It has been more than four years since 3-D printing burst into mainstream consciousness. Based on media reports, it seemed that 3-D printing would transform society. This is because it was expected to upend the typical economic hierarchy. For example, industrialists, or people who own the means of production, are society’s winners in capitalism. With its ability to use a diverse variety of materials and shapes, 3-D printing would invert that hierarchy by empowering consumers to manufacture products at home. Shoes, jewelry, and, even, body parts were fair game for 3-D printing.
But the expected consumer 3-D printing revolution has not yet occurred. While exact sales figures are not available, sales for consumer 3-D printers are tepid as compared to mainstream products. When it was acquired by Stratasys, Makerbot, the most well-known consumer 3-D printer brand, had sold 22,000 printers in a period of four years.
Enthusiasm around the technology, which was palpable earlier, is now restricted to hobbyists and technologists interested in tinkering with the machine.
So, what went wrong?
A combination of lack of design innovation and inflated expectations might be to blame. Here are three reasons why the consumer 3-D printer revolution failed to take off.
1. Operational complexity reinforced by bad design
3-D printer design problems can be summed up in two words: operational complexity. With their plastic coverings and cornucopia of wires and parts, early iterations of 3-D printers were industrial and tacky. Subsequent printers have improved the design aesthetic but there is still a long way to go.
Consumer 3-D printers consist of similar parts as their industrial counterparts (see diagram). They have multiple moving parts that rotate across three axes. Each part moves in a synchronized fashion for smooth operations. However, the complexity, so necessary for operations, deters novices from troubleshooting 3-D printers and does not bode well for consumer adoption.
New design paradigms can also complement a 3-D printers’ operational complexity. For example, recent batches of 3-D printers have adopted a clean look of horizontal lines and glass encasements. This is a smart strategy, given that the printing process is as much a draw for 3-D printers as the machine. But, the number of parts in a 3-D printer (which hasn’t reduced significantly) can serve to further reinforce the perception of a complex and geeky machine.
2. Lack of killer applications
All successful consumer products start by solving a particularly important problem. For example, the personal computer gained widespread adoption in offices and businesses after the spreadsheet tool became popular. With their assortment of apps and web-based capabilities, mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets, are quasi-offices on the move.
3-D printers are yet to find a single killer application. It is difficult to imagine consumers 3-D printing a trinket much less a body part for themselves. With their operational complexity and bad design, 3-D printers add to the friction of a consumer’s life.To be fair, this is partly a function of the technology itself. Consumer 3-D printers are limited in the number and variety of household objects that they can print. For example, printing even simple trinkets requires time and resources. As a result, their utility in the average consumer’s life is more of a hobby than a necessity.
3. High costs
3-D printers are expensive. Makerbot retails at an average price of more than $1,000. To be sure, there are a number of 3-D printers available below $1,000 and, even, $500. But these printers are manufactured by small outfits without support systems and are aimed at the hobbyist and education markets. As such, they are not designed to replicate the capabilities of sophisticated 3-D printers. Further, their design envisions a network with support capabilities consisting of experts or, at least, power users.
The retail price of a 3-D printer also does not account for operational costs. For example, it does not include prices for materials required to 3-D print objects. Two-dimensional printers use readily available material – ink and paper – for their operations. While their prices have been trending downward, PLA and ABS, the most commonly-used types of plastics used for printing, are expensive. Similarly, investment in 3-D modeling software (required to design objects before printing them) is also necessary. Although free options are available online, 3-D modeling software is limited in functionality and utility. As such, economies of scale, which enable manufacturers to mass-produce objects at cheap prices are currently absent in the case of 3-D printers.