We read a provocative piece by Make that contrasted the approach by different 3D printer manufacturers. On one hand, we have MakerBot industries leveraging the power of community and open source techniques to improve their product; on the other we have PP2P's (strongly) closed source Up! 3D printer. And on yet another hand, if we had one, there are the commercial manufacturers.
Make's proposition is that the smaller manufacturers may fall victim to ever-decreasing unit prices from the big manufacturers such as Dimension, Solido and others, who can leverage large-scale ultra-inexpensive manufacturing capabilities with their Asian plant partners.
Will this be so? It will be interesting to observe. So far we see:
- The RepRap project continuing to discover, invent and publish new techniques, leading to startling and inexpensive 3D printing solutions
- MakerBot, PP2P, BitsFromBytes and probably a lot more small companies building on RepRap's knowledge to produce increasingly more capable devices at rock-bottom prices
- Big-time commercial vendors very slowly decreasing the price gap between their low-end units and the RepRap derivatives
So what will happen? Unless the bigs have something secret in their labs, we suspect the lowest-cost 3D printer market will continue to be dominated by RepRap and its spawn. Spending USD$20K or even USD$5K is just too much to be a mainstream item for almost everyone. Sure, these devices are very affordable for businesses, but they won't lead to a personal manufacturing revolution.
However, the RepRaps won't lead to a mass revolution either, at least not yet. They are simply far to complex for most people to own and operate. Today's 3D print operators are much like the barnstorming pilots of the 20th century, who sit ready with wrenches to tune and repair their 3D printer. Yes, they're inexpensive, but our Mom would never be able to use them.
We're watching to see two things: first, how quickly can the RepRap derivatives make their products simple to use. Perhaps not quite plug and play, but that might be their goal. Secondly, how quickly can the big manufacturers bring down their pricing to sub-USD$1000 per unit. To the winner may go the personal 3D printer market. Good luck to all!