or mobile device. Web tools will be available to personalize the models, such as repositioning the arms and legs and changing the look and color of creatures. Making a doll with the child’s face on it will be as simple as submitting a JPG image.

The price of such a 3D printer will probably sell in the $150 range. In sufficient volume, I believe it will be possible to manufacture a basic 3D printer for children for under $75.

Market for AM-produced Products
The largest consumer market in the future will be the purchase of parts and products, not machines. FigurePrints (figureprints.com), for example, has been selling to consumers since December 2007. The company produces custom products based on the wildly popular “World of Warcraft” game, with statues and busts selling for about $130 and $70, respectively.

Shapeways (shapeways.com) claims to be selling 2,500 to 3,000 products per week, all made by AM. The products range from plastic and metal rings and pendants to puzzles and artistic sculptures. All manufacturing is outsourced to companies in Europe and the U.S. The average selling price of a product from Shapeways is estimated at an almost unbelievable $15.

It is not inconceivable to imagine a company such as Amazon getting into the business of offering products by additive manufacturing. It could advertise, sell, and ship the products like any other. Customers would buy the products not knowing or caring how they are manufactured, as they do now. They really only care about the look and performance of the product and that they receive good value. Some may be intrigued by the extreme complexity of some products, and they may even ponder a second or two about how it was made.

In 10 years, companies—both established and start-ups—will turn to additive manufacturing to produce products of all types. The cost of introducing a new piece of jewelry, lamp, or home accessory in low quantities, or on-demand, is relatively low. Consequently, product ideas that before would never see the light of day will be made available. If an appetite exists for it, production will continue. If demand reaches a certain level, tooling may be used for higher volumes. But as for consumers buying machines to make their own products, they will be the exception. Very few of the entire population will be a candidate for one. However, when a very low-cost 3D printer becomes available for children, it could become a big seller, if it’s done right. TC