Thursday 6 August 2015

The household 3D printer: Does it really have all its future before it?

The phrase, attributed to Curt Gowdy, a well-known US sports presenter
during the 1960s -1980s, went something like this: “He has his future all ahead of him.” While the phrase was sometimes mocked (the future is by definition always ahead of us), it captured the sense that, for a certain person or phenomenon, while the present was promising, the best was yet to come. Something like this has been said time after time regarding the potential of 3D printing to penetrate the household market. There is no image more widespread about the potential of 3D printing than the notion that, sooner or later, every household will have its own 3D printer, enabling us to function simultaneously as consumer, manufacturer and distributor.

A leader in this vision is the U.S./Israeli company, Stratasys, especially since its acquisition in 2013 of desktop 3D printing manufacturer, MakerBot, in a $403 million stock deal. The problem is that recent developments seem to call into question whether we really are at the cusp of seeing the ubiquitous presence of a desktop 3D printer complementing the traditional household printer.

Consider the 27 May report by Andrew Zaleski, ”Stratasys CEO David Reis: ‘The future of desktop printing is great”, which appeared on On the one hand, Reis stated categorically that
“I think the future of desktop printing is great.”
On the other hand, however, as reported in the piece:
“ … at the end of April, news broke that MakerBot was laying off 20 percent of its staff—roughly one-fifth of the company’s workforce—and closing its three MakerBot retail locations. A company announcement about the layoffs attributed them to an internal re-organization as the company shifts its ‘retail focus to our national partners and expanding our efforts in the professional and education markets.’ Where MakerBot noticed a downturn over the last year was in the consumer market for desktop 3-D printing. The goal now, it appears, is to use sales and momentum in professional and education markets to drive sales in the consumer market.”
According to current MakerBot CEO Jonathan Jaglom:
“MakerBot initially addressed the right market—basically the makers, the tinkerers, the DIYs—but as MakerBot grew so did the audience space, and so then the education came in and the professional came in, and that today is becoming a much wider audience than the consumer,” Jaglom told Fortune. “[The consumer market] is there; we have people that own printers at home. It’s not a negligible community, but it’s not as big as we initially perceived.”
In simple terms, Q1 2015 product and service revenues for MakerBot were down 18 percent from the comparable figures for Q2 2014. But the news only got worse when the Q2 results were announced. As disclosed by Stratasys and reported on, revenues for the MakerBot declined a whopping 57% in the second quarter on a year-over-year basis. The company pointed to continued overall market weakness together with continued ongoing challenges in carrying out the restricting announced earlier in the spring.

Two principal “challenges” to widespread household adoption of 3D printers were mentioned in the article. The first is the claim that business and medical applications of 3D printing have “more compelling use cases”, at least for now. As observed, “If you need a new plate at home, are you going to 3-D print a new one, or are you going to take a ride to the local store and buy a stack of paper plates?” Secondly, the price of even the least costly 3D printers, reportedly several hundred dollars, is “too high for mainstream consumers at this time, despite broad awareness of the technology.”

What is not clear is, going forward, why either of these factors will change to the benefit of a desktop 3D printer in every garage. Specifically, what will make household uses of a 3D printer more compelling in the future? Moreover, given a reported price point of several hundred dollars for the least expensive 3D printers, is the entry level 3D printer really out of the reach of a critical mass of households? Or is there some other reason for the slow up-take of desktop 3D printers by households?

“He has his future all ahead of him.” With respect to desktop 3D printers as a staple in every home, the question is whether this is really the future for the industry. Or will it continue to make impressive inroads primarily into various niche markets, such as business, medicine and education? While this is nothing to be ashamed of, this prospect stands at odds with the more optimistic claims being made about our 3D printing future.

No comments: